When discussing the best rifles, cars, places to live, music, or double-bacon cheeseburger, it’s important to understand that best is a relative term. Best for what? Are we talking about the absolute most accurate rifle, without regard to cost or weight? Or do we mean the best rifle for carrying along on a high-elevation hike after some elusive mountain goats?
For one hunter, maybe the term best means the least expensive rifle that effectively puts meat on his table. This article will discuss some of our top five picks for big-game hunting rifles while considering these subjective factors. But first, we need to talk about what Large Game hunting means.
What is considered Large Game?
When considering the best large game hunting rifles, a key factor is, what do you consider large game? Large is, like the word Best, a relative term. In North America, most state divisions of wildlife resources or hunting regulations consider any game animal larger than a coyote to be a large game, so for these organizations, a 90-pound white-tailed deer, a 100-pound pronghorn antelope, and any game animal larger than that is included in the Large Game category.
However, some firearms writers and hunting organizations categorize pronghorn antelope, white-tailed deer, and any other game animal with adult male weights typically under 350 pounds or so as Medium Game, so for these hunters and shooters, Large Game means elk, caribou, moose, brown bear, and the larger, heavier African game animals now popular on Texas game preserves.
Regardless of whether you consider an average-weight 280-lb adult male mountain goat (for example) or an average-weight 300-lb mule deer to be Large or Medium game, most hunters—and rifle builders—would consider it to fall in the large game category, so that’s what we’re going with here.
Additionally, this article concentrates on the best rifles for hunting large game in North America rather than on the best calibers. Caliber wars are popular on internet forums and in outdoor magazines, and the topic creates lots of drama. Still, the differences in terminal ballistics between yesterday’s proven .30-06 and tomorrow’s .3009 Wyoming Whizbang Improved are usually not enough to talk about. So we’ll stick with some recommendations for the rifles and let you geek out about the best caliber to select for your specific situation and preferences.
What should you look for in a large game hunting rifle?
When shopping for a rifle suitable for hunting large game, you first need to narrow down your intended use, your maximum budget (remembering to leave room for a good rifle scope), and your preferences for rifle weight and action type.
- Do you like to keep things simple?
- Do you like the nostalgic look and feel of wood and blued steel, or do you prefer the weather resistance of stainless steel and polymer?
- Is the weight of your rifle a primary consideration, or will you be riding to your hunting spot and/or hunting from a stand or blind?
- Are you buying factory ammunition (thus somewhat limiting your choice of calibers) or handloading your own?
- Do you like bolt-action, lever-action, break-action, or something else?
- Are you hunting potentially dangerous game like buffalo, bear, moose, or something else with a lot of mass and desire to gore or stomp you?
All of these factors need to be weighed and considered.
Today, many of the desirable big-game hunts are lottery or draw-only, and the prime trophy hunts are frequently once-in-a-lifetime permits, so a lot of hunters do whatever they can to improve their chances of success, including hiring a local guide or outfitter that knows the area and can help find the best specimens. This isn’t inexpensive, and we recommend not going cheap on a rifle and optic. The last thing you want is for your firing pin spring to break or your scope to fog up as you finally get a shot at that once-in-a-lifetime ram or similar trophy.
The best large game hunting rifles
There are hundreds of quality hunting rifle makers out there, and truthfully most of them will be able to provide you with a rifle suitable for taking large game. The devil is in the details, as they say, and you will need to narrow down your intended use, budget, and individual preferences if you want to find the best big-game rifle for you. So, here are a few of our top picks for big-game-capable hunting rifles in several categories.
Best all-around big game rifle: Nosler Model 21
Although the Model 21 is a relatively new entry into the premium hunting rifle market, Nosler has made their excellent Model 48 for nearly 20 years. It has hit it out of the park with this new feature-rich, versatile rifle. At an MSRP of $2,895, the Model 21 is nowhere near what we’d call inexpensive, but for the quality components and the performance you get, it does earn its place in our list of best big game hunting rifles.
The heart of any bolt-action rifle is the action, and the Model 21’s action is all new, designed in collaboration with Mack Brothers. These well-known South Dakota-based siblings have developed a glowing reputation for building some of the finest rifle actions in the industry for long-range target shooting and hunting rifles. The Nosler 21 takes the best features of the Mack Brothers’ popular EVO action and adds unique Nosler-engineered customizations, and several shooters have reported amazing, consistent accuracy right out of the box, often close to 0.25 MOA, or quarter-inch groups at 100 yards.
The stainless match-grade barrel is from Shilen, is hand-lapped, and features a threaded, target-recessed muzzle with an included thread protector. The one-piece, spiral-fluted, nitride-coated bolt (with removable/user customizable bolt handle) is made of 4340 chrome moly steel and is optimized for dusty, dirty, and cold environments. At the rear of the bolt is a visual and tactile cocking indicator, which can come in handy in our experience. The Model 21 is intended for hard use and practical functionality. It thus features toolless disassembly of the bolt and fire control group (which features an excellent TriggerTech Field model trigger, user-adjustable from 2.5 to 5.5 lbs).
