I own a lot of bolt-action hunting rifles. I have purchased just about every model commonly available in stores like Sportsmans Warehouse and Cabelas. Yes, I have an addiction, but I also do it so I can review them on Backfire.
It can be tough to watch all the reviews and have a sense for where each rifle stacks up on the “Jim Scale”, so in this post, I’ll give it to you straight. I realize some people are going to be upset with this post because I’m very frank about my opinions, but I’ll just say it how I see it.
In our testing, the best hunting rifle under $500 is the Ruger American because it is reliable and very accurate. At $750, I would recommend a Tikka T3X Lite for its smooth action. Around $1,200 I’d suggest the Browning X-Bolt or Savage 110 Ultralight. In the premium category, the Springfield 2020 Waypoint is unbelievably good at $1,900, but it is only offered in limited chamberings so consider a rifle from Fierce if you want more options.
If you don’t want to read this entire post, jump to the section for rifles in your budget.
- Click here to jump to the section on rifles under $500
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- Click here to jump to the section bolt-action rifles over $1,500
You have my general answer, but below I’ll provide more detail and reasoning for those selections, as well as some rifles not to pick.
Hunting Rifles Under $500: Be Careful to Avoid the Junk!
It’s really hard to review rifles in the under $500 category. In this price range, manufacturers use very loose tolerances and have very poor quality control. This means some copies of a rifle can come out working perfectly, and others perform very poorly.
I get a lot of negative comments on my reviews of rifles in the inexpensive price range because I sometimes harp on a rifle that is inaccurate, and many commenters point out that theirs shoots well. So keep in mind as you read my review of these guns that I can only comment on what I have personally experienced with each brand.
I have spent hundreds of hours testing rifles in the under $500 price range. In the end, there are really only two rifles under $500 that I personally think you should consider: The Ruger American and the Savage Axis II.
The Ruger American: The best bolt-action rifle under $500
If you’re going to buy a Ruger American, know there are dozens of different configurations available. If you just go in the store, they almost never seem to have any good chambering options. So I’d recommend just paying for it online. Then you can go pick up in your local store in just a couple days and do the government paperwork and walk away with it.
I recommend getting this Ruger American Predator in 6.5 Creedmoor if you’ll be hunting deer-sized game (or smaller than deer), want to have tons of inexpensive ammo options, and if you’ll also be using it for target shooting. There’s also the option of ordering that rifle with a Vortex Crossfire II scope on it. It’s a good quality scope for shooting out to 300 yards but doesn’t have adjustable turrets so if you’ll want to do some long-distance shooting, order it without a scope.
If you want to hunt larger game like elk, then I’d recommend getting the same rifle in .30-06 Springfield. The ammo is inexpensive and widely available, the recoil in manageable for most shooters, and the cartridge is unquestionably capable of taking elk cleanly. Here’s a link to that rifle in .30-06.
The Savage Axis II: A good choice for youth shooters (And adults)
I prefer the build quality of a Ruger American compared to a Savage Axis, but that’s not to say the Savage isn’t a good gun. It would be my second pick for an inexpensive hunting rifle.
The Savage Axis comes with a unique stock that allows the shooter to shorten or extend the length of pull to your body. This is essential for a youth shooter so they can get their face closer to the scope. Otherwise, they really struggle to get into position so they can see clearly, which can cause them to not mount the rifle correctly on their shoulder, and consequently get them hurt from the recoil.
However, the Savage Axis also has a problem. A significant problem in my eyes. The bluing process they use on the metal pieces is very poor quality and does not adequately protect the rifle from rust. I have two Savage Axis rifles and both of them got rust on the outside of the barrel and the bolt handle.
Keeping the barrel lightly oiled with some good gun oil is always a good practice, and one that I do on all my blued firearms; however, I also take my guns on multi-night hunting trips and don’t always have oil with me for a couple days. That’s all it takes for a Savage Axis to get damaged. Most blued firearms don’t need to be babied nearly that much. Higher-quality bluing is easier to maintain than this very cheap job.
