How To Choose A Hunting Firearm

DEPT_hunting-shootingYour ultimate guide to rifles & shotguns for Canadian game.

Just about every hunter I know has a definitive opinion on what type of rifle or shotgun they prefer. I have a friend, for example, who believes that the sun rises and sets on doubles, be they shotguns or rifles. All, of course, are built with fine figured wood and cost more than he is even willing to admit. Whereas I, who can certainly appreciate the quality and craftsmanship that goes into many of these fine guns, don’t find them as user friendly or as practical in the field as he does. I tend to like a gun that fits well, shoots like a house on fire and can stand a lot of punishment in the field. I have owned a number of very high quality guns, but none were of the double variety and each time I contemplated taking one on a hunt, I just couldn’t bring myself to chance putting a nick or scratch on it, so they often got left at home.

Subsequently, over the years despite the visual appeal and overall enhancement that they brought to my collection they all were eventually sold off for more field-friendly guns. Thus, it is not my intention to divert those hunters who may have already established a particular preference for this or that rifle or shotgun but to  provide my views on what rifles and shotguns will deliver the kind of performance that I have come to expect based on 50 years of hunting game around the globe.

Rifles

I’m going to keep it relatively simple by narrowing the choices down to four fundamental types of rifles that will meet the requirements for the majority of Western Canadian hunters: a rimfire rifle, a predator rifle, a mountain rifle and a standard big game rifle. But before I take a look at each, I would like to discuss why all will be bolt actions. However, I should start out by clarifying that I have owned and used all other actions, including autoloaders, pumps, lever actions and single shots — but none offered the collective finite qualities of consistent accuracy, absolute dependability under the most severe conditions, simplicity, relatively quick round cycling, and ease of reloading its’ cases that I was looking for in a rifle.

Over the many years of having hunted with bolt-actions in driving rain and snow, not to mention having dropped them in rivers, swamps and snow banks, having  used them in competitive shooting, having shot their barrels out and having hunted all forms game — none have ever let me down. Generally speaking, they are more accurate, reliable and simpler to use and as care for. I have also reloaded their brass cases multiple times, in some instances when load pressures are sufficiently low; in excess of a half dozen times without having to full-length resize the brass. All this, of course, adds up to a very field and user friendly action.

In my view, the basis of every battery of rifles begins with a rimfire rifle. In most instances it is the first rifle that we will own and learn to shoot.  In the West they can be used to hunt small game, small varmints and game birds and they often provide a very fun day on the range. They are also the ideal rifle to keep your shooting skills alive year round as the cost per shot is so low.

I have also spent countless hours on the competitive range shooting with a variety of .22 calibre rifles. And while I would still recommend that your choice be a bolt action rifle, here is one rifle where an autoloader could potentially be the exception. In a recent test of 20 different brands/types of ammo with three .22 rifles, which included two bolt actions and one autoloader — a Ruger Target 10-22 — the Ruger, while it did not out-shoot either bolt action rifle, did hang in there as a relatively close third. I also like my rimfire rifles to closely match my centrefire rifles in size, fit and feel. It then makes the jump between rifles come hunting season that much easier. So here are a couple of recommendations. My first choice would be an Anschutz Model 1700, a Sako Quad or a Remington Model 547. But if you are looking for something a little less expensive, look at the Browning T Bolt or the Ruger Model 77.

What battery in the west would be complete without a predator rifle? Coyote hunting for example can fill the late fall and winter with a whole new hunting adventure. What better way to occupy a cold, wintery bluebird day than hunting these wily predators. They offer a challenge in both hunting and shooting skills that can only better your overall skill level for that next big game hunt. But as shots can be long and with a target kill zone not much bigger than a softball, we are talking about a rifle that can deliver consistent accuracy of sub one inch groups and preferably half inch groups. Over the years I have lost track of just how many coyotes that I have taken with a Remington Model 700 Heavy Barrel, but it is considerable. While it was heavy to pack around, it sure made up for this weight with its inherent accuracy and smooth balance on running shots. However, I recently tested two predator rifles that I was most impressed with, the Tikka T3 Varmint and the T/C Venture Predator.  Both of these rifles would shoot consistent half-inch groups and would make fine predator rifles. But because of the T/C Predator’s price point at less than $700 and its overall performance and field appeal, I would be hard pressed not to give it genuine thumbs up.

While the entire West is not blessed with mountains, much of BC, the Yukon and the western portions of the NWT and Alberta are. This brings me to hunting the high country for mountain sheep, mountain goat and I will throw mountain caribou and some mule deer into this mix as well.  Here we need a rifle that is not only very light in weight but also has a barrel that is no longer than 22 inches, is all but impervious to the weather, and can still deliver decent accuracy. The Browning Mountain Ti is just such a rifle. At a weight of only five pounds, eight ounces, it would, during my test of this rifle, consistently shoot my handloads into under an inch. Its all but indestructible titanium construction is capable of handling just about any punishment that any hostile mountain weather could potentially throw at it as well.  This is a rifle that is certainly worth consideration if you are planning a gut wrenching climb for those critters that live atop our lofty mountain peaks.

One may ask what a standard big game rifle is. The answer lies in its size, weight and calibre. While I have a real affinity for a lightweight mountain rifle and their niche in the hunting world, they fall short of what I would seek for the majority of other big game hunting situations. Here, I like a rifle that is a bit heavier so it can take up some of the recoil of magnum or heavy calibers, balances a bit better for long range shooting, has a longer barrel (24 inches)  for improved velocity but is still of a construction that can handle the tough fall weather of the West. Two rifles that certainly fit that description are the Sako Model 85 and the new Remington XCR II.  Both shot factory ammunition and my handloads into less than an inch with numerous groups approaching a half-inch, are built as tough as nails, had great triggers and fit and balanced very well. You can’t go wrong with either.

Shotguns

Many would say that I saved the best for last — shotguns. Here I’m going to start by limiting my discussion to two basic hunting purposes, waterfowl and upland birds. For waterfowl I have to admit that I have evolved a penchant for autoloaders, particularly with the behemoth waterfowl loads that are available these days. Not only do they reduce recoil but they also allow for more precise and quick follow-up shots and when you only have those big Canadas in range for such as brief time, they can often spell the difference between a bag limit and a limited bag. Two of the best on the market these days are the Beretta Xtrema 2 (my absolute favourite) and the Browning Maxus. They were designed to handle very heavy loads with ease and take about all the punishment that a cold and wet day in October can dish out.  Either would be right at home in any western goose or duck blind.

Now lastly onto upland birds where, once again, I would prefer an autoloader, particularly for pheasants, but truly do love over and under shotguns (O/U’s) as well. Here is also where I part company with synthetic/camo stocks. I just can’t bring myself to take a camo synthetic stocked shotgun on an upland bird hunt. I’m not sure why that is entirely but, for me, an upland bird hunt on a sunny October day can only be truly enjoyed to its fullest with a fine wood stocked shotgun in hand. Once again, my tastes tend to lean to Beretta in either an autoloader or an O/U. They just seem to fit me so well that my confidence level is all but absolute that they will deliver. And over the years they have. I recently tested their new Xplor and would not hesitate to suggest that it just might be the best pheasant or upland autoloader I have yet tested. With its Kick Off recoil reduction system, it was so fast on recovery shots that I was back on target before a missed bird travelled but a few metres. It’s another surefire winner from the engineers at Beretta.

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