Some hunters pursue only mule deer, some elk, but most of us accept any excuse to spend more time in the outdoors. We love it all, hunt it all, eat it all.
But we don’t always choose the most practical rifles to do it.
Having hunted just about every game animal in every North America habitat as well as dozens of others on five continents, I speak from broad experience. I review rifles, scopes and ammo for several hunting magazines, so that gives me better-than-average experience, too.
I still have my biases, but I try to keep an open mind, and that leads me to recommend compromise and balance in an all-round big-game rifle.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Idaho Statesman
This might sound boring, but it won’t be boring when you keep coming home with fresh venison.
1. AR-style or Modern Sporting Rifles
I’ve found no advantage with these tools when big-game hunting. The standard size doesn’t accommodate cartridges that match accepted cartridges for even pronghorns and deer, let alone moose and elk.
You can step up to larger platforms, but weight becomes a serious issue. More hunters fail to fill tags because they’re worn out from hiking than an inability to fire multiple shots really quickly.
With their pistol grips, extended magazines and multiple sharp edges, MSR can be bulky, uncomfortable to carry (especially on a horse) and often impossible to shoot prone. MSR autoloaders are illegal for hunting big game in some states and most foreign countries.
2. Heavy Barrel, Heavy Stock Sendero Rifles
A serious weight problem. These are fine if you plan to sit all day and wait for dinner to come to you, but if there’s any hiking, sneaking or stalking, such a big rifle will slow you down.
Often the accuracy advantage claimed for these heavy rifles is more in the advertising hype than the actual performance.
Use these for target shooting, keeping rodents out of the hayfield at long range or stand hunting where shots might stretch far, but don’t saddle yourself with one in the mountains. Bulk alone makes them uncomfortable to carry and slow to maneuver.
3. Extreme Range Rifles
These can be built like Sendero rifles, but most manufacturers lighten up with thinner barrels and stocks. The 26- to 30-inch barrels (used to wring every foot-per-second of speed from cartridges) makes these a bit ungainly in forested cover.
I’ve found them troublesome on steep mountain faces and cliffs, the barrel poking into the rocks. In open country (pronghorns, mule deer) long barrels aren’t a big problem. Huge scopes can be. This big glass is wonderful for astronomical observation and counting a cow elk’s eyelashes, but hardly necessary for placing a reticle on the chest of a whitetail.
Up near Lewiston back in the 1960s, Jack O’Connor used to engage game at 500 yards with a 4X scope — successfully. I like a bit more magnification, but I’ve routinely used 7X for 400-yard shots. More power is fun if you have it, but hardly necessary, so why suffer the weight and bulk?
The bulk comes because to keep a high-power scope bright you have to use a large objective lens of 50mm to 56mm. My compromise scope for long reach is a 3.5-18x42mm.
4. Lever-action Cowboy Guns
Once the hunting rifle, levers have taken a distant back seat to bolt-actions, which are more accurate with longer reach on average. Still, there are plenty of lever-action users who can outshoot most bolt-action users. It’s more about the user than the gun.
5. Sporter Weight Bolt-Action
Think Winchester M70, Browning X-Bolt, Mossberg Patriot, etc. Barrels 22 to 24 inches, weight 7 to 8 pounds. Chambered for standards from 270 Win through some 338 magnums. These can do it all. Synthetic/stainless, laminated, walnut/blued doesn’t matter. A 7-pound 30-06 can still hunt the world.
6. Featherweight Mountain Rifles
Bolt-actions from 6 pounds down to 4, these are feared by many but I love them just because they lighten my load and let me hunt farther, harder, longer.
Usually pricey, but amazingly accurate and able to swing into action quickly in tight cover, they reach beyond 400 yards if necessary.
Most are chambered for short-action cartridges like 7mm-08 Rem. and 308 Win., but several 6.5mms are currently hot. Recoil is surprisingly reasonable.
It’s your hunt, so pick your poison.
If you’re pragmatic and more interested in the hunt than your gear, go the boring route with No. 5. If you really like to get back in the mountains and hunt hard, take a long look at No. 6. If you have trouble getting around, No. 3, and if you like an old-fashioned challenge, No. 4.
Veteran outdoor writer Ron Spomer of Boise publishes blogs and videos at ronspomeroutdoors.com.