Video: Nosler Model 21 Full Review
For mountain hunting, rifle weight is one of the key factors, and the Model 21 keeps things relatively light with a McMillan full-carbon-fiber stock reinforced with aramid fibers (Kevlar) for additional strength. Depending on your caliber, the Model 21 weighs between 6.8 and 7.1 pounds, resulting in a well-balanced rifle that’s all-day packable while not being so light that you regret it when you press the trigger. This allows you to practice frequently enough to help ensure an accurate, ethically clean shot on your animal. Nosler offers the rifle in 10 hunting calibers on either a long or short action, from 6.5 Creedmoor through the 28s, the big 30s, to 33 Nosler, and even the .375 H&H Magnum.
If you take big-game hunting seriously and demand extreme accuracy from a field rifle, it’s hard to do better than a Nosler 21.
Note: If you’re less of a traditionalist and want a chassis-based hunting rifle, in 2023, Nosler introduced their Carbon Chassis Hunter at an MSRP of $5,395, also weighing around 7 pounds. If weight is even more of a concern than for the above, Nosler offers their carbon-fiber-wrapped barrel Model 48 Mountain Carbon rifle at a feathery 6 pounds and an MSRP of $3,695.
Best compact, versatile hunting rifle: SIG Sauer Cross
If you’re looking for something new, adaptable, and non-traditional in your big game hunting rifle, the SIG Cross might be right for you. Currently only available in three (widely used) calibers: 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Winchester, and the new .277 SIG Fury, there’s not a lot of choice there. Additionally, barrel length is a relatively short 18” in 6.5 Creed or a positively stubby 16 inches in the .308 and .277. So the Cross won't be your bag if you’re after maximum velocity for ultra-long-range hunting.
However, at 6.5-6.8 pounds, an MSRP of $1,799, and with a folding, fully adjustable stock, the Cross makes a lot of sense for a compact, packable, standard-range big game rifle.
The SIG Cross looks at first blush like either a bolt-action AR-15 or a (now common) chassis rifle, and in truth, it’s neither. It features a one-piece aluminum receiver to help prevent barrel/bolt misalignment and improve accuracy, and from what we’ve seen, the Cross can shoot (with the right ammo).
How accurate, you ask? While many people have found that accuracy with bulk factory ammo can be a little spotty, we’ve seen regular 3-shot groups in the 0.5-0.75 MOA range when you start handloading. We expect this is partially due to the short barrel compressing the accuracy nodes. But it’s clear that with ammo it likes, the Cross is a truly impressive little rifle.
Video: Sig Sauer Cross Bolt-Action Rifle Review
Another interesting feature of the Cross is that, like with the AR-15 platform, barrels are interchangeable at the consumer level. With an AR-style barrel wrench, you can remove the tapered barrel nut under the free-floated handguard, and since headspace is set at the factory, you can change calibers if desired. This will likely be more interesting once more caliber options come out, so you could swap out a 6mm Dasher barrel for a local PRS competition and then change it out in a few minutes for a heavier hitter for your big-game hunt. Additionally, the Cross’s top Picatinny rail on the receiver is interchangeable, so you can bolt on a 10 MOA rail if desired or optic-specific mounts to save weight.
The Cross uses the Accuracy International (AI) pattern magazine, which features a match-grade 2-stage trigger and a tapered muzzle mount to secure a suppressor if hunting with a suppressor is legal in your state.
One feature we particularly like on the Cross is its folding, fully adjustable buttstock. The folding capability makes transporting the rifle a breeze, even in compact shooting bags, which comes in handy combined with the relatively short barrel length. The bolt is locked in place with the stock folded, which is also a helpful safety feature. The buttstock is adjustable in comb height, length of pull, and the actual height of the buttpad relative to the stock so that it will fit anyone of any size wearing any heavy outdoor clothing.
It should be noted that in 2020 SIG issued a recall of the first Cross rifles to hit the market, as it was found there was the potential for them to fire if the bolt was impacted or, in some cases, after a delay when pressing the trigger. This has been addressed and all current Cross rifles are good to go. If your big game hunt takes you into wooded areas where a short-and-handy rifle is preferred, but you still want the ability to punch half-minute groups, the SIG Cross is a solid choice.
Best lightweight mountain hunting rifle: Christensen Arms Ridgeline Titanium FFT
If your big-game hunting journey includes high-elevation climbs after bighorn sheep or mountain goats (or Rocky Mountain elk, which often are found above the treeline), we can’t over-stress the importance of a lightweight hunting rifle. When the slopes are steep and slippery, and the air is thin (and you may not be in the best shape of your life), you feel every ounce of weight you carry, and you’ll pay any price to make the pain disappear.
Traditional hunters and outdoor writers, even a couple of decades back, could likely not conceive of a sub-5-pound big game rifle, but if you have the cash, Christensen Arms can deliver