The Ultimate Guide to Hunting Rifles
Our legendary rifles editor reveals his top guns, scopes, and ammo for just about any hunt—and any budget
People ask me: “You write about all these rifles, but what do you use?” Here it is. I’ve either owned (as in spent my own money for), or shot at great length, every one of them. I’ve also gotten to shoot a lot of junk over the years, some of it with very impressive price tags. Those guns are not here.
What is here are rifles that have worked for me, and that will work for you. Because you cannot hunt with a gun alone, I’ve also provided specific cartridge and scope recommendations, by species. And along with my top pick for each critter, I’ve offered a second choice based on value. This is mostly because my editors made me, but also because some of today’s low-cost rifles are astoundingly good.
You’ll notice I name some manufacturers multiple times. This is not an accident. There is no diversity for the sake of diversity on this list. There may be trigger words, however. These refer to triggers.
→ Small game means squirrels and rabbits. These rodents are the province of the .22 Long Rifle, and you need an accurate one because your targets are very small. Normally, I deplore head shots, but in this case, if you think you’re up to it, and you’re shooting for meat, go ahead.
TOP PICK: RUGER 10/22 TARGET
The 10/22, probably the most popular .22 ever, comes in seven versions and is one of the most successful firearms of all time. The Target model is the one to get because it’s the most accurate. It has a heavy 20-inch barrel; a two-stage target trigger; and a detachable rotary magazine that actually works. Like all .22 autos, however, it spits powder in the face of left-hand shooters. $579
If you’re a southpaw, get the Savage Mark II BTVLSS, a thumbhole-stocked, heavy-barreled, left-hand bolt action that you can shoot without getting a face full of powder particles. It’s very ugly, very accurate, and reasonably priced. $516
Scope: Leupold VX-2 Rimfire EFR. It’s a 3X–9X that comes with a focusing objective lens and a fine Duplex reticle. The real-world price is about $400, and you’re not going to find anything better. $519
Caliber/Cartridge: .22 LR; Winchester .22 Long Rifle Super-X 37-grain Super Speed Hollow Point. No matter what rifle I shoot it in, it always performs well.
VALUE PICK: SAVAGE B22 F
This angular bolt action has a synthetic stock, an AccuTrigger, a detachable rotary magazine, decent iron sights, and a nice, high comb. All for peanuts. $281
Our rifles editor’s favorite ARs and tactical bolts
→ Here, we are talking mainly about prairie dogs and groundhogs. Prairie dogs are a volume proposition. A good day involves lots of shooting, so you want light recoil and low-cost ammo. You can shoot at them from paw-shaking range, or from as far off as you can see. Groundhogs are considerably bigger than prairie dogs, fewer and farther between, and destructive of pastures and gardens, and you can eat them.
TOP PICK: SAVAGE MODEL 12 LRPV LEFT PORT
The same rifle works for both rodents. With a synthetic target stock, AccuTrigger, and massive, fluted, stainless-steel barrel, this is just about the perfect rifle to make the little fellows run for their holes. Heavy-barreled Savages have a reputation for extreme accuracy, and it’s deserved. $1,554
Scope: Nightforce SHV 5–20x56mm. Target and tactical shooters dote on Nightforce scopes because of their extreme toughness and the endless repeatability of their adjustments. $1,200
Caliber/Cartridge for Prairie Dogs: .223; Hornady Varmint Express 55-grain V-Max. Very destructive and highly accurate, it puts the power to the pasture poodles at a good price.
Caliber/Cartridge for Groundhogs: .22/250; Federal Premium V-Shok 55-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip. One of the great classic rounds: sensational accuracy, and much higher velocity than the .223. The Ballistic Tips are not the cheapest, but they are very hard to beat—or equal. Your shots at groundhogs (or woodchucks or whistlepigs or thickwood badgers) will not be nearly so many or frequent as with prairie dogs, so you can afford to shoot the high-end stuff.
