July 26, 2022
By Haynes Shelton
Recently, while on a hunt in Wyoming, I walked into a hardware store in a small town. Looking for a few odds and ends, I wandered through the aisles and eventually made it to the back of the store. There, I was surprised to find a sporting goods section filled with hunting gear, including archery equipment, ammunition and firearms.
My mundane shopping venture became interesting when I spotted a wall full of used bolt-action rifles, all old ones with wood stocks. Like a magnet, the shiny blued barrels, beautiful walnut furniture and old-school riflescopes sucked me right in.
On the bottom rack, right beside a stunning Weatherby Mark V Deluxe in .338 Win. Mag., was something I’d never seen before. A circa 1960s Browning FN High-Power Medallion in .30-06 Springfield. I’ve read a little about these guns before, so I could tell the rifle was a Belgium import that featured the famous Mauser 1898 pattern action.
What a cool, beautiful gun, I thought. Its glossy stock was patinaed and worn in all the right places, but overall, it still had plenty of that “luster” the old guns are famous for. The bluing was in good shape, too, and the iconic gold trigger was shining proudly.
I stared at that Browning for a while and imagined the stories it could tell. I pictured it riding in a scabbard on a horseback hunt, or maybe slung over a shoulder on a deer drive.
I’ve always loved old rifles and all vintage hunting gear. I think that stuff connects us with days gone by. It’s all part of hunting history that’s tangible. Just like photographs or taxidermy, tried and true hunting gear has the power to bring back memories.
Daydreaming about that High-Power, I realized something neat that’s been on my mind ever since: Someday, today’s rifles will be the classics. The rifles of our era, the ones in our gun safes right now, will be drooled over by future generations of hunters, shooters and sportsmen.
And you know what? Man, those guys and gals are going to have some truly incredible firearms to cherish. Because the best of today’s rifles will stand the test of time.
I can’t imagine anyone will argue with me when I say we live in the greatest era of firearms manufacturing. The precision machining technology and quality of components now available is unmatched, and the result is a market full of incredibly well-built, accurate and reliable firearms.
As follows, I’ll discuss a handful of features that are becoming increasingly popular on modern hunting rifles, and I’ll touch on how those features best serve hunters in the field.
Hopefully, my brief list of rifle features will serve as a sort of “Buyer’s Guide” for anyone interested in acquiring a new hunting rifle for their collection. Rather than discussing specific gun makers or models, I’ll focus on features and design broadly, in effort to give readers the chance to conduct their own litmus tests.;
Barrel Materials & Rifling
Gun barrels have improved substantially in the modern era, thanks to superior installation practices, high-grade metals, precision manufacturing, and new rifling techniques. Here’s a quick overview of some of these improvements.
Check out just about any top tier rifle on a manufacturer’s website and you’re sure to read the terms “free-floated barrel” and “bedded action.” A free-floated barrel doesn’t make physical contact with the handguard or stock at any point past the gun’s action. The action is firmly bedded (secured) to keep components in place under fire. This allows for unimpeded barrel vibrations during recoil, which improves accuracy.
Rifling is the cutting of grooves inside a barrel to force projectiles to spin, which in turn makes them stabilize and improves accuracy. Modern rifling techniques include button rifling, hammer forged rifling, 5R rifling and others. Each technique has its merits, and all offer excellent accuracy and extended barrel life.
Another feature found on many modern barrels is the recessed muzzle crown. Essentially, this means the crown (absolute end of the bore) is set back from the end of the barrel, to prevent damage. Protecting the crown retains accuracy.
It’s now very common for modern gun barrels to come threaded in popular thread pitches, allowing the user to add muzzle brakes or suppressors. Additionally, some manufactures offer excellent recoil-reducing brakes that are either pre-installed at the factory or added at home by the user.
Barrel fluting practices have also improved substantially in recent years. Basically, fluting is the removal of barrel materials (usually in concentric and aesthetically pleasing patterns) to aid in heat dissipation. Aggressive fluting also can reduce barrel weight.
Finally, I’ll mention carbon-fiber barrels, as they’re quickly becoming popular. Essentially, carbon-fiber wrapped gun barrels are produced by shaving down steel barrels until they’re very thin. Carbon fiber layers are then applied with adhesives until the barrel is stronger and more rigid than steel. These barrels have very low vibration ratings and are known to be incredibly accurate and lightweight.
Yet another feature you might find on a modern rifle is improved metal finishes, like Cerakote, nitride, Parkerizing or stainless-steel (which is an alloy barrel material and not just a coating). Among others, these metal finishes are popular for their protective attributes. And protection is imperative for firearms that will see regular use and abuse in hunting environments. After all, most hunting rifles aren’t “safe queens” that stay locked up. Instead, they’re used in bad weather, where moisture, grit and grime are inevitable. As a result, hunting rifles suffer wear and tear. Good metal coatings go a long way to prevent damage. For example, Cerakote, a ceramic based finish, not only improves impact strength and hardness, but it also is abrasion resistant and combats against corrosion and chemical damage. Plus, it’s available in a virtually unlimited array of aesthetically pleasing color options.
This short list of modern rifle features would be incomplete if I didn’t mention trigger mechanisms. First and foremost, it’s worth stating that a large victory in modern gunsmithing is the creation of very safe trigger mechanisms. Precision engineering has allowed for triggers (and safety mechanisms) to be made more ergonomic, reliable and accurate. Adjustable triggers are all the rage these days, and many manufacturers now offer them as a standard option — and some are very good! The ability of the user to safely adjust trigger pull weight goes a long way to improving accuracy and the overall shooting experience.
If you hunt with heavy winter gloves, it’s nice to be able to up the trigger’s pull weight to prevent accidental discharges. In contrast, if you desire pinpoint accuracy and low poundage pulls, adjustable triggers save the day.
A ton of high-end features can be found on modern gun stocks, including composite build materials, bedding components, improved recoil pads, adjustable combs and accessory attachment points.
For starters, gun stocks are now made from a wide array of materials. While traditional wood stocks made from walnut, maple and other hard woods will always be desirable, it’s now common to see stocks made from wood laminates, synthetic plastics, composite fiberglass, carbon fiber or even aluminum “chassis” designs.
In recent years, thanks to a surge of interest in precision rifle shooting, many gun stocks have become highly adjustable. Especially popular in chassis rifles, it’s now common for gun stocks to have length of pull and comb height adjustability. These allow shooters of virtually any physical build to shoot comfortably — and to adjust optic height as desired.
Trust me when I say that the above is but a short introduction to the world of modern rifles. Surely, I didn’t cover everything that’s happening in the category, but hopefully, I’ve managed to highlight at least some of the features that you’re sure to find on guns that are available today. It’s worth celebrating that we live in an age of manufacturing that has sped up the race to create better rifles. I look forward to seeing what more is to come from gun makers who are driven to make our tools safer and more accurate. Like I said earlier, I know they’ll be worth passing down.