2018's Best Hunting Rifles Tested

2018's Best Hunting Rifles Tested

Find out what we liked and what we’d change in these reviews of 2018’s best hunting rifles and slug guns. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

BOLT-ACTIONS

Browning X-Bolt Hunter | .30-06 Springfield, $899

“XBolt”

Launched in 2008, a little over 20 years after the A-Bolt made its public debut, the X-Bolt made an impact on the bolt-action rifle market. Some of its more noteworthy features are the 60-degree bolt throw, detachable rotary magazine, bolt unlock button, and its recoil inflex technology that helps mitigate recoil by pushing the stock down and away from the shooter’s face. The feather trigger is crisp and can be adjusted from 2 to 5 pounds. Contrary to the classic A-Bolt design, which features a hinged magazine, the X-Bolt features a simple yet well-fitted detachable magazine.


The bolt features a three-lug design: translation, it rotates only 60 degrees, meaning scope clearance shouldn’t be a worry. It’s smooth as butter and it takes no time at all to break in, which helps when you’re running it quickly to get a swift follow-up shot afield. This classic bolt-action weighed in at 6 pounds, 14 ounces, unscoped.

Its barrel is free-floated by bedding the barrel to the front and rear of the action, meaning the barrel does not touch the forend at any point, which improves accuracy. Browning’s proprietary X Lock System uses four screws versus the standard two screws to lock the bases into the rifle. This four-screw approach adds another level of robustness and also increases stability as the attachment points increase.

Overall, it was our “editor’s pick.” It has nice ergonomics and feels quite good in the hand. It fed everything reliably and functioned flawlessly across multiple loads of varying bullet weights.

WHAT WE LIKED: It improves upon a classic A-Bolt design, features a free-floated barrel, extremely crisp trigger and a wide variety of cartridges for whatever game you’re pursuing.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: The proprietary bases and scope rings can be tricky to find.


Franchi Momentum | 6.5 Creedmoor, $609

“Franchi”

The new Momentum bolt-action rifle is Franchi’s first entry in the bolt gun market. As such, one might expect some hiccups, but overall this is an efficient, effective hunting rifle that feels good in the hands. The Momentum also hits a relative sweet spot in terms of weight at 6.7 pounds without a scope (in the 6.5 Creedmoor version tested). It’s light enough to be easily carried afield, but not so light that recoil becomes problematic. There is some merit to a heavier rifle with a heavier barrel for those shooting repeatedly at a bench, but for those who spend considerable time on the move, lighter is better.

Franchi’s Momentum is a push-feed design that features a three-lug fluted bolt with a 60-degree rotation. While gun geeks can continue deliberating on the push-feed vs. controlled-feed and dual-lug vs. tri-lug debates indefinitely, many hunters — particularly those looking for affordable rifles — have accepted the rise of economy-priced, push-feed, tri-lug designs, and the Momentum fits into that category nicely.

I appreciated the Momentum’s short bolt throw at the range, and there was certainly no risk of a hand impacting the scope during chambering or extraction. At first blush, the bolt’s operation felt a little rigid, but after working with the rifle a bit, it seemed to loosen up and become a bit more fluid.


The ergonomic stock is another of the rifle’s high points. The combination of raised curves and crisp — but not overdone — checkering results in a rifle that feels good from a variety of positions. The stock was also very durable and rigid, both good qualities.

One operational feature that I did not find as ergonomic and comfortable was the hinged floorplate internal magazine. While certainly functional, loading the internal magazine was not without difficulty. Concentration was required to ensure cartridges fed back into the magazine securely. Also, the magazine release’s position within the trigger guard felt awkward. That said, I think the increased amount of pressure required to activate the magazine release given its location is a smart decision.

The Momentum’s adjustable trigger also felt good. That, combined with the rifle’s free-floating, cold hammer-forged precision barrel, produced acceptable accuracy for a hunting rifle. Speaking of the barrel, this one is threaded, which is a great feature for those who’ve invested in a suppressor — particularly given its relatively inexpensive price of $609. The Momentum’s receiver comes drilled and tapped for compatibility with Remington Model 700 bases and mounts, so there are tons of scope and mounting options at the user’s disposal. Given its price, the Momentum represents a great economy-class hunting rifle option.

WHAT WE LIKED: The rifle’s stock is quite comfortable from a variety of shooting positions. It also had a pretty solid trigger.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: The hinged floorplate internal magazine did not load intuitively; cartridges had a tendency to get pushed toward the inside of the receiver instead of into the magazine without proper concentration and care.

BOLT-ACTION ROUNDS TESTED

For each bolt-action, we shot each of these loads at 100 yards.

