what gun to start with

Selecting the First Gun for the Beginner Hunter

When you select your first hunting firearm you should consider the expected use, quality, fit, comfort, and caliber of the firearm. For the first time gun buyer the choice of firearms is absolutely dizzying. There is also a tremendous amount of misinformation, “bro science”, and conjecture online and at the gun counter when it comes to what the “best gun” or “best caliber” is. In some cases, some guns are plainly higher quality than others. Things get less clear when firearms that are on the same trim level are compared. Endorsements of a certain caliber or brand are often made without evidence to back the endorsement up. Anecdotal evidence is often used to justify an endorsement, or arguments are justified by reference to authority. For example, the firearm salesman, or your friend the hunter, might say “This firearm is amazing, trust me, I know, I was in the army” or “I hunt Kodiak bears in Alaska, trust me!” I propose the gun buyer trust themselves. I believe that every gun buyer has it in themselves to determine which firearm they should buy for their first gun, without being swayed by marketing, sales, or friends, by considering the use, comfort, fit, quality, and caliber of the firearm when making a determination

Use

The first question the first time gun buyer should ask themselves is, what will this firearm be used for? Many first time hunters may be looking for a deer gun, a small game hunting gun, or perhaps a gun that can be used as a dual purpose firearm, a defense and hunting gun. Some are interested in learning to shoot, but not sure if hunting will be a lifelong pursuit. The expected use of the gun should be carefully considered. Some guns are more versatile than others. For example, a 12 gauge shotgun can be outfitted with a slug barrel to hunt deer or any other big game, it is powerful enough to reach out and break clays in trap and sporting clays, and it is an appropriate waterfowl gun, while a 30/06 rifle can only be used for big game hunting. Also, hunting regulations in your state should be considered. Many states in the northeast restrict rifle use in hunting to rural counties or completely ban it. I suggest reading the state hunter’s regulation book to make sure that the firearm selected is legal for the style of hunting you are interested in. Once the game to be hunted, and the legality of the firearm, and the hunting rules in the state are determined, a vague idea of what sort of firearm and an idea of what kind of caliber the firearm should be arise.

Quality

A. Rifles

The second factor to be considered is quality. Quality of firearms has risen drastically in recent years, to the point where a rifle that can hit a coffee cup at 100 yards can be purchased for less than $400.00. There are many other concerns beside accuracy. Is the firearm reliable? Does it have any known problems? Have there been any recalls on the firearm you are considering due to safety in recent years? This is a question that is better for a firearms professional or experienced hunter, and you, the first time gun buyer, after isolating some of the brands and rifles you are interested in, should seek out and inquire from these sources all the information about the perceived quality of the brands and firearms you might want.

Quality is often times in the eye of the beholder. One’s trusted hunter/peers, or your local firearms professional have the experience necessary to assess one gun’s quality versus another. Regardless of this, I will explain some of the differences in the quality of hunting arms, and what can inferred from them.

I believe there are four trim levels of rifles and three of shotguns. I will discuss rifles first. The four trim levels of rifles are, budget ($100–399), average ($400–699), high quality ($700–999), and luxury/high performance ($1,000+). As you can tell, I generally believe that you get what you pay for with firearms, however, this is not the case with all brands, as some are overpriced, and ride their name recognition to a lower quality product so that they can reap a greater profit. In a budget level rifle, the available actions are single shot and bolt. The single shot rifles, at this price point, will almost always have a much higher quality finish, stock, and action than the bolt action. Single shot rifles are often very safe because they require a hammer to be cocked to fire, and can be carried with the hammer down, or broken open. The bolt action rifles in this category have many issues, and I believe that they generally should be avoided in favor of single shot rifles.

