One of the most common uses for firearms in America is Hunting. While many hunters still prefer primitive weapons like bows and crossbows, the use of firearms is equally common. Among the firearm choices, both modern rifles like the AR-15/AR-10 and traditional options like lever-action rifles have their proponents. However, the bolt-action rifle stands out as arguably the most popular choice among hunters.
Bolt-action rifles have earned a reputation for their remarkable precision and resilience in challenging outdoor environments. Their versatility in accommodating larger calibers, which are often not suitable for AR-platform rifles, and their precision encapsulates their widespread popularity among hunters.
Today, there’s a vast array of bolt-action manufacturers—some old and well known, and others that are relatively new to the scene. Still, with all of the models available and the sheer variety of components that can be added to them, there is a lot to consider if you’re wanting a new hunting rifle.
What is a Bolt-Action Rifle?
A bolt-action rifle is a type of firearm known for its manual operation, involving the cycling of cartridges by directly manipulating the bolt through a bolt handle. These rifles made their debut in 1824, with the Dreyse Needle Gun marking the first-ever bolt-action rifle.
Since their implementation, they’ve been used for a variety of different purposes. Before firearms technology progressed to where semi-automatic rifles could replace them, almost every military used a bolt-action rifle as their standard issue infantry rifle. While they don’t see as much use as they used to, they’re still used by specialized units like sniper and scout units.
However, bolt-action rifles have transcended their military roots and gained worldwide recognition for their unparalleled accuracy and relatively low weight. This quality makes them highly sought-after for deer hunting and various other hunting pursuits. Furthermore, their availability of a wide range of calibers, both common and niche, provides hunters with numerous options to suit their specific game and preferences.
Nevertheless, like any rifle purchase, there is a lot to consider when looking at what’s available.
Factors to Consider Before Buying
There are countless options available for bolt-action rifles, each coming from different manufacturers. Add in the multitude of calibers, barrel lengths, and different game sizes to hunt, there’s a lot that needs to be considered before buying. Fortunately, we’re going to point you in the right direction:
Caliber and Types of Hunting
Depending on what type of hunting you’re wanting to do, you’ll need specific calibers to hunt certain animals. There are two major categories of game to consider: small game and big/large game.
Small game refers to animals that are under 40 pounds in weight. The most common small game animals include rabbits, squirrels, prairie dogs, and coyotes. Due to the small size of the animals, hunters often use smaller, lighter ammunition to preserve more of the meat.
Big/large game refers to any animal that weighs over 40 pounds. Animals like deer, elk, pronghorn, wild boar, moose, and bears are some examples of commonly hunted big game animals. Just like for small game, local and state laws determine what’s allowed to be hunted. Big game animals have specific seasons where they’re allowed to be hunted, unless the animal is considered a nuisance like wild hogs here in Texas.
Large game can be hunted with a ton of different calibers, some of which are only commonly used with a bolt-action rifle. While there are a lot of calibers bolt-actions can be chambered in, some of the most common ones used for hunting are .223/5.56, .300AAC, .308/7.62x51mm, 6.5 Creedmoor, .243 Winchester, .270 Winchester, .30-06, .30-30 Winchester, and .300 WIN-MAG. Just like for small game, check your local laws to see what you’re allowed to use when hunting.
Depending on the distance, larger caliber rounds like .308 and 6.5 Creedmoor have more than enough velocity to travel past 500 to 600-yards while still having good terminal ballistics. Determining which caliber works best for your needs is up to you, but if you’re starting out, .308 and 6.5CM are a great place to start. There has always been a debate as to which is better though, so we pitted them against each other to find out which is best. Our guide on 6.5 Creedmoor vs .308 has all the results.
A rifle’s barrel length is important. Longer barrels give the powder within the cartridge more time to burn off, accelerating the speed of the bullet. But that doesn’t mean you should necessarily opt for the longest possible barrel when shopping for your rifle.
The old saying, “It’s possible to have too much of a good thing,” can apply to this. While the longer barrel can increase your muzzle velocity, it also adds weight; depending on the caliber and rifle model, it sometimes adds a lot of weight. A longer barrel can make the muzzle-end of your rifle heavy, making it difficult to shoulder. While there are methods to work around this like using a tripod(https://www.primaryarms.com/tripods) or bracing against a natural object like a tree, it isn’t ideal when you have to carry your rifle around from location to location.