6.5 Creedmoor

  • Federal Fusion 140 gr.
  • Winchester Deer XP 125 gr.
  • Rem. Core-Lokt 140 gr. PSPCL

.308 Winchester

  • Federal 180 gr. Soft Point
  • Barnes Vortex 150 gr. TSX BT

.30-06 Springfield

  • Rem. Core-Lokt 150 gr.
  • Nosler 180 gr. BT
  • Hornady Custom Lite 125 gr. SST

Mossberg Patriot Synthetic | .30-06 Springfield, $440

“Patriot

This is by far the most budget-friendly rifle of the bunch, hitting at $440 MSRP. The design is a tip of the hat to the classic bolt-actions of the ’60s. Its round-body receiver has a streamlined barrel nut with a conventional bolt design with twin-locking lugs on a recessed face that houses the plunger ejector. Its lines are akin to the ideal rifle outline by the king of the modern sporting rifle, Jack O’Connor.

The Patriot’s stock features a open grip radius that is narrow enough, allowing shooters to properly seat their shooting hand comfortably along the edge of the stock. The bolt release is stiff enough that you won’t accidentally actuate it, but easy enough to press to slide the bolt out. There are some iterations of the Patriot line that come fully equipped with a scope. Shallow fluting accompanies the 22-inch barrel. While our test model wasn’t threaded, there are several versions that offer a threaded barrel.

The Patriot lineup has a ton of chamberings. The rifle weighed 6 pounds, 8 ounces; adding a Leupold VX-3i adds roughly 1 pound. Our test rifle fed all rounds reliably. During testing, I dropped the magazine onto the concrete and on impact the magazine spring sent the bullets flying all different directions. This is not ideal if you accidentally drop your magazine in the dirt while quickly loading. Despite the magazine drop, the rifle performed flawlessly. The trigger is user adjustable. Our test rifle’s trigger broke crisply at 4 pounds.

If you’re looking for an inexpensive, feature-rich rifle to carry afield, you’d be hard pressed to find a better choice.

WHAT WE LIKED: Wonderful price point, integral rail makes scope mounting easy, adjustable trigger makes it customizable, and the overall stock design and weight of the rifle makes recoil in a .30-06 manageable.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: Magazine was a little loose and rattled when seated into the stock.

Mauser M18 | 308 Winchester, $699

“M18”

Perhaps no other name is as synonymous with rifle design as Mauser. The manufacturer has a distinguished rifle pedigree of almost 150 years and is most well-known for the controlled-round feed M98, which has influenced rifle designs since its inception in 1898.

The new M18, introduced earlier this year, offers sportsmen an affordable, ergonomic, accurate hunting rifle. It has a push-feed design and a three-lug bolt — not the classic Mauser controlled-round feed. That’s one of the ways they keep the price down. For those who love the controlled-feed, this gun is not for you. But if push-feed is OK, the Mauser is a very interesting option. The push-feed functioned well at the range, with no issues, and the shorter bolt throw of the three-lug bolt was pleasant and quick to operate.

The M18’s user-adjustable trigger performed admirably at its original setting, but it’s always nice to have that added level of customization. Meanwhile, the rifle’s three-position safety permits hunters to safely carry the M18 afield with a round in the chamber without fear of the bolt being nudged out of battery. Similarly useful is the built-in storage space within the buttstock, which makes for a great place to store cleaning supplies.

The stock itself is quite good and features a rugged design. The rifle feeds from a detachable magazine. It weighs in at roughly 6.4 pounds.

Add in a highly durable, cold hammer-forged 22-inch barrel, and the end package is a very capable field rifle that carries a five-shot, sub-MOA guarantee. And with an MSRP of $699, it’s an affordable option.

WHAT WE LIKED: The stock’s ergonomics are great; the soft grip inlays provide a pleasant and secure hold. The user-adjustable trigger is crisp and offers the shooter added customization.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: It’s a little more expensive than other, similar push-feed, tri-lug bolt-action rifles. The magazine release could’ve been slightly more intuitive to locate.

MSRs

Savage MSR 15 Valkyrie | .224 Valkyrie, $1,499

“Valkyrie”

Whether you refer to them as modern sporting rifles, black guns or simply ARs, they have become a staple for hunters all over. Thanks to improved reliability, accuracy and a wide range of calibers, these semiautos are being carried afield chasing game of all sizes. They can be found eradicating the trash pandas plaguing your garbage cans to slaying prairie dogs from a distance or chasing big game.

This rifle was one of the most talked about launches at SHOT Show 2018. You can’t discuss the Savage MSR 15 Valkyrie without addressing its new cartridge.

Many may wonder what’s so great about this cartridge? For starters, it remains supersonic out to 1,300 yards. The .30 Remington/6.8 SPC case, on which the .224 Valkyrie is based, has space for longer projectiles with its trimmer ogives. Long story short, it shrugs off wind drift, drag and gravity well, which means it’s accurate and could be your next varmint slayer.

