I often hear from hunters and shooters who only seem to care about group size when it comes to choosing the right hunting rifle, but what really makes a great hunting rifle? While mechanical accuracy is an important attribute, it is far from the only thing I look for in a great rifle. The success or failure of a hunt is rarely determined by whether a rifle is capable of shooting a ½-inch group at 100 yards. More often than not, reliability, balance, stock design, trigger quality and handling features all contribute. Together these features are what separate a good hunting rifle and a great one and in so doing, determine whether a hunt that may pivot on a single shot turns out great or not.
We are going to take a look at what, in my own experience, makes for a great all-around hunting rifle. Our measuring stick will be the Kimber Hunter, a rifle that embodies many of the features I look for that separate good hunting rifles from great hunting rifles.
Size and Weight
Hunting in remote locations can mean packing lots of gear and, if all goes as planned, carrying lots of meat out on the way home. A rifle that doesn't add unnecessary weight to our burden can be a real advantage on the trail. Depending on the caliber, the Kimber Hunter weighs about 5½ pounds unloaded and without a scope or mounts. This puts us at a scoped and loaded weight of 6½ to 7 pounds, which is quite reasonable. With an overall length of 41¼ inches with a 22-inch barrel, the Hunter is also compact, which makes it easy to navigate through brush or timber or handy when used in a treestand.
Controlled Round Feeding
Controlled Round Feeding (CRF), is a feeding and extraction method perfected on the 1898 Mauser rifle. All of Kimber's rifles incorporate Controlled Round Feeding, which is a key attribute of their designs. In a CRF rifle, a large non-rotating extractor holds the cartridge by the rim from the time that it emerges from the magazine until the time the case is ejected from the rifle. This grip enhances reliability and minimizes the chance of a feeding or extraction-related malfunction. This large extractor is also an advantage when it comes to removing a stubborn case from the chamber thanks to the amount of surface area that it grips the case with. The final piece in the puzzle is a fixed ejector that ensures the empty case flies free of the receiver.
Push-feed rifles release the cartridge from the feed rails of the magazine, allowing it to pop freely into the open receiver; held in place by nothing but gravity. The cartridge is then pushed forward by the bolt face until it enters the chamber. Only when the bolt closes does a spring-loaded extractor snap over the rim of the case. Push-feed rifles work fine most of the time, but sometimes, in the stress of working the bolt rapidly, the system fails. In my experience, this usually happens at the worst possible time. With a push-feed rifle, an excited hunter can easily short-stroke the bolt, which can tie things up in a real mess and be a downright liability when hunting dangerous game. With a CRF rifle, this is far less of an issue, the cartridge is under control from the time it leaves the magazine until it is ejected from the rifle and the system will not allow another cartridge into the receiver until the previous round has been ejected.
Is this really an issue? Well, do you want your rifle to work when you finally get a chance at a big buck or bull? A few years ago, I lost a hard-earned 6x6 elk after five days of tough hiking thanks in part to a push-feed custom rifle that had a feeding malfunction at the worst possible moment. With a CRF rifle, I would have likely put a faster follow-up shot into that bull and made a clean kill.
Stock Design and Construction
A rifle can have the most well-designed action and the finest barrel, but if it is not fitted into a quality stock, you'll never reap the benefits. A stock must do two things: fit the shooter and hold the action. Though stock fit can be as individual as each potential shooter or hunter, there are certain things that will work for just about everyone. A stock designed for scope use should have a reasonably high comb to align the eye to the optic and should have little or no drop from comb to heel. The grip should be fairly open so as to allow the correct hand placement to comfortably take shots from improvised field positions — you won't find a vertical grip (designed for tactical rifles) on my hunting rifle. The forend must be long enough to allow for a good forward grip and to facilitate the use of a rest or shooting stick. The Hunter has each of these features incorporated into its design and the result is a very comfortable and very shootable stock.
The second crucial element of the stock is sufficient rigidity and proper bedding. If a stock flexes significantly during recoil or, worse yet, due to sling tension or a shooter's rest, we will not be happy with the outcome. Many budget-priced stocks are horror stories when it comes to this and must either be reinforced or replaced to be useful. On the Hunter, Kimber uses a very rigid honeycomb design that allows them to produce a reasonably-priced product without compromising rigidity. Finally, the barreled action must seat itself in the stock at the exact same position after every shot or it will produce flyers. On the Hunter, Kimber uses pillar bedding to achieve this repeatable fit.
I don't care how accurate a rifle is, you are unlikely to be able to shoot it to its potential without a good trigger pull. What makes for a good trigger? Reasonable pull weight, clean creep-free travel and a crisp break. The Hunter's trigger is user-adjustable so it can be tuned to fit the owner's individual tastes. In our experience, these triggers have no discernable creep and break cleanly at 3.5-4.5 pounds from the factory, which is about right for a hunting rifle.
Yes, accuracy does matter, of course. The arbitrary 1 MOA has long been the measure of what an accurate hunting rifle must achieve, and that's not a bad rule of thumb. The Hunter is guaranteed by Kimber to shoot sub-MOA, meaning that it will put three shots in a group that measures under an inch (center-to-center) at 100 yards. All of the Kimbers that I've tested will easily meet this standard, though I know of many shooters who are not up to that task. It's fashionable these days to brag about extremely long shots. Taking such shots, in my own opinion, should be the rare exception rather than the rule. Candidly, a sub-MOA rifle such as the Kimber Hunter is capable of taking game at any reasonable distance that one is likely to encounter in the real world.
Safeties and magazines
There are some features that can be a matter of personal preference. Safeties and magazines are among them. I prefer the three-position swing-style safety, which allows the user to cycle the action to load or unload the rifle while the safety is engaged, or to lock the bolt altogether. The Hunter employs this classic three-position design on the bolt shroud where it can be easily reached.
The Hunter also employs a 3-round detachable box magazine that allows the shooter to quickly load or unload the rifle. This is really an asset for hunters who spend a lot of time in and out of vehicles and are constantly loading and unloading their rifles.
Hunting rifles are tools and, like any tool, certain features are better for certain tasks. The Kimber Hunter's light weight, CRF action, MOA accuracy guarantee, comfortable and rigid stock, three-position safety and adjustable trigger, makes this an ideal candidate for most of what North America has to dish-out. This rifle checks all of the boxes for me when it comes to a general-use and mountain-hunting rifle. With an MSRP that is almost $500 below the excellent Montana model, you can also add great value to the list of positive attributes.