Today, the latest incarnations of these ﬂagship models of American hunting riﬂes all have a suggested retail price of close to $1,000. In little more than a decade, these iconic American riﬂes have essentially doubled in price.
Not everyone can afford to lay out that kind of change for a hunting riﬂe. The Even fewer can afford semicustom or custom riﬂes, and if you have to ask the price of, say, a ﬁne European double riﬂe, you may want to be sitting down when you hear the answer.
Of course, gun makers are well aware of this economic reality and have scrambled in recent years to produce more affordable guns for the masses. Many of these guns won’t win any beauty contests. Some may be described as downright ugly. Actions may be less than silky smooth, and stocks may bend in a stiff breeze. They’re often described rather euphemistically as “budget-friendly” or “entry-level” riﬂes. These are, of course, handy phrases when you’re trying to avoid using the word “cheap.”
Have the manufacturers cut corners on these guns? You bet they have, but they had to in order to make the guns less expensive to produce and offer them at what are, by today’s standards, crazy-cheap prices.
TODAY, VIRTUALLY EVERY MAJOR mass-manufacturer of hunting riﬂes has added an inexpensive riﬂe to their product lineup. While some have derisively called this a race to the bottom, I don’t exactly see it that way. Sure, I’m fond of guns that have richly ﬁgured walnut stocks, elegantly engraved receivers, and ﬁt and ﬁnish reﬂective of old world craftsmanship, but those guns won’t smack deer into the freezer any more effectively than most of today’s more affordable riﬂes. Advances in manufacturing processes and materials now enable gun makers to offer inexpensive riﬂes that resist the elements, work reliably and shoot tight groups – and that’s all many buyers, especially ﬁrst-time buyers, are looking for in a hunting riﬂe.
Here’s a quick roundup of some of the more popular inexpensive riﬂes currently on dealers’ shelves. Since there must, I suppose, be rules to the game, I’ll limit this discussion to riﬂes that you can buy at a real-world price of $500 or less.
Consider, for example, the Thompson Center Venture riﬂe, with which I’ve had a fair amount of experience. These riﬂes feature a free-ﬂoated barrel with 5R riﬂing and pillar-bedded action. I used the Venture Compact model chambered in .308 Win. on a memorable Texas deer hunt, dropping two whitetail bucks and two does with four shots guns over two days of hunting. Several other outdoor writers did the same. I didn’t subject that riﬂe to accuracy testing, but I did test an identical gun chambered in .22-250 Rem. Five of six factory loads shot sub-minute-of-angle best groups, easily living up the riﬂe’s MOA accuracy guarantee. I was impressed enough that I bought a Venture Predator riﬂe, chambered in .204 Ruger, and it regularly shoots half-inch groups with its preferred load. That’s more than can be said of many more expensive riﬂes. You can ﬁnd the Venture for less than $500, but if that’s too rich for your blood, you can look for the no-frills TC Compass riﬂe for less than $400.
Another $500 riﬂe I’ve had some experience with is the Winchester XPR riﬂe. The one I tested, chambered in .30-06 Springﬁeld, put six different factory loads into groups averaging 1.3 inches, but that’s only part of the story. It dropped a 165-grain Federal load with Nosler Ballistic Tip bullets into average groups of 0.58 inch and a best group of just 0.31 inch. This gun is quite similar to the Browning AB3 riﬂe. Both have decent triggers, a boltunlock button, 60-degree bolt lift and detachable box magazines. Both are offered in a variety of conﬁgurations and calibers, and if you shop around, you can ﬁnd either one on sale for about $500.
One of the most aesthetically pleasing and feature-rich offerings among the bargain-priced riﬂes is the Mossberg Patriot. This riﬂe’s lines are very much in a classic conﬁguration, and you can get it with stocks that are walnut, laminate, black synthetic or synthetic Kryptek Highlander camo. Standard features include drop-box magazines, ﬂuted barrels with recessed crowns, a spiral-ﬂuted bolt and adjustable trigger system. I tested one in .25-06 Rem., and ﬁve different factory loads turned in sub-MOA best groups. Surprisingly, I’ve seen the basic black synthetic model retail for less than $300.
ANOTHER POPULAR ENTRY in the value-priced category is the Ruger American Riﬂe. I haven’t tested one yet, but have just received the Predator model, chambered in – wonder of wonders – 6mm Creedmoor. I plan to give this one a thorough workout as soon as I can obtain enough ammo to put it through its paces. Available in several conﬁgurations, this riﬂe has an adjustable trigger, cold hammer-forged barrel and a tang safety. It utilizes an integral bedding block system to free-ﬂoat the barrel and has a removable rotary magazine. The one-piece bolt has three locking lugs and a 70-degree throw to allow ample room for mounting scopes on the bases supplied with the riﬂe.
According to Big Green, also known as Remington, the bargain-priced Remington 783 is “not dressed to impress, it’s dressed for work.” With a MSRP of $399, the 783 has freeﬂoated, button-riﬂed barrels mated to receivers that are pillar-bedded to a high-nylon-content synthetic stock. The riﬂe is equipped with an adjustable trigger and, notably, detachable steel magazines. The bolt has two locking lugs and a 90-degree lift.
The main thing going for the Savage Axis riﬂe is the fact that it is, well, a Savage. That usually means you can expect good out-of-the-box accuracy. With an MSRP of around $368 and a real-world price of around $330 for the basic model with a black synthetic stock, you’ll get a riﬂe that uses the classic Savage locknut approach to set headspace set to minimum. This has always driven some purists mildly nuts, but it signiﬁcantly contributes to the accuracy Savage riﬂes are known for. Barrels on the Axis are button-riﬂed. The two locking-lug bolt is unusual in that it uses a ﬂoating bolt head design, which theoretically also contributes to accuracy. Detachable box magazines are part metal, part plastic, with metal feed lips. Triggers on the Axis models I’ve seen aren’t overly impressive, but at a cost of about $450, you can step up to the Axis II riﬂe and get the Savage Accutrigger and a Weaver Kaspa 3-9×40 scope.
These riﬂes and others like them may not be your ﬁrearms cup of tea, but taken as a group, they ﬁll an important gap in the marketplace. They give people who might not
otherwise be able to afford a decent riﬂe an affordable entry point into hunting. If we’re going to preserve our cherished hunting traditions in this country, we’re going to need their participation – and their votes – in the years ahead. That’s worth thinking about the next time you bypass the bargain-riﬂe section of your local gun store. ASJ