Photo Credit: Victoria Jones Photography
Through our social media reach, I answer this question often: “Which rifle should I choose?” I wanted to share my thoughts and experience helping new hunters purchase their first rifles and share how I mentor them. I know from firsthand experience that your first rifle may not be your last rifle. Once you learn to shoot and enjoy shooting – whether it is for target practice or any kind of hunting – the more you learn, the higher the chances are that you will purchase a second rifle.
To help someone with choosing a first rifle, though, you must first understand the purpose. This is true with all first firearm purchases. The purpose can define the equipment needed very quickly. Because I lead women’s hunting events, I am always preparing my hunters for equipment needed to be successful in the field. For simplicity purposes, I will share how I help new big-game hunters select the proper bolt-action rifles for their endeavors.
Always start with eye dominance, left hand or right hand. Cross-dominant rifle shooters may want to try left- or right-handed bolts, depending on which shoulder they mount their rifle, and which eye is dominate. While left-handed bolt-action rifles are available, they are not always on the shelves at the sporting goods stores. They can be ordered. I have seen many left-handed shooters adapt to right-handed bolt-action rifles.
If a new hunter enquires about selecting a rifle for big game, it almost always starts with caliber. While this a perfect place to start, it is not the only selection parameter needed. Choosing a caliber can be animal specific. And if you ask on social media about caliber choices, you will get plenty of answers. The right answer is in the details of the type of rifle you plan to purchase. I see many women lean into caliber as the answer to low recoil. And while this is true, there are also choices one can make to reduce recoil with larger caliber rifles. I recommend .243 and .308 for youth and new shooters for whitetail, coyote, and hogs. If they planned an elk hunt as their first hunt then I recommend .270, 30-06, 300 win and 7 mm rem mag is my caliber of choice. The most important point to make is caliber is important but not the first and only attribute to finding a great rifle.
The third most important facet is budget. My first rifle was a combo rifle with a scope for around $500 and it turned out to be the rifle I shot my first deer with, but it was also the worst choice for me. The gun was a .30-06 and it kicked hard, and I was new to shooting and I flinched equally as hard. I downsized the caliber to a .243 and a smaller stock with a higher cheek piece and became very successful. I teach new shooters with my .243 to start them out without fear of recoil. When it is fun to shoot, they will shoot more. The more they shoot, they more they will build their confidence. This makes it easier to introduce them to larger caliber rifles and helps them build proper shooting skills from the start. This can also be done by taking a new shooting to the range with a .22 caliber rifle to get them started.
Once eye dominance, budget and caliber are established, I can begin to understand the level of skills a new hunter has acquired. This is the best time to encourage more range time with a partner and a shared firearm. I love the idea of try-before-you-buy. This is also a great time to determine if someone has a shorter length-of-pull and has trouble acquiring a target in a scope.
One of the most important pieces of the puzzle is the rifle fit. The length-of-pull and the eye relief of a scope are shooter specific. I have coached women with shorter arms using my rifles or rifles from the range day and have seen firsthand how hard it is for them to gain the proper sight picture in the scope. They simply don’t fit the guns. I always recommend trying rifles with adjustable stocks or higher cheek pieces. At the gun store, I recommend shouldering the rifles and seeing if your cheek hits the stock with your neck straight and eyes aligned to the scope. Check to see if you can place the rifle on the shoulder (in the pocket) and properly pull the trigger with the first tip tap of your finger and see through the scope. Adjust the scope to zoom out at first then zoom all the way in and determine if you can acquire a sight picture.
More on Shooting Expectations
After establishing eye dominance, budget, caliber, and rifle fit, I always ask what type of shooting they are interested in doing. Target practice at the range is much different that a hunting scenario. For example, I rarely off-hand any of my shots. I like to have a shooting stick for spot and stalk hunting. And I use a shooting house window or rail whenever possible. New hunters may not be aware of these accessory options. And if you are teaching them to shoot from a window of a shooting house or shooting rail on a stand, inform them that the barrel should never be placed on the rail and always place only the stock on the base for taking a shot.
Rifles Come with So Many Choices
Some ways to reduce recoil with larger caliber rifles including buying a heavier weighted gun, a lighter trigger pull and a muzzle brake. New hunters need to know that they can ask for the amount of trigger pull on each model and even purchase aftermarket triggers to help with this task. Read the owner’s manual to see what the manufacture trigger pull setting is and whether it is adjustable or check the trigger pull using a special gizmo to do so. A lighter trigger pull can reduce recoil and help with flinching on the shoot. Here’s where professional gunsmiths can come in mighty handy.
I have had much success teaching new hunters with a long-range .308 caliber rifle with a muzzle brake and lighter trigger.
Scope It Out!
For choosing a scope, I recommend spending as much as your budget will allow. Having good optics can also create a very successful hunt. The most important aspect of choosing a scope is knowing the distance you plan to shoot. For whitetail deer, here in the South, we rarely take shots past 150 to 200 yards. But for big game out West, success rates go up if your scope can help you be consistent out to 500 yards. Today’s market for optics is wide open. A basic scope will do the job for under $300, or you can spend more than $1000 for longer range scopes.
Don’t Forget About Eye Relief
Having the proper eye relief is one of the most important factors for setting up success. A local gun store or gun smith can help mount the scope and adjust to fit as needed. This can be a major factor in a new hunter’s success. We use a lot of partner rifles on our events, and it is quickly noticeable if one of our new hunters is struggling to find the target in the scope. One of the best things about having your own rifle, is having one with proper eye relief for you. When I have a hunter struggle with finding a target in the scope, I dial down the zoom and have them lean all the way into the scope and slowing move their head backwards until the sight picture is fully visible.
I have helped many women set up their very first rifle and I love seeing them successful in the field. I am amazed at how the technology of rifles and scopes has made it easier to first time shooters to be successful. I helped a new elk hunter last year with a long range .300 Win Mag and a scope set up for ballistic dialing out to 1000 yards. In just two days, she consistently rang steel at 200, 300 and 600 yards. We adjusted her scope to her eye relief, and she had an adjustable cheek piece we raised to align her eye straight through the scope and she felt ready and confident to go. I consider myself fortunate to be with her when she shot her first elk with the new rifle.
Although social media is a great place to start to ask questions about purchasing a new rifle – especially if you want to see thousands of responses and decide on laws of average for which is most popular – it is not always the best idea. I recommend that new shooters and hunters find mentors. As a mentor, I can jump in and private message that I am available to help them make the right choices. Throughout the years of surveying new hunters, I have found that most start with shooting someone’s else rifle. Along with that rifle comes mentorship from the owner. New shooters then tend to buy what a friend or family member recommends or likes. And they almost always purchase a first rifle, and it is never their last rifle.