Each year brings a fresh crop of new hunters into the field, and with them comes the need of a "first rifle". Along with this selection of a first rifle travels a host of opinions, traditions and myths. This article won't attempt to focus on opinions or myths, nor tread on traditions, but what we will do, is try to take an objective look at this very important decision, temper the information presented with facts, and some well thought out ideology concerning the selection of that first rifle.
Much of the criteria for selecting a rifle should center on the shooter's physical dimensions, and the rifle proportioned accordingly for best fit, both for ease of handling, and shooting proficiency as well as recoil management. This subject has been addressed over the years very well, and we aren't going to re-plow that ground here, instead we will focus upon caliber selection for the new hunter and shooter.
With the selection of caliber for a first hunting rifle, we immediately enter an emotionally charged arena. Instead of entering this discussion plagued with preconceived ideas, I challenge the reader to take a moment or two to step out of the box of conventional wisdom, and evaluate the following arguments based on their own merits and the supporting information backing those statements. In so doing, we can truly examine this critical selection of the "first rifle" with unbiased opinions, and rather let the information form those opinions.
Now, for the process of selection. We must consider the ranges at which the gun will most likely be used, the recoil tolerance of the shooter, the size game to be hunted, the weight of the gun relative to the shooter's ability to handle the weapon and of course the emotional and mental effect of the choice on the shooter and his or her confidence in that choice of firearm and its perceived effectiveness on the game hunted.
In thinking of first rifles, the .30-30 Winchester is a perennial favorite choice, as is the .234 Winchester, the 6mm Remington, the 257 Roberts, the new .260 Remington, 7x57 Mauser, the 308 Winchester and the 7mm-08 Remington come to mind as top usual picks for a "first rifle". Now, none of these cartridges are bad choices, given the right gun and shooter, teamed with the right bullet and the right quarry. However, these arguments are true regardless of the caliber of choice. The truth is, that there are lots of deer illicitly killed with the .22LR every year by poachers, and they are stone dead going into freezers just as any other deer harvested with one of the above choices. The magic comes in bullet placement with any cartridge and bullet selection in the game fields.
In looking at the .30-30, it is a sure deer killing machine, in the hands of a skilled hunter, placing the bullet in the right place. Several generations of hunters have taken to the fields with this as their "first rifle" and filled their freezers with regularity. The recoil is manageable, the guns chambered for this round easy to handle and shoot, and have historically been very affordable.
I'd like to propose an idea in regard to the selection of the "first rifle", that it also be viewed as a "lifetime rifle" as well. What do I mean? I'm talking about looking ahead, and anticipating the needs of the new hunter, as he or she matures in pursuit of the shooting sports, those needs will change as well. Yes, perhaps it's only whitetail deer in the river bottoms for the time being, but that can and most likely will change as both experience and success of the new hunter come along. Along with that change, the "first rifle" should make the transition with them as well. Remember the old saying "Beware the man with one gun!" This is so true. The more time spent shooting and spent afield with a particular firearm, the more confidence a hunter has in that gun, and as a consequence his success ratio also rises with that confidence level and familiarity with the weapon. Ideally that rifle should shoulder and operate as naturally as an extension of the arm when the hunter is in tune with his equipment. This only happens with continued use of the same gun. So, when this new hunter decides it's time to head west on his first elk hunt, there shouldn't ever be a question of whether his rifle is up to the task, should he buy a new rifle for the hunt. This is the last place you want an unfamiliar rifle, is in unfamiliar country, hunting an unfamiliar quarry. No, here familiarity and confidence will go far to filling that out-of-state game tag.
In addition to the above mentioned criteria, there is another often overlooked aspect of that first rifle. It is the psychological conception of that gun's effectiveness. Sure, we all know how well a .30-30 kills deer, but I also recall my first year in deer camp with my new Model 94 Winchester .30-30. All the adults in camp commented on my bright shiny new LITTLE .30-30! Comments like, "Well, maybe today you'll see a deer in range for your little .30-30!" We've all heard them, and many have spoken them, not out of disrespect, but just in passing conversation. The .30-30 designation could be filled in with whatever you want, .243, 6mm, .25-35, 257 Roberts, .260 Remington, whatever is on the conventional list of "first rifles". Now, once those comments are made, the confidence in that new hunter's mind about his new "first rifle's" effectiveness has just been eroded, sometimes to the point of greatly hampering his or her effective use of the rifle.
