The Budget Hunt: Can You Afford to Skimp on the Rifle?

The Budget Hunt: Can You Afford to Skimp on the Rifle?

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If you're lucky enough to draw a tag for a coveted Western hunt, or if you go to the expense of hiring an outfitter, you're probably just as worried about putting a hole in the bank account as you are a hole in the boiler room of a wall-worthy buck.

I mean, why would you risk any kind of rifle, ammo or optic malfunction after investing that kind of time and money on what could end up being one trigger pull, one bullet, one sight picture...one chance?

I've got some good news. Manufacturers are now making budget guns that can save both you and your wallet from nightmares of regret. Some will roll their eyes and murmur: "Obviously." Others will raise an eyebrow and shout: "Prove it!" I decided to set the record straight, or at least prove to myself that it's savvy to save my money for the mount.


Sufficient Setup


I planned to test this theory when I secured tags for an Oregon mule deer hunt.


I didn't take out a second mortgage for a Dakota Arms Model or a custom-built gun. I picked up a Savage Axis II XP, a reliable centerfire in .30-06 that comes with a Weaver Kaspa scope and runs about $400. At the range, I pushed some bargain lead through it, got great groups and decided on the $20 "blue box" of Federal Premium Power-Shok ammo.

I was pleasantly surprised at the Axis' command of the Xs at 100 yards. After a few shots to get dialed in, I piled up three shots nearly touching. Since I knew I could be stretching a round beyond convenient distances in the wide-open spaces of Oregon, I turned the elevation of the scope 16 clicks counterclockwise to bring the impact to 4 inches above direct center.

At that mark, I could use the traditional Multiplex reticle to be dead on at 300 yards with 150-grain bonded-core bullets shooting 2,910 fps at the muzzle, 2,080 at the target. That way the top of the first post would be on at 400 yards and the shoulder of the post dead on at 450.


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With the seemingly constant wind that sweeps the rolling sage grasslands of the Desolation Unit, I really wanted to keep my shots to 300 yards maximum. But it was good to know that my gun would be ready, and that I would be prepared, to reach out to 400 or even 450 yards should I want or need to.

To ensure complete confidence, I practiced on a 6-inch plate 300 yards out until I had sub 2-inch groups. In addition to the rifle, with a pair of $250 8x42 Bushnell Legend Ultra HD binoculars and a $300 Scout DX 1000 ARC laser finder, I was completely outfitted at a grand total of $970.


What was I sacrificing with this budget setup? In terms of confidence, nothing. The Savage rifle is built to operate at the level of a mortgage gun for half the cost.

It's not going to blow you over with a glass-rod trigger. It won't draw jealous eyes on an Austrian chamois hunt. It won't give you stacking groups at extremely long distances and it won't be the lightest gun on the rack. But you'll save several thousand dollars, stem to stern, in one gun more than capable of reliable performance.

Custom-Gun Envy

A true custom-shop rifle is individually made to one's personal preferences. These works of art reflect a master craftsman's vision and all of his experience modifying and perfecting firearms. Expect to put down at least $15,000 for one of these coveted, unique creations.

But if you need to choose between a car and a new rifle, a more feasible route is the semi-custom firearm: pre-built to general specs, customers have a lot of options that give it the feel of a custom rifle without the custom price tag.

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When talking about personalized deer rifles, South Carolina gun maker Kenny Jarrett comes to mind.

"Every part of a Jarrett custom rifle contributes to the total fit and feel that is the perfect combination for each customer," said Jarrett, who has been building barrels and rifles for 30 years.

Jarrett's most famous rifle is his semi-custom Beanfield. You choose the action — Winchester 70, Remington 700, Mauser, Weatherby or any other — and you'll work with Kenny to find the Jarrett barrel, stock and trigger that works best for you. It will set you back at least $5,380. Tell your whitetail hunting camp buddies you have a Jarrett Beanfield and they'll make a fuss to the extent that you're probably going to be in the best stand the next morning.

Can't afford the artistry of this market? You still have options.

