What makes a modern hunting rifle? A little competition influence, some military sniper inspiration and an infusion of manufacturing technology.
In conversation, you’ll find that people have a rather rigid idea of just how much “modern” can go into a gun … or what accessories could or should go on a rifle to make it suitable for a given task. There tends to be an idea of “this is a hunting rifle, this is a target rifle, and this is a sniper rifle” among most riflemen.
Today, all the lines are functionally non-existent. That might hurt to hear, but it’s true.
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been told that it isn’t fair to the deer to use what I have, but as I will soon address, everything I’m using has been done before: We’re just now seeing better ways to interface these otherwise disparate species of gear.
Right now, we’re in an era of refinement and proliferation regarding support gear, and I think the prophecies I spew here and in deer camp will all come true in a matter of a decade or less. What you see as custom guns here in my photography are my actual hunting rifles, and I believe they’ll all be par for the course soon.
In fact, my gear may get antiquated in a short time. Let’s dive in.
What Makes A Hunting Rifle?
There’s no official definition of what makes a rifle a “hunting rifle.” From a purely cultural angle, a Savage 99 is a classic deer rifle. That much can be said of it. If you choose to use this as your main hunting gun instead of something that takes advantage of modern technology, well, you’re not wrong for doing so. However, understand that, by nature, you are at a technological disadvantage as compared to the efficacy of what I generally carry afield.
Am I a “better” hunter for using all this gear? Most certainly not, but I have learned to leverage new equipment to the timeless game. Again, it’s all about the experience you seek.
Now, ask yourself, is the Savage 99 a better gun than a caplock .54 Hawken? Is the Hawken a better gun than a flintlock? Is the flintlock a better gun than a matchlock? Is a matchlock better than a bow … and so on.
Regression for the sake of nostalgia is just that: regression. It’s no sin to take technology to the field; the first man to throw a rock at an animal started this march and, yes, that thrown rock is technology. You can choose to intentionally handicap yourself, but understand that I won’t. I want meat over the fire, same as my ancestors did 10,000 years ago.
And if you really think about it, we’re still throwing said rocks … just a bit faster and farther.
That Savage 99 was high-tech at the time it was introduced. It created a lasting legacy as a classic and eventually fell out of favor, except with some diehards. It’s a great gun, however, a far cry from the muzzleloaders in common use just a few decades prior. There’s no definition of a hunting rifle other than that which you take hunting, be it a Model 70 or Barrett M107.
Rifle Construction Ain’t What It Used To Be
Rifle actions have changed very little since Mauser developed the 1896 action. The Remington 700 did what others couldn’t and reached a saturation level in the market to the point that its “footprint” (body diameter, trigger inlet, and screw spacing) is now the de facto industry standard. Most large companies are concerned with the bottom line, and as a result, there hasn’t been tremendous innovation in things like “stock” stocks over the years. Thus, aftermarket companies began to step in and experiment.
This level of standardization has created market opportunities that would otherwise not exist for a one-off rifle design, particularly in generating repeatable accuracy. Where this has generated the most excitement has been in material innovation in aftermarket stocks. Each of the stocks in this article is a radical departure from those of yesteryear and essentially guarantee of increased performance.
The interface between action and stock used to be wizardry. Today, the art of bedding and installing pillars is all but vacated except in some high-end custom guns. The reason being that, with an aluminum bedding block or internal chassis, there’s no need to bed at all. In 99.9 percent of cases and from direct personal experience, dropping an action in an aluminum stock/modern internal chassis, groups shrink instantly. I don’t even worry about my groups when I build a gun because I know they’ll shoot: Manufacturing, for the most part, has gotten that good.
Of extreme interest to me is the solid Micarta stock made by Foundation Stocks. You will probably recognize this material as being the same as I use on the various Winkler Knives axes, including other tools and knives I use to supplement the guns in my photos. The material has been used for everything from insulation to electronic components housing and is made from cloth soaked in epoxy that is subjected to heat and pressure.
The machining and quality of the Foundation stock is incredible and it, while being a traditional stock layout, needs no bedding or special attention. I took my well-used custom .450 Bushmaster action and bottom metal and literally just dropped them in, tightened down the action screws and proceeded to take a pile of deer with it. I wish they made a version in green linen—that’s my only critique. You can’t ask for a better modern stock.
Likewise, one of my main bottleneck-cased hunting rifles, a Tuebor Precision titanium action with Proof Research 6.5 Creedmoor barrel, wears a new Manners carbon-fiber LRH stock with internal mini chassis. Again, all I did was drop the action in and tighten it down. This rifle is under 10 pounds loaded and shoots 140-grain Federal Gold Medal Match factory ammo into a truly jaw-dropping ½-inch, five-shot group at 200M. It’s an absolute tack driver, and I did nothing special to it—well, having a 6-36X Vortex Razor on it certainly helps.
As far as chassis designs go, the Magpul Pro folder has been one of my go-to chassis for years. You’ve seen this same chassis in many of my articles, and it has probably housed a half-dozen actions over the past several years. It currently has a Christensen action in it with a USO optic. I put it together for a specific property I hunt where I wanted a 10X max optic with a thick-lined reticle for low light. The aluminum base of the chassis is about as rigid as you can get and, while being a used action I took off a buddy, it drops Sig Sauer 130-grain Elite Hunter loads into a ½-inch group at 100M at 10X.