Budget bolt action rifles often have a very poor “matte” finish. A matte finish will give a firearm a dark, non-reflective appearance. The color is colloquially known as “gunmetal.” Do not be fooled by this finish’s rugged appearance. A firearm can be matte finished in many different ways, the least expensive of which are rust prone and dingy. These poor finishes can leave your firearm with rust and pitting, which will destroy the gun’s value, and damage the firearm’s accuracy. The stock will almost definitely be made of some sort of inexpensive plastic, which is not durable and is probably soldered at the joints. This makes for a stock that is very weak, which cannot hold up to the rigors of hunting. Imagine your disappointment when you trip in the woods, your firearm falls, and the stock breaks?! If the stock is not plastic it is probably a very heavy and fragile laminate, a composite of glue, wood chips, or slivers of trash wood, and some finish. As you can tell, I do not recommend this type of stock. It is heavy and poorly made. In most cases these bolt guns also feature recoil pads that are simply hard pieces or rubber. Imagine shooting a high recoiling round like the 7mm Remington Magnum with no muzzle break and only having a hard rubber pad against your shoulder? OUCH! Some of these inexpensive bolt guns do not even come with studs to attach a sling. The accuracy of bolt action rifles in this range has improved somewhat from what budget accuracy used to be, but it isn’t much of a selling point to me. These bolt action firearms often have serious problems with reliably firing, cycling, and ejecting ammunition. Therefore, they should be avoided.

Within the budget trim level level you will also find nearly all .22 caliber rimfire guns. These guns are fairly simple, have very little recoil, and are inexpensive to shoot. If you have no experience with firearms, and are not sure if you want to hunt at all, perhaps a .22 is a good firearm for you to buy. I am not a big fan of the .22, I learned to shoot on a full size rifle with no recoil pad as did all the men who went to fight in Korea and WWII, and I am a fine shot, and so were our grandfathers. If you are a firearm purchaser is going to learn to shoot for hunting you shouldn’t waste the money or time learning to shoot on a .22 unless you are uncomfortable with the idea of shooting a small caliber centerfire rifle or 20 gauge shotgun. A smaller centerfire or 20 gauge shotgun will be far more effective for hunting than a .22. Even if you are concerned about saving money I wouldn’t bother with the .22 because the money spent on the .22 rifle, the scope, and the ammo could be used for ammo and range time for a centerfire rifle, or shotgun. Why waste time and effort on a firearm that will not be used for anything in the field except perhaps squirrel hunting, when time and money could more effectively be spent mastering the 12 or 20 gauge shotgun, and the centerfire rifle? My humble recommendation, is save your money or buy a single shot rifle. Don’t get a cheap bolt gun or a .22.

Next come the average quality rifles. In this trim level, you find rifles that meet the modern standards for acceptable accuracy out of the box, with nice features, and manageable weights in the woods. Here you will find bolt action hunting rifles, and the first of our lever action rifles. At this level, the accuracy and reliability of the hunting rifles increases dramatically. You can expect to find guns that will cycle ammo and work when you pull the trigger, without issue. Other nice features you can expect to find on rifles at this trim level are adjustable triggers, freely floated barrels, real hardwood or firmly molded stocks, some nice scope packages (most scopes that come with guns are junk), and recoil pads that take the sting out of hard shooting calibers like 7mm Remington Magnum, 300 Winchester Magnum, 30/06, and 45/70. For the traditional style shooter who is interested in a lever action gun for hunting the thick woods of the north east, entry level lever action models with out elaborate finishes, scrolling, decoration can be found at this price point. Some of the firearms in this trim level have features which reduce their weight features like barrel or bolt fluting. All in all, I would say this is a good place to start, but the quality only goes up from here.

A high-quality rifle will often feature what is known as a 1 MOA (Minute of Angle) guarantee out of the box. This means that the rifle manufacturer guarantees that the gun will shoot groups within 1 inch of your point of aim at 100 yards, with factory ammo. This is has become standard in the industry for an “accurate” rifle. A rifle that gives you 1 MOA at 100 yards will shoot reasonably accurately out to at least 300 yards. At this trim level, trigger adjustments can me made over a greater range, perhaps 2–6 lbs. Stocks will be made of premium materials like walnut, or composite injection molded plastic with foam bedding. Rifling twist ratios will drop, which will increase the spin of the bullet and often give a faster, flatter trajectory to the bullet as it flies out to distance. Rifles may also feature recoil lugs, which reduce recoil. As magnum rifles are more expensive to produce, they often enter the market, at least the quality models, at this price range. The high quality rifles are good quality rifles, but not the best. They often fall short in the durability and ergonomics department, but this is not true for all. A high quality rifle will hold, you, the beginner in good stead, but instead of getting something that is merely sufficient, why not spend a little more to get the perfect gun?