If you’re going to purchase the Savage Axis II Rifle, I would recommend highly recommend ordering this version with a stainless steel barrel so you don’t have to worry about bluing at all. They also have some great chambering options. I’d recommend 6.5 Creedmoor for deer-sized game, 7mm-08 for game up to elk if light recoil is important, and .30-06 if you want to hunt everything.
Rifles to avoid in the $500 Range:
- Remington 783 – The Remington 783 I purchased was downright dangerous. The chamber did not properly fit the cartridge causing stuck live cases, and the included scope had merely 1″ of eye relief which could cause serious eye injury (normal is 2.75″). Remington used to be the leader in gun manufacturing. They went through bankruptcy and now Rem Arms is producing rifles under that name. It could be that, given time, they improve the quality of their products, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Watch my review here.
- Thompson Center Compass – I have heard from a few shooters who like the Thompson Center Compass. After all, they give you a Thompson Center keychain in the box! Who wouldn’t want a free keychain? But their manufacturing is inconsistent. Our copy is not at all accurate, and the trigger was extremely heavy. It’s tough to fault anything that cheap, but I think it’s worth spending just barely more to get a substantially better rifle. Watch my review here.
- Mossberg Patriot – The build of a Mossberg Patriot on the outside looks far better than anything else at this price range. They’re pretty. However, the copy we purchased has significant problems. It shot groups as large as a paper plate at 100 yards. We mailed it back to Mossberg for repair and they claimed it was fixed, but when we got it back… same problem. Most people love their Mossberg Patriots and you may as well, but I can’t give high marks to the gun when our copy failed in testing. Watch my review here.
Unfortunately, I can’t weigh in on the CVA Cascade yet because I haven’t tried it. We have a complete post on the best rifles under $400 right here.
Hunting Rifles Under $1,000: Three great options, 3 okay options, one bad option
There are quality inexpensive rifles being made, but if you step up into the $500-$1,000 price range, almost every option will shoot accurately and have more consistent quality control.
Overall, I think the best three rifles under $1,000 are the Tikka T3X Lite, the Bergara B-14 Hunter, and the Weatherby Vanguard. So how do you choose between them? Honestly, it’s really tough to say, but here are some pros and cons of each.
Tikka T3X Lite
- PRO: Light weight
- PRO: Usually comes with a low-maintenance stainless barrel
- PRO: Superb action smoothness
- PRO: Accurate
- CON: Stock doesn’t handle recoil well
- CON: Most configurations don’t include a threaded barrel
Bergara B-14 Hunter
- PRO: Stock design and butt pad are well-suited to heavy-hitting cartridges
- PRO: Accurate
- CON: Heavy barrel contour and action add unnecessary weight for hunters
- CON: Most configurations don’t include a threaded barrel
- PRO: Very rigid stock
- PRO: Cerakoted barrel reduces maintenance
- PRO: Accurate
- CON: Sometimes hard to find the chambering you want since they tend to favor their own overbore Weatherby cartridges
- CON: Most configurations don’t include a threaded barrel
Tikka T3X Lite
I’ve been a little coy about recommending one specific rifle in this price range because it’s a tight race. However, I’ll simply leave this anecdote. A friend texted me last week and said he had a $750 budget for a first hunting rifle and asked me what he should buy. I stewed over it for a minute but he made me answer, and I said to go with the Tikka T3x Lite.
The Tikka T3X Lite comes with an absolutely fantastic action. The Tikka action is by far the best in this price point because it cycles ammo perfectly, has a silky smooth bolt slide, and is manufactured to a high tolerance so every last one I pick up feels just as good as the one next to it. The action quality, as well as the barrel, produces a very accurate rifle.
There is one drawback to the Tikka T3x Lite. It doesn’t handle recoil well because of the stock design. In our testing, we had all of the guns chambered alike, but as soon as any of the reviewers shot the Tikka after shooting the other rifles, they all commented that the recoil felt heavier. The stock is not very rigid, the butt pad is too stiff, and the stock geometry is only acceptable.
So in general, pick the Tikka T3X Lite if you want a lightweight rifle with a fantastic action, and you’re going to be shooting cartridges lighter than a 7mm Rem Mag or .30-06.
