Hunting Rifles: The Basics

The ABCs of Hunting Rifles

Also available in: French

The firearm you choose for your hunting session won’t do all the work for you, but it’s certainly the most important piece of equipment you’ll need. A good rifle provides safety, comfort, handling and accuracy. While shopping for a firearm can be intimidating, especially if it’s your first time, there are some basics that will help you focus your search and get the best advice for your needs.




Article written in collaboration with FedeCP.


This article provides an overview of the main things you need to know to start your search for a hunting rifle.

  1. Rifle or shotgun?
  2. The right rifle caliber according to your needs
  3. The mechanisms of a rifle
  4. The comfort
    1. Weight
    2. Stock length
    3. Butt plate

Go to one of our stores to ask for advice and start comparing different rifle models online.

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Hunting rifle or shotgun: What are the differences?

If you are new to the world of firearms, the first distinction to make is between a rifle and a shotgun.

The shotgun

The gun has a smooth bore barrel, so if you look inside with a light, you will not see any grooves. The rifles are made to project several pellets (shots) which are contained in the cartridge.

Imagine throwing a handful of marbles, then throwing a baseball. You’ll reach a larger area with the marbles, but you’ll have more power and accuracy with the ball. Rifles are therefore useful for reaching a larger area if you are hunting birds with small home ranges that do not require a lot of force, such as partridges, migratory birds or wild turkeys.

The caliber of the gun represents the amount of identical pellets that can be created with 1 lb of lead. The smaller the caliber number, the larger the caliber of the gun. This is why a 28 gauge shotgun shell is smaller than a 12 gauge shell.

The most common rifle calibers are 10, 12, 16, 20, 28 and .410.

The exception: the .410 is also a rifle, but does not use the same system to express caliber. It is the measurement of the diameter of a bullet.

The rifle

The rifle has a barrel with a twisted core, which means that grooves form spirals inside the barrel. This is what gives the projected bullet a spinning motion. The caliber of the rifle is a measurement, usually in inches, of the diameter of the barrel bore, e.g. .22, .270, .308.

Keep in mind: in writing, these calibers have a dot before the number since they are tenths, hundredths and thousandths of inches, but they are not pronounced. When you go shopping, you will speak of :

  • .22: twenty-two
  • .30-06: thirty zero six
  • .223: two twenty-three
  • .300: three hundred

As in all fields, each company innovates to offer better products to its customers. That’s why you will see calibers associated with a brand like Remington, Winchester or Weatherby: .223 REM, .270 WIN, .300 WBY.

Be aware, even if they have the same number, the ammunition is not interchangeable, because the cartridges have a different shape. Ex: .300 Savage and .300 WIN MAG

The exception: guns can also have a twisted barrel. Often, you will find guns with interchangeable barrels. You can use a smooth barrel to hunt birds with shot and a twisted barrel to hunt big game with a single bullet.

How to choose the right rifle caliber according to your needs and your hunting habits

The first consideration when choosing a hunting weapon is the regulations. You can consult the table of authorized firearms by species for Quebec and the summary of firearm restrictions by date and species for Ontario to get a general idea.

Specificities of big game hunting

In the case of moose, white-tailed deer and black bear, rifles of .243 caliber or higher are authorized in Quebec. In short, .22 and .223 caliber rifles are not powerful enough to be used for big game hunting.

Then, do a quick search on the Web to consult the various tables of suggested calibers according to the species.

For example, here is a table that presents the most common calibers for hunting game in Quebec.

Type of game Deer Black bear/moose Small game
Caliber .308 / .30-.30 /
.32 special / .303
.30-06 /
.270 / .303

Ultimately, what will serve you best is to evaluate the type of hunt you will be doing: a stalk on a bait at 100 yards? A fine mountain hunt – defined by long strolls and variable shooting conditions – where the animal may be 300 yards away? A cache hunt where your clear field of vision is limited to 40 meters? This way, you will be able to ask for precise advice on the shooting range of a weapon and ammunition.

Above all, don’t be fooled by the preconceived notion that the bigger the better. Remember that a large caliber gun can have impressive recoil and that you need to be comfortable with your gun to fire multiple rounds at the range. Your accuracy is your best asset.

Note on the MAGNUM qualifier

The term MAGNUM associated with the caliber is very attractive because it is attributed with a superior power. This was true fifty years ago, but today the term does not correspond to a precise standard and is often used for marketing purposes. SUPER, HEAVY or ULTRA are also added in an attempt to make power distinctions. Again, focus on your needs.

Specificities of small game hunting

For small game, rifles with side-fire ammunition are preferred. These are the .22 and .17HMR calibers.

Although they are allowed for small game hunting, rifles are not the weapon of choice because they add a considerable level of difficulty. You will have to hit a very small area with a single shot.

Depending on your skills, they can be a very motivating challenge.

However, these rifles remain a must for beginner shooters since recoil is almost non-existent and ammunition is inexpensive. You can take the time to practice your shooting positions and breath control without spending a fortune at the range.

The 3 main mechanisms of a rifle

Modern rifles offer three main mechanisms: latch, lever action and semi-automatic.

  • Latch
    • The latch mechanism is simple and allows you to put another ball back into the chamber with little movement. Keep in mind, however, that the bolt must be placed on the correct side depending on whether you are right or left handed.
  • Lever action
    • The lever mechanism is equally usable by left and right handed shooters, as it operates the same way regardless of the side. However, you must plan your shooting position, as the lever requires a good clearance under the weapon to be operated.
  • Semi-automatic
    • The semi-automatic rifle offers a superior shooting speed to the others, because the weapon is reloaded without any other movement than the pressure on the trigger. For this same reason, it requires a great deal of vigilance on the part of its user. This is not the mechanism to choose if you are just starting to get familiar with firearms.

Comfort: a factor to consider

A good advisor will help you find a firearm that you will be comfortable using under the specific conditions of your hunt. Here are three things to keep in mind when choosing a firearm, as they can affect your comfort level.

  • Weight: the heavier the weapon, the less recoil you will feel, but the more difficult it will be to carry if you walk long distances on your hunt. Choose a weapon whose weight will not reduce your pace too much.
  • The length of the stock: for better stability when shooting, the stock of the rifle must be adapted to you. One way to check this is to press the butt plate into the crook of your elbow and check if your index finger can easily pull the trigger.
  • The butt plate: a simple rubber butt plate will be sufficient to absorb a good part of the recoil on the usual hunting calibers. If you receive an old firearm that has been passed down from generation to generation, the butt plate may be made of metal. Feel free to replace it with a rubber butt plate and have the stock length adjusted.
    • The muzzle brake is another accessory used to reduce recoil. However, it is more commonly used for very powerful calibers like .300 WIN MAG. It is unlikely that you will use this accessory when buying your first hunting rifle.

Don’t be tempted by the desire to impress. Comfort is the name of the game when buying a rifle. The right caliber and mechanism will make you want to go back to the range and make your hunting trips more enjoyable. Once you have chosen your rifle, make sure you have mastered some basic skills before using it.

Also available in: French