Set the stage for success by helping fit first-time hunters with the right rifle
Hunting is a progression, an evolution that begins the day we’re introduced to the tradition and continues foras long as we choose to take to the field. Throughout the course of this progression, there are milestones all hunters must reach to achieve the next stage.
Few of these rites of passage are more significant than the one that takes place when we transition from the .22 most of us learned to shoot with to our first centerfire hunting rifle.
Although this stage is incredibly symbolic on many levels, there’s also a fundamentally practical aspect to this progression that should never be underestimated: The right rifle helps provide a young hunter with a rewarding experience that will serve as the foundation upon which a lifetime of learning can be built. The wrong rifle, however, can easily create a negative reaction that might cause this hunter to look elsewhere for the kind of rewarding pastime he was otherwise hoping to find in hunting.
As more new hunters are coming from families without hunting traditions, they are turning to their local firearms retailers for advice on which rifle would make the best choice to take afield. By encouraging your staff to take the time to listen to the needs and reservations of these first-time hunters and then help them find the right rifle to fit their unique situation, store owners can not only help get new people passionate about the heritage we all care so much about, they can also create loyal, lifelong customers who will turn to them for advice at each stage of their hunting evolution.
SHOT Business surveyed several rifles that would all make good selections for these hunters. To help retailing staff determine which ones might be the best choice for the different shooters who might walk through their store door, we evaluated these rifles on the attributes that most concern first-time hunters.
Ruger American All-Weather
Overview: The Ruger American All-Weather is a solid choice for a first hunting rifle, for a wide-range of shooters. The stainless-steel rifle with a synthetic stock is durable enough to handle nearly anything nature might throw at it. The rifle weighs only 6.3 pounds, barrel length is 22 inches, and the overall length is 42 inches, all of which ensures the American All-Weather isn’t too cumbersome for young hunters to handle.
The rifle has a smooth trigger pull, even without adjusting the factory setting, and provided good accuracy right out of the box. The shape of the stock allowed for a solid, steady grip good for shooters with smaller hands. The butt pad provided adequate recoil reduction, but the lighter weight also meant it still had a bit of a kick on the 7mm-08 we tested, something retailers should take into consideration with younger and smaller-framed customers, perhaps offering them a different caliber.
The rotary magazine was easy to detach, load, and reattach, and the cartridges fed into place without trouble. The bolt itself wasn’t as smooth as that on some of the other rifles tested, and it took a while for some testers to begin working it efficiently.
The American was one of the least-expensive rifles we tested, which means that first-time hunters won’t have to make a large investment to get started. The rifle comes in seven of the most popular calibers, from .223 to .308, and all of them are available left-handed.
Pros: The American All-Weather is a versatile, durable, go-nearly-anywhere, do-nearly-anything kind of rifle. The availability of seven popular calibers for both right- and left-handed shooters means that nearly everyone can find the one to fit their body and hunting style.
Cons: This might not be the rifle to show hunters who have more traditional tastes. What it exudes in functionality it lacks in aesthetic appeal for people who typically view firearms as more of a work of art. The action could be smoother but will likely cause no issues once a shooter gets accustomed to the amount of effort required to work the bolt.
Bottom line: The American All-Weather seems to be made with first-time hunters in mind. Combine its admirable accuracy, bulletproof construction, and lightweight, easy-to-handle design with its reasonable price tag, and it’s hard to imagine a more practical rifle anyone could carry on his or her first hunt.
Savage MSR 10 Hunter
Overview: The debate about whether modern sporting rifles (MSRs) are actually practical hunting rifles might still carry on in the distant corners of some gun shops and obscure online chat rooms, but it seems most people in the hunting and shooting community have recognized the benefits of these firearms and accepted them as the next evolution of the hunting rifle. That acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean that the community embraces these rifles enough to sling them over their shoulder when they take to the field.
When it comes to a first hunting rifle, an MSR might seem a little intimidating to a shooter who hasn’t practiced with one on the range. That doesn’t mean it isn’t the right choice for a first hunting rifle—rather just that retail sales staff might have to spend a little more time explaining the benefits of carrying an MSR on any hunting excursion.