The MSR 15 features an 18-inch barrel, a crisp two-stage trigger and an adjustable mid-length gas system to customize for your load. It weighs in at 7.8 pounds and with its light-recoiling cartridge, felt recoil should be nearly nonexistent. The Magpul UBR Gen 2 buttstock is adjustable to get your length of pull and the Hogue pistol grip offers excellent purchase. The top rail runs the length of the handguard, which makes mounting iron sights as a backup or to co-witness with your optic easy.

WHAT WE LIKED: Light-recoiling, flat-shooting, accurate and light to carry afield.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: Limited offerings in factory loads. Hope to see more in 2019.

Bushmaster Predator | .223 Remington, $1,159

“Bushmaster”

While not as traditional as a bolt-action rifle, the modern sporting rifle platform is completely customizable. Big Green’s Bushmaster Predatoris chambered in 5.56 and features a 1:8-inch twist, 20-inch fluted extra heavy predator barrel. It also has a nice two-stage trigger and comes outfitted with a Magpul MOE rifle stock. It’s a simple, no-frills, get-the-job done carbine that has everything you want and nothing you don’t need.

If .223/5.56 isn’t your cup of tea or you’re looking for more firepower, there are several chamberings that go up all the way up to .450 Bushmaster.

The barrel is free-floated and fluted to help cut down weight from its heavy contour barrel. The integral flattop Picatinny rail makes mounting an optic easy.

Most often when I’m considering an AR-15 for hunting purposes, I prefer an adjustable buttstock, so that the length of pull is perfect. Typically, I swap out the trigger for a nicer, lighter, upgraded trigger. However, the Bushmaster Predator already has a quality two-stage trigger. I have sent a lot of lead downrange with the Bushmaster and ACR lineup at a training event. I walked away impressed with their accuracy and also their light recoil even in some of the bigger “thumper” cartridges.

I have no doubt that this model’s short 20-inch barrel and overall weight of a little less than 8 pounds would make it ideal for hunting prairie dogs and coyotes; it would allow for fast follow-up shots, if needed.

WHAT WE LIKED: It’s a versatile platform that features a crisp, match-quality trigger out of the box.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: The fixed buttstock doesn’t allow for adjustable length of pull.

Straight Walls

Marlin Model 1894 | .44 Remington Magnum, $789

“Marlin”

It’s a classic gun reminiscent of the Old West, and while you may not be chasing outlaws across the horizon, this lever gun chambered in .44 Rem. Mag. can provide great stopping power for chasing deer this fall. The earliest Marlins were based on patents granted to Andrew Burgess and John Marlin in 1881 and later rifles were the work of Lewis Hepburn’s patents dating from 1893.

The original Model 1894, renamed the Model 94 in 1906, featured improvements from its predecessor, with its side ejector with a new locking bolt and two-piece firing pin. Next came the Model 1894 S pattern, which featured several straight-walled cartridges, including .44 Rem. Mag. While similar to today’s offering, its overall length was 38.75 inches and it weighed a little less at 6.25 pounds with a 22-inch barrel and six-groove rifling and a capacity of six rounds.

The modern-day Model 1894 features a 10-shot tubular magazine, American walnut straight-grip stock, and a 20-inch barrel with deep-cut Ballard-type rifling (six grooves) with a 1:38-inch twist rate. The overall weight, unscoped, is 6.5 pounds.

For those wanting a more primitive option, it features an adjustable semi-buckhorn folding rear sight and a ramp front sight with a brass bead and wide-scan hood. The receiver is also tapped for scope mounts. With its 10-round capacity, light weight and timeless design, you can’t go wrong carrying one of these this fall.

WHAT WE LIKED: It features a timeless design that is reliable. Chambered in a hefty cartridge for big game. The quick-handling carbine is designed for putting lead on targets fast.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: For those with aging eyes, the mere factory sights will not be ideal and replacing them with XS sights or mounting a scope may be imperative.

Savage Model 110 Scout | .450 Bushmaster, $819

“Scout110”

This bolt gun incorporates many of the features iconic with the Savage brand. It features the AccuTrigger user-adjustable system, Accu-Stock rail system, a 16.5-inch button-rifled barrel with a muzzle brake and adjustable iron sights. The Savage 110 Scout also comes with a 5-round Magpul AICS-style detachable box magazine. The soft grip forend and pistol-grip surfaces make it easy to keep purchase on your rifle in all conditions.

As the late Col. Jeff Cooper intended, this Scout version is built for making fast follow-up and accurate shots from various field positions, including off-hand. But ours wasn’t exactly a Scout rifle to Cooper’s definition because it was chambered in .450 Bushmaster, which is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. The classic Scout has to be chambered in .308, according to Cooper.

Many may not consider a Scout rifle as a hunting rig. It can be. As Cooper designed it for “the hunting field or in a military scouting capacity.”

