By Daniel T. McElrath, NRA Family Insights
I remember my first firearm. It was a Mossberg single-shot .22 LR rifle. When you operated the bolt, it automatically engaged the safety. It was an ideal gun for a kid. My father bought it for me on my 12th birthday, just as he’d promised. I can still see him walking toward me down the hall, the rimfire rifle wrapped in a soft case and held in his right hand. It was pure joy.
My first centerfire rifle was another matter, mainly because I had to select it myself and the dizzying array of choices overwhelmed me. I had no plan and no basis for making a rational decision. Well, in the years since, the choices have only expanded and choosing a first centerfire long gun has only gotten more complicated. However, by patiently, honestly asking yourself a few questions before heading to the gun shop, you can greatly narrow your choices and eventually make a wise decision.
Just A Couple Of Questions
The first two questions are the most important. The first is: Who are you? The second: What is the gun’s intended purpose?
Who are you involves both your physical attributes and your personality. Your physical size and strength will help determine how big and how powerful a gun you can handle. Are you short, slender, husky, wiry, etc.? If you’re thinking about buying a centerfire for your child, are they done growing? If so, you might need a gun they can grow into, or one that will adjust as their body changes.
If you are short-statured, manufacturers offer excellent reduced-size rifles such as the Remington Model Seven and the Browning A-Bolt Micro Hunter. Both are bolt-actions offered in a variety of chamberings.
If you’d like a gun that can adjust to you as you grow, the Steyr Pro Hunter has a buttpad with adjustable spacers so that you can adapt the length of pull (LOP). It is available as a full-size gun or in a reduced-sized “Mountain” version that’s handier to carry, regardless of your stature.
In any event, you likely shouldn’t invest in an “elephant gun” right off the bat, no matter how cool it seems. You’re still a new shooter and you want to master the elements of marksmanship. Too powerful a gun is just going to make you develop a flinch you’ll struggle to overcome.
Then there’s your personality to consider. What does it have to do with your with your selection? Well, it can determine what action best suits you. Are you someone who enjoys the operation of complex mechanisms? Do you like cleaning, tinkering with and maintaining things? If so, you might enjoy a semi-automatic. Or are you someone who just wants to shoot with minimal hassle and simple upkeep? If that’s the case, a single-shot or bolt-action rifle may be right for you. Are you a traditionalist? Then you may want to consider a lever-action or slide-action centerfire.
Further, are you recoil sensitive? You would think that would be related to how big you are, but not necessarily. Some of it has to do with personality. There are small-statured shooters who shrug off recoil and not a few stoutly built shooters who dread it.Also, do you tend to fixate on one activity or do you like to try different things to keep up your interest?
And one more point. Let’s be honest. A large part of enjoying a gun has to do with how you see yourself. Are you fascinated by the military? Law enforcement? The Old West? Big-game hunting? Unless you’re getting a gun for subsistence hunting, remember that the “fun factor” is an essential—and valid—part of your decision.
The second question, the gun’s intended purpose, is just as critical as who you are. Do you plan to big-game hunt? Are you going to get into High Power competition? Silhouette? Do you need a varmint gun? Are you going to put together a Three Gun battery? Would you like to participate in Cowboy Action Shooting?
If you have a very specific purpose in mind, great. If you’d like to commit to, say, Benchrest shooting, you can get a highly specialized, task-specific rifle in an exotic chambering and settle in for an enjoyable lifetime sport. However, such guns tend to be expensive and of limited utility in other roles. More importantly, it may just be a bit too early in life or in your career as a shooter to make that kind of big investment and long-term commitment.
A better alternative right now may be to purchase a gun that offers versatility; one that can do two or three things very well and allow you to participate in multiple shooting sports.
When it comes to versatility, the Rossi Matched Pair is a wonderful choice. Sized for youth, this gun lets you switch barrels with a simple pull of a pin, going from a centerfire rifle to a shotgun. The Thompson/Center Encore is also a great bet. This single-shot utilizes an interchangeable barrel system. With the purchase of additional barrels, it allows shooters to choose from 95 calibers, as well as muzzleloader and shotgun options.
And don’t forget about pistol-caliber rifles. A .44 Mag. lever-action, such as a Henry Big Boy, Marlin 1894 or Winchester 1892 Short gives you a gun that can shoot the same cartridge as a revolver you may want to purchase in the future. Moreover, it could serve double duty as a short-range deer gun and a Cowboy Action Shooting long gun.
The gun’s chambering will prove to be as vital a decision as action type. There are a slew of calibers out there, with new ones being introduced all of the time. How do you settle on one?
First off, know that a lot of calibers are functionally redundant. For each possible use, there are usually at least six or eight calibers that can do the job equally well. That being the case, look for chambers that are popular and common. Obscure calibers are fun, but they make it hard to find and afford ammunition. At this stage in your shooting career, you are really best off focusing on the .223 Rem., .308 Win. and chamberings based on the latter.
Why those two? First, they are very popular. You’ll find no shortage of rifles chambered in one or the other. Secondly, both are extremely versatile. The .223 Rem. is used in Three Gun and High Power competition and has emerged as a very popular varmint cartridge. The .308 Win. is also popular for High Power and is also an excellent big-game cartridge for medium-sized game (such as deer), and can even handle quarry up to the size of elk. Moreover, both are military calibers, which means there is usually an abundance of affordable surplus ammunition available.
The .243 Win. is the chambering of choice if you are looking for a cartridge to span both varminting and big-game hunting. Depending on where you live, it may be illegal to big-game hunt with .22-caliber chamberings like the .223 Rem.—but varminting with a .308 may be overkill. The .243 Win. will work for either purpose, with proper bullet selection.
One other chambering to consider is the 7mm-08. This round merits consideration if you are planning to handload, as there is a vast selection of 7mm bullets to experiment with.
The Case For the “Black Gun”
One gun you might not have considered, but should, is the the “black gun”–the AR. This firearm has evolved into a multi-purpose tool that has a lot to offer the new centerfire enthusiast. It is a proven, reliable design that has been refined over more than 45 years. It is extremely popular, so finding parts and accessories is rarely a problem. Additionally, with the advent of flat-top designs with Picatinny rails atop the receiver and on the handguards, the number of accessories for AR15- and larger AR10-based guns has exploded. You can now quickly, securely attach traditional scopes, red-dot scopes, lasers, lights, vertical grips and bipods on these guns.
ARs are traditionally chambered in .223 Rem., but AR-based rifles are now also offered in other chamberings such as .243 Win. (from DPMS and Remington) and .308 Win. (from DPMS and ArmaLite), so, with capacity-limited blocked magazines they are suitable for big-game hunting. ARs can be used for a wide range of shooting sports. And, when fitted with a collapsible carbine stock, the LOP is adjustable to fit the shooter. Lastly, if you are considering entering the military or pursuing a career in law enforcement, familiarity with the primary long arm of both police and the armed services will put you ahead of the game.
Decisions, Decisions …
That said, it’s entirely possible an AR is not for you. You may be better suited to a slide-action Remington Model 7600 or a bolt-action Sako Model 85. They may each be an excellent choice, depending on who you are and what you are looking for. As is so often the case, the key is not knowing some easy answer. The key is to ask yourself the right questions.
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