High-End Factories

High-end factory guns are much like their semi-custom brethren, but they're mass made. A $3,200 Blaser R8 has the tight tolerances and fine fit-and-finish you'd find on a custom gun. You'll also get innovation for your money: known for its super-fast action, the Blaser uses a straight-pull action rather than a throw bolt. In addition, a Blaser's wooden stock has truly exquisite feathering and burl. They have 11 different quality grades to choose from. Fit and finish is impeccable.

I recently hunted with another quality factory gun, a Sako 85 Finnlight in 7mm-08 Rem Mag. Like the Blaser, it's not a custom-shop rifle but the import costs about $1,700. It's light, solid and extremely accurate.

It was also nice to have that 7mm-08 Rem Mag available, rather than just the 7mm-08, which most factory guns offer. The extra punch of the magnum gave me more confidence when the shot ended up being a long-distance poke. That caliber option is yet another advantage of a gun that's likely out of most people's budget.

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As you can see, there are various advantages to a custom rifle, semi-custom rifle or high-end factory rifle as compared to a budget gun. Really it comes down to the gun's intended use coupled with individual preference.

It's the difference between a Lamborghini Gallardo or a Toyota Camry: both are capable of getting you where you want to go, but one will amaze and delight you while turning lots of heads along the way.

If your bank account is ready for the investment, you can draw profound pleasure from a custom gun. If you aren't ready for the commitment, you'll need to focus your joy on the affordability of a hunt. And believe me, there is enough satisfaction to be found when your plan comes together and you move from your first Internet scouting search to wrapping your hands around antlers that you chose from hundreds of yards away.

For my hunt, that was the plan.

Time to Deliver

Early on day 1, outfitter David Morris glassed the rimrock hillsides that swept down into brushy draws of pine and juniper. We spotted herds of does, but couldn't get our eyes on many bucks. Finally, two bucks emerged.

"There, by the rimrock," said Morris, who was born and raised in the area and knows the Grant Country landscape better than Grant himself.

The buck's antlers were well outside the ears.

"He's a mature four-point," said Morris without any emotion.

The buck was well out past 400 yards and a right-to-left breeze made me conservative about the shot.

"It's your call," said Morris. "You could take him from here, or back out and hike to the top of the rim rock. He won't see you if you climb the back of the hill. You'd get a better shot from above."

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That game plan seemed right. But with the buck feeding uphill, I had to race to the top of the hill before he got there or I'd be skylined. I'd been given the slip enough times from unpredictable mule deer that I know I'd have to hump it to get the shot I wanted.

I took off up the hill with an eye on an outcropping a couple of hundred yards straight up. As I got closer, I crawled into position, all the while breathing hard with a heart pumping full of excitement. I looked over the edge and saw the buck, now a comfortable 275 yards away at nearly eye level. I put the 4-12x40mm scope at 11 power, found the buck broadside with his head up looking at me. I laid down my pack and slipped the gun onto it.

The Pay-Off

Confidence was high as I pulled the rangefinder from my face and put my cheek to the stock. But something was different: While practicing, I could hold steady with no problem prone with my pack as a rest or with shooting sticks.

Now, the reticle would not settle. I was making big circles around the animal. There was no way I could make this shot with confidence that I could surgically place the bullet into the lungs of this fine creature.

I realized I was winded from the adrenalin of the stalk. I risked the deer wandering off around the far side of the rimrock, but I had to catch my breaththe reticle had to float consistently on the vitals before I could pull that trigger.

Doubt — the enemy of any big-game hunter — came into my mind. It wasn't the range, but a cliff with sharp rocks in my gut and a deer that seemed to know something was amiss. In less than a minute, the deer dropped his head to feed. My breathing calmed and the circles got tighter, swirling on the vitals. Morris and friends watched from a distance as I pulled the trigger and saw the big deer drop and roll down the hill to a dead stop.

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The gun, ammo, scope and shooter came together to prove that while custom guns might be exhilarating to shoot and impressive at the range, a moderately priced setup is what can truly put an exclamation point on a hunt.

If you're hunting on a budget, can you skimp on the rifle? Yes. Should you skimp on personal preference? Never.

What's the real standard at the end of the day? Confidence in your setup and the trophy rack it can put on your wall.

