This is a topic I have been thinking about a lot lately. What makes a GREAT rifle? I’m going to limit this to hunting rifles for now, though often a good rifle is capable of being used for more than just one activity.
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A great rifle has these basic attributes:
-Proper weight for the caliber and shooter
-Robust ability to maintain zero and point of impact (POI)
These are very broad concepts and a whole book can be written about them, but I will try to keep it manageable. I’m not trying to lay down immutable laws here, just how I look at rifles. You are free to prefer different priorities and preferences. Also, these ideas apply equally to all rifle actions but I will mostly discuss bolt actions here, as they are the most common hunting arm today.
I want a lightweight rifle. You can travel further and have more energy if you are carrying less. In any normal caliber that I would choose to hunt ungulates with, the recoil is not an issue, so a 6# gun is very nice. I have hunted with a 4.5# gun, but it was really a specialty item and not a broadly useful rifle.
My favorite way to use a hunting rifle is for spot and stalk hunting. We will call this western hunting for ease of use. When western hunting, we drive to a location and then hunt on foot. Once an animal is down, we need to carry the animal out in our backpacks. That could be 1 mile from the truck, or it could be 5 miles. I have hunted further than that from the truck, but more than 5 miles is asking a lot for most people and so I prefer to keep it under 5 miles. We are talking about carrying out an animal that weighs anywhere from 40 pounds plus head/cape (Pronghorn) up to hundreds of pounds (Elk). Any rifle is just so much extra weight once the animal is down, so lightweight rifles work great.
Proper balance is fairly easy, I want the rifle to balance between my hands when it is mounted. In a 6# rifle, that usually means a very light synthetic stock, mated to a thin 22″ barrel on a compact action. You can deviate slightly from that, but get too short or too thick, and you can really mess up the balance.
Ergonomic design is very subjective, but assuming a fully competent rifleman, it starts with the length of pull, angle and thickness of the pistol grip, and length and shape of the forend. It then continues with the bolt handle shape, size, and angle (assuming a bolt gun), the safety mechanism, magazine design for loading (again, assuming a bolt gun), as well as the placement and design of the sling swivels, scope mounts, and iron sights.
Barrel length not only affects balance but also affects noise. All things being equal, I like a quieter gun. Sometimes a shorter barrel is worth the extra noise, sometimes it is not. I love using a can, but again, that affects not only the overall weight but also the balance.
Many rifles score well in lots of these areas, but then drop the ball somewhere, like safety design, or magazine loading. Iron sights (when appropriate) are almost always a failure these days, as few seem to know how to use them, and manufacturers seem to have forgotten how to make good ones.
A robust ability to hold zero and maintain POI. This is where what was remaining of the pack really starts to separate. A modern precision rifle usually has a heavy-duty rail, attached to the rifle with 8X40 screws (often with a recoil lug of some sort as well), with heavy-duty rings clamping a high-quality rugged scope to it. This has proven to work well, but it weighs a ton and really has no place on a 6# rifle unless your 6# rifle is a 7# plus rifle. So, we usually compromise a little on the scope setup, and with a little care, that can work quite well. The problem, however, goes beyond the scope and how it is mounted. I am not content to have a rifle that shoots bug holes off a bipod, but puts those holes elsewhere when the rifle is shot off a tree limb or ruck, or slung up tight for a sitting or kneeling shot.
“Free-floating” may be a selling point, but I have found through bitter experience, that many (most?) free-floated rifles will actually shift their POI when fired in one or more of the ways listed above. With an AR it is pretty much a foregone conclusion, though I do have one that does not shift no matter what. With a bolt gun, it is easier to achieve, but still not easy or common. I have two brands of bolt guns that will do it, and dozens that will not. Interestingly, those two brands are at almost opposite ends of the price spectrum.
There are a ton of choices out there that will meet many, even most of my criteria. If you want to meet them all though, it is slim pickings. I have found this to be true with custom guns as well as factory guns, so again, not an easy solution. Next time, unless I get sidetracked with a pistol post, we will look at the guns that come closest to meeting my criteria for a great rifle.