VALUE PICK: SAVAGE 10/110 PREDATOR HUNTER MAX 1
At just under $1K, it’s not a hell of a lot less than the top pick. That’s because it is some gun. $999
→ Since whitetails flourish nearly everywhere, there’s no such thing as a perfect all-around whitetail rifle. Most live in or near the woods, so I’ll pick a woods gun here. By that, I don’t mean a rifle for flinging Hail Mary shots at a buck that’s busy getting the hell out of there. Bucks are much better at getting the hell out of there than you are at taking Hail Mary shots. What I mean is a rifle with minimum recoil, reasonable accuracy, and moderate weight.
TOP PICK: SAVAGE MODEL 99 (with rotary magazine)
This is the only out-of-production rifle on this list, but I can’t help myself. The great 99 is light and very accurate for a lever gun, adapts to scope use, has a trigger that can be made decent, and is dead reliable. When I was a kid I had a 99 in .300 Savage, and wish to God I still owned that rifle. The 99 was in production for 100 years (!) and a lot of them were made; they are now coming on the market at prices that are not insane, meaning around or under $1,000. The rotary-magazine models are much more desirable than the detachable-box versions. You also want your 99 to sport a straight buttplate, not a curved one, which makes the gun painful to shoot.
Scope: Leupold VX-3i 1.5–5x20mm. Long live the VX-3i, which in this configuration is a paragon among woods riflescopes. It is light, compact, affordable, and exactly the proper power range for whitetails, and the Leupold service is just as wonderful as it’s purported to be. $519
Caliber/Cartridge: .308; Barnes VOR-TX 150-grain Tipped Triple-Shock X. The .308 is our second most popular cartridge (next to the .30/06) because it can do just about anything, particularly with the load listed here. If you can’t find a 99 in .308, look for a .300 Savage, which is a very similar cartridge. A .250/3000 model is the most desirable but will almost certainly cost more.
VALUE PICK: MARLIN 336 IN .35 REMINGTON
If you can find a nice old one—a gun without the stupid transverse safety—grab it. I’ve seen them as low as $350.
→ Mule deer are strictly western and are bigger than whitetails but no harder to kill. The difference is that whitetails are usually a close or medium-range proposition. With mule deer, you get the occasional long shot. What if your whitetails live out in the open, too? Worry not. Any first-rate mule deer rifle is also a first-rate prairie or western whitetail rifle.
TOP PICK: WINCHESTER MODEL 70 EXTREME WEATHER SS
Today’s Model 70s are better rifles than Winchester ever dreamed of building during the gun’s glory days of the 20th century. This one is all stainless steel with a Bell and Carlson synthetic stock and a fluted barrel. The weight is an ideal 7 pounds 2 ounces. $1,340
Scope: Nightforce SHV 3–10x42mm. Compact, with all the wonderful Nightforce qualities, this model has the best possible power range. You want the IHR, which stands for International Hunting Reticle. An unusual design, it’s very clean, leaving the field of view uncluttered so you can get on them quick. 873
Caliber/Cartridge: .270 Winchester; Swift 130-grain Scirocco. Yup, the plain old .270 Win. How do you argue with perfection? The bullet above is highly aerodynamic, tough, and a reliable expander—one of the very best big-game bullets.
VALUE PICK: WINCHESTER XPR
The 21st-century version of the Model 70. The Big Red W did everything right here, and it’s a steal. $550
→ What you need to know about Cervus canadensis is that they get very big (over 1,000 pounds), and are very tough. If you shoot one well, it may stand there looking at you until you shoot it again. If you shoot one badly—with any rifle of any caliber—you will probably never see the animal again. The closest shot I’ve ever gotten at an elk was 25 yards; the farthest was way past 500.
Anything can happen.
