A Beginner's Guide to Hunting Firearms

A beginner's guide to hunting firearms, the article ensures beginning hunters are properly outfitted and safe, including types of guns, gun prices, choices of ammo and gun optics.
By Bruce Woods
July/August 1987
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The .22 is probably the ideal first gun, both for a youngster and for an adult whose interest in hunting has just surfaced.

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The green woods of this season tease a hunter's eye like a partially open door. This beginner's guide to hunting firearms helps new gun homesteaders choose the right kind of gun for hunting. 

A Beginner's Guide to Hunting Firearms

It's in the full glory of summer that we begin to glimpse the season's death. Perhaps a small cool breeze blows through the still-bright evening, eclipsing the scent of iris with something recognized but unidentifiable, a faint aroma of regret. Or maybe a black walnut or hickory tree, last to green, first to bare, drops one precocious leaf. In the great cities, these whispers of change would probably not be heard, but to one raised in the country, or even one whose blood has only begun to ebb and flow to rural rhythm, the hint of fall sends the body into a flush composed of equal parts of a vague loneliness and a delicious anticipation. Autumn is the season of the field and forest; inside some of us an ancient ancestor anticipates the hunt.

For those new to country life, though, this eagerness may be no sooner felt than gone, blasted apart by a decidedly modern uncertainty. "Hell," he or she might mutter. "I don't have a gun. I don't even know what sort of gun I should have."

Fortunately, this problem is far from difficult to solve. The selection of basic hunting firearms, for the beginner, is a much simpler matter than it is for the more experienced hunter who may be stricken by the equipment mania that seems to infect just about every sport nowadays. Of course, there are a great many models among even the few firearm types I'll be discussing, but the parameters are relatively easy to deal with. For the beginning nimrod (or for any hunter, as many with years in the field sometimes forget), the important consideration isn't necessarily to have a weapon specifically designed for each and every situation, but rather to have one or more reliable, well-made guns and—here's the key—to learn to be able to get something approaching their built-in potential from them. (See the gun optics and gun ammo images in the image gallery.)

Paying for a Plinker

For a great many aging country kids, one Christmas day in late childhood or early adolescence will be forever burned into the memory because of a long box propped against the wall behind the tree; that first .22 rifle was a symbol of responsibility and trust, the thin edge of the wedge into a door that would one day open to adulthood. Many of us have those hunting firearms still.

The .22 is probably the ideal first gun, both for a youngster and for an adult whose interest in hunting has just surfaced. It can be used to take squirrels (a delicious and common game animal) and, under the right circumstances, rabbits. More important, though, this small-caliber rifle is inexpensive to shoot and neither too loud nor too physically punishing.

Of the several varieties of .22s available, you'll want, first, a rifle chambered to accept the .22 long rifle cartridge rather than the underpowered .22 short or the relatively expensive .22 magnum. From there, you can choose among a variety of types of firearms. The most common of these are the single-shot, the bolt action, the semiautomatic and the pump. Each has its purposes, and its devotees, but in my admittedly opinionated view the bolt action does the best job of developing, and then serving, the serious hunter.

There are several reasons for this. The most important, to my mind, is the fact that a good bolt-action .22 can effectively mimic the larger-caliber deer rifle that the same owner will most likely later acquire, and will thus give him or her counterfeit experience with the bigger gun at much less expense.

The bolt action, forcing the shooter to manually eject the spent shell and insert a live cartridge by manipulating the bolt after each shot, also encourages better field habits than does the semiautomatic, which allows the shooter to keep on firing as quickly as he or she can pull the trigger. Don't misunderstand me, there are many fine and conscientious marksmen who prefer the semiautomatic. Unfortunately, there are also some beginning shooters who've been seduced by the awesome rate of fire possible with these weapons and who tend to substitute quantity of shots for quality. My suggestion, then, would be to learn on the bolt (or, if you really want to fine tune your shooting, on a less-expensive single-shot) before succumbing to the lure of the lead-thrower.

