The hunting rifle is a piece of equipment that is pretty important to any hunter, both in the success of the hunt and the amount of enjoyment it provides. The best hunting rifles come in a variety of styles and sizes. The types of hunting rifles are determined by both the size of the ammunition they fire, and by the mechanism, or ‘action’, by which the ammunition cartridges are loaded and ejected from the firing chamber:
- Smaller cartridge sizes, generally ranging from .17 to .223, generally used for small game
- The .22, commonly used for deer hunting
- Larger cartridge sizes, including, among many others, the 30-30 Winchester, 308 Winchester and 300 Winchester Magnum, used for larger game
- Bolt action hunting rifle
- Lever action hunting rifle
- Semi-automatic hunting rifle
Most types of hunting rifles are classified by the cartridge size of the ammunition and by the mechanism for loading and ejecting ammunition cartridges, also known as the ‘action’ of the rifle.
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Cartridge Size / Size of Ammunition
You’ll often hear hunters say “I am using my .30-06” this hunting season. These numbers refer to the ammunition’s cartridge size the rifle fires. That said, in most hunting circles, it refers to the type of rifle as well, as opposed to the brand or maker of the rifle.
Here’s a quick way to keep track:
- Cartridge refers to the bullet and the casing that contains the primer and gunpowder.
- Most cartridges are identified by the bullet caliber, which is the diameter of the bullet itself (normally measured in inches, unless noted with mm, for millimeters).
There are countless cartridge sizes and bullet shapes used in hunting rifles, so we’ll just cover a few of the most commonly used cartridge sizes here.
Small Game Hunting Rifles
Rifles that hold smaller cartridges, typically a .17, .22. or .223 are used for small game hunting.
These cartridges and rifles are used even for deer in many areas, particularly when the distance of the shots is under 200 yards.
Let’s say you are using a .22 rifle for hunting deer. For longer distance shots, you might use the .22LR cartridge, which provides more speed and power for the bullet.
Big Game Hunting Rifles
If you’re going to hunt larger animals, your rifle needs to be more powerful. Because remember:
The worst feeling in the world is wounding an animal.
The .30-30 Winchester cartridge is the most common rifle cartridge available. The .30-30 cartridge is especially popular for use with lever-action rifles, and is ideal for short to medium range shots for larger game.
The .30-06 Springfield cartridge has been popular among hunters since the early part of the 20th century. Back then, it was one of the most powerful cartridges available. While more powerful cartridges – and those that shoot a flatter trajectory – are available today, it is still popular, especially for deer and bigger game hunting.
Also developed in the early 20th century, the .270 Winchester shoots a slightly smaller bullet than the .30-06 Winchester and has less recoil. The bullet shoots at a faster speed and thus has a flatter trajectory. The .270 Winchester can be ideal for thinner skinned big game, like deer, sheep and pronghorn.
300 Winchester Magnum
For bigger game like elk and moose, the 300 Winchester Magnum shoots at high velocity and power. These bullets shoot a flatter trajectory over long ranges. The guns are generally heavier. You’ll also experience a lot more recoil firing these cartridges and guns.
Hunting Rifle Action Types
The mechanical operation of the rifle determines the rifle’s ‘action.’ All rifles have certain mechanical components, including the barrel, bolt, firing chamber, and firing pin. The way in which these parts work together determines the type of action of each rifle.
Simple, with few moving parts, bolt-action rifles are reliable and easy to maintain. The simplicity of the mechanism allows for precision fitting for the cartridges. Bolt action rifles are considered to be highly accurate weapons.
Simple operations load the ammunition and eject the spent cartridge. You use a bolt handle to manipulate the bolt. Bolt handles are placed on either side of the rifle, most commonly on the right side for right handed people. If you are left handed, bolt-action rifles with bolt handles on the left side are available.
Bolt action rifles may hold a single ammunition shell, or may have magazines capable of holding several cartridges.
A lever action hunting rifle has a lever located around the trigger guard area of the rifle. When you push the lever down and forward, internal mechanisms pull the bolt and firing pin backwards and a new cartridge comes up into the chamber. If a used cartridge was in the chamber, it will lift out and get ejected.
Pulling back and lifting the lever into a ‘closed’ position pushes the bolt, firing pin and cartridge forward, moving the cartridge into the firing chamber, where it is ready for firing.
Most lever action rifles are lighter and easier to carry, lift to aim and fire. Lever action hunting rifles are generally used for closer range hunting, for shots within 200 yards.
Semi-Automatic Hunting Rifle Action
Semi-automatic rifles automatically load cartridges into the firing chamber and prepare them for firing, without requiring any extra movements after you pull the trigger and fire the weapon. This allows you to keep your eyes on the game and quickly fire multiple rounds if needed.
As you fire the weapon, excess energy from the shot unlocks the bolt and ejects the spent cartridge case. The operation continues automatically: the gun automatically ejects the spent cartridge, re-cocks the firing mechanism and loads a new cartridge into the firing chamber.
Since semi-automatic rifles have these extra mechanisms, they tend to be a little heavier and require more maintenance.