For those first-time hunters receptive to the idea, the Savage MSR 10 Hunter is one to consider. Available in .308 Winchester, .338 Federal, and the trendy-hot 6.5 Creedmoor, the MSR 10 Hunter will work for a wide range of game. At roughly 8 pounds, it might be a bit on the heavy side and a little cumbersome for smaller shooters, but the reduction in felt recoil might make up for the larger size, especially when they’re running rounds through it at the range in preparation for the season. The adjustable stock and nearly endless options for personalizing the rifle will also allow hunters to use a rifle that adjusts to them rather than a rifle to which they must adjust.
The trigger pull on the MSR 10 Hunter was stiff but can easily be adjusted to fit each shooter’s preference. One of the most attractive features for first-time hunters, however, might be the ability to quickly reacquire the target for a follow-up shot without having to worry about working a bolt or lever-action, and the Savage was incredibly responsive in this regard. The accuracy of the rifle was also especially admirable in the 6.5 Creedmoor we tested, with respectable groupings at 100-plus yards from four different shooters.
Pros: The option to customize the rifle for a comfortable fit, combined with the ability to quickly reacquire a target and place a follow-up shot, is a significant benefit of the Savage MSR 10 Hunter that first-time hunters should seriously consider. The pistol grip allows shooters to pull the rifle tightly into their shoulder, and the accuracy of the MSR 10 Hunter shouldn’t be underestimated. Offered in .308 Win., 6.5 Creedmoor, and .338 Federal.
Cons: For shooters who aren’t used to an MSR, the platform can be a little intimidating, and the size and shape can seem a little awkward and cumbersome to carry, especially for smaller shooters. At nearly $1,500, the MSR 10 Hunter presents a pretty serious financial commitment that might also be daunting.
Bottom line: For first-time hunters open to the idea of carrying an MSR into the field, the Savage MSR 10 Hunter is a great choice. It is a solid, well-built rifle that will withstand years of use. While much of it might come down to personal preference, the significant benefits of hunting with this rifle should be discussed with potential purchasers.
Browning BLR Lightweight ’81
Overview: The resurgence of the lever-action as a viable, long-range, big-game hunting rifle has not yet gone mainstream. But one look at the Browning BLR Lightweight ’81, and it becomes instantly apparent that there are some significant benefits to this timeless hunting rifle style.
At 7 pounds 4 ounces, the BLR isn’t a heavy rifle, but it feels impressively solid in hand. The polished walnut stock and classic checkering give the rifle a traditional feel that will immediately impress upon new hunters a strong sense of hunting’s heritage.
The most obvious benefit of the BLR is, of course, the action. It was smooth and crisp through the entire test, and allowed for a quicker response and reacquisition of the target than is possible for most shooters using bolt-action rifles. Although not as well-suited for left-handed shooters as a left-handed bolt, the BLR does present an attractive option, especially in families where the rifle might be shared among multiple hunters.
The oversize hammer provided a solid purchase for the thumb and was easy to release, even for young shooters. The .270 we tested had impressive out-of-the-box accuracy; nearly all the shooters were able to tally an admirable grouping. Smaller shooters, however, did seem to feel the kick more than with the other .270s we tested. For shooters who are used to working a bolt-action, the BLR might take some getting used to, but those who can make the adjustment might never want to hunt with anything else.
Pros: The BLR’s performance is just as impressive as its looks, and the lever-action can make it easier for first-time hunters to reload and reacquire the target once they get used to working the action. The rifle is smooth, accurate, and easy to operate. Offered in 16 popular calibers.
Cons: The BLR is a rifle that could easily be passed down for generations, but it will need to be well cared for in order to maintain peak performance. Although it’s hard to argue that it isn’t worth every penny, the price tag might be a little steep for many first-time hunters.
Bottom line: The BLR is a solid, well-crafted rifle that definitely lives up to the standard of quality for which Browning is known. The rifle immediately instills admiration for the tradition of hunting and an appreciation for the heritage of sportsmanship. This would be a fine addition to anyone’s collection, but the lever-action provides several benefits that will be especially appealing to new hunters.