A luxury/high performance rifle will give the user amazing performance in a package that does not compromise and pays discreet attention to detail. First, I will discuss luxury rifles, even though I don’t recommend them to beginners. Luxury hunting rifles give more than is necessary. These most luxurious guns can cost as much as a house. $200,000 is around the highest limit for a firearm, but the general luxury gun will run the purchaser between $1000 and $2500. Whether is accuracy tighter than 1 MOA, like ½ or ¼ MOA out of the box, or stocks made of the finest AAA grade walnut these firearms are exceptionally well made. They should never, ever malfunction without significant damage, and will stand the test of time. At this trim level, semi automatic hunting rifles begin to enter the market, and lever action hunting rifles that fire modern pointed bullets, or lever actions with intricate scrolling, case hardening, or brass receivers may be found. Luxury rifles may also be made in very heavy magnum calibers, to hunt the game that the highest end hunter wants to harvest, like elephant, moose, and grizzly bear. The machining on these firearms can be expected to be very, very smooth. They also generally have high end recoil pads with internal deceleration and crush zones to mute recoil. These guns are lookers and will make your friends jealous. Your friends will be even more jealous when you begin outshooting them. These luxury firearms may not be the best for the first time gun buyer, because the buyer may not know how to properly care for the firearm, and end up ruining its value. These guns should be babied to retain their value, thus, unless you are experienced in caring for very high end woods and metalworking I would avoid this group of guns.

Performance firearms can vary in function, as they are generally geared towards hunting in extreme conditions, bench rest target shooting, or tactical shooting. I emphatically recommend performance rifles for beginners because they are great shooters, and they last forever. Tactical weapons and bench rest target guns will not be covered in this article. The reason these guns shoot so well and last so long are the materials they are made of. The stock will be made of some form of very high end composite, bedded with fiberglass epoxy to make the stock completely flush to the receiver of the firearm. Some performance gun stocks retain the A-AAA grade walnut, for the traditional look, but this adds weight and reduces durability. This bedding will substantially reduce recoil and ensure uniform vibration dispersion across the stock. A performance firearm will not have a barrel bedded to the stock, it will be floated and not touch the stock. The barrels will generally be cold hammer forged, and made of a super hard steel alloy like chromemoly steel. The rifling and crown of the barrel will be bored with extreme precision. Bolts on bolt action guns from this category should lock up incredibly firmly and glide like butter. Many performance firearms will be finished in stainless steel or full camo. These finishes are resistant to corrosion from moisture and definitely prolong the life of the gun. Due to all of these features I believe that the performance hunting rifle is excellent for the first time hunter. This is especially true if that hunter knows they will be using the gun for a long time and taking it hunting often.

I wish that I had purchased the right gun the first time. My first gun was a 1944 Mosin Nagant tanker carbine. It was heavy and shot terribly. I went through many rifles before I settled on the ones I shoot today. I wish that someone had told me that if I paid for it, I could have been satisfied with a rifle that always functioned and shot very well, and I wouldn’t need to keep buying guns to find out which one was right for me. Today I own a Ruger American Rifle, and a Kimber Montana. I am very satisfied with both purchases because they are quality rifles and both get the job done. The Ruger American is an average quality rifle, while the Kimber Montana is a performance gun.

B. Shotguns

Shotguns are a great alternative to rifles for a first gun. Shotguns, in my opinion, are more versatile than rifles. Shotguns may be used to hunt small game, big game, birds, play shotgunning games like trap, skeet, 5 stand, and sporting clays, and can be used to defend your home. There are three trim levels of shotguns entry ($100-$399), middle ($400–999), and high ($1000+). Some of the features on shotguns will vary in a similar manner to rifles, for example, entry level shotguns will not have good finishes; except for single shot ones, stock quality will vary, as will the quality of the internal parts. Distinguishable variables include action types, high end finishes, and purposes.

Entry level shotguns are a good choice for a first time gun buyer. They provide effective defense, fun target shooting, and are great for hunting. Entry level shotguns include famous brands and models that are generally known to be indestructible. The entry level shotguns are generally either the famous pump action, or the single shot. Entry level shotguns also share features with high end shotguns which make them great for hunting, like replaceable barrels, screw in chokes, rifled barrels, and barrel porting. The drawbacks are fit and finish, and weight. Some of these low end shotguns tend to be quite heavy with ugly laminate wood stocks, while others have cheap plastic which is light but flimsy, or very heavy hardwood. Some brands are poorly finished with cheap matte finishes that are prone to rust, while others are not fitted well and rattle in the woods, which can alert game. Still, these shotguns carry a very good value for what you are paying, and they get the job done.

