Beyond the Basics: Advanced Firearm Selection for Big Game Hunting

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When you get more experience in the world of big game hunting the first thing that happens is that you want to start really dialing in your setup. What worked two seasons ago is no longer adequate for your needs. The entry-level or even intermediate tools you’ve maybe used for years are no longer what you want to keep hunting with.

This is understandable. Few hobbies suck up as much of our time and money as hunting. This is because hunting is more than just a hobby: it’s a way of life, a passion, and a method for appreciating God’s creation in all its glory in a way that non-hunters just don’t get the opportunity to. 

Most hunters are into perfecting everything about a hunt. So it should come as no surprise that firearm selection is somewhere at the top of everyone’s list. It’s certainly true that you can bag a lot of deer with a rudimentary bolt action rifle. Your grandfather had no trouble doing that, year after year. That said, if you yearn to get into the weeds of how to select the absolute right rifle for your needs, we’ve got you covered. 

When it comes to choosing the right rifle for a specific hunt, there are common but oversimplified suggestions such as “take the rifle you shoot most confidently” or “use the biggest gun you have.” However, these statements fail to address the nuanced considerations that hunters should weigh.

Ultimately, the decision depends on four key considerations rising to the top: weight, ergonomics, ballistic performance, and terminal performance.

The Weight Of The Gun

Autumn hunting season

The process of choosing the appropriate rifle for a hunt always commences with a careful consideration of the hunt’s requirements. The initial questions are practical: How extensive is the on-foot journey? What elevation gain should be anticipated? And, how many days will you spend in the field?

The longer, more extensive, and higher the hunt, the greater the significance of weight. The timeless saying, “An ounce in the morning is a pound in the evening,” resonates strongly after a week spent in mountainous terrain.

Opting for a light rifle presents minimal downsides. While a lighter rifle tends to exhibit higher felt recoil compared to a heavier one chambered in the same cartridge, effective solutions such as quality muzzle brakes and suppressors exist. Managing a steady sight picture may pose challenges with a light rifle, but assessing the trade-offs involves recognizing one’s strengths and weaknesses before making a decision.

The Importance Of Ballistic Performance 

Man hunting with Rifle

Distinguishing itself from terminal performance (discussed later), ballistic performance encompasses the journey of a bullet from the muzzle to impact, facing challenges such as gravity, wind, and other environmental factors. The effectiveness of this ballistic performance, dependent largely (though not entirely) on the selected bullet and its velocity, plays a crucial role in hunting.

The significance of ballistic performance is contingent upon the hunting location and the shooter’s comfort with specific ranges. If one doesn’t anticipate shooting beyond 300 yards at a large animal, the differences in ballistic performance among modern hunting cartridges may seem inconsequential. Within 300 yards, environmental factors exert minimal influence on any contemporary bottleneck cartridge.

The Importance Of Terminal Performance

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Terminal performance refers to the projectile’s ability to ethically and safely harvest a game animal swiftly. The nuances of terminal performance in bullet selection can be debated endlessly, but the current focus is on rifles, or more specifically, cartridges.

Choosing a rifle chambered in a round that maintains sufficient energy for the pursued game at the maximum range is a prudent decision. Only the hunter can determine their maximum range. For instance, a valid Wyoming bison tag prompts careful consideration. Shot opportunities on bison in Wyoming often occur near the Teton or Yellowstone National Park borders. If a mortally wounded bison crosses back into park property, rangers may contest the right to keep the animal. 

Opting for the 338 Ultra Mag doesn’t guarantee that a bison won’t run several hundred yards after a well-placed shot, but it maximizes the impact damage, reducing the likelihood of the bison crossing the park border. The “bigger is better” logic is applied similarly when hunting brown bears or in areas where self-defense against large bears is a concern. The same reasoning might influence caliber choice when hunting on small public land surrounded by private ground.

The preference is to err on the side of a more powerful firearm rather than risk being underpowered, though this doesn’t mean automatically opting for the largest rifle available regardless of the game being pursued.

The Science Of Ergonomics

Determining the “best” ergonomics for a hunting rifle is largely dependent on personal preference, with barrel length and stock volume emerging as crucial factors for consideration.

Barrel length introduces a trade-off: a shorter barrel offers a lighter and faster-pointing rifle, enhancing the ease of carry and maneuverability in dense terrain. However, this advantage comes at the cost of increased noise and a reduction in velocity. Generally, a one-inch decrease in barrel length can result in a loss of 25 to 50 feet per second (FPS) of muzzle velocity, depending on the cartridge, powder, and projectile.

The volume of the stock and the shape of the trigger-hand grip are subjective choices. Stocks with vertical grips, tend to have higher overall volume compared to stocks without vertical grips, such as the CLYMR platform.

Understandably, advanced firearm selection for big game hunting is a highly subjective and complicated topic. But we hope we’ve given you some food for thought to drill down into the topic. 

Which factor is most important to you when it comes to selecting a firearm for big game hunting? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.