However, there are a few considerations when selecting a Scout rifle. You’ll need a low-power, extended-eye-relief scope. You’ll also need to spend time on the range making certain the optic doesn’t interfere with operation and the sight picture is clear with the integral iron sights.

Paired with the right optic and spending extra time getting dialed in, you’d be well-suited for chasing big game this fall.

WHAT WE LIKED: This rifle packs a lot of features in for a reasonable MSRP. It’s chambered in .450 Bushmaster, which is plenty of firepower for whatever game you’re chasing this fall.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: Finding the right low-power optic with long eye-relief can be daunting.

SLUG GUNS

Winchester SX4 Cantilever Buck | 12 GA, $959

“SX4”

A new introduction for 2018, the Winchester SX4 Cantilever Buck features a rifled barrel, adjustable “rifle-style” (iron) sights, TruGlo fiber optic front sight and a Weaver-style cantilever optic mounting rail that makes mounting a scope simple. The gun is chambered for 2 3/4-inch and 3-inch sabots and slugs. We took a Winchester SX4 for a test drive and were impressed with its ergonomics and oversized bolt and bolt release. The SX4 Cantilever also features a crossbolt safety and spacers that allow end users to adjust the length-of-pull to their liking. This is a major improvement not just for any shotgun design, but especially when shooting a slug gun, as recoil increases substantially from a regular 12-gauge.

Length-of-pull is the distance from the middle of the trigger finger to the end of the buttstock. It’s one of the more important aspects of a shotgun to determine how well the gun fits and likewise translates into how comfortable the gun mounts on your shoulder and directly translates to how accurately you can shoot it. At an MSRP of $960, the price is a bit steeper than some other slug guns on the market; however, if you’re wanting a high-quality slug gun that is feature-packed and lasts for generations to come, you may want to check out the new SX4 Cantilever.

WHAT WE LIKED: Adjustable length of pull makes proper fitting easy; Winchester’s Inflex technology recoil pad and self-adjusting internal valve system helps mitigate recoil.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: The price is a little steep, and it’s currently only offered in 12 gauge.

Savage 220 Slug Gun | 20 GA, $619

“Sav220”

This bolt gun incorporates many of the features iconic with the Savage brand, such as the AccuTrigger user-adjustable system. I spent time afield this spring with the Savage 220T chasing thunder chickens, and it’s a slick little 20 gauge. Set to be released in 2019 to consumers, the 220T is similar to the 220 Slug, except it features a smoothbore and Trulock extended choke tubes.

Originally, bolt-action shotguns were regarded as a “beginner’s” choice or a non-serious hunter’s choice. However, since the mid 1980s, thanks to the introduction of rifled barrels and sabot slugs, slug gun accuracy evolved from 40-yard MOP (minute of pie plate accuracy) to 3- to 4-inch groups at 100 yards. Now with proper setup and range time, Illinois hunters can confidently take large game at much greater distances than before.

Recognizing the trend of increased popularity and accuracy, Savage capitalized on this and built in a lot of features in their 220 model. With a rifled barrel length of 22 inches, detachable box magazine and 7-pound overall weight (unscoped), the 220 soaks up recoil well. The oversized bolt handle is easy to run while you’re behind the scope, and the synthetic stock will hold up to all conditions. With an MSRP of $620, it packs a lot of features into one gun. Whether you’re chasing whitetails or turkeys, you may want to add the Savage 220 and the new 220T to your consideration list.

WHAT WE LIKED: An accurate bolt-action slug gun with a detachable mag, making reloading simple.

WHAT WE’D CHANGE: Recoil can be punishing in comparision to a semiautomatic slug gun. We wish there was an option of a 220 with an AccuFit Stock to customize fit.

CALIFORNIA INFO

California has a specific definition for an “assault rifle.” In addition to the 2001 Assault Weapon Identification Guide, which is a list of firearm models that are identified as Assault Weapons, an “assault weapon” means:

A semiautomatic, centerfire rifle that does not have a fixed magazine but has any one of the following features:

a)A pistol grip that protrudes conspicuously beneath the action of the weapon.

b)A folding or tele-scoping stock.

c)A thumbhole stock.

d)A forward pistol grip.

e)A flash suppressor.

f)A grenade launcher or flare launcher.

To make an AR-15 California Compliant, you must replace the standard magazine release button with a magazine lock button. To be considered a fixed magazine, disassembly of the firearm (which makes it inoperable) is needed to remove the magazine. Breaking open the upper and lower receiver is considered disassembly. A magazine lock requires the rear detent pin to be pulled so that the upper receiver can be popped open, thereby separating the trigger group from the bolt carrier group.

This is the gist of the law. As with any law, gray areas exist. For a definitive answer on California Compliant ARs, consult an attorney. –Alfredo Rico

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