How to Choose a Hunting Rifle

This gun case contains a variety of rifles and shotguns -- how do you know which one is right for you?
This gun case contains a variety of rifles and shotguns -- how do you know which one is right for you?
David H. Lewis/©iStockphoto

You'­re standing in the sportin­g goods section of a huge store, looking over an enormous collection of rifles. The guns come in a range of varieties, sizes, shapes, materials and prices. It can be an overwhelming experience. Which one should you choose?

The best way to choose a rifle is to use a process called backward induction. Backward induction is a kind of game theory reasoning. The first step is to look at the ideal end result and then work your way backward until you reach what will be your first decision. In our case, the end result is the answer to a question: What kind of game do you intend to hunt?

That answer will narrow down the type of rifle you should choose. From that point on, you can base every other decision on personal preferences. The type of game you want to hunt will narrow down the type of bullet you should use. That decision will help you figure out what kind of cartridges you'll need to buy. In turn, the cartridge will limit the types of rifle you can use.

As an example, let's take the thirty-aught-six rifle. That's not an actual rifle model -- it just means the rifle can fire a .30-06 Springfield cartridge. Several different rifles can fire that type of cartridge. The rifle you choose should be able to fire whichever cartridge you've determined best suits your needs.

­Why worry about the cartridge at all? You need to consider ammunition because in order to be a responsible hunter, you'll want to choose ammunition that will guarantee a humane kill while preserving as much of the meat on the animal as possible. If you use ammunition more powerful than what you'll really need, the animals you hunt won't suffer but there may not be much meat left after you shoot them. On the other hand, if you use weaker ammunition against larger game, the animal may suffer a long time before dying.

Once you've decided the kind of cartridge you need, you can focus on other factors. What's a comfortable rifle weight for you to hold? What sort of rifle action do you prefer? Which materials appeal to you? Each question is important to answer if you want the best experience with your hunting rifle.

Let's start with a quick look at the kinds of game you might want to hunt and which cartridges are suited to that type of game.

Rifle Cartridges

The kind of ammunition you choose will help determine what kind of rifle you should buy.
The kind of ammunition you choose will help determine what kind of rifle you should buy.
Mike Coddington/iStockphoto

Some people call rifle cartridges "bullets," but in reality the bul­let is just part of the cartridge. A rifle cartridge is a case that contains primer, gunpowder and a bullet at the tip. The primer's job is to ignite the gunpowder, which in turn propels the bullet down the rifle's barrel and out to your target. The casing of the cartridge stays behind -- depending on the rifle you're using, you'll have to expel the spent cartridge manually or the gun will do so automatically.

If you thought choosing a rifle is a daunting task, you might be tempted to give up when you see the variety of cartridges on the market. To add to the confusion, not all cartridges follow the same naming conventions. In general, cartridge manufacturers name their product by bullet caliber -- the diameter of the bullet. Cartridge manufacturers in the United States use the English system of measurement -- almost everyone else uses the metric system.

Sometimes there's a second number in the cartridge name that can confuse matters. With some cartridges, the number refers to the length of the cartridge casing. But for black powder cartridges, the number tells you the size of the powder charge. The size of the charge tells you how much power the cartridge will exert on the bullet, which in turn tells you how fast and far the bullet will travel.

In addition to caliber, we classify bullets by weight -- measured by grains. One ounce is 435.7 grains, so a 150-grain bullet weighs a mere .34 ounces (9.6 grams). Lighter bullets tend to be more accurate over short distances but have less impact on distant targets than heavier bullets.

For small game, you can use small-caliber bullets. Cartridges for either a .17 or .22 caliber bullet are a good choice. But you also have to consider how much power you'll need to propel the bullet. Think about the distance at which you'll be hunting. If you'll be closer than 100 yards (91.4 meters), you could use a .22 Long Range cartridge. For greater distances, you may need to consider a .22 Magnum cartridge. You'll need to research cartridges designed for your specific style of hunting. Using backward induction, once you've determined the cartridge that's appropriate for your type of game, you can look for rifles capable of firing that type of cartridge.