TOP PICK: MONTANA RIFLES EXTREME X2
As close to a perfect big-game rifle as I know of, the synthetic-stocked, all-stainless Extreme X2 is based on Montana's improved version of the original Model 70 controlled-feed action. It is chambered for 31 cartridges and comes right- or left-handed. $1,412
Scope: Leupold VX-3i 2.5–8x36mm. One of the great big-game scopes: small, light, simple, tough, and with just the right magnification. $519
Caliber/Cartridge: .30/06; Swift High Grade 180-grain A-Frame. If I were to hunt elk tomorrow, I'd leave my beloved .338 at home and take my X2 in .30/06 instead. It'll do the job and beat you up a hell of a lot less. You need strong, heavy bullets, though. Swift A-Frames are the best controlled-expanding slugs I've ever used.
VALUE PICK: WINCHESTER XPR
Yes, again. It's very hard to get around this rifle, given the quality and the price. $550
GOATS AND SHEEP
→ Sheep live in high country that is hard to climb in. Goats live in the highest, roughest country that is godawful to climb in. Sheep are not terrifically hard to put down. Goats can be very tough to drop, and are fond of flinging themselves off cliffs. You don’t want a rifle that weighs more than 8 pounds, with scope—or one that weighs much less, because it will be impossible to hold steady at 14,000 feet when your heart is going pitter-patter.
TOP PICK: WEATHERBY VANGUARD WILDERNESS
This rifle meets all the specs. Its fluted, No. 2 contour, 24-inch barrel is not too long. Minus a scope, the rifle weighs a just-right 63⁄4 pounds, and there's no muzzle brake to complicate your life. Not much can damage the composite stock, and Vanguards shoot. They are, indeed, guaranteed to do so. $999
Scope: Zeiss Terra 3X 4–12x50mm. It's simple, reliable, the right power range, and affordable enough to help you save for your sheep or goat hunt. $360
Caliber/Cartridge: .300 Winchester Magnum; Swift High-Grade 180-grain Scirocco. The .300 Win. Mag. will do everything you require for both species. It's exceedingly accurate and very capable at long, long range. It packs plenty of power and will not tear your head off unless your head is loosely attached. I favor bullets that are on the tough side, especially for the goats, so my vote goes for Swift's 180-grain Scirocco. Federal Premium Vital-Shok loaded with 180-grain Nosler Partitions will work just as well.
VALUE PICK: RUGER AMERICAN RIFLE MAGNUM
Like the Vanguard, it has the right credentials. The muzzle is threaded for a brake, but leave it off unless you really get desperate. $699
→ Pronghorn antelope are small and not hard to kill, and they have wondrous eyes. People tend to think of long shots on antelope, partly because the animal’s vision is so awesome, but the country in which they live is broken enough that you can almost always sneak up on them. They are not terrifically smart, and I’ve shot no small number that were just standing there, wondering what I was. I wonder that, too, sometimes.
TOP PICK: BERGARA B-14 HUNTER
Bergaras shoot. I think Bergaras just may shoot better than anything else. The B-14 is sleek, graceful, and synthetic stocked, with a good trigger and an extremely high level of fit and finish. If the price were doubled, it'd still be a fair deal. $825 and up.
Scope: Meopta MeoPro 4.5–14x44mm. Made in the Czech Republic and assembled here, the MeoPro offers quality way out of proportion to its price. Get it with the BDC reticle. $805
Caliber/Cartridge: 6.5 Creedmoor; Hornady 143-grain ELD-X Precision Hunter. The Creedmoor's modest numbers are offset by the extreme efficiency of modern 6.5mm bullets, so it's effective at very long range. Hornady developed the round, and Hornady ammo is what to buy. This particular bullet has a ballistic coefficient of .620, which is suited to interstellar travel, and a special polymer tip that refuses to melt at high velocity. When developing the ELD-X, Hornady checked the design to see that it was doing what it was supposed to be doing, which was not drop. And it doesn't.
VALUE PICK: RUGER AMERICAN RIFLE PREDATOR
It comes with a heavier than standard barrel, which I like, an adjustable trigger, and a rail. Forget the name; it's a great pronghorn gun. $529
→ They’re not as big as elk, and not tough at all. They are pretty dumb but do have sharp senses, and can they travel o’er the tundra?! Caribou hunters can be assured of lots of very difficult walking, rain, snow, fog, and wind. There’s caribou hunting without grizzlies around, and caribou hunting with grizzlies around. For the former, you don’t need a big rifle. For the latter, I’d want one that’s too much for caribou but about right for griz.
