This post will cover rifle choices in depth. If you missed Part 2, it covered cartridge selection.
First off, don't be afraid of buying a used rifle. There are lots of lightly used rifles on gun store shelves and you can sometimes save a bunch of money. There are lots of great used bargains out there in small shops. You aren't going to find a deal on a used rifle at Cabelas most of the time, but lots of independent shops have a good selection of affordable hunting rifles. Lots of these rifles may show some exterior wear while having been shot very little. It takes a couple thousand rounds to wear out a barrel (in general) and very few people put more than a couple hundred rounds through their hunting rifle.
You should look for a short and / or light rifle. For more on exactly why you can read the first post here in this series. A small framed person is going to struggle a lot more with a heavy or long rifle than a larger person, so keep that in mind. Pay attention to the length of pull- the distance from the trigger to the end of the buttstock. Look for a Length of Pull (LOP) number under 13" if possible if the person is 5' tall or under.
Choose a caliber that is robust enough for deer and match the caliber to the barrel length. I have a more detail on that here: (insert link) For a 16" barrel I would recommend sticking to the following cartridges:
7.62 x 39
If you extend the range to 20", consider the above list as well as
For 22" barrels or longer I would consider any of the other cartridges mentioned previously, like 243, 25-06 and 6.5 Creedmoor. This isn't a hard rule, if you want a 16" 308 or an 18" 6.5 Creedmoor than it will still do the job. The trade off will be some extra noise and blast and lower velocity than a longer barrel. Heck, I've got a 20" rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor and a 16" in 7mm-08. I've taken more deer with the short 7mm-08 than any other rifle over the years. But with full power rounds it can be blasty, and I know I'm giving up some velocity and energy with that choice. The cartridge is not well matched to the barrel length, but it works fine anyway.
And as mentioned, I would suggest avoiding rifles chambered in the following cartrdiges.
223 Remington / 5.56 NATO - While this is used to hunt, it just isn't optimal. It doesn't have enough power to make a clean kill if the shot is off.
300 Blackout - This round just doesn't have enough power for clean, reliable, fast, consistent one shot kills on deer.
350 Legend - This may develop into a good intermediate power deer round, but it's brand new and whether it will be around in 10 years is anyone's guess.
Once you have a cartridge or two in mind you can consider a rifle to use it. Or maybe you start with a rifle and then pick a cartridge. Either way works! Certain cartridges are available in certain rifle platforms. You aren't going to find a semi-auto 30-30, for instance.
The rifle types you should consider are:
Lever Action Rifle - a classic deer hunting choice, allows for fast follow up shots, can easily be operated while on your shoulder
Bolt action rifle - the most common rifle today in the deer woods and chambered in the widest variety of calibers
AR-15 - the most widely sold rifle in America for a few years running, very adjustable and ergonomic
An important consideration is whether a rifle has iron sights. Many new affordable bolt action rifles do not have any sights. To use one you are expected to buy a scope and scope mounts, which can easily add $100 or more to the cost. All of the lever actions are going to have iron sights. (yes, Browning and Henry both offer a lever action that doesn't have sights, but the MSRP on those is over $900 and likely not considered for a first rifle) Many AR-15s come with iron sights, but some do not so if you are considering one pay attention to that.
Bolt Action Rifles
At the low end of cost, we have basic bolt action rifles. These rifles can be found as cheap as $250 used and mostly have plastic stocks. The bolt throws will be more clunky and often longer than more expensive rifles. The magazines may require a trick to insert and the safeties may make a loud click when operated. The triggers may be gritty or heavy. Mostly these rifles are perfectly functional and capable, just a little unrefined. Look for youth models with words like "youth", "compact" or "bantam" in their names. These rifles are available in the widest variety of cartridges.
Models to consider in this price point include:
Mossberg Patriot - Offers a bantam model that has stock spacers you can add as a shooter grows.
Savage Axis - The Axis II has an extra safety build into the trigger and may be worth the extra money.
Thompson-Center Compass - Some shoot very well, some do not. The cheapest option in many stores and will do the job just fine.
Ruger American - Lots of variations, probably tied with Mossberg for the nicest overall feel. The Ranch has a 16" barrel and the Predator an 18" - 22".
Models to avoid:
Remington 783 and 770 - both are more cheaply made than other options listed above but cost just as much or more.
