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
I’m not talking hard-core hunts in foul weather for trophy class animals, where freezing temperatures and extreme terrain prevail. I’m referring to fun hunts to share where game abounds, the weather is mild, the action fast-paced, the terrain is easily managed and the days aﬁeld not overly long. Of course, you need to set aside time for some relaxed sightseeing and romantic dinners, which may come over a campﬁre, but if you’re together, it’s just that much more special.
Throughout our 26 years of marriage, living in Alaska and overseas, my wife, Tiffany, and I have been fortunate to hunt many places together. Here’s a list of some of the most memorable hunting experiences we have enjoyed together. I believe you will enjoy them as well.
1. BEAR BOUND
Spring is one of the most productive times to hunt black bear in North America. Be it over bait in the states that allow it, or spot-and-stalk-style hunting in the lush, grassy meadows of the Paciﬁc Northwest, there’s no shortage of great bear hunting opportunities.
Idaho allows bear hunting over bait, and color phase bears run high in some areas. Sleeping in and hunting the evening hours will make it feel more like a vacation than a hunt. Spotand-stalk hunts can be had in multiple Canadian provinces, too, where bear densities are mind boggling and the terrain is easy to negotiate. Just be sure to bring mosquito repellent.
Bear meat is some of the best eating wild game out there. Get the hide off fast; remove the fat from the muscle and get the meat quickly cooling, and you’ll be enjoying it for months to come.
2. TURKEY TIME
There’s nothing quite like being in the spring turkey woods: warm days, wild ﬂowers blooming, birds singing and lovesick toms gobbling like crazy. Turkeys can be hunted in every state but Alaska.
One epic turkey hunt for you and your sweetheart is in Hawaii, where the birds thrive. Florida is another wonderful option for a couples hunt. Texas, South Dakota and western Oregon are also great places to hunt turkeys, and see some beautiful sights along the way.
Wherever you go, make sure to hit the state or states where multiple tags are available. If you have the time, driving to and hunting different states can be easy to do, and may offer great side attractions in the form of museums, historical points of interest and, of course, restaurants. Don’t overlook fall turkey hunting, which can be exciting, especially with a dog!
3. HOG HEAVEN
Ask my wife what her most memorable hunt was, and she’ll likely reply hunting hogs in Florida. Our whole family was along on this unforgettable trip, and atop a monster truck-like swamp buggy, we pounded bacon with ARs, shotguns and riﬂes. It was a thrilling way to hunt, and an effective way to put a dent in the overpopulation of pigs on the land we hunted. It also yielded a couple coolers full of some of our favorite wild game to eat.
Texas has high pig populations, and baiting and spot-and-stalk approaches can be employed there. Sitting in a blind over bait offers a level of addicting anticipation that needs to be experienced to be appreciated.
California has great, year-round hunting for wild hogs. Spring and fall are favorite times, as the pigs are actively feeding and the weather is very comfortable. Of course, California swine often resides near vineyards, making it easy to ﬁnd something to do in the evening together as well.
4. QUACK ATTACK
Be it an early-season teal hunt, a midseason outing for local birds or a late-season adventure for migratory fowl, spending time in the duck blind together is relaxing. Of course, the earlier it is in the season, the more comfortable the weather will be. Then again, late-season, high-volume hunts in the cold can offer unmatched shooting action that can keep you warm.
With a dozen decoys, a call and some basic gear, getting equipped for hunting waterfowl is easy.
If you don’t have access to good public lands, gaining permission to hunt on private property is much easier than getting the green light to hunt deer or elk. Don’t overlook your goose hunting options either, for these can offer great action around the country, be it for Canadas or snows.
5. PRONGHORN HITS
The perfect couples hunt for big game has to be pronghorn. The weather is nice, animals are plentiful, you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to start the day, and if you blow an opportunity on a buck, you’ll soon be commencing a stalk on another.
While some states only offer pronghorn tags through a lottery system, others have over-the-counter options. Parts of Wyoming offer overthe-counter tags for nonresidents, for both buck and doe, making it the top state for such a hunt. Consider putting a bipod on the riﬂe, or at the very least, use shooting sticks, and practice out to 300 yards, as shots can be long in this open country of the West. These hunts are big hits among couples and families.
6. VARMINT MASTER
Varmint hunting offers high-volume, fast-paced shooting action to couples eager to head aﬁeld. Be it prairie dogs in the spring, summer, early fall, or ground squirrels farther West, there is a lot of great shooting to be had.
Prairie dogs occupy many of the Rocky Mountain states and open plains, and the fact they do so much property damage means ﬁnding a place to hunt isn’t that difficult. The last prairie dog town my wife and I hunted in Montana, stretched for more than 7 miles and was over a mile wide. Needless to say, we experienced a lot of shooting.
In eastern Oregon and northern California, Belding’s ground squirrels abound, and ﬁring more than a thousand rounds per person, per day, is common in some of the alfalfa ﬁelds overrun by these varmints.
7. PLEASANT PHEASANT
While the season for wild pheasants has come to a close, there are numerous bird preserves that offer outstanding hunting opportunities around the country, even in Alaska. In most states, preserves are open through March, and reopen again in August or September.
Not only are these high-percentage hunts, but the accommodations can be as fancy as you want to get, which can be appealing to couples. Then again, you can ﬁnd affordable operations, allowing more bangs for your bucks in the form of pheasant, chukar, quail and occasionally more exotic species.
8. DOVE LOVE
My wife and I gone dove hunting together for nearly two decades. Early in the September season, when the weather is hot, we enjoy ﬂoating rivers and hunting birds off gravel bars. Later in the season, we move to ﬁelds and travel routes connecting feeding and roosting areas.
While early-season hunts are warm and comfortable, many states have extended their seasons into October, and the shooting for migratory doves in large ﬂocks can be exceptional. These are some of the best eating birds out there.
9. WHITETAIL QUEST
One of the country’s best deer hunts to experience with your sweetheart is for whitetails. Blacktail deer hunting is physically demanding, often taking place in wet, brushy country. Mule deer habitat can be rugged and the weather less than hospitable. But when it comes to whitetails, North America’s most hunted big game animal, the options are many.
Since whitetails occupy so much river bottom and farmland habitats, the terrain is easy to negotiate. They can be hunted from late summer into winter, and with high densities, seeing deer is almost guaranteed and the chances of punching a tag are high. Whitetails can often be hunted from ground blinds, making it comfortable for both of you when temperatures drop. If looking to put meat in the freezer, there are some good over-the-counter options, and easy-to-draw tags in many states.
10. ADVENTURES ABROAD
Don’t overlook the joy of traveling abroad to hunt with your loved one. This is also a great opportunity to combine a hunt with a vacation.
New Zealand is tops when it comes to hunting prized red stag, and more, and the people and the country are simply wonderful. Australia also offers some good deer hunting in its southern and western states.
Africa is a place that offers a lot, both in terms of species to hunt and sites to see. Plains game hunts are affordable, with kudu and gemsbok topping the wish list of many hunters.
This Valentine’s Day, consider giving your spouse a hunt as a way to say “I love you!” With this gift you’ll both be able to spend time in the ﬁeld together, and travel through some great parts of North America, even the world. ASJ
Editor’s note: Scott Haugen is a fulltime freelance writer of 20 years. He recently began a booking service geared to help others enjoy hunting and ﬁshing adventures around the world. Learn more at scotthaugen.com.