TOP PICK: NOSLER MODEL 48 LIBERTY
This is the midpriced version of the Model 48, which is the original Nosler rifle and a pretty pricey item. The thing to remember about any Nosler rifle is that it's the product of a family that has done more hunting than you and any three friends have ever dreamed of, and it shows. It's light, accurate, and completely weatherproof. $1,795
Scope: Bushnell Elite 6500 2.5–16x42mm. This tough scope has more power at the top end than you'll need, but all sorts of other virtues, most especially RainGuard HD coating on the lenses, so you can shoot in all manner of precipitation. Get it with the DOA 600 CF reticle. $749
Caliber/Cartridge: .280 Remington; Nosler Custom 160-grain Partition. You can knock over a caribou with bad breath. Therefore, I suggest the wonderful .280. (The Vanguard doesn't come in .280, so go .270 there.)
In Bear Country: .300 Win. Mag.; Swift 180-grain A-Frame. Too much for the caribou, but if a griz shows up and asks to share in your good fortune…
VALUE PICK: WEATHERBY VANGUARD WEATHERGUARD
This Vanguard is built to cope with the worst. The stock is synthetic and all the metal has a Cerakote coating. $749
→ By predators, I mean our pal the coyote, who flourishes everywhere and eats everything. While coyotes are neither big nor hard to kill, they are super smart, which means that you may be able to shoot one out of your lap via calling, but long range is also common.
TOP PICK: RUGER GUNSITE SCOUT
Ruger makes the Scout in 11 versions. I recommend the 5.56mm/.223 stainless with laminated stock. It's very handy, very accurate at longer ranges, and a true indestructo-gun. Ruger likes the trigger. I do not, and feel that you should have a gunsmith replace it with a Timney, which transforms the Scout. Ruger does not like this. So what? $1,199
Scope: Leupold Mark AR 4–12x40mm. This is a smallish scope that doesn't overwhelm the small Scout. Nor does it cost a bundle. I like the mil-dot reticle, which gets you on target fast if a long shot comes up. $649
Caliber/Cartridge: 5.56mm; Black Hills 77-grain Sierra Tipped MatchKing. The 5.56mm is just right for bringing lasting peace to the old song dog. The Black Hills ammo comes in boxes of 50, is reasonably priced, and is very accurate. In fact, it's so good I don't handload for this gun.
VALUE PICK: RUGER AMERICAN RIFLE
An economy gun done right: light, accurate, and tough. You don't even have to replace the trigger. $489
→ Wild pig populations have exploded in the past 20 years, and so has the critter's popularity as a game species. They're smart, tough, sometimes very big, and sometimes very mean. Shots are typically at short range. Boars have a gristle shield over their shoulders that can wreck a fragile bullet, and when that happens you have a problem. A wounded pig must be followed up and will want to discuss the matter with you.
TOP PICK: STEYR ELITE .308
This is the tactical heavy-barrel version of the original Steyr Scout, which was the very first factory Scout rifle, built in close collaboration with Jeff Cooper. The gun is heavier than Scout specs, at 91⁄2 pounds, but it shares the ergonomic synthetic stock, wonderful trigger, and slick action of the original. I have never truly revealed how accurate Steyr Scouts have been for me on the range because I never quite believed it myself and because I was afraid of being called a liar. This Elite model should be even more so. Any pig you pound with one of these should consider itself honored. $2,295
Scope: Burris 2–7x32mm Scout. This IER (Infinite Eye Relief) scope with the Ballistic Plex reticle is a terrific compact sight. If you prefer a conventional scope, the Nightforce NXS 1–4x24mm Compact with the IHR illuminated reticle is your huckleberry. $1,514
Caliber/Cartridge: .308 Winchester; Barnes VOR-TX 150-grain Tipped Triple-Shock X . Again, the infinitely capable .308. This load is very accurate with reliable expansion and absolutely tremendous penetration. I can't think of anything I wouldn't hunt with these except perhaps brown bears or blue whales.