Winchester XPR Hunter
Overview: One of the crucial attributes of a first hunting rifle is its perceived value, which doesn’t always mean price. It is in this area of inherent value that the Winchester XPR Hunter excels. With a $600 price tag, it isn’t the least-expensive rifle on the market, but the value it provides is undoubtedly among the best.
The XPR comes with a polymer stock that will stand up to years of rugged use, and the addition of Mossy Oak Break-Up will help keep a hunter concealed in the field. The blued barrel and receiver will require a bit more maintenance than would stainless steel, but that provides an opportunity to help young hunters develop good habits when it comes to taking care of their firearm.
The .270 we tested performed as well as any of the rifles in the review. It was accurate, and the thick buttpad helped soften the recoil enough that even the younger shooters didn’t notice it. The bolt wasn’t necessarily the smoothest, but it was consistent, allowing shooters to adjust the amount of force needed to work it quickly and effectively. The plastic magazine felt a little cheap, but it was easy to detach, load, and reseat.
At 6 pounds 5 ounces, and with an overall length of 44½ inches, the rifle was neither the smallest nor the lightest rifle we tested, but it provided a good balance and never felt heavy or awkward.
Pros: The XPR is a durable rifle that is both accurate and easy to shoot. The recoil pad helped protect young shooters’ shoulders and helped to minimize the flinching that so often leads to inaccurate shots. The camo stock is a big plus from both an aesthetic and a practical standpoint.
Cons: If the bolt operation was a little smoother and the magazine a little sturdier, it would be hard to find much of anything to complain about with the XPR.
Bottom line: The XPR Hunter might not be the cheapest gun a first-time hunter could buy, but it’s hard to believe that it wouldn’t be among the best values on the market. It’s easy to use, easy to handle, and easy to maintain, making it a great option.
Weatherby Vanguard Camilla
Overview: The Weatherby Vanguard Camilla is a rifle designed by women hunters for women hunters. It features a long list of modifications designed to make the rifle a better fit for female shooters. These include a slimmer forearm and grip, a higher comb, and a recoil pad that’s situated to fit better into a woman’s shoulder pocket. While these modifications certainly make the Camilla distinct, they aren’t the only attributes that make it special.
The Camilla is, first and foremost, a very fine hunting rifle, offering the same kind of quality for which Weatherby built its reputation. The rifle has a Turkish walnut stock with a rosewood forend and grip caps and a checkering pattern that is as attractive as it is functional. The grip has a palm swell on the right side and a curved indentation on the other that provides for sure handling. The bolt slides like it’s on rails and moved effortlessly even after several consecutive rounds were run through it. The Camilla seemed to nestle perfectly into the shoulders of the female shooters in our test group, and seemed to be the only rifle that didn’t cause them to twitch and adjust to find a comfortable, natural shooting position. The combination of the design elements made for women and the overall quality of the rifle certainly didn’t go unnoticed, or unappreciated, by our women shooters, who were extremely reluctant to put the Camilla back in the rack.
Pros: The Camilla might just be the ideal choice for any woman hunter, but especially for those who are first-time hunters. In addition to the Weatherby quality and the modifications made for female shooters, the Camilla had a crisp trigger pull, a smooth action, minimal felt recoil, and the kind of accuracy any shooter would appreciate.
Cons: The only downside to the Camilla seems to be the lack of available chamberings. Right now the rifle is offered only in .243, 6.5 Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Rem., and .308 Win. Hopefully, more calibers will be offered down the road, as that will help to broaden the appeal of the rifle. The use of a detachable magazine instead of a hinged floorplate would also be a welcome feature.
Bottom line: Judging by the response of the women shooters who tested the Camilla, the modifications Weatherby has incorporated into the design were much needed and well appreciated. The quality of the rifle makes it easy to shoot, and the women-specific features make it all the more enjoyable. The Camilla is without a doubt a rifle worthy of the women who carry it.
—Opening and Main Photos: Tim Irwin; Range Photos: Christopher Cogley