KRG has been making fine stocks for a while, and their design is also incredibly simple and effective. The stock featured here is on my wife’s 26-inch suppressed .308 Win. While as long as a musket, it’s eerily quiet and can place Hornady 178’s into a ragged hole at 200M. The barrel is by CarbonSix and the action by Curtis. She’s currently waiting on a prototype extended Arca forend for this build.
I trust KRG because they’re affordable and consistent. Twenty years ago, when I was first into precision rifles, I’d have killed for a sub $400 aluminum-based stock when all that was available was the original generation AICS chassis for double that amount.
But, above all, these stocks have the ability to interface with an Arca-Swiss rail. Some are able to do it with an M-Lok adapter, Anschutz adapter or direct integration. The Arca rail is something I will discuss below when talking tripods, however, now is the point for me to make the bet that in a decade all modern hunting guns and virtually anything geared to hunting and field use will have an Arca rail integrated into the stock. This will be less a big deal on AR-type rifles, but for bolt guns, the Arca interface will allow a proliferation of accessories to further enhance performance.
The first thing people usually notice is that all my hunting guns are suppressed: If you can own one in your state, you absolutely should. Pistol cans are fun, and I hunt with them, too, but rifle suppressors are really where it’s at for increasing your effectiveness in the field. So much has been written already, but it’s always worth noting that suppressors not only reduce recoil—when combined with the other accessories you’ll see how effective the entire system can be.
More importantly, what we are seeing now is that most modern factory guns are coming with threaded muzzles. The popularity of suppressors certainly helps, but just 10 years ago threaded models were not the norm. It may seem trivial, but the standardization of muzzle threads is a huge deal. What you put on the end of your barrel can control recoil, mitigate flash or reduce noise—in some cases, all three.
The modern tripod is a recent creation that has had a long evolution. Creating a stable base for precision at distance is difficult and has taken many forms. The most common today is the bipod, but even at that the shooter is something of the third contact point. The rifle is a platform for the projectile—our original stone, if you will. Over the millennia, we’ve become collectively excellent at directing a projectile, and today’s tripods are rugged, stable bases that are vital to a full hunting system.
Shooting tripods are directly evolved from camera tripods and even share their Arca-Swiss mounting interface, but this is a recent development in the gun world. Arca-Swiss camera adapters have been around for decades, and they were developed to address the same thing that they address with guns: stabilizing a heavy object.
Arca-Swiss rails are essentially just a generous dovetail rail with a clamp on the mounting head. During the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and even in the various wars of the 1980s and ’90s, snipers were always trying to adapt new gear to their rifles. Tripods at this time were revised from camera tripods, but these were often fragile and didn’t provide consistency. Rifles were simply set in a V-wedge, sometimes just made of junk.
In the later War on Terror years, dedicated clamp-style head mounts became popular, but these were difficult to use with the rounded forearms of most sniper rifles and AR-based precision rifles. Various other types of mounts were tried, including QD Picatinny rail mounts, but ultimately the already-established Arca-Swiss started to take over, largely because the tripod heads were already available. A wide range of products are compatible with rifles because of how prolific photography accessories are.
In the past 10 years, tripods evolved from flimsy aluminum photography models to heavy-duty carbon fiber with rugged controls. I believe tripods are going to be the most in-demand rifle accessory of the next decade. The market is growing rapidly, and we are seeing tons of add-ons such as caddies for gear and note-taking, their use on spotting scopes and lightweight models for field use.
If you view the rifle not just as a rifle but as a part of a larger system, you see how important the interfaces become. I typically have both Picatinny and Arca mounts on my rifles; I don’t like to have my bipod also be attached to an Arca interface because I like to use the lower-profile QD mounts from Atlas Bipods. In general, what you’re looking at is a completely stable bullet-launching platform that you simply have to align and pull the trigger.
When you have a modern optic, you can zero at max point-blank range and then use your reticle to account for drop. I can easily swap between 260-grain Remington loads in .450 Bushmaster to Hornady 395-grain SubX loads without losing zero or guessing. When suppressed, I can keep my awareness on the environment and listen for the impact of my shots on game.
The Two Vets “The Kit” tripod stows in my backpack, and it can adjust to any position I need, including prone. The added bipod weight also reduces recoil, and I can stay on target easily. What’s most interesting and useful is that, when the gun is in the tripod, it’s in firing position already. I sit back, relax and glass. This layout is so effective that it’s the only way I hunt if I can help it.
On The Horizon
I estimate that in just 10 years’ time we’ll see a complete renovation of the hunting rifle category. Likewise, I believe we will see advanced materials, such as carbon fiber, continue to become more common on factory guns. This used to be a custom option, but today we are seeing complete rifles with this technology for less than the cost of some barrels alone.
I believe that soon there will be factory guns with carbon-fiber stocks and threaded barrels with Arca-Swiss interfaces for well under $1,000 that shoot as well as custom guns do today. There will be a few more years of teething before things become truly standardized, but we’re on our way to the total blending of competition, military sniper and hunting rifles to where the capabilities will be utterly uniform across the board.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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