There is so much information on the internet about rifles that trying to choose your first one can seem like a very daunting task. Much of what can be found out there has either a sales pitch or falls into the category of people arguing over irrelevant nuance. Before I bought my first rifle, I waded through countless forums and articles trying to find some insight into what to choose. Then I went to Reliable Gun in Vancouver and Nick helped me choose my first rifle back in 2013. I had such a good, no pressure, non-intimidating first experience there that it has become my go-to place for all things hunting and shooting. Shane, Nick, and the rest of the staff consistently make me feel welcomed and are very patient with my questions.
Here, I'll try to summarize it all and separate fact from fiction. For this article, we'll assume you've taken the firearms safety course and have a basic familiarity with calibres and types of actions.
What are you hunting?
Most articles on this topic will tell you that different cartridges are best for different animals. In short, that's crap.
For hunting in BC, there are small game rifles, big game rifles, and shotguns. If you're going after small game such as rabbits, grouse or squirrels, then you should probably consider a .22 LR or other small, low recoil cartridge. If you are going after waterfowl or upland birds, then a 12 gauge shotgun with a 3" or 3 1/2" shells with a 26" to 30" barrel and changeable chokes will suite you well. However, for hunting big game, meaning from deer to bison, you'll need a big game rifle.
For big game, there are really two approaches to take. The first is choosing a rifle which can do it all, and the second is to choose the best rifle for a particular animal. If you are budget constrained like me, then the first approach is likely best.
Choosing a do-it-all hunting rifle is not as hard as some would lead you to believe, but it does come with a few potential drawbacks. A do-it-all rifle will come at the cost of being slightly more powerful than is required for smaller "big game animals" like deer. This means that a poorly placed shot might result in more meat damage than might have been avoided with a smaller calibre.
A second potential drawback of a do-it-all is the increased recoil which could dissuade you from practicing at the range as much as you should or worse yet, could cause you to develop an accuracy robbing flinch. Generally, most people can shoot a few boxes of ammo in a practice session through rifles up to 300 WIN MAG. Beyond that, many people find the recoil too punishing with larger cartridges and consciously or subconsciously prefer not to shoot more than a couple rounds. Having a firearm you dislike firing means you won't practice enough to be able to take ethical shots at animals. That said, the do-it-all cartridges are great and most people find them to be more than adequate for hunting any big game on the continent.
The do-it-all cartridges include 270 WIN, 7mm REM MAG, .308 WIN, .30-06 Springfield, 300 WIN MAG and many others in between. All of these cartridges are capable of sending a 150 grain (grain is a measure of weight) bullet down range with plenty of speed and power for most game in BC. The one exception being bison, where hunting rules mandate a 175 grain bullet with has retained at least 2000 ft-lbs of energy after flying 100m. That rules out the 270 WIN, and limits the choices for ammo for a 7mm REM MAG, so if you are serious about bison then you'll need at least a .308 WIN or larger.
There are many other cartridges in and around the size of those I've listed, but they are less common which means that if you need to run out and get a box of ammo at the local sporting store in a remote corner of BC, you may be out of luck. For cartridges smaller than 270 WIN, most people start to consider them a deer only round. For cartridges larger than a 300 WIN MAG the recoil becomes more and more punishing meaning people are less likely to practice and might develop a flinch, while they provide little to no benefit to hunting.
If you are wondering about the difference between the do-it-all cartridges the answer is nothing. Well, not nothing, but very little. The animal doesn't know the difference. It is a complete myth that any one of them is more or less accurate than another. The larger ones have more recoil and the ones that send the bullet out of the barrel faster shoot a little flatter. If you want the best accuracy, get the best rifle and optics you can afford, try a bunch of different brands and types of ammo, and practice a ton. Shot placement is far more important to ethically shooting an animal than what bullet you choose or rifle you buy.
If you really twisted my arm, I would say it's a 3-way tie between .308 WIN, .30-06 Springfield, and 300 WIN MAG.
Generally, you can get a good rifle from $600 to $1400 and comparable optics in the same range. You should generally budget about as much for optics as for the rifle itself. Anything below about $600 is likely inadequate and you'll come to regret your purchase when it doesn't perform or you outgrow it.
Also, consider the cost of practice. Most do-it-all rifles cost about the same amount to shoot and a lot of that comes down to the brand and type of bullet you choose. If you want to get in some additional inexpensive practice, consider getting a .22 LR to practice the basic. Ultimately, you'll still need to practice a lot with your hunting rifle so you develop the skill and muscle memory to take ethical shots at game.
Bolt action rifles are simple and by far the most common for hunting. There are certainly semi-automatic hunting rifles, but they are typically heavier and more expensive. I would stick to bolt action for a first hunting rifle.
For a hunting rifle, remember, you'll be carrying this rifle all day, up and down hills, and may even have to hold for an offhand shot for several minutes without moving. Many manufacturers make light weight rifles and they are very much worth considering, even at a slightly increased cost.