For every rifle, there is a barrel length sweet spot that properly burns the cartridge’s powder while still being light enough to stow and hike with. Bolt action rifles can have a barrel length of anywhere from 18 to 26-inches (they can be longer or shorter, but those lengths aren’t as common for most hunting calibers). You’ll want to make sure that your barrel is long enough to effectively impact a target at the distance you intend on shooting at.
When shooting at distance, it’s better to have a longer barrel to maximize your bullet’s velocity. Most of the time, hunters will usually have to make shots at distances from 20 to 300 yards, though depending on where you live or where you’re hunting, they can be much longer. For example, hunters may have to take shots at greater distances when they hunt in an area with wider expanses of flatter land. If you’re going to be shooting at longer distances, follow our guide on long range hunting gear to prep for your trip.
Rifle Reliability (Triggers, Stocks, and Weather Resistance)
An obvious necessity, you’ll want to make sure that your rifle is reliable. Fortunately, bolt-actions are some of the most reliable actions available since they have to be operated manually. While the actions themselves are reliable, it’s important to take the other components into consideration as well.
The trigger group is a crucial component in your rifle. Rifle manufacturers often use their own triggers in their rifles, though some can come with aftermarket triggers pre-installed. While aftermarket triggers are great, they need to be installed by either a professional or someone who knows what they are doing. Any failures in installing the trigger group render your rifle unreliable. Fortunately, most quality manufacturers take an exceptional level of care when installing triggers. Even so, you’ll still want to take your rifle to the range before going out on a hunting trip to make sure that every component of your firearm is working properly.
Some of the best aftermarket triggers available for bolt actions are those from TriggerTech, Timney, and Elftmann Tactical, to name a few.
Your rifle’s stock needs to be durable enough to withstand any harsh conditions it may see when you’re out in the field hunting. Most bolt action rifles come equipped with either a synthetic polymer stock or a wooden one (there are some that come in aluminum chassis systems, we’ll talk about those later). Polymer is naturally resistant to water since nothing can soak into it, however cheaper polymer stocks have been known to be brittle, causing them to crack under stress or when in colder conditions. With rubberized polymer stocks, however, this isn’t really an issue.
Wooden stocks both look great and can face tough conditions when produced right. If it isn’t properly sealed and maintained, wooden stocks can warp if moisture gets into it. They’re easier to break and crack if they get dropped. For maximum durability, we recommend a synthetic stock.
Generally, synthetic polymer stocks are more versatile for both standard and extreme weather. Also, though not always the case, synthetic stocks can be much lighter than some wooden ones, making it easier to carry when moving to your blind or stand. Paired with a good sling, the weight can become much easier to bear. There are “ultralight” rifle stocks available too, but while they turn bolt actions into some of the lightest hunting rifles available, the lighter weight can drastically increase your felt recoil. Be wary of this when shopping for your rifle.
There are different stock designs available for bolt action rifles, too. We’re sure you’ve seen the common “traditional style” stocks on most bolt action rifles if you’ve ever shopped around for one. They don’t have any added components or grips, and they make for a great no-frills shooting experience.
Other stocks are available though. For example, Bergara produces their B-14 HMR (Hunting and Match Rifle) which has an adjustable butt pad and comb that allows you to quickly change the height of the cheek weld and the length of pull.
There are other variations available as well, such as thumbhole stocks. Thumbhole stocks have a cutout in the grip section of the stock that allows you to wrap your thumb around the grip. These stocks can give you much better grip and better trigger control as they allow for a more natural grip on the stock. One minor issue with them is that they can only be gripped with your main shooting hand. Most enthusiasts are right-handed, and they will have no issues whatsoever. However, for the smaller group of left-handed hunters, it can be hard to find rifles that come with left-handed stocks; more often than not, they have to be special ordered or installed as an aftermarket upgrade.
While traditional stock options use synthetic polymer and wood, there is another option available that uses aluminum. Chassis systems can take your rifle to a whole a new level of versatility. Companies like Accuracy International, Modular Driven Technologies(MDT), and Aero Precision each make their own distinct chassis systems for a variety of different bolt action platforms.
A rifle in a traditional bedded stock can be just as accurate as a rifle in a chassis, but a chassis provides a much more stable mounting surface for accessories and can provide better barrel harmonics.