The Shell Game: 1

Since .22 cartridges are inexpensive, it pays to spend a little more for premium ammunition. Quality cartridges offer greater muzzle velocity (the speed at which they exit the gun) and thus greater accuracy, since a faster shell will drop less over distance. Use the same shells for hunting that you practice with, stick with hollowpoints for squirrels (the small animals are surprisingly difficult to kill, and hollowpoints expand when they hit, thus improving your chances of dropping the game cleanly and humanely), and avoid mixing brands of shells in a semiautomatic firearm.

Searching for a Scattergun

If the first .22 provides a novice hunter with a ticket to the world of outdoor sport, owning a shotgun is the equivalent of a full-season pass. In fact, there are few animals in the continental U.S. that can't be hunted with one of these versatile weapons. Squirrel, rabbit, waterfowl and such upland game birds as grouse, dove, quail, woodcock and pheasant are probably the first to come to mind when one thinks of shotgunning, but load that firearm with a single rifled slug rather than small shot and you have a very effective short-range weapon for deer or even black bear. In fact, in some parts of the country the shotgun is the only legal deer weapon.

Scatterguns are available in most of the varieties offered by .22 manufacturers (pump, single-shot, bolt action, semiautomatic), and also in side-by-side and over/under double-barreled configurations. And, to meet the challenge of multiple usage, some manufacturers now offer single-barreled scatterguns with interchangeable barrels, one suited to firing shot and the other designed to efficiently throw a rifled slug at big game.

Your first decision will concern gauge. (Gauge is to shotguns as caliber is to rifles, and reflects the number of balls, should the shell be loaded with one large ball, to the pound. Thus a dozen 12-gauge slugs would weigh approximately one pound.) The most common options are .410 (which, perversely, is not a gauge but a caliber, which refers to the diameter of the bore of the firearm), 20-gauge, 16-gauge (which has been in a popularity slump in recent years, so you may find it difficult to locate shells) and 12-gauge.

Each of these has advantages and disadvantages, and a shotgun enthusiast will most likely own several gauges. The .410 is light and doesn't "kick" much when shot, so it's often recommended to young or physically small shooters. It's also by far the least effective game-taker, though, and I'd suggest that you start with nothing smaller than a 20-gauge. The 20 is also a compromise, trading its easy handling for limited knockdown power. Still, in capable hands this is a very effective hunting weapon. If you fear that the weight and kick of a larger gun would interfere with your ability to enjoy it, the 20 is a worthwhile first choice. Do be sure, though, to purchase a gun capable of handling 3-inch magnum shells, which give the little gun a lot more punch.

With the 16-gauge in limbo of sorts, the 12-gauge stands out as the most versatile of the bunch, and probably the most versatile all-around hunting weapon. Choose a single-shot if price is a major concern; a pump or semiautomatic, preferably with interchangeable barrels, if you plan to mix small-game hunting with the pursuit of deer; and a double—either side-by-side or over/under—if you plan to concentrate on birds and are susceptible to the romance and nostalgia that surround these "classic" shotguns. Such recommendations are, of course, quite subjective. If possible, try to shoot a variety of guns before making a decision.

Finally, you'll have to select the appropriate choke for your gun. This term refers to the degree of restriction in the muzzle of the barrel, which controls the spread of the shot. Many guns offer interchangeable choke tubes, to allow you to select an open pattern for, say, close-flushing grouse in tight woods, or a tighter, more distance-stable pattern for fast-flying, long-range waterfowl. If you don't have hunting friends to turn to, let the seller know the uses you intend to put your gun to. And it's always a good idea to get more than one recommendation.

The Shell Game: 2

Selecting shells for your shotgun requires almost as many decisions as does purchasing the gun in the first place. You'll have to determine whether you want standard 23/4-inch shells or the more potent 3-inch magnums. As noted above, I'd recommend the latter for most 20-gauge work, while the former should be adequate for most 12-gauge situations, with big game, wild turkeys and waterfowl being the exceptions. As a general rule, you'll want to stick with "high base" shells, since the "low base" variety have less powder behind the shot and are thus less powerful.

