Avoid these common five hunting rifle buying mistakes and you’ll improve your chances for bringing home the bacon — and venison and antlers and hides and…
Too Much Power
Power hungry American’s are a standard joke. Big burgers, big motorcycles, big hunting cartridges. Why settle for a 270 Winchester when you can buy (and brag about) a 28 Nosler?
Or a 700 Nitro Express?
Most of us are smart enough to forego the 700 N.E. But maybe that 30-378 Weatherby…? Resist the urge because getting an overly powerful cartridge is Number 1 in our five hunting rifle buying mistakes.
There’s nothing wrong with the 30-378 Wby. — if you can handle it. And pay for it. The bigger and faster the bullet, the more the recoil. And the more expensive the ammo. While a 20-round box of 308 Winchester ammo might set you back $10 to $40, a box of 30-378 Weatherby Magnum ammo will set you back $68 to $130. You’ll get another kick in the chops when you ignite that 30-378 magnum. Expect an 8-pound rifle throwing a 180-grain bullet to buck with 45.4 foot-pounds (f-p) of recoil energy at 19 fps. Shoot that same 180-grain in a 308 Winchester at 2,600 fps and you’ll absorb just 20 f-p recoil energy at a slower 12.6 fps recoil velocity.
Too Much Weight
A heavy rifle moderates felt recoil, but at the cost of carrying discomfort. Eight or even ten pounds might not sound like much, but hang it over your shoulder, climb a few mountains, hike a dozen miles, and let’s talk again. Mass is ok in a blind or truck, but hinders a mobile hunter. Even a hardened, athletic hunter can go farther and hunt longer if carrying a lighter kit. He or she can swing it into action much faster, too.
A persistent myth is that hunting rifles lighter than about 8 pounds are inaccurate. That has not been the observation of thousands of mountain hunters packing field-ready rifles like the Kimber M84 Mountain Ascent, as light as 6 pounds scoped and fully loaded. This author has personally hired extreme lightweights for successfully hunting everything from mountain goats and sheep to flatland whitetails and coyotes. Those rifles hit consistently out to 420 yards and swing fast to catch coyotes and fleeing whitetails inside 200 yards. Prone, sitting, kneeling, standing. After such success, you can be assured one of my five hunting rifle buying mistakes no longer is getting an excessively heavy one.
If you’re leery of going too light, consider rifles weighing 6 to 7 pounds naked, remembering that rings, scope, and a full magazine will add a pound or slightly more.
Too Much Barrel
While it’s true a heavy barrel should be inherently more accurate than a light one and a long one will wring more velocity from a cartridge, you can take this too far. Thick barrels add mass. Long ones add mass plus inconvenience. Maneuver a 26” or 28” barrel on a day’s hunt and you’ll understand. Again, not a huge problem when sitting in a blind, but a hassle in woods, brush, and even getting in and out of a vehicle.
Some high-volume, super magnums like the aforementioned 30-378 Wby. require extra-long barrels to reach their potential, but most cartridges in the 243 Winchester through 30-06 class do just fine with standard, 22” barrels. Most gain about 30 to 50 fps with each additional inch of barrel, but that has minimal impact on performance. Individual rounds vary that much shot to shot. And if you use a laser rangefinder and know your trajectory curve, 100 or even 200 fps aren’t that significant. The old magnums such as 7mm Rem. Mag. and 300 Win. Mag. are probably optimum with 24” barrels.
As for barrel thickness, I’d stay away from the heavy match and varmint contours unless hunting exclusively from blinds. Don’t fret about barrel heating, either. A good hunter fires one, perhaps three shots to bag his game. Well-made light and featherweight barrels can shoot sub-MOA for three quick shots.
Do feel for slightly muzzle heavy balance in your rifle. A bit of weight forward, rather than back at the butt, makes it easier to keep the muzzle on target.
Complicated rifles with lots of curves, angles, nuts, bolts, suppressors, and adjustable parts are all the rage. These can aid competition shooters, but can be more hindrance than help to an active hunter. A hunting rifle should be like a leopard — sleek, trim, and configured for action. You don’t need holes and notches to catch in brush and limbs. You don’t need nuts and screws poking you in uncomfortable places or loosening, rattling, and falling out. You don’t need parts that distract you and slow you down when it’s time to strike. And you certainly don’t need parts that can compromise your shooting.
Recently I was shooting a wonderfully accurate Remington 700 in 7mm Rem. Mag. at FTW Ranch on a fast action course where I’d scored 19 of 20 the previous year. This time I had the advantage of a Swarovski Z8i turret dialing scope. After one miss came a hit, then another miss, then one hit and two more misses. I checked the zero, checked the turrets, missed some more. Finally an FTW instructor suggested I check the suppressor. It was loose. That one little equipment error had cost me several targets. Had I been hunting, it could have cost me the buck or bull of a lifetime.
