So far, I haven’t had many people ask me about buying a rifle. I’ve purchased a few myself, and seen plenty of friends buy them, though, so I’m familiar with the concerns. As with the handgun purchase, you have a lot of questions to answer. First, some background on varying actions.
In my “The Basics” post I reference the various actions that can be used to operate firearms. I’ll go through the rifle-related ones here in more detail.
This is an interesting article on the history of firearms if that’s something you’re curious about: Gun Timeline
Lever Action – This is the iconic cowboy rifle and its modern descendents. The ammunition they can use is limited to round-nose bullets, since they tend to use tubular magazines, and a pointy bullet sticking into the primer of the cartridge in front of it could be nasty business. They are commonly available in .22LR, .38SPL/.357Mag, .44SPL/.44Mag, and more. Levers typically hold 6-10 rounds depending on the cartridge and the length of the barrel, and can be fired very quickly with a little practice. They are among the most fun rifles to shoot in my experience. No idea why, but operating that lever just makes the whole thing a hoot. They’re also good for ambidextrous shooters, since there are typically no lever safeties and the spent cases eject out the top. This is a good rifle for hunting, plinking, or as a “ranch rifle” dealing with varmints and other pests. It can also make for a very effective home defense gun, since it holds a good number of rounds, allows for quick follow-up shots, and tends to be pretty light and maneuverable.
Bolt Action – These rifles tend to be used by hunters and precision shooters. The bolt action is among the most accurate of the actions, though some semi-auto rifles are now giving them a run for their money. Part of the reason for their vaunted accuracy is that the barrels are often free-floating (they are connected to the action, but nothing else touches them), and the bolt locks the breech so 100% of the gas is used to push the bullet, making shots more consistent. Experienced shooters can operate them quickly, but they’re the slowest of the repeaters. Bolt actions are also easily operated from a prone position, since there’s often nothing protruding from the bottom of the gun (like a lever or semi-automatic box magazine). Bolt actions are extremely rugged and reliable, since there are hardly any moving parts. They can also be very inexpensive for the same reason. Don’t let that fool you, though. When you start looking at high-end precision bolt actions you can be talking about many thousands of dollars. Granted they’ll put 5 rounds through the same hole at 500 yards, but you don’t get that sort of precision without paying for it. Bolt actions do have a few other downsides, too. You have to take your firing hand out of firing position to operate the bolt, and then regain your firing grip. They’re also not great for left-handers unless you spend extra on a left-handed model.
Semiautomatic – This is a very common type of rifle these days, and is available in calibers from .22LR to .50BMG. The civilian semiauto variant of the M-16/M-4 is known as the AR-15, and is currently one of the most popular firearms in the country. The Ruger 10/22 is another extremely popular semiautomatic rifle, and a fantastic option for a first rifle. There are tons of semiautomatic rifles out there, so you’re very likely to be able to find one that meets your needs. Semiautomatic rifles tend to use detachable box magazines, though some very famous examples (The M1 Garand, specifically) used internal box magazines. Semiautomatic rifles will fire one round each time the shooter pulls the trigger. This means they can fire extremely quickly. Many of them will also accept magazines with a significantly higher capacity then bolt guns or lever guns. The standard capacity magazine for an AR-15 holds 30 rounds. These guns can be extremely accurate, but also allow for quick follow-up shots, making them great for target shooting, hunting, law enforcement and military users. They can also be configured to work extremely well in close quarters, which makes them a good option for home defense. There are a lot more moving parts in a semi-automatic rifle than in a bolt action, so they can be more expensive. There are good options to avoid that, though. Shooting a smaller caliber almost always means the rifle will be cheaper, as does buying Soviet surplus. The SKS is a solid semiauto that goes for a reasonable price. Of all the actions, semi-auto is my favorite for general use. It won’t be quite as accurate as a bolt gun, but it’s still plenty good, and the ability to fire quick follow up shots is pretty huge. It also means your hand never has to leave firing position while you’re shooting, which can help your shots be more consistent. If I had to recommend one rifle for all new shooters, it would be a semiauto in .22LR, hands down.
So now that you’ve got an action picked out (there are others, but they’re much less common), you’re really only part of the way there. There are dozens or hundreds of different designs for each of the actions (except maybe levers), and probably thousands for the semiautos. You really have to get your hands on them and check them out. Here are some things to keep in mind:
AR-style rifles tend to be accurate, but have a reputation for being finicky and unreliable.
AK-style rifles tend to be extremely rugged and reliable, but have a reputation for being inaccurate.
Now forget all that. My favorite saying on the “AK vs AR” controversy is that ARs are more reliable than you think they are, and AKs are more accurate than you think they are. They’re both great guns, and the both have different things to offer. Inarguably, the AR is a more ergonomic design, and is much easier to modify and accessorize to your little heart’s content. There are hundreds of companies out there that sell everything from new barrels, stocks, triggers, scopes, etc. to whole new upper receiver packages that can completely change the format of your gun in just a few seconds. You can never stop spending money on your gun, if that is your wish. AKs tend to be less expensive, and you can get Soviet surplus ammo for pretty cheap as well. They are legendary for their reliability, and will operate in any environment. A lot of people really love them, so don’t discount them out of hand.