Now, armed with some of the thoughts presented above, I'll introduce what I believe is the best possible selection for a "first rifle" provided the shooter abides in a handloading family. Note that I specified a handloading family. The .30-06 Springfield couldn't come much closer to the perfect "first rifle" in the company of a handloader! Yes, it is a lot of gun, but I don't think anyone showing up to camp for the first time with a .30-06 ever has his confidence undermined by comments about their "little rifle". Too, the .30-06 is capable of delivering the goods on any game animal North America has to offer, within some range restrictions, and bullet selection.
Rifles chambered for the .30-06 are very diverse, and can be purchased in extremely light weight mountain rifles, standard weight rifles, or a myriad of used guns are available for very reasonable prices. The pair of Springfield's below were each purchased for under a hundred dollars, and both sport aperture sights and weigh in under seven pounds each! Often, these older '06's are on the market much more reasonably than the conventional "first rifles" of choice!
The pair of Ruger .30-06's below are a good example of an all around, "lifetime rifle" The rifle on the left is my 15 year old son's gun and the one on the right is mine. I traded into my son's rifle when he was only 12 years old, and he will use the rifle as long as our Government will allow its use! In any game camp throughout the world, either of these rifles would be deemed adequate for 90% of the hunting done anywhere. When using a rifle such as these, the new hunter never has a qualm about the quality or effectiveness of his rifle and cartridge combination. This my friend builds the confidence that fills game tags and freezers!
Okay, the cat's out of the bag, we all know that I'm pushing the .30-06 as a first rifle, now for the reasons why. The .30-06 can be loaded down to just about any level imaginable by the handloader for anything from gallery loads on up to moose medicine. Sure, you say that the .30-30 will handle whitetails just fine, and the recoil is a good match for a beginning shooter, so load the old '06 with a 170 grain round nosed .30-30 bullet to a 2200 fps. velocity threshold and go hunting! You have the same recoil factor, and the same ballistics. In fact, up until the early 80's, Norma of Sweden actually loaded ammo they designated .30-30-06, loaded to this velocity with a 170 grain round nosed .30-30 bullet for reduced recoil loads for deer sized game. It was widely distributed in the United States.
Many advocate the Soviet M39 or 7.62x39mm cartridge for deer. Any who have witnessed it's performance on whitetail sized game know that it is truly devastating on game. So, load the old '06 with a 125 grain Nosler Ballistic Tip to 2300 fps and you have effectively duplicated that 7.62x39mm round's ballistics in all ways! It won't kick, and it will knock the fire out of deer out to 150 yards, every time! There's nothing in the book that says that a .30-06 must be loaded to full snort all the time!
Now, we mentioned familiarity with a rifle as criteria for effective use of a game rifle. If a new shooter is to become intimately familiar with a rifle, its handling characteristics, the trigger pull, action handling, and shooting capabilities, they must shoot the rifle, and shoot it a lot! Those shooting sessions are to be fun, not endurance lessons, but something the shooter looks forward to with enthusiasm. To accomplish this, light loads, and volumes of them are the answer to these pre-requisites of taking the "first rifle" afield. Lead bullets are the answer here!
In familiarizing my daughters with their introduction to the .30-06 I gave them loads using 00 Buckshot loaded over 4.0 grains of Red Dot with a tuft of polyester fiber filler over the powder to hold it against the primer. These loads have zero recoil, shoot pretty much to point of aim out to fifty yards, and have a report about like a .22LR. They are also very economical, and easy to load. Simply use an "M" type neck expanding die as you would on cast bullet loads for bottleneck cases, and seat the buckshot in the case (which is now flared) until the widest point of the buckshot is contained in the neck of the case. Buckshot is inexpensive, usually around five dollars for five pounds, or Lee Precision sells a .311 two cavity round ball mold for around seventeen dollars. When loading the 4.0 grains of Red Dot, you get 1750 rounds of ammo for every pound of powder. That roughly equates to a penny per round for powder, a penny and a half for primer and two cents for the buckshot, making a grand total of under a nickel per shot for plinking ammo! These loads are surprisingly accurate, and make first class grouse and rabbit medicine when walking about the woods. The new shooter can shoot VOLUMES of these loads and never wear the barrel or cause the slightest hint of throat erosion.