Bergara B-14 Hunter
There really isn’t much to complain about on a Bergara B-14. The rifles are accurate, reliable, and built well. However, they really don’t get enough attention from hunters–mostly because they make few attempts to really stand out from the other rifles on the shelf.
They look standard, don’t include fluting on the (rather beefy) bolt or the (rather beefy) barrel, the action and barrel are just blued, the trigger is fine but not outstanding, the action is quite smooth but not as smooth as a Tikka.
Don’t get me wrong. I like the Bergara B-14 hunter. Actually, I like it a lot. It’s one of the best 3 out of 8 rifles we tested in this price range. It’s just tough to get excited about because it has no single stand-out feature. It just does everything reasonably well. It’s like the girl you almost dated because you were such good friends and got along with great, but just never could fall in love with.
People harp on me for recommending the Weatherby Vanguard because it’s essentially the same thing as a Howa 1500, but costs more money. Sure, it’s the same action and barrel, but it’s dressed up completely differently, and I think it changes the gun significantly.
The Weatherby Vanguard comes in several different editions. The one I tested was in Badlands camo, and is probably the most common edition I see on store shelves. The stock feels like it is created of a very tough polymer. It feels almost as rigid as concrete, and that’s a good thing.
The also Cerakote the barrel which lowers the need for oiling the metals on your gun, and protects it in rainy or otherwise wet conditions.
In our testing, the Weatherby Vanguard shot the most accurately, although the difference between it, the Bergara and the Tikka was so small that I doubt we could call it statistically significant.
The Vanguard does come in quite a few cartridges, but retail stores will only give them so many spots on the shelves, and since Weatherby is always pushing its own cartridges, it’s common to not find the chambering you’re looking for without special ordering it.
Other Options Under $1,000
If the Tikka, Bergara, and Weatherby offerings still aren’t meeting your needs, there are other choices for you to consider.
Savage 110 Switchback – The Savage 110 comes in many different models, but the Switchback that we tested did not convert us to Savage in this price point. It was very inaccurate and poorly designed.
Howa Hogue – Picture the Weatherby Vanguard. Remove the Cerakote and the cool paint job. Now remove the well-constructed and rigid stock. Replace that stock with a giant high bouncy ball (shaped like a rifle stock). You now have a Howa Hogue. The stock is not at all rigid, which is likely what caused our accuracy issues. It also looks and feels really cheap. There are Hogue rifles built with other stocks, but the one we tested doesn’t get Backfire’s recommendation.
Kimber Hunter – The Kimber comes with a controlled-round feed which is rare to see in this price point. It’s a good action as long as you aren’t too ginger with the bolt as you cycle rounds. It’s also an accurate gun and extremely light weight. However, I hate the stock design. It’s an old-school sporter stock in a very light rifle, so it’s tough to shoot accurately in a typical hunting situation.
The Rifle to Avoid: The Remington 700
It’s borderline heresy to tell another shooter to avoid the Remington 700. The Rem 700 has been the de facto standard hunting rifle for many decades. Most all other hunting rifles are patterned after the Remington 700.
However, Remington simply isn’t producing quality products anymore. They went through bankruptcy and have emerged as a spun-off rifle company called Rem Arms. They have made a lot of noise about how they are going to clean up the reputation and start producing quality products, but I’ve heard that for years. I’ll believe it when I see it.
I’m not a Remington hater, at all. If Remington starts producing a better rifle than the other options on the gun shelf, I’ll be thrilled to buy one and recommend it. But until then, do not buy a Remington 700 unless you’re planning to do significant work to the gun and use it as a platform for a custom build.
Best Bolt-Action Hunting Rifles Under $1,500
There are several manufacturers producing rifles in the $1,000 to $1,500 price range, but the options are more limited than in some of the cheaper price ranges.
In my opinion, the best options around $1,200 are the Browning X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed, the Savage 110 Ultralight, the Bergara HMR, and the Sig Sauer Cross.
First, let’s discuss the Bergara HMR. It’s an excellent rifle for long-range shooting, but it’s just too heavy in my opinion for most backcountry hunting situations. In fact, that goes with most of the offerings from Bergara. They make a great rifle, but except for their Mountain 2.0 rifle (around $2,000), they just don’t seem to be creating light enough rifles to suit today’s shooter. Plus, they have a maddening insistence on not threading barrels even on most of their high-end rifles. Almost every shooter I see today uses some kind of muzzle device.
