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How to Choose Your First Hunting Rifle

LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.


A Hunter's First Rifle

At some point in a new hunter’s life, they must purchase their first hunting rifle. There are many options, perhaps too many these days. Which is best? How do you select the right one?

People new to hunting fall into two categories: novice shooters and experienced shooters.

Hunting Rifles for the Beginner Shooter

Novice shooters are often young—pre-teens or teenagers. Although some adults take up shooting and hunting later in life. The two most important factors when selecting a rifle for a novice shooter are easy operation and tolerable recoil.

Types of Rifle Action

Novices need a gun that is simple to load, unload, and clean. This narrows the action type choices down to two: break actions and bolt actions.

The first photo shows a bolt-action rifle.

The second photo shows a break-action rifle. Notice how simple it is to verify whether the break-action rifle is loaded or not.

Bolt-action rifle with action open

Bolt-action rifle with action open

Break-action with action open.

Break-action with action open.

Single-shot rifles, in either action type, are best for pre-teens since they preclude accidentally feeding a live round after removing the one in the firing chamber. Single shots are not an impediment to hunting in an adult-supervised environment since with proper marksmanship, one shot is enough to drop a game animal humanely. Also, the accompanying parent or guardian can quickly verify if the child’s gun is loaded.

Novice teens and adults can, under normal circumstances, learn to use a magazine-fed weapon safely. The military trains 18-year-olds to do so every day. Still, bolt actions are the best choice for these individuals as well, since they are easy to maintain and use under stress. However, mastering a lever, pump, or semi-automatic rifle is possible with additional diligence by both student and teacher.

Novices often start with deer, the most common big game animal in North America. Deer are not very robust animals—hard recoiling, powerful magnums are unnecessary. At 200 yards or less (the most common hunting range), the ubiquitous .30-30 Winchester is an excellent choice. This cartridge has killed more deer over more time than any other caliber. The .243 Winchester is another good, low recoil, proven deer cartridge. Both Harrington & Richardson and Thompson Center, for instance, offer break-action single shots in these calibers.

If ranges are beyond 200 yards, often the case in the western states, the .243 is still a good option. Other choices are:

  • .257 Roberts
  • .25-06 Remington
  • .260 Remington
  • 6.5x55mm Swedish

Although these are often only available in magazine fed bolt actions. If a magazine rifle is the only option available, get one with a detachable magazine. These guns are easily converted to single shot by just removing the magazine. Once the novice gains enough experience and demonstrates the ability to handle the extra responsibility, the magazine can be reinserted into the rifle.

For larger animals such as elk and moose, the .25-06, .260, and 6.5x55 remain good choices if the range is kept reasonable. Some other calibers to consider are:

  • .308 Winchester
  • 7x57mm Mauser
  • 7mm-08 Remington
  • .270 Winchester
  • 6.5 Creedmoor

Guns for the Experienced Shooter

Experienced shooters have a wider selection available. They already have (or should have) good firearms safety habits, good marksmanship, and recoil tolerance. They are free to choose the action type that best suits their hunting environment and the game pursued. Any bolt-action, lever-action, pump, or semi-auto from a reputable firearms manufacturer is a good choice.

Lever Action Rfle

Lever Action Rfle


Medium Game Calibers for the Experienced Shooter

Caliber selection is more open as well for the experienced shooter. They should use whatever cartridge they are proficient with and is matched to the game's size. Here are a few suggestions for animals up to deer at less than 200 yards.

  • .30-30
  • Any of the 6.5mm (.26 caliber) cartridges mentioned above
  • .25-06 Remington
  • .308 Winchester
  • .30-06 Springfield
  • Any of the non-magnum 7mm’s (7x57, .280 Remington, etc.)
  • 8x57mm Mauser

For longer ranges on deer add the following:

  • .264 Winchester Magnum
  • 7mm Remington Magnum
  • Any of the .30 caliber magnums (.300 Win Mag, etc.)
L-R: 9.3x62, .30-06, .8x57, .6.5x55, .308

L-R: 9.3x62, .30-06, .8x57, .6.5x55, .308

Large Game Calibers for the Experienced Shooter

Large animals (elk, moose, black bear, etc.) require more power and are often taken at longer ranges. Here are a few good choices:

  • .257 Weatherby Magnum
  • .30-06
  • Any 7mm magnum
  • Any .30 caliber magnum
  • 8mm Remington Magnum
  • .338 Winchester Magnum
  • .35 Whelan
  • 9.3x62mm Mauser
  • .375 Holland & Holland Magnum
.375 H&H (L), .338 Win Mag. (R)

.375 H&H (L), .338 Win Mag. (R)


Calibers for Dangerous Game

If the experienced shooter’s plans include dangerous game, either in Africa or Alaska, these cartridges in a well-built bolt action are good:

  • 9.3x62
  • .375 H&H
  • Any of the .416’s (Rigby, Remington Magnum, etc.)
  • .404 Jeffery
  • .458 Winchester
  • .458 Lott

The other rifle choice for dangerous game is the traditional, break-action European double. These are the most common calibers:

  • .458/400 Nitro Express
  • .450 Nitro Express
  • .470 Nitro Express
  • .500 Nitro Express
An Assortment of Nitro Express and Magnum Cartridges

An Assortment of Nitro Express and Magnum Cartridges


Hunting is a wonderful sport. The best way to ensure novice hunters embrace it and continue for years is to get the right rifle in the right caliber the first time. With a little research and common sense, a hunter can choose a first rifle they will cherish for life.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 LJ Bonham