If you want to hunt larger game, you'll need to use bigger bullets and cartridges with a more powerful charge. For medium or large game, you should look at rifle calibers ranging from .24 to .45. You'll also need to make sure the cartridge is powerful enough to fire a bullet with the impact force you'll need to take down the game you're hunting. Keep in mind that more powerful cartridges will have more recoil.

Okay, so you've done your homework and you know what kind of bullet and cartridge you'll need to hunt the game of your choice. That tells you the caliber of rifle you'll need to purchase. But what else do you need to consider? Let's take a look at what differentiates one rifle from another in the next section.

Rifle Actions and Materials

A classic bolt-action rifle
A classic bolt-action rifle
Sumngers Graphics Inc./iStockphoto

You can divide rifles up into two lar­ge categories: single shots and repeaters. A single-shot is exactly what it sounds like -- you can fire the rifle once before you have to put a new cartridge into the rifle. A repeating rifle can hold several cartridges at the same time. Rifles have various actions -- mechanisms that eject a spent cartridge and move a fresh cartridge into the chamber.

Some hunters prefer single-shot rifles because they feel the guns tend to be sleeker and more elegant in design. There's also an element of nostalgia with single-shot rifles -- they are similar to historical rifles used in the pioneering days of America. A single-shot rifle also puts pressure on the hunter -- the shooter needs to be careful when taking aim in order to take down game with only one shot.

While many hunters group single-shot rifles into the same action category, they come in many different styles and mechanisms. There are falling-block action rifles, rolling-block action rifles, break-open rifles and trapdoor single-shot action rifles. With each style, there's a different way to load and unload the rifle. Which one you use usually falls to personal preference. In general, hunters say that falling-block action rifles are accurate and work well for left- and right-handers.

Repeating rifles also come in a variety of actions. There are bolt-action rifles, pump-action rifles, lever-action rifles and automatic rifles. Bolt, pump and lever-action rifles require the hunter to manipulate some part of the rifle to eject a spent cartridge and load a fresh one into the chamber. Automatic rifles have a mechanism that ejects and loads cartridges on their own.

If you are choosing your first hunting rifle, you should probably stick with a repeating rifle. While single-shot rifles can be elegant and accurate, they also require a lot of skill and confidence to handle properly.

Rifles are constructed of a variety of materials. The metal on rifles is usually either carbon steel or stainless steel. Carbon steel tends to be less expensive, but is also prone to rusting. Stainless steel doesn't rust as readily as carbon steel, but it costs more. If you're careful to maintain your rifle, rust shouldn't be a problem.

Rifle stocks also come in a variety of materials including wood and fiberglass. Each material has a unique feel and weight to it. Some materials, like walnut, are more expensive than others. You should choose a rifle with a stock that feels comfortable in your hands.

Other factors to take in are the rifle's weight and length. If a rifle feels unwieldy in your hands, you should try a different gun. Hunting requires patience and it's hard to be patient when you're holding a gun that doesn't feel just right.

When choosing a rifle, remember to do your research long before you make a purchase and don't be afraid to ask questions. Talk to other hunters and find out what they prefer. Test different kinds of rifle actions to see which appeals to you and your style of hunting. And always remember to make sure the cartridge your rifle fires will meet your requirements when you go on a hunting trip. Good luck and safe hunting!

To learn more about hunting rifles and other topics, set your sights on the links found on the next page.

R­elated HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Beers, Bob. "Choosing a Hunting Rifle." Guns and Shooting Online. 2006. (Nov. 13, 2008)
  • Bodinson, Holt. "Return of the Single Shots." Guns Magazine. Feb. 2002. (Nov. 13, 2008)
  • Chicoine, David. "Working the Remington Rolling Block rifle." American Gunsmith. Sept. 2007. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • Hawks, Chuck. "A Critical Look at Modern Hunting Rifles and the Failure of the Outdoor Press." Guns and Shooting Online. 2008. (Nov. 14, 2008)
  • Hawks, Chuck. "Introduction to Rifle Actions." Guns and Shooting Online. 2006. (Nov. 13, 2008)
  • Hawks, Chuck. "Matching the Gun to the Game." Guns and Shooting Online. 2007. (Nov. 12, 2008)
  • Turner, Ed. "The Mystique of the Single Shot Rifle." Guns and Shooting Online. 2007. (Nov. 14, 2008)