Most of the time, chassis systems provide mounting capabilities in the form of M-LOK, Keymod, or 1913 picatinny rails. This makes it much easier to mount additional accessories like sling mounts, lasers, or bipods to your rifle. Stocks and grips are easily adjusted as well, with most coming with fully adjustable stocks and AR style grips. Being made of aluminum, they can still be lightweight depending on the model you choose and they’re plenty durable to withstand any conditions you might face when hunting.
Compared to the other stock options, a chassis system is much more expensive. Fortunately, there are bolt action rifles that come with chassis systems as an option, but they often start around $1,100, and depending on the make and model, they can be priced much higher. While chassis systems are a great option, they aren’t entirely necessary for hunting, though they do make adding accessories to your rifle much easier.
Scopes can be mounted to a bolt action in a few different ways. Most traditional bolt-actions won’t come with any form of iron-sights or other optic. Instead, they have dedicated mounted points for scope rings or some kind of top mounted scope base.
Some rifles do come with an integrated upper picatinny rail for using modern optic mounts, but it isn’t as common when looking for a dedicated hunting rifle. Besides this, different rifle models will have their own specific mounting requirements. For example, you can’t use a Remington 700 style scope ring set on a SAKO.
Now that you know what to look for in a good hunting rifle, you’re ready to start your search to find one. There are A LOT of bolt-action rifles available on the market today, with each being different. Just like we said before, we’re here to point you in the right direction, and we have some great options listed below:
The Remington 700 is one of the most popular bolt action rifles on the market today. It’s been in use since it was designed in the late 1940s, and today there are many manufacturers that build their rifles based on the action of the 700.
Part of its appeal is because of how simple the action is. There isn’t as much machining involved in constructing the action, making it a reliably simple and accurate system that has been in use for years.
Fast-forward to today, the Remington 700 is one of the most popular rifles for hunting. It comes in a wide array of different calibers, barrel lengths, and stock setups, making it a great utilitarian rifle that can be configured differently for all purposes. Focusing on hunting specifically, the 700 is a great choice.
Depending on your local/state hunting laws, there may be a limit on how much ammunition you can hold in your rifle. Fortunately the Remington 700, and the other rifles in this list, each come with varying magazine sizes to fit the requirements of each state’s laws. If you want to upgrade the magazine capacity on your rifle, magazine adapters, and interchangeable bottom metals are available to increase or decrease its round capacity.
The 700 is incredibly versatile since it’s one of the easiest rifles to upgrade with aftermarket parts. Because of its popularity, there’s a near-endless supply of aftermarket accessories like triggers, stocks, chassis systems, and optic mounts.
With its simple design, high-quality components, and durable construction, it’s a great rifle for both new and seasoned hunters looking for a new rifle to get the job done.
Coming from Finland, Tikka is a renowned manufacturer of bolt-action rifles and is a subsidiary of the legendary rifle manufacturer, SAKO. The T3x is their flagship rifle, and it can be configured for nearly every scenario, with one of the most popular uses being hunting.
The T3x is a direct upgrade from Tikka’s previous rifle, the T3. The T3x looks nearly identical to the T3, but it has upgraded internal components that increase the strength and durability of the rifle; since the designs are basically the same, all T3 parts are completely interchangeable with newer T3x parts and components.
Like the Remington 700, the T3x can come chambered in many calibers ranging from rimfire/small game calibers to larger calibers tailored to hunting big game. Regardless of what size game you intend to hunt, the T3x is a fantastic option.
This rifle’s popularity has resulted in other companies producing parts and accessories for the T3x, putting its aftermarket parts availability on-par with other competing rifles. However, since they are constructed and imported from Finland, they aren’t as common to find as some of the other rifles in this list. Fortunately, they’re never out of stock for too long.
Even though they aren’t always easy to find, the Tikka T3x is one of the best hunting rifles available; easily configurable and capable of making consistent sub-MOA shots, it’s another great option for those looking to upgrade or get a new rifle.
Winchester’s M70/Model 70 is another great hunting rifle for new and old hunters alike. As bolt-action afficionados know, the Mauser receiver action is considered to be one of the best bolt-action designs ever created, and it’s the action that the M70 is based on.
The M70 was originally designed for military service, and it stayed in service from World War II to the Vietnam war before it was retired. Once retired, it was still massively produced for the civilian market, as its Mauser style action and war-time status made it a popular target and hunting rifle.