My point is, the more complicated the rifle, the more bells and whistles it wears, the more than can go wrong. Keep It Simple, Soldier. Find or build a stock that fits you without all the adjustable parts. Keep add-on parts to a minimum. If our ancestors could nearly wipe out pronghorns, elk, and bison with blackpowder single shots using open sights, we ought to be able to hit a whitetail or mountain goat now and then with a scoped 270 Winchester.
As for fit, a good stock should make the rifle feel lively and come to your shoulder and face as if tailored to do so. A stock too wide in the grip or forend can make a rifle feel like a 4×4 post. Make sure the comb is straight to minimize cheek slap. Avoid thin or sharp-edged combs. They add bite. A raised cheek piece should increase face contact to spread recoil and minimize the slap.
Hand-laid fiberglass/Kevlar stocks are indeed versatile, durable, and consistent. Hollow ones are light but noisy, echoing when tapped. Some solid synthetic stocks are as heavy as or heavier than dense walnut. Walnut, maple, or birch with straight grain through the forend can be impressively durable, too, and the warping issue is largely overblown. Walnut stocks from 1873 are still intact and functioning. Wood stocks can be isolated from barreled action the same way synthetics are — aluminum bedding posts or blocks and floated barrels.
The sketchiest stocks of all are the cheap, molded plastic ones, but even these can be remarkably effective. They feel, look, and sound cheap, but can contribute to a rugged, accurate rifle. Just beware their tendency to flex, sometimes to warp a bit in the heat, perhaps even crack in extreme cold.
Too Much Scope
A riflescope is not a rifle, but let’s face it — nearly every hunting rifle sold these days ends up wearing one. So get it right. The tendency is similar to #1 above. Too big. Too much power, too much tube, too much lens, too many bells and whistles. Too much to go wrong.
Despite what the advertisements claim, a bigger main tube does not give you a usable brighter image or wider field-of-view. It does provide more adjustment range for extreme range dialing. As this blog more thoroughly explains, brightness is a result of objective diameter divided by magnification, not main tube diameter. At 10X a 50mm objective yields a 5mm Exit Pupil. That’s about all your eye’s pupil can take in until 30 to 40 minutes after sunset. It’s about 2mm more than you can absorb in full daylight.
As for magnification, it can be more hindrance than help. At 10X everything you see appears to be 10 times closer. That means a mule deer 500 yards away will appear the same size as one 50 yards away seen with normal vision. If you can’t hit a mule deer at 50 yards with an open sight, you’ve got problems no 30X scope is going to resolve.
A lesser recognized problem with high magnification is keeping your target in sight during recoil — or relocating it afterward. And forget about leading a running target at high power. Field of view can be too small to fit it in with adequate lead.
Yes, seeing your quarry at 15X, 18X, even 24X gives you confidence, but practicing adequately at 6X up to 10X and out to 400, perhaps 500 yards should prove to your satisfaction that you can make precise hits at those powers — so why lug around more?
Big dialing turrets can be problematic for similar reasons. They add weight, get in the way, perhaps get inadvertently bumped… Or you forget to return to zero. Just more complicating factors to possibly screw up your shot. KISS again. Yes, super scopes are wonderfully effective on the range, but for the hard charging, active hunter, simple seems to work better.
Three of my favorite scopes over the past 35 years have delivered the goods out to 420 yards under harsh field conditions. They’ve directed cartridges as powerful as 325 WSM without malfunction. They weigh 11 ounces, 11.4 ounces, and 13 ounces. Magnifications run 2X to 9X. One of them set at 7X guided a first-shot kill on a sheep 400 yards away. The largest objective of the bunch is 36mm. Through it I can see the black reticle against a mule deer 45 minutes after sunset on a cloudless evening.
Of course, none of what works for me has to be what you choose. I have friends, good hunters all, who happily put up with 10-pound rifles and 56mm objective scopes. But I’ve never seen them carrying those rifles along an alpine ridge 20 miles from the nearest trailhead.
Testing to Avoid 5 Hunting Rifle Buying Mistakes
It’s unfortunate that we can’t all test drive a variety of rifle weights, chamberings, and sizes before making our selections, but such is life. I thought my Remington M788 in 6mm Rem. was the ultimate hunting rifle 47 years ago. Then I traded it for a Ruger M77 in 270 Win. and imagined that was the coolest until a Winchester Featherweight slipped into my hands, soon upstaged by a 5-pound Ultra Light Arms M20… That was 1988. Since then I’ve examined, carried, shot, and hunted with — literally— dozens of rifle types, brands, and sizes. This has given me a broad sampling from which to formulate my opinions. For what they’re worth.
But my worth doesn’t have to match your worth. Regardless what rifle, cartridge, bullet, and scope you select as your favorites, do at least be aware of my 5 Hunting Rifle Buying Mistakes and consider them in light of your hunting style. And whatever you end up with, here’s wishing you as much joyful discovery, soul-stirring enlightenment, scalp-tingling excitement, game-skinning work, and belly-filling venison as I’ve been blessed to have sampled.
Ron Spomer feels blessed to have hunted extensively around the world with a broad selection of hunting tools, all of which have helped him formulate his 5 Hunting Rifle Buying Mistakes.