The shot itself also demands a decision. Shot sizes are given in numbers, the larger designations referring to smaller pellets. The appropriate shot size will be determined by the game hunted, the terrain, the question of whether, in the case of birds, your game will usually be just flushed or free-flying, and so forth.

(I'd recommend, especially if you plan to hunt waterfowl, that you use steel, rather than lead, shot, and that you select a shotgun-choke combination to suit such shells. Lead entering the food chain when ducks and geese mistake spent shot for grain has become a serious enough problem to cause some areas to prohibit its use.)

Buying "The Big Gun"

The high-powered firearms often referred to as deer rifles are used for pronghorn antelope, black bear and even elk in addition to whitetail or mule deer. Again, there are a number of actions available, including bolt action, semiautomatic, lever action, single-shot and pump. As I mentioned when discussing .22s, my personal prejudice is toward the bolt action, especially for one's first gun in this category. A notable exception is that I'd use the classic lever action, in .30-30 caliber, when hunting in heavily brushed eastern forests.

Of the many calibers available, I suggest the first-time buyer stick to either the .30-30 (for the use described above), the .270 (for long-range hunting in the open country of the West) or the .30-06 (probably the best choice for a do-it-all cartridge). There are any number of other fine calibers, but any of these three should be available at any sporting-goods shop and at many country stores, while a more exotic cartridge may be difficult to find should you run short on shells while hunting away from home.

Whichever deer rifle you choose, though, remember that the marksman makes the shot, not the rifle. One of the worst possible endings to a hunt is to be left haunted with the memory of a poorly hit animal that escaped to suffer and probably die. I've already mentioned that having a .22 similar to your deer rifle will increase your familiarity with the bigger gun at minimal cost. Take advantage of that technique, but be willing to spend the money and time it takes to become comfortable and proficient with the larger caliber, too, before you set your sights on living muscle.

The Shell Game: 3

High-powered rifle cartridges vary in both type and weight, though not so widely as do shotgun shells. Still, the variety is large enough, and the suitability of the various choices determined enough by locale and species of game, to suggest you seek local advice when selecting your ammunition. As a rule of thumb, you'll get satisfactory performance from a .270 bullet in the 130-grain weight range, while a .30-30 will find a 150-grain bullet adequate for most situations, and the .30-06 will happily throw bullets of 150 grains or larger.

And Practice Makes . . .

Put yourself a few months into the future. The last sip of coffee still smoky on your palate, you leave your car and enter the foggy mystery of a pre-dawn field. Your coat hangs warm and comfortable on your shoulders, broken-in boots hiss satisfyingly through the dew, and each step feels more purposeful, more strong, than usual. Your daypack waddles a bit across your back as you step, bringing visions of a lunch to be enjoyed while snuggled up to a stump, with sunlight stroking its tree-limb tattoos across your face. On your shoulder is a firearm that long practice has decorated with the golden familiarity of all good tools. You know what it can do and what you can do with it. You may not raise it to fire all day, but a hunt that begins with these morning feelings can never be less than a great success.

Three Choices: The Optics Option

Most hunters eventually fit their .22s and deer rifles with scopes. (A shotgun used for big-game hunting will perform well enough, within its accurate range, with open iron sights. These will be standard on the slug barrel of an interchangeable-barrel gun and can be fitted by a gunsmith to others.) Open sights have their place on rifles, of course, and many prefer them for the snap-shooting that's commonly called for in the eastern brush. However, I prefer a scope to iron in almost any situation. As should be the case when buying a firearm (or any tool), purchase the best scope that your budget will allow. For general-purpose work, I prefer a nonadjustable 4-power, and they've served me well from the rhododendron jungles of North Carolina to the high sagebrush plains of Wyoming. Be sure it's mounted securely, and sighted in carefully, and check that sighting after long travel, a day in rough terrain or after long periods of disuse. You can't shoot what you can't see, and a good scope will give your poor human eyes the chance to come a little closer to competing with the optical equipment of the game you pursue. (See the gun optics and gun ammo images in the image gallery.)

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