So what do you want to do with your rifle? If you just want to have fun shooting at the range, any of them will work. For home defense I would steer you towards semiauto with lever action as a second place choice. For bullseye target shooting, you may want a bolt gun. your caliber choices will also be dictated by what you want to do. You really can’t go wrong with .22LR for plinking. It’s cheap, there’s no recoil, and it will put holes in paper just as well as any of the big boys. You can get a lever, a bolt or a semiauto in .22LR and it will provide many years of entertainment for you and any eventual offspring. If you don’t own a rifle yet and want to learn/practice your marksmanship basics, that’s the way to go. If you really want something that can reliably stop an intruder, I’d push you towards an AR/AK/SKS/Mini-14 instead.
A few general principles: Longer barrels allow gas to push the bullet for longer, resulting in increased velocity, but they’re also heavier. Longer barrels also tend to mean a longer sight radius, which increases accuracy. Wood stocks are very pretty, but can be affected by the environment more than synthetics. Heavier guns tend to have less felt recoil, which can make them easier to shoot for kids or people who don’t like getting knocked around by their rifle. Iron sights never run out of batteries, and weigh next to nothing. Make sure your first rifle has them, and learn to use them effectively.
Now let me tell you the order in which I think you should buy your guns, and which ones I would recommend.
First, get yourself a .22LR semiauto. The Ruger 10/22 is the classic example, but there are others. I have a Marlin 795 that has worked well for me (mostly) for a while now. The new Smith & Wesson M&P 15/22 is also a really fun gun to shoot, as it’s a .22LR that looks and feels just like an AR-15. It is worth noting that the Ruger 10/22 is one of the most modifiable guns on the market. There are kits to make your 10/22 look like anything from an AK-47 to a Barret M82. You can get magazines for it that hold anywhere from 10-100 rounds. They’ve been around a long time, so there are lots of other manufacturers building accessories, and that means lower prices. They are also very inexpensive, starting under $200. The M&P is the most expensive of this bunch, going for over $400, usually. It’s also a really fun gun, and a great way to get cheap practice for running your AR-15. Check your budget, go touch and feel the guns and see what speaks to you.
Next, get yourself some kind of mid-caliber carbine. Mini-14, AK, AR, Winchester 1894, whatever. It’s your medium range target rifle, and can be used for hunting, plinking, or survival if you should need it when the zombies rise. You should look for calibers in the .223/5.56, 7.62×39, 5.45×39, 30-30 Win, etc. For ARs, go for a nice mid-tier manufacturer. You don’t need to spend $1500 on a Colt or a LaRue, but you also don’t want to get Uncle Jimmy’s Bargain Basement model. You’re probably looking at $700-1,000 depending on accessories. Keep in mind that absolutely anything you want to put on the gun can be added later. Get a base model, get familiar with it, and figure out what you want to add or change later. One suggestion I would make is to avoid the carbine foregrip. Go for the mid-length one instead. You get a longer gas tube, which helps increase reliability, and you get more room on the foregrip to mount junk later if you want to. You can also buy parts for your AR and build it yourself. If you’re handy and have access to some basic shop tools, this can be a great way to go. You get to familiarize yourself with the workings of the gun and can probably save some money on it as well. Finding instructions on how to assemble your AR is easy.
Finally, you will probably want some kind of precision bolt gun with a good optic on it. If you’re a hunter, this may be your second gun, since you’ll likely want one of these for taking large game. I don’t hunt, so this was mostly a precision range-shooting rifle for me. It’s fun, but requires a lot more patience, dedication and money than the others. The rifles tend to be pretty expensive (for good ones), the optics tend to be expensive and the ammo tends to be expensive. To my mind, you buy a bolt gun because you want to shoot very precisely. If you’re not excited by 1″ groups at 500 yards, just go with a semi or a lever and save your money/sanity. With a precision rifle, you can spend an hour at the range and shoot less than a dozen rounds. I know guys who will spend an hour at the range and shoot just three or four rounds. But all those rounds go through the same hole, and that’s what it’s about. If you’re hunting, you may be satisfied with a gun that shoots 3-4″ groups at 100 yards, since that’s all you’re likely to need for reasonable hunting ranges. You will also likely want a gun that is lighter so you can actually lug the thing back in among the trees for a few days. My bolt gun is really long and weighs probably 12 pounds, so it would be a pain to hunt with. For your bolt gun, your caliber will be determined by your distance and your intended target. Heavier bullets tend to be stable over longer distances, especially when wind is involved. I’m a fan of .308 as a sort of middling cartridge. You can definitely go much larger, heavier, faster, etc. You can go smaller, too. If your max range is going to be 500 yards, a 72-gr 5.56 may be just perfect for you. If you want to be accurate and hit with authority at 1200-1500 yards, maybe you’re interested in a .338 Lapua mag. Bolt action rifles come in just about any caliber you can think of, and probably a dozen you’ve never even heard of. Keep in mind that exotic cartridges cost more and can be harder to find, but can also give you exactly what you want. The choice on that is up to you. For the rifle itself, I don’t think it gets much better than the Remington 700. It’s very reliable, isn’t overly expensive, comes in a ton of different versions for everything you’d ever want to do, and there are lots of aftermarket goodies for it. You really can’t go wrong.
Whew! That’s a lot of info. Hopefully it was helpful. If you feel that I missed something important or that I made a mistake, call me out on it in an e-mail or the comments. I’d love to get some feedback from folks who know more about rifles than I do. Thanks for reading!