Stainless or Blued
If you are hunting in BC, you are likely to face changing weather, sudden storms, and moisture. Many people have blued rifles which they have used in all weather conditions for years, but if neglected and left wet they can be susceptible to rust. I prefer stainless for that peace of mind, never having to worry about moisture damaging my rifle. Nowadays, you can get stainless rifles which are coloured black if you dislike the colour of a silver barrel. Stainless also costs slightly more on average, but again, I think it's worth it.
|Browning X-Bolt with stainless barrel and composite stock ~$1350 CAD|
|Browning X-Bolt with blued barrel and wood stock ~$1100 CAD|
In Canada it is illegal to have a loaded firearm in or on a vehicle, therefore, all rounds need to be removed from the firearm when in a car or on an ATV. While we all want that picturesque experience where we hiked, stalked, and succeeded in getting an animal, it can easily happen that you see a legal animal while driving to and from the trailhead. I have watched people fumble trying to load a round into their rifle's internal magazine and regret not having a detachable magazine when they miss an opportunity at game. A detachable magazine is very much worth it.
Wood or Synthetic Stock
Mostly a matter of style preference, synthetic stocks are less susceptible to neglect than wood. If you're like me, I prefer the look and love the durability of a synthetic stock, but to each their own.
Honestly, you get what you pay for. Don't expect a $400 rifle to perform like a $1200 rifle, and the same goes for optics. Personally, I really like Browning, Tikka, and Weatherby. The best thing to do is handle the rifles at the gun store. Feel the bolt cycle, dry fire it to see if you like the trigger, inspect it closely for defects and overall quality. I went into the store thinking I wanted to buy a Remington 700, but much preferred everything about the Browning once I had it in my hands.
As a rule of thumb, you should spend half your budget on the rifle and half on the optics. That's a pretty rough rule of thumb. Generally, you get what you pay for with optics. The low end optics won't hold their zero, leading to inaccuracy, and the high end optics will give you excellent clarity in the sight picture. In the vast middle ground there are many good manufacturers. Most people who hunt opt for a 3-9 times magnification scope. Generally that provides a good balance between field of view and zoom. Objective lens size makes little difference other than weight, so consider a smaller diameter lens. These days, many manufacturers are offering unlimited warranties, but some others aren't, so consider that some time in the future you may drop your rifle and damage the scope.
Next there is reticle style. Z-Plex reticles are zeroed at a point (usually 100m or 200m) where anywhere between you and that zero range the bullet's arc is within a couple inches of the centre, so for hunting that's good enough. BDC stands for Bullet Drop Compensator reticle which gives you marks for approximately how far your bullet has dropped at different ranges beyond where you zero'ed it. The zero point for a BDC is often 100 yards and the marks below are approximately how far your bullet will drop beyond that distance for a specific type and weight of bullet. If you want to use a BDC reticle then make sure it matches your firearm's cartridge. MIL dot or MOA reticles use miliradians (MIL) or minutes of angle (MOA) marks to let adjust your aim based on what you have calculated for how far your bullet will drop due to gravity or how far it will drift due to the wind.
Beyond about 200m, wind and the arc of the bullet due to gravity start to make a difference that is significant enough to mean you could easily miss or wound an animal if you don't know what you're doing. It is arrogant foolishness to shoot at an animal further away than you have practiced shooting.
For a beginner, a Z-plex is more than adequate, a BDC if matched for your rifle is good if you want to practice out to 400m, and an angular measurement reticle (MOA or MIL) is great if you want to really put in the time at the range to perfect your shooting and learn the science of ballistics.
RingsOften overlooked, rings connect your scope to the rifle. If they are poor quality then your accuracy will suffer. Don't cheap out on rings.
BipodsI like having a bipod, It means I have more options to rest my rifle and get the best accuracy. As a side benefit, when nature calls, you can put your rifle down on the ground without it getting dirty. As an alternative to bipods, people shoot off their packs or camera/spotting scope tripods or shooting sticks. Bipods are heavy, but I think a good quality Harris bipod is worth it.
Honestly, I rarely use my strap, but many people swear by them. I usually ready carry my rifle or cradle it in my crossed arms. If I am with someone then I might strap it to my backpack during a long hike or climb. The strap I bought is too wide and while you might think it spreads the load, I just find that it slides off my shoulder. Ideally, my next strap will be narrower and sit nicely between my backpack strap and neck rather than span that distance and slide off.
Choose a rifle you like and one you will practice with at the range. Most people will not practice nearly enough with their rifles to maintain or improve their skills. Most of the decision making comes down to personal preference. Generally, for a good first rifle you should expect to spend between $800 and $1200 for the rifle and between $600 to $1000 for optics. I would pick a Tikka or Browning in either .308 WIN, or .30-06 Springfield, with a stainless barrel and synthetic stock and a 3-9x scope with a good warranty.
After getting the rifle, go to the range with as many different boxes of ammo as you can afford. Pick different bullet weights, types, brands, and price points. Set up a targets at 100m and shoot 4 bullet groups of each type of bullet, letting your rifle cool between groups. You'll find what ammo your rifle likes best. Then, just practice practice practice.