Middle level shotguns are usually either semi automatic guns that use a gas based action with a 3” chamber rather than a 3 ½” chamber, break action double barrel guns, or 3 ½ inch magnum chambered pump action guns. These middle level guns provide more features than the low end guns, but without running into the high end cost. The semi automatic gas guns provide substantial recoil mitigation and fast follow up shots at the expense of being heavy and needing to be thoroughly cleaned every few hundred rounds. The lower end of over under guns and side by side guns begins here. I am not an expert in break action shotguns, so I can only go by what I have seen behind the gun desk for these firearms. The break action shotguns in this price range seem to have actions that are a bit stiffer, and weigh a bit more than their more expensive cousins, while wearing less pretty wood. These guns also do not have selector switches to switch between using the top or bottom barrel. These guns are not particularly versatile and should be avoided by new hunters. The pump action guns in 3 ½” magnum have very substantial recoil, are very heavy. The 3 ½” magnum pump gun should be avoided by beginners.

Bolt and pump action slug guns are often found in this trim level. I don’t recommend them, even though they are nice. These guns open up a huge amount of territory to deer hunting at 100 yards plus, which never could have been done in the past. In those areas, which were generally labeled “shotgun only” due to population density, slug shooters could only get reliable accuracy at 50 yards. But, because of improvements in slug technology and the 1:24 twist ratio of modern slug barrels, slug hunting has become a huge part of the east coast hunting world. Although it opens new areas to hunting, the slug gun is a niche hunting gun and I would not recommend it as a beginner’s gun. For the “shotgun only” state hunter I would still stick with a smooth bore shotgun. Rifled slugs shot from a smooth bore can be accurate out to about 50–75 yards, and can harvest deer very well. Furthermore, many entry level shotguns can be fitted with rifled slug barrels to get the 100+ yard accuracy that is desirable for slug hunting. Therefore, you just don’t need the slug gun.

High end shotguns can be divided into three categories, waterfowl guns, sporting guns, and field guns, of which the waterfowl gun and the field gun are advisable first guns for the discerning hunter who values very high quality. Sporting guns are specifically made for shotgunning games and should be avoided by the first time hunter. Waterfowl guns in the high end range all shoot 3 ½” magnum shells. They are coated in camo and protective coatings to make them impervious to rust. Many waterfowl guns float. In general waterfowl guns are inertia driven semi automatics, and these guns will kick harder than a gas gun, but they are also far lighter and easier to carry. They also require less cleaning. I recommend an inertia duck gun for the same reason I recommend a performance rifle, you will not have out of the box problems with the gun, it will be light, and it can do nearly everything, from shooting rifled slugs to kill deer, to shooting magnum loads to kill pheasants and waterfowl ethically, to dominating the sporting clay course. Inertia guns are also not high maintenance guns like gas guns.

Fit

Your first gun must fit you. Firearms can be fitted, like shoes. In the past this was very expensive, because the only people who knew how to correctly fit firearms to customers were gunsmiths and wingshooting experts. Fortunately, today, we have the internet and information is readily available on the subject. A gun stock has five major elements of fit, the drop at the comb, drop at the heel, the length of pull, the cast, and the pitch. Rather than going into a lengthy explanation of each, it is far more efficient to show an image depicting the different sorts of measurements.

gun measurements

Fitting is particularly important to shotgunning because the buttstock must support a natural correct sight picture for the shooter, with the eye naturally pointing down the barrel of the shotgun. Fortunately for you, the reader, there is ample information on youtube and google to learn to measure yourself and find out what the correct dimensions for your rifle or shotgun stock are. For those who decide to choose a high end shotgun, your purchase many include a shim kit which can drop the toe of your stock, change the pitch, or cast it to the left or right.

On rifles, generally the only fit adjustments that need to be made are to the length of pull, and the comb height. Some shooters have shorter arms, or a smaller, or larger head than the average person, and this will throw off the shooter’s view of the iron sights or scope. Occasionally, a scope mounted on high rings will require a cheek riser pad, or a comb adjustment to be made to the stock, but, generally, these are not serious issues, and can be taken care of right away with a simple slip on recoil pad, and Velcro cheek pad. Rifles are not casted because the eye must look straight down the tube of the scope or the iron sights of the gun. When in doubt contact a gun fitter.