Ambush | 300 Blackout

The Ambush 300 Blackout puts the power of the popular cartridge into a wieldy platform for hunters who share an equal passion for potting hogs and deer.

Featuring a shotgun-style fore-grip and a cold hammer forged 16-inch barrel, the Ambush\'s modular design will allow you to furnish the rifle to your heart\'s content. The adjustable buttstock comes in handy when you find yourself torquing a tight angle in a treestand or blind. The rifle is also remarkably light, another welcomed bonus.

Compatible with the standard M4 Bolt Carrier Group and existing magazines, the Ambush is available in black or Realtree AP.

Price: $1,800

Blaser | R8 Professional Success

One of the most innovative and unique rifles to debut at the 2014 SHOT Show was the Blaser R8 Professional Success rifle. The Professional Success is a modified version of the company's existing R8 line-up, which uses the highest quality materials and is built with the highest standards in the industry.

Of course, with an MSRP of more than $4,500, you should expect nothing but the best. Instead of rotating the bolt to chamber another shell, the R8 only requires a quick pull-back of the bolt. The Professional Success uses the same reliable barrel, action and trigger, but it's mounted on an ergonomic pistol-grip stock. The trigger assembly and box magazine are a single, detachable unit, making the rifle one of the safest available. The Professional Success is also available in a left-handed model and dozens of calibers.

Price: $4,500

Browning | A-Bolt III

The A-Bolt III is an affordable way for hunters to own a Browning rifle. It features the same barrel, three-lug locking system and 60-degree bolt throw as the A-Bolt. The free-floated barrel is button-rifled for accuracy, while the chamber is hand-reamed for a more precise headspace.

It also comes with an Inflex Technology recoil pad that makes the gun a joy to shoot, along with a crisp 3.5-pound trigger. The safety is on top of the tang for easy access without losing the firing grip. Accuracy was in the M.O.A. range, with one 100-yard group measuring .83 inch.

The only sacrifice on this rifle is the plastic-feeling stock that just doesn't seem to belong on a Browning. Of course, to be able to sell the gun at almost half the price of the A-Bolt, something had to be reduced.

Price: $599.99

Browning | X-Bolt Micro Buckthorn Pink

This ain't your daddy's A-Bolt. Built on Browning's sleek X-Bolt action, the new Eclipse Hunter has a barrel heavy enough to offer precision, yet not too heavy to carry.

Bedded into a laminate wood stock that shrugs off extremes in temperatures and humidity, it's a tough, good-looking rifle that feels great and should shoot even better.

Ten popular calibers are available, from .243 up through .300 Win. Mag., and weight ranges from 6.5 to 7.5 pounds, depending on caliber and barrel length.

Price: $939.99

Colt | M2012

Colt extended its M2012 line-up by adding three new bolt-action models in partnership with Cooper Firearms. Two stock configurations are available in .308 and one is chambered in .260 Remington.

The guns are ideal for a variety of applications, but they excel in long-range hunting and shooting thanks to a custom-fluted, chrome moly steel, match-grade barrel and a single-stage, adjustable Timney trigger. The .308 and .260 come with a handsome gray laminated hardwood stock and a Desert tan composite stock.

Price: $2,795 - 3,195

CZ-USA | Western Series 550 Badlands Magnum

Long-range hunting is the hottest trend in big game hunting right now, and numerous rifle makers are jumping on the train. CZ is one of them. The company's new Badlands Magnum is made for the wide-open spaces of the west and big game that is so abundant in the mountains and prairies.

Chambered in hard-hitting, flat-shooting .338 Lapua, the Badlands Magnum comes with a 25-inch medium-weight barrel, a recoil-taming muzzle brake and a full-length aluminum bedding block. At 9.2 pounds, it's not a light rifle, but the extra weight will help you stay on target and make a better shot at any distance. It also comes with an adjustable trigger and a fixed four-round magazine.

Price: $2,599

Howa | Hogue Kryptek

Predator hunters and target shooters have the perfect package gun in Howa's Hogue Kryptek Full Dip package. It comes in three Kryptek camo patterns that cover the stock, barrel and even the included 4-16x44 Nikko Stirling Gameking mounted and bore-sighted scope.