The Sig Cross: Excellent, but manufacturing quality is inconsistent
I had the hardest time reviewing the Sig Cross. The copy of the rifle that I received was excellent in almost every way. It shot nice little groups, the build quality was excellent, and the folding stock made for a supremely portable rifle.
However, too many other reviewers have received lemon copies of the Sig Cross. There was the NutnFancy review of the Cross early on showing an extremely dangerous instant-recall-inducing trigger malfunction. Then the Military Arms channel did a review showing another dangerous condition with a safety that didn’t quite get into position when selected.
Also, I do feel like Sig went too short on the barrel length for this gun. A 16″ or 18″ barrel depending on cartridge will significantly download your cartridge. In a hunting situation, that’s a bad thing. I really like a short barrel, but I think they went 2″ too short in my opinion.
For me personally, I love my Sig Cross. My 10-year-old won’t hunt with anything else. It’s an amazing gun. I just have a hard time recommending it when I’ve seen too many people receive guns with problems. Watch my review of the Sig Cross here.
Tikka T3X Lite Veil Wideland
I really like the Tikka Veil Wideland chambered in 6.5 PRC. It comes with a popular veil camo pattern on the stock (though I wish they had made the grips to match the camo), a Cerakoted barrel, fluting on the bolt and barrel, and a threaded barrel.
However, I do feel like it’s missing some things in this price point. No carbon fiber barrel or stock, the stock doesn’t have a high enough comb for a good cheek weld, and the butt pad is far too stiff to be effective. Also, the trigger comes in at 4 lbs, 7 oz which is about twice as heavy as most serious shooters prefer.
Savage 110 Ultralight
I love this gun. It comes with a Savage Accustock which has metal to reinforce the structure of the polymer stock, and has adjustable length of pull and comb height to make it fit well. The standout feature of this gun, though, is certainly the Proof Research barrel. That’s a $900 barrel on a gun you can buy for $1,200. Very impressive.
The only things I don’t like about the Savage 110 Ultralight is the very plasticy magazine and mag well. It did affect some feeding and putting in the mag is a chore. I wouldn’t call the feeding unreliable, but it’s not as reliable as the X-Bolt or the Tikka.
Browning X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed
The Browning X-Bolt in Hell’s Canyon Camo has been so popular that Browning now makes the rifle in about two dozen different configurations. They all use essentially the same barreled action and stock material, though. So I’ll review the X-Bolt as if it’s one gun, and you can decide what configuration is best for you.
The Browning X-Bolt has a tremendous action. It feeds extremely reliably. I also am a fan of Browning’s 4-screw-per-ring system for attaching a scope ring. Also, the styling of the Browning is by far the best in this price range.
There really is only one thing that I don’t like about the Browning X-Bolt. The trigger! Don’t get me wrong. It’s a premium quality trigger (hello, the blade is gold!), but the trigger is simply too heavy for accurate shooting in my opinion. The copies I’ve tested had a trigger pull weight of about 4 pounds, 5 ounces. (See more in my video review)
So should you buy a Browning X-Bolt? Yes! Just plan to pay an additional $175 on a Timney trigger that you can easily add into the rifle with no gunsmithing skill necessary. It’s easy. My 10-year-old did it for me (not kidding).
Jim, You Gotta Come Up with a Winner for the Best Rifle Under $1,500
Argh. It’s so hard to decide between a Savage 110 Ultralight and a Browning X-Bolt Hell’s Canyon Speed. I own both and really only pick up one or the other depending on chambering.
I like the Browning X-bolt for looks, a better butt pad, and more options of configurations. I’d pick the Savage 110 Ultralight for that Proof barrel and weight. The Browning X-bolt feeds more reliably than the Savage, but the Savage has a better trigger.
I. Just. Can’t. Decide!
Best Bolt-Action Hunting Rifles Over $1,500
This is probably the easiest section of this post to write. If you’re buying a rifle between $1,500 and $2,500, I can sum up my recommendation in just 5 words: get the Springfield 2020 Waypoint. Period.
