Selecting A Rifle for Big Game Hunting

The Do All Rifle

In the Middle Ages, medieval alchemists searched for the philosophers stone, a substance which would enable them to turn base metals into gold. It was quest that was never to be fulfilled because the philosophers stone never existed.

So it goes with today's hunter who seeks a rifle that will magically dispatch any critter he happens to come upon at any range whether it be a prarie dog or an elephant. The problem is that there is no such thing as the Do All Rifle.

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Notes on Selecting a Hunting Rifle

Bolt Action

Bolt action rifles are simple to fieldstrip and easy to clean. With few moving parts bolt guns are reliable and generally accurate. The action is slow to operate compared to other types of high power rifles.

Bolt Action rifles didn't really become popular in the United States until after World War One when more than four million returning GIs who had been trained to use military bolt action rifles came back. Before the War, lever action rifles firing relatively low velocity cartridges like the 30/30 Winchester were the norm among deer hunters. Personal experience during military service, created high demand for rifles using fast, flat shooting highpower rounds like the 30-06 Springfield. Arms companies soon recognized this and came out with a number of bolt action designs. Savage was the first to market with their Model 20 in 1920 chambered in 250 savage and 300 Savage. Remington soon followed with the model 30 and Winchester with the model 54. The result is that the bolt action rifle is by far the most common type of hunting rifle purchased today.

Lever Action

Fairly quick second shot with an experienced user. More moving parts than a bolt action, a little harder to clean and field strip. Older designs are less accurate than bolt actions but modern designs like the Browning BLR can rival most bolt action hunting rifles in terms of accuracy.


Semiauto or Selfloading rifles require a certain power level to operate and do not function well or at all with reduced loads. There are more moving parts and action generally requires a through cleaning to stay reliable. Less felt recoil and a fast second shot are the big selling points for this type of rifle.

Pump action

Fast Second shot with an experience user. Usually relatively easy to field strip. Pump rifles tend to be most popular in States that prohibit the use of Semiautos for hunting.

Single Shot

Single shot rifles run the gamut from very affordable to very expensive. Lightweight and simple in construction with few moving parts, there isn't a lot that can go wrong with them. The Trade off ofcourse is that there is no opportunity for a quick second shot and with the light weight there is substantially more felt recoil than with other rifle action types.

Models like the Ruger No. 1 are very accurate but somewhat expensive. Single shot New England Arms rifles are probably the least expensive centerfire rifles that can be purchased new

Double rifles

Double rifles usually have both barrels side by side with an open sight between the two barrels. Quality rifles of this type are basically handmade and unbelivably expensive and with good reason.

With a double barrel shotgun you can be a little sloppy even if the center of the pattern for each barrel doesn't hit in exactly the same place. As long as the patterns overlapped to begin with as the distance increases the patterns size increases so that the patterns will continue to overlap pretty much to the same degree. With a double rifle using the same sight, both barrels must be perfectly aligned so that the flight path of bullet is paralell. If it is not then, if you adjust the sight to hit the point of aim for one barrel then the other barrel will be off. The farther the distance the greater the error. At a distance of two hundred yards this error might be measured in feet.

Sighting Systems For hunting, a fixed low power scope in the 3 to 6 time magnification range is generally sufficient. Variable power scopes require more lenses and consequently require a larger objective lens to gather as much light as a fixed power scope of the same magnification. High magnification scopes limit the field of view especially at short ranges. Where a high magnification scope is really appropriate are long distance varmint hunting at 200 yards or more.

Bullet and load selection for High Power Rifles Just as there is no one rifle good for all hunting, there is no one perfect load for every situation, just good enough. In general Heavy bullets with a high sectional density fired at a lower velocity are better when hunting larger animals such as black bear, and mule deer these will penetrate well and providing the striking velocity is not much less than 2000 fps will expand properly. Lighter bullets should be used used for White Tail deer unless you are specifically hunting a large buck. They will penetrate enough to hit the vital organs and expand enough to expend most of the energy in the animal.

What you don't want is a bullet that is going to punch a small clean hole straight through a deer only wounding it and expending most of its kinetic energy striking a tree or an ultralight bullet at a high velocity that will fragment after penetrating only a few inches.

As a general example, given a rifle chambered for 30-06 Springfield
For Whitetail deer a bullet weight of 150 to 180 grains would be appropriate.
For Black Bear, Elk or Moose, a bullet in the weight range of 180 grains to 220 would be good. Given the opportunity to hunt smaller game like sika deer, a bullet weight of 110 to 130 would be appropriate. The idea is to have the maximum possible energy expended in the target.

Another consideration in load selection is the rifle pitch. Some rifles chambered in 30-06 have a barrel twist of 1 turn in 12 inches which may not stabilize a heavy 220 grain bullet properly. While a rifle with a twist of 1 in 10 may over rotate a light weight 130 grain bullet. The best way to be certain that your cartridge choice will perform as expected at least in terms of accuracy is to take the gun to the range before going on a hunting trip to test it and the ammunition Ultimately the most important factor to hunting success is shot placement. If you miss your quarry then it doesn't matter how powerful or accurate your rifle is.