Comfort

Your first gun must be comfortable for you. Do not order your first gun from the internet. Make sure you go into your local gun store and handle the firearm before you select it. A gun that is too heavy, or too light, or a gun that has a stock design that does not ergonomically fit your hands will not feel nice when you shoot it. A traditional walnut or hardwood stock with nice checkering can offer a very comfortable and suitable stock, that can be custom cut to your specifications, but this requires gunsmithing. I would recommend simply handling all of the firearms that you are considering buying, and seeing what feels right to you. The gun often finds the shooter. I cannot tell you how many times customers came to my gun counter thinking they wanted one gun, then I showed them other guns, and they were very surprised at how nicely the guns fit them, then they ended up buying the gun that fit them better.

Caliber

The final and perhaps, most important factor is caliber. The firearm you select as your first one should be a versatile, low recoiling, and fun caliber. I generally recommend that all beginners buying centerfire rifles should stay away from larger calibers like 30/06, magnums, and wildcat cartridges of 30/06 because of the substantial recoil. For those who don’t know a wildcat is, a wildcat is a cartridge that has been fitted with a larger or smaller bullet. For example, the 25/06, a wildcat of 30/06, is a 30/06 with a .25 caliber bullet instead of the .30 caliber bullet. There are two main families of rifle cartridges with two parents that gave birth to many wildcats, the 30/06 family, and .308 family. Shooting for the first time on a high recoil gun can hurt or even frighten some beginners. The stout recoil can bruise the shoulder and cause shooting errors such as flinching, anticipating the trigger break, or poor breath control. On the other hand, all of our grandfathers that served in the Korean War and WWII learned to shoot 30/06 in boot camp, and many were very good shots. I learned to shoot on my Mosin Nagant chambered in the Russian equivalent of 30/06, 7.62–54R. So don’t necessarily let me sway you if you really want a 30/06, but a lighter caliber might be a bit easier to learn on. Pictured below you will find the 30/06 family of cartridges and the magnums.

As far as the centerfire rifle, beginner calibers are concerned I recommend shooters start with .308 or one of the wildcat cartridges of .308, including .243 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, .300 Savage (which is actually the cartridge that gave rise to .308), or .260 Remington. The 30–30 isn’t a bad choice either for the shooter who likes to use iron sights and likes the feel of the lever action gun. A word of caution when it comes to lever action guns, the lever action is an anachronistic action which pre-dates the 20th century and lacks the accuracy and efficiency of the bolt and semi automatic action. The most serious drawback of the lever action gun is that it cannot fire pointed bullets with very limited exceptions, because of the tube magazine. The stocks on lever guns come in 2 pieces, and the iron sights are drilled into the barrel of the gun, reducing the gun’s accuracy. That being said, the lever gun and the 30–30 caliber are excellent beginner guns, just as a bolt action .308 is, but the .308 will be more versatile and accurate.

The .308 can take nearly any game in North America, with the exception of dangerous big game like grizzly bear and moose, while at the same time being accurate out past 300 yards. The 30–30 has substantial bullet drop past 200 yards and I can’t recommend it for anything other than the thick woods of the northeast. It just is not accurate enough and has too much bullet drop. As far as killing power goes, 30–30 and .308 are comparable, but the .308 really brings much more speed and energy, which makes it the superior killer, in theory. Below there is a chart comparing the velocity, measured in feet per second, and energy, measured in foot pounds, of 30–30 and .308.

For the first timer interested in a shotgun, I generally recommend the 12 gauge, because the gun is very powerful, useful, and it is easy to find ammo for it. A 20 gauge will serve almost as well, but will not reach out as far, or have as wide of a shot spread. It may also be harder to find specialty ammo for the 20. On the other hand, If you are a smaller stature shooter, stick with 20. The 20 gauge has substantially less recoil, is much lighter, and much slimmer. Frankly, besides effective distance (50 yards with bird shot vs 40 yards with bird shot) and shot spread, there is not much difference between 12 and 20 ballistically speaking, but there is some. It’s your call.

In sum, the right gun for the first time hunter comes down to five factors, use, quality, fit, comfort, and caliber. I generally recommend a high end field or waterfowl shotgun, a performance bolt action rifle, or an entry level pump shotgun, but it is all up to you. Remember reader, the gun finds the shooter, not the other way around. Try your friend’s guns, handle some guns at the gun store, and do your research. After some research. When you are at the gun counter, my suggestions should hold you in good stead, and you will find a faithful companion for many years of hunting and target shooting in your first gun.

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