The rifle comes with a heavy, 20-inch barrel and is available in .22-250, .223 and .308. It also includes a two-stage, creep-free match trigger, a Hogue recoil pad and a three-position safety. It weighs 10 pounds and comes with Howa's Ammo Boost magazine conversion kit.

Price: $820

Kimber | Adirondack

OK, who can look us in the eye and say that they didn\'t covet the sleek Kimber Mountain Ascent when it was introduced last year? Yet the price seemed steep at more than gallery=266,000.

Kimber has now added a similar gun with a reduced price. The 84M Adirondack looks a lot like the Ascent — carbon fiber stock, Gore Optifade camo, minimalist lines — but costs several hundred dollars less.

It weighs just 4 pounds, 13 ounces. The barrel is a very compact 18 inches, so it\'s no long-range poker. Still, it would be fine for a stand or tighter cover in aspens or pines.

Price: $1,768

Mauser | M12 Extreme

Loved your grandfather\'s Mauser? Then you\'re going to want to get your hands on this revamped piece of tradition.

The M12 Extreme features the modern comforts we\'ve come to expect without losing the classic feel — a synthetic stock with a Soft Touch coating, detachable synthetic box magazine that holds five rounds and the traditional Mauser 3-position firing pin safety that will make your finger feel right at home.

The M12 is a fine piece of German engineering that won\'t punch a whole in your wallet. You can now take down deer with the classic Jaeger platform and have enough Deutschmarks left over to buy a round of steins at the beer garden.

Price: $1,499

Merkel | RX Helix Explorer

The ingenuity behind the EX Helix Explorer\'s bolt-action design puts this rifle at the top of our must-have list. Merkel took special care in crafting a geared system that allows the bolt to travel more than the bolt handle, resulting in a quick, smooth throw for a seamless follow-up shot.

A work of modern engineering art, barrels are easily interchangeable so you can make this your multipurpose gun when a sudden caliber change in the field might be required. The rugged synthetic stock may not be the handsome wooden Merkel stock you are used to seeing, but it will withstand the years of abuse you\'d be putting this trusty rifle through.

Price: $3,295

Mossberg | MVP 762

Mossberg's popular MVP line-up just got a little larger with the addition of a .308/7.62 NATO version. The MVP line accepts AR-style magazines, and the MVP Flex line looks very much like an AR platform rifle, including an adjustable butt stock and a pistol grip, but it's a bolt-action rifle. It's also available with a standard stock.

It comes in a variety of configurations, including a bull barrel, a flash-suppressor barrel and a barrel threaded for a suppressor. The Patrol model comes with a 16.25-inch barrel, a Picatinny rail and a 10-round magazine.

Price: $681 (rifle) or 829 (scope and rifle)

Remington | Model 783 Crossfire

The three things that make the Crossfire nice are things you can't see from across the room.

First, it shoots minute-of-angle three-shot groups. Second, it only costs around $450. The combination of accuracy and cost make this rifle a great value.

Third, it was designed with stability and durability as goals. It has a proprietary cylindrical receiver with a small ejection port — both characteristics that improve the rifle's rigidity and help it produce tight groups.

Price: $451

Ruger | American Compact

In the .243 caliber tested, this rifle would be a good choice for a youth hunter, especially considering its street price is less than $400.

The American Compact has some well-thought-out features. The grip and the forend are particularly well designed. The trigger was very nice. It's also adjustable from 3 to 5 pounds. Price: $449.99

Sako | 85 Long Range

Go the extra distance with the 85 Long Range. When dropping your trophy requires precision with a far reach, the 85 goes the extra yard and then some.

Chambered in .300 Win. Mag. and .338 Lapua, the action is coupled with a Finnish match-grade barrel and bedded into a solid, laminated wood stock.

Designed for hunters who prefer the prone position, the stock features dual forward swivel studs for easy bipod mounting. Sako includes a spiffy muzzle brake at the end of their Finnish steel — a much obliged addition when firing the big ol\' .338 Lapua through such a lightweight rifle.

Price: $2,865

Sauer | 101 Classic XT

Any gun that helps us shoot better is ausgezeichnet, which means excellent. The Sauer 101 Classic XT produces amazing groups. The tightest was just over 3/8 inch, center to center. The trigger is superb, and the stock is über-ergonomic.

Sauer is known for making switch-barrel guns, but this is a fixed, which knocks hundreds off the price. The barrel mates to the action through a heated-fit process: the receiver is super-heated and the barrel is placed into the expanded receiver. As the receiver cools, it contracts and 'œwelds' to the barrel.

Price: $1,400

Savage | Axis II Combo

The Axis II grip is slim and the forend has a generous amount of texture for a solid feel. The butt had plenty of padding, which made shooting lots of rounds a comfortable experience.

For a sub-$500 rifle with a detachable, four-shot magazine, it's a fantastic shooter, especially when the combo comes with a Weaver Kaspa 3-9x40mm scope.

Price: $489.99

Weatherby | WBY-X

Is the youth and 20-something market a worthy target? Weatherby certainly thinks so. The company unveiled its new WBY-X line-up of shotguns and rifles. The bolt-action rifles are built on the same Weatherby Vanguard Series 2 actions and barrels, but with an extreme new look designed to appeal to a younger demographic.

The Whitetail Bonz, for example, uses images of antlers to make a camo pattern; Boneyard Camo Blaze incorporates images of flames on the stock; and the Hog Reaper uses hog skulls to create a camo pattern. There are also use models with adjustble stocks to fit young shooters as they grow. The various models come in a variety of calibers, from lighter centerfires up to .300 Weatherby Magnum.

Price: $749

Winchester | Model 73

The Winchester name is synonymous with history, and the new Model 73 Case-Hardened lever-action will take you back to a different era. The rifle isn't just a historical artifact; it's a straight-shooting, reliable gun that is as fun to shoot as it is functional.

The Model 73 has a full-length magazine tube that holds 10 rounds, a 20-inch barrel and a color case-hardened crescent butt plate, receiver, lever and loading gate. It's available in .357, .44-40 and .45 Colt.

Price: $1,579.99

Thompson/Center | Dimension

The Germans — with their Blasers, Sauers and Merkels — produce excellent modular bolt-action rifles. In the United States, Thompson/Center has been king of the switch-barrel guns.

T/C's latest, the Dimension, lacks the aesthetics of the walnut-shrouded classics from the Old World. But the engineering behind it is world-class. We've used a Dimension in .30-06, .22-250 and other calibers — all the same basic gun — while hunting deer, coyotes and shooting groups at the range.

Price: $689.99

Thompson/Center | Venture Predator

Thompson/Center\'s Venture isn't a new rifle this year. Neither is the Predator version, but it's a gun worth mentioning because it's one of the best rifles for predator hunters anywhere. Wrapped in Realtree HD Max-1 or Realtree HD AP Snow Composite, predator hunters can hide in plain sight in any situation.

Hogue grips on the forestock and pistol grips allow for a firm hold even with gloved hands. The Venture Predator is chambered in .204 Ruger, .22-250, .223, .243 and even .308 and 7mm-08. It weighs just 6.75 pounds, making it a great rifle for hunters who don't mind chasing coyotes and cats on foot. The Predator also has an adjustable trigger, a corrosion-resistant bolt and an available matching scope.

Price: $638

Nemo Arms | Pratka Edition .300 WIN MAG AR

You\'re familiar with ARs in 5.56/.223 and 7.62mm/.308, but last year Nemo, a premier gun-maker out of Kalispell, Montana, went out on a limb and produced an AR-10 that chambers the venerated .300 Win Mag cartridge.

It was heavy at 12 pounds and had a high price tag. So this year, Nemo introduced the Pratka, a 9-pound gun that is closer to the $4,000 range. Features include a 416 stainless steel fluted barrel and a sweet Geissele SSA-E two-stage trigger. Successfully dealing with the higher pressures of the .300 in an AR action made this a substantial engineering accomplishment.

Price: $4,000 MSRP

 

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