What is the best first rifle? Picking your first rifle for target practice or plinking (shooting at small, hard targets) is a momentous and difficult decision. What caliber and round should you choose? What action? What brand? This review will allow you to make an informed decision on all the choices that you need to make, and will give you the top options available, along with their pros and cons. All prices quoted represent what we have seen as average online prices, and are typically lower than MSRP.
What you need to know about your first rifle
- Cost of practice: practicing marksmanship - target practice - takes many thousands of rounds, and you should expect to shoot up to 500 rounds in a session. Ammunition is an expensive resource. In order to be able to afford long and frequent practice sessions, practically all shooters in the US and the rest of the world pick the 22LR round, which combines the most economy with a flat trajectory suitable, for learning marksmanship.
- Repeater vs single-shot: rifles can be single shots or repeaters. A single shot rifle, the most traditional, involves loading a round by hand into the chamber, closing it, shooting, then extracting the brass cartridge by hand out of the chamber. A repeater rifle has a magazine where several rounds await, and requires the shooter to load the magazine with several rounds, rather than the chamber with one.
- Magazine: there are two primary types of magazines, tube feeds and clips. Tube feeds often have larger capacities in the rounds under consideration for a first rifle, but can sometimes tend to jam more. Clips can be pre-loaded, although multiple clips increase the cost of the rifle. Some believe that being able to remove the clip while carrying is better, while others consider that carrying with a clip is more awkward because it can catch branches or other obstacles. While magazines can be made of plastic, fiberglass or metal, metal magazines are in general preferable.
- Action: there are several ways to bring a round into the firing chamber, and extracting the brass after firing. They are listed and discussed below.
- Break-open action: similar to traditional shotguns, this action requires you to open the whole rifle over a hinge, so as to feed the cartridge into the chamber. Very few things can go wrong with a break-open action, but it is also the slowest action: it takes a long time to reload.
- Bolt action: a bolt requires to shooter to manually extract the spent cartridge after each shot. It is the safest action, because it suppresses many causes of malfunction both at insertion and extraction. It makes for the most accurate rifles because it allows for fewer moving pieces and tighter tolerances. It is also the slowest way to shoot, compared to other actions. A bolt can be used on a single shot rifle or a repeater rifle
- Lever action: the lever action allows a shooter to extract the spent cartridge, then insert the new round from a magazine, with relatively good speed, by manually moving a lever back and forth under the trigger. A lever action is safe - although less safe than a bolt action. It is faster than a bolt action but slower than a semi-auto. It can be accurate, but it will not be as accurate as a bolt action. For some reason which may have to do with frontier imagery, lever guns are often perceived as fun rifles to shoot.
- Semi-auto: the semi-automatic rifle uses the energy of the shot to extract the spent cartridge from the chamber and load the new one from the magazine. It is the fastest way to shoot. It is also the one with the most malfunctions, and the one which makes for the least accurate rifles, as there are many more moving parts, along with opportunity for malfunction.
- Rimfire vs Centerfire: in centerfire rounds, the firing pin of the rifle strikes the cartridge at the center of its base, where a primer is located which detonates the shell. In rimfire cartridges, the pin strikes the primer on the rim of the shell. Typically, rimfire rounds are small and inexpensive, and are well suited to target practice because of their lower cost.
- Learning marksmanship: becoming a good rifle shot involves careful and deliberate aiming rather than shooting fast and furiously. For that reason, and to teach younger or beginning shooters the importance of the first shot, it is generally considered better to learn to shoot on a bolt rifle, where the second shot will take longer to set up.
- Metal: different rifle parts can be made of different metals. Regular steel is the traditional metal. Aluminum may be used to lighten the rifle, although it may also impair its longevity.Stainless steel is most impervious to weather and to corrosion in general, although it is also less hard and therefore sometimes results in heavier rifles.
- Metal processing: metals used in rifles may be milled, forged or cast. In general, milled and forged parts are better than cast parts - although there are some exceptions.
- Maintenance: a rifle needs to be cleaned after each shooting session. There are different schools as to how much cleaning is required, some believing that a barrel should not be cleaned overly much. However, many, if not most, malfunctions are due to the action being insufficiently cleaned.
- Stocks: stocks can be made of wood, plastic, carbon fiber, or laminated wood. Natural hardwood stocks are the most traditional ones, and can be truly beautiful, although more expensive - they require the most care. While beechwood is cheaper than walnut, it does not allow you to just send an oil nicks as you also have to stain them - walnut, while more expensive, is best. Plastic stocks are forgiving, light, and very weather-proof, but do not have the beauty of natural wood. Carbon fiber stocks increase the rigidity of the plastic stocks, and sometimes decrease weight, with fairly similar looks as plastic. Laminated woods are very stable, can take bad weather, look and feel much better than plastic, but are typically heavier - good for accuracy but bad for the shooter.
- Iron sights vs. scope: the target acquisition can be made with traditional iron sights mounted on top of the barrel, or through an optical scope mounted through rings on top of the receiver. A scope allows for more precision, while good iron sights can make for faster target acquisition, and can survive a more difficult environment.
- Resale value: good rifles keep a lot of their value if they are well taken care of. Walnut stock rifles carry a premium on the second-hand market.
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