Some questions to ask yourself before choosing which hunting rifle to buy is, which game animals will it be used for, at what range will it be used at, and how important are quick follow-up shots?
The bolt action is the most popular action available. It is the strongest and generally the most reliable, and comes in the most available chamberings. It’s also the most inherently accurate action, so is best suited for hunting where long shots may present themselves. When fitted with a quality scope of moderate to high power, and chambered in a flat-shooting cartridge such as 25-06 Rem, 270 Win, 30-06 Springfield, or 300 Win Mag, a bolt action rifle can be used out to 300 yards and beyond, for game such as deer, pronghorns, elk, bear and mountain sheep. The bolt action also makes the most sense as a varmint hunting rifle. They will deliver the fine accuracy needed for these small targets, which are usually shot at long distances. Some fine varmint chamberings are 17 Rem, 204 Ruger, 223 Rem and 22-250 Rem.
The strength of the bolt action, makes it the best choice for hunters who intend to handload their own ammunition. When a hunter loads his own ammo, he is in-fact producing ammo tailor-made for the rifle it is being used in. The result is usually considerably more accurate and powerful loads, at a cheaper cost.
Some people may be quick to say that a bolt action is slow to fire for follow-up shots. The fact is that in the hands of a well-practiced bolt gun user, the difference in speed between it and other actions such as pump action, lever action and even semi auto, is slight. For quick shooting with a bolt action, the rifle should not be brought down from the shoulder between shots. Instead the action should be work immediately after the trigger is released and while the gun is still in recoil. When used this way, the bolt action is plenty fast for most situations.
The level action is most often chambered in larger caliber, slower moving cartridges, some of which are 30-30 Win, 444 Marlin, 450 Marlin and 45-70 Govnt. The accuracy, although good enough for their intended use, is usually not as good as a bolt action. The exception is Browning’s BLR which is chambered in faster cartridges such as 270 WSM, 7mm Rem Mag and 300 Win Mag, and is capable of very good accuracy, often as good as a bolt action.
The lever action is a fine and reliable action generally best suited for close cover hunting where fast follow-up shots are often needed. They are available with short barrels, making them ideal for use in close quarters such as in thick brush. This type of hunting may include eastern deer and hog hunting or moose hunting up north, as well as grizzly and brown bear hunting. Many lever actions can be easily fitted with a scope sight, although many users of these rifles, and rightly so, prefer to use the supplied open 303 British ammo sights.
The pump action as a hunting rifle is not as popular as the other actions although they can be very reliable. They are available in standard cartridges from 243 Rem to 30-06 and make an especially good choice for hunters who are used to using pump action shotguns for waterfowl. The accuracy are about as good as a lever gun and they are well suited for the same type of hunting as well. Remington has been manufacturing their model 7600 for many years and has a dedicated following.
The semi automatic is the king when it comes to fast followup shooting. They are ideal for hunting in close quarters for deer or moose while drive hunting, where shots at moving animals are traditionally taken. Available calibers range from 223 Rem on up to 300 WSM and 338 Win Mag, as in the Browning BAR. The accuracy can range from quite good to outstanding for ARs and semi custom guns. An advantage of the semi auto action is that they generally recoil less compared to other action types because some of the energy is used to work the action. Disadvantages are that they may be a little on the heavy side and can sometimes jam if not properly cleaned on a regular basis.