The next cartridge adaptation that comes to mind is any of the bullets of 100-120 grains that are designed for the .32-20 or .32 H&R. These are relatively inexpensive, and make great light loads for shooting in the .30-06 at 75-100 yard ranges. The recoil is mild to non-existent and again there is no barrel wear from these loads in any way! They too are very inexpensive, and if loaded with very light charges of fast burning pistol powders are easy on the pocketbook in all aspects, but offering more versatility than the buckshot loads over wider ranges of effectiveness. These little inexpensive bullets moving along at 1100-1250 fps roughly duplicate the .32-20's performance, and are appropriate for anything one would use the .32-20. These are delightfully fun loads to shoot, and encourage the new shooter to burn more ammo in his "first rifle".
Now, for more practice, comes a wide variety of cast bullets ranging from 115 grains to nearly 200 grains, in flat point, spitzer or round nose configurations, mostly with gas checks to allow higher velocities without leading, and at the same time enhancing accuracy. It is with these, that you can get that shooter used to his new rifle, and introduce an ever slightly increasing recoil level and noise level as well. Volumes of these loads may be fired without undue wear on the barrel, and with each shot, instilling confidence and pleasure from using the new "first rifle".
With loads like the ones outlined above, that "first rifle" can be taken afield to shoot ground hogs, fox squirrels, rabbits, coyotes, or just about anything you would use a .22 rimfire for, through anything a .30-30 would be appropriate to use. All the time the rifle is afield after smaller game using these reduced type loads, that confidence level is growing, and user familiarity being achieved by leaps and bounds.
Now, you ask about loading data for these loads? It is literally everywhere! Every cast bullet manual printed has volumes of reduced velocity loads for the .30-06, as well as online resources such as www.LoadSwap.com . Lyman has an excellent cast bullet manual that costs less than a box of factory loaded .30-06 ammo, as well as an out of print book from RCBS and the new Accurate Reloading manual has a number of reduced velocity cast bullet loads.
Enough about loads for everyday shooting. What about some reduced recoil hunting loads? Well, we have already looked at the possibility of using either the 150 or 170 grain flat nosed or round nosed bullets designed for the .30-30 Winchester. They perform beautifully on game when the starting velocities are kept under 2300 fps. Too, the expanding bullets (if appropriately sized) for the 7.62x39mm Soviet round will perform in an admirable way on game if velocities are also kept to the 2300 fps threshold. You want less recoil, and yet have an expanding jacketed bullet? No problem, use one of the Single Shot Handgun bullets in .30 caliber, and shoot them with a muzzle velocity of 1700-1900 fps, and you have superb venison venom! These bullets are designed for the limited velocity thresholds of the single-shot handguns, and their jackets are designed to expand optimally on game at these velocities. With loads like these, the .30-06 won't recoil as much as a 7.62x39mm, and less than the typical .30-30 load. Effects on game will be amazing, especially when we keep in mind that 85% of all big game harvested in North America is under 100 yards!
When using for example the 125 grain Nosler Ballistic tip bullet or the Barnes X bullet, they can be driven to some pretty amazing velocities in the .30-06, and without much increased recoil. Although one may not want to push them to the maximum threshold for the new shooter, still, the effective range of a reduced recoil round may be introduced with bullets of this type driven to 2800-3000 fps without unmanageable recoil when ranges will be beyond the 150 yards normally encountered deer hunting. In fact, the loads outlined above would make excellent antelope hunting ammo when ranges can reach out quite a distance.
Conversely, the old .30-40 Krag developed quite a reputation with its big 220 grain bullet at something around 2250 fps because of the modest velocity, and deep penetration of the bullet in this round.. This same type of performance can be achieved on big game such as moose by simply loading the .30-06 to the same velocity threshold, and at the same time reduce recoil for the shooter of their "first rifle"
As familiarity with the gun comes along, and it becomes a comfortable friend in the field, those loads can be increased to full snort ammo for longer range shooting, and perhaps for graduation to larger, tougher game. The point of all this is that at no time is the "first gun" under-gunned in any situation, nor will the psychological factor of that "first gun" undermine the confidence level necessary for absolute surety in its use. The continued and constant use of the downloaded ammo will instill unshakable confidence in the shooter's marksmanship with that gun, and consequently, bullet placement will be with surgical skill when the time comes!
I know that I'll receive volumes of email over this article, because I've stepped on some very sensitive, and traditional ideas. Still, I think if one looks objectively at the ideas presented, they make their own case.
Sure, there are a whole host of cartridges that would make excellent "first rifles", but none are as flexible as the .30-06, nor do any share that worldwide reputation of reliability. What cartridge is the yardstick by which others are compared? Most usually it is the .30-06. Why not start out with a "lifetime rifle"? Why not start out with the world standard of excellence?