VALUE PICK: RUGER AMERICAN RIFLE
Ditto the above.
→ Despite their size, moose are not hard to kill. Most are probably shot with deer rifles. Still, you want a tough bullet because there’s a lot to get through, and you don’t want them reaching the water before they expire. If that happens, your life is going to become very interesting. Where big bears inhabit the same country as moose, I’d leave the deer gun at home.
TOP PICK: RUGER GUIDE GUN
It is all stainless (which is good because you'll probably be rained on much of the time), has a laminated stock (that won't warp, swell, or crack in the frigging rain), is short (nice, because clawing through devil's club and alder thickets for hours at a time with a long rifle is something you don't need), and is handy (particularly in bear country, where you might have to shoot either quickly or very, very quickly). This makes it ideally suited to the country and the animal. $1,269
Scope: Trijicon AccuPoint TR24 1–4x24mm. One tough scope, with a battery-free illuminated reticle that works to a T. I've never heard of a long shot on a moose, so 1X–4X does fine. $1,099
Caliber/Cartridge in Bear Country: .375 Ruger; Swift High Grade 300-grain Swift A-Frame Heavy Rifle. Plenty for moose and bears alike.
VALUE PICK: SAVAGE 16/116 TROPHY HUNTER XP
Everything you need at a good price. If you take it into bear country, get it in .338 Win. Mag., as it doesn't come in .375 Ruger. $762
GRIZZLY BEARS & BLACK BEARS
→ Unlike coastal brown bears, which are huge, grizzlies are a modest size, weighing from 350 to 500 pounds. But they are apex predators of enormous strength, surprising speed, and unlimited ferocity. Wounded, they're among the most dangerous animals on earth. Grizzly hunters are sometimes faced with 200- to 300-yard shots. On the other hand, you may be able to smell what the bear had for dinner as you shoot. Here are two good general rules: Break the shoulder on the first shot. And never shoot a bear that's directly uphill from you, or he'll roll downhill and land in your lap.
→ They're everywhere; they're shot mostly with deer cartridges by deer hunters, typically at short range; and they're not hard to kill. But do remember that they are, after all, bears.
GRIZZLY BEAR TOP PICK: WEATHERBY MARK V ACCUMARK
Pretty much a custom rifle, with a synthetic stock, a fluted stainless barrel, and a redesigned superlative trigger, the Mark V is big, heavy, and exceedingly accurate—put together by people who are obviously proud of what they make. $2,300
Scope: Leupold VX-3i 2.5–8x36mm. See my remarks in the elk section. Get it with the Duplex reticle.
Caliber/Cartridge: .340 Weatherby; Weatherby Select Plus 250-grain Nosler Partition. Crushing power up close and far away. Its recoil is stern. I've owned four .340s and never had to track anything I shot with it. As guide and writer Ross Seyfried put it, "If you can't do it with a .340, you probably can't do it with a rifle." If you handload, try 275-grain Swift A-Frames.
GRIZZLY BEAR VALUE PICK
None. If you can afford a grizzly hunt, you can afford the top pick.
BLACK BEAR TOP PICK: REMINGTON 700 CDL SF
I chose this wood-stocked, all-stainless rifle mostly because it's chambered for the much ignored and highly capable .35 Whelen. And it's a Model 700, one of the most successful sporting rifles ever made. $1,180
Scope: Leupold VX-3i 1.5–5x20mm. If you like more power, get the 2.5–8x36mm.
Caliber/Cartridge: .35 Whelen; Nosler Custom 225-grain Partition. Based on the .30/06, the Whelen shoots heavy bullets at moderate velocity. It'll make whatever you shoot get tired and lie down, but it won't knock you out of your stand.
VALUE PICK: REMINGTON 7600
This classic North Woods bear (and deer) rifle is still in production, but no longer in .35 Whelen. But you can find it used in that caliber for around $500 or a bit more.