The only problem with a Springfield 2020 Waypoint is they don’t offer it in enough chamberings. If they sold one in 7mm SAUM using a long action and long enough magazine to give me full freedom to reload, I’d buy one so fast it’d scare the neighbors.
I don’t say that lightly. I’m well aware that there is stiff competition in the “semi-custom rifle” category. The Bergara Mountain 2.0, Kimber Mountain Ascent, Bergara Premier, Browning X-Bolt Pro, Seekins Havac, Weatherby Mark V, Fierce Edge, Christensen Ridgeline, and others are all rifles I’m familiar with. Still, it’s the 2020 Waypoint in my opinion. Watch my full review of the Springfield 2020 Waypoint.
Having said that, in this price range, a lot of the decision is matching the rifle to your unique circumstances and preferences. So, here are my quick thoughts on some of the competition for the best premium factory rifle under $2,500.
Christensen Ridgeline – So many people have asked me to review one, and I just can’t justify spending $2,000 on one because I’ve heard so many reports of inconsistent manufacturing quality. Some people get a good one, others get a lemon. So if I review it and love my copy, I’d be convincing people to buy one and they very likely may not have the same experience. Christensen needs to improve its quality control in my opinion. Plus, it uses an old-school sporter stock that just isn’t what today’s long-range shooter is looking for.
Christensen MPR – I came so close to buying an MPR a couple weeks ago. Of all of the guns Christensen produces, the MPR is by far the best in my opinion. The thing that keeps me from buying is that when I watch reviews, it’s the same story. They are just sending too high of a percentage of lemons out the door. But boy that MPR looks good.
Browning X-Bolt Pro – I like the X-Bolt Pro. I owned one in .28 Nosler and it was a very poor choice for that heavy-recoiling of a cartridge. It’s a good option for light cartridges, but the light weight and stock design don’t make for a good match on heavy cartridges. Also, I think the X-Bolt Pro just isn’t bringing enough to the table for doubling the price over a regular X-Bolt. In today’s market, it needs a more modern stock design, carbon barrel, and premium trigger to be worth the price they are asking. Watch my review here.
Kimber Mountain Ascent Subalpine – I just don’t like the Kimber Mountain Ascent. I owned one and sold it. The controlled-round feed action is great. People say it’s the most consistent action, but I only sort-of agree. I think in theory controlled feed is better, but they also generally don’t feed well (or at all) if you try to feed by dropping one in, rather than mag feeding. Also, it works great if you quickly manhandle the action. If you go slow while trying to be quiet in a hunting situation, it may not feed right. Also, the very aged sporter stock design doesn’t lend itself well to shooting long range–especially in such a light rifle. It’s not for me. Watch my review here.
Fierce Edge – I really like my Fierce Edge chambered in 7mm Rem Mag. Of all the rifles I own, if you just said “Grab a rifle and go hunting” without any more specifics of where I’d be hunting or what I’d be hunting, I’d grab that rifle. However, a big part of that is because they don’t make a Springfield 2020 Waypoint in 7mm Rem Mag (yet). Fierce rifles are accurate, built well, look great, come with good triggers, and feed perfectly. They are also increasing in price. If you find one in the chambering and configuration you want, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a Fierce rifle. Watch my review here.
Weatherby Mark V – Weatherby makes a fantastic rifle. Every Weatherby I’ve ever shot has been exceptionally accurate and well-built. I rarely hear manufacturing quality concerns about Weatherby rifles. Really, the only thing that keeps me from owning more of them is that I can rarely find them in the chamberings I want. Weatherby pushes their own proprietary cartridges really hard, and since they produce a lot for their own cartridges, they seem to be slow to adopt the more mainstream cartridges. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a Weatherby if you find one in a cartridge you like, or if you don’t mind shooting Weatherby’s overbore cartridges.
There are so many other options to consider, but hopefully, that gives you a solid starting place if you’re looking for a premium hunting rifle.
I’m holding my breath for the comments section on this post. I know there will be a lot of hate because I’ve been very frank about my opinions, but I test so many rifles that I just wanted one single post that I keep up to date where I can just say it how I see it without any politically correct crap.