As of today, the M70 is still in production, though it is made by FN Herstal’s American facility in Columbia, SC. Like the previous models, it comes in multiple configurations and is easily customizable with different parts and components. It’s common to find the M70 available with a wooden stock, but there are models that come with synthetic ones as well.
M70s have a substantial amount of aftermarket parts available for the rifle, making it easily customizable and versatile for different hunting purposes. Unfortunately, there isn’t currently an option for rimfire or smaller calibers like .223/5.56 and 300 Blackout. However, it comes chambered in many calibers that are perfect for taking down large game.
Savage Model 110
Savage Arms have been making firearms since their inception in 1894. Their most popular bolt-action rifle available today is the Savage Model 110. The Model 110 is a great entry level option, as they are usually priced under $1,000. It even comes in smaller calibers like .223, making it great for small game and varmints as well.
Being in production since 1958, its design has been altered over the years. While it hasn’t seen military/duty use like the previous models, it’s still durable enough to face any harsh weather conditions it may see in the field, and it’s accurate enough to consistently make shots at varying distances. Depending on the model, you can purchase them with either wooden or polymer stocks, with some Model 110s coming pre-installed into an MDT chassis system.
The rifle’s popularity has garnered a vast aftermarket parts availability, with numerous options for triggers, stocks, and chassis systems available for it. If you’re looking for a high quality yet budget-friendly hunting rifle, the Savage Model 110 is a great option for you.
Ruger American Rifle
Ruger’s Ruger American Rifle is another affordable option for those looking for a beginner or affordable hunting rifle. Ruger was founded in 1949 and has been making quality firearms ever since. Their Ruger American bolt-action rifle is no exception and is a high-quality yet affordable rifle. Depending on the configuration, you can find the Ruger American priced anywhere from $450 to $899, making it the most affordable rifle featured in this list, and one of the best bolt action hunting rifles under $1,000.
Like the Savage Model 110, the Ruger American hasn’t seen any military or duty use, but it was designed with precision and longevity in mind. They come standard with a synthetic polymer stock and are either box-fed or magazine-fed. The Ruger American can be used to hunt small and large game, as they make both rimfire and larger centerfire models.
One neat feature on some models is its magazine well. Some Ruger American models use AR-style magazines when chambered in 5.56 and .300 Blackout. Also, they can take AR-10 magazines when chambered in .308, making it one of the best .308 rifles that’s more versatile since you can share magazines with your AR-10.
There aren’t as many aftermarket modifications that you can make for your rifle. While you can still purchase different stocks for them, there aren’t as many compared to the other rifles mentioned. Fortunately, aftermarket triggers are available as well as different optic mounts.
Out of all the rifles mentioned, the Ruger American is easily the most beginner friendly hunting rifle available since it’s one of the most affordable on the list
Choosing your Bolt-Action and Other Essentials
It’s basically impossible to determine what the best hunting rifle is when each one listed is so good at their job. When it comes to choosing a bolt action hunting rifle, there is a lot that you need to take into consideration. Ultimately, before you pull the trigger on purchasing one, prioritize listing out your needs first. Whether it’s aftermarket parts availability, overall durability, weight, or price, take a step back to analyze each model to determine which is best for you.
If possible, check to see if any of your local gun ranges offer any rental firearms. Chances are, they may already have one of the mentioned rifles in their available lineup.
Another point to note, make sure you have all hunting essentials before leaving for your trip. You’ll want to make sure that you have everything you may need in the field. Often, it’s easy to forget something and not notice until you’re on location. Follow our guide on the last minute hunting essentials and first aid gear to kit out your hunting pack.
Being some of the most accurate rifles available, the bolt-action is one of the best options for hunting small and large game. While simple in construction, there’s a lot to think about before buying one, and fortunately, there are a lot of options to choose from.
If you want to customize your rifle, remember to always check manufacturer websites and compatibility charts before buying any aftermarket components. New stocks, triggers, and chassis systems can be pretty expensive, so make sure that what you want to get fits your rifle. Hunting laws vary from state to state, so be sure to check and see what your local laws are to make sure you’re good to go.
With hunting becoming more popular as time passes along, the bolt-action has more than earned its place as one of the greatest hunting rifle platforms available.