Marlin XL7 - No longer available and wasn't very good when it was being made.
If you step up to $400, you can get into a rifle that has a nicer feel and / or fit and finish. This means a smoother bolt, a nicer trigger and a higher quality stock. Will it shoot any better than the entry level bolt actions? Maybe not! They often use the same barrels. But you can get a nicer and smoother feeling package overall. Again, don't be afraid of a used rifle! Models to consider are:
Weatherby Vanguard - Offer several youth and compact models.
Howa 1500 - Made in the same factory as the Weatherby Vanguard.
Howa Mini Action - A bolt action rifle scaled down to fit intermediate cartridges.
Savage 11 and 116 - The accutrigger offers a second safety in the trigger, nice for a new shooter.
Browning AB3 - Brownings budget rifle, but still pretty nicely made.
Remington 700 - A very common rifle available in many calibers in many different sizes.
Remington 7 - A smaller action version of the Remington 700.
CZ 550 / 557 / 527 - Finely made and can often be found at discount.
Lever Action Rifles
To get into a Lever Action Rifle, it's going to cost more than a basic bolt action. Prices start at $350 used and $400 new. If you consider you don't need to add a scope since a lever action rifle will have iron sights, and you can even out that extra cost. Of course if you plan to run a scope regardless, that difference doesn't matter. In the lower price ranges, lever action rifles are available in magnum pistol cartridges and 30-30, so your cartridge choice is more limited than in a bolt action rifle.
The shining star of this category is the Marlin 336Y. This is the youth model of their well known 336 rifle. Available only in 30-30 with a 16" barrel and a youth stock, it can be found for $400 new. If the hunter grows you can swap out a longer stock later on. The 336Y has iron sights and is already tapped for a scope mount so it is easy to add. The biggest downside is 30-30 offers a fair bit of recoil out of such a small package.
My other favorite option in this category is the Rossi 92. These have been offered in the US since the 1980's. New prices start at $500 and they are offered with 16" or 20" barrels in blued or stainless steel finishes. They can feel a little rough when new, but once broken in they are very smooth and fast. These are the lightest and handiest rifles on this list. As well, they offer easy to find low power ammunition choices so you can practice a lot when you aren't hunting.
AR-15's and other Semi-Auto Rifles
Cost on these is going to be comparable to lever action rifles. You can get and AR-15 with iron sights for less than $400, but that's going to be chambered in 223. For deer hunting, we want a round with some better terminal ballistic capabilities. The easiest way to do this is find yourself a lower that meets your requirements, then find an upper in a 6.5 Grendel or 7.62x39 or similar to use on your lower. Buying them seperate can save you $100 or more. You should be able to find a complete upper (which includes the bolt, bolt carrier and charging handle) for $350. Look at places like Mid South Shoters Supply, Midway USA, Brownells, Palmetto State Armory and Primary Arms to find a selection of options. You can buy a stripped lower receiver or a complete lower at a local gun shop, that's the part that requires the background check. Add a magazine or 2 that's made for your chosen cartridge and you are good to go.
The biggest advantage of the AR-15 is ergonomics and part interchangability. They can be quickly adjusted to fit short or tall people, and the weight sits close to the shooter's body. The platform is designed for intermediate power cartridges, several of which work well for deer hunting. For more thoughts on the topic, you can read here and here.
Here is a handy chart that shows which cartridges can be found in what type of affordable rifles. Yes, you can get a $900 lever gun in 308 or a $750 bolt action gun in 357 Magnum, but the focus of this article is about affordable hunting rifles, so examples like that are excluded.
|Bolt Action||Lever Action||AR-15|
|7mm - 08||Yes||No||No|
|7.62 x 39||Yes||No||Yes|
|30 - 30||No||Yes||No|
Which rifle type is better for a small hunter? Any of them. Choose well in any of the categories and you will get an ideal tool. Again, I recommend something with a Length of Pull (LOP) 13" or less and as short of a barrel as makes sense, which will depend on the cartridge. Some lever action guns can be very light and handy. An AR-15 can be suited to fit any body size, from a midget to a giant- it's one of the reasons they are so popular. A collapsing stock adjusts easily to grow with the owner and it's easy to move it a notch so it fits the same way whether you are wearing a t-shirt or a heavy winter coat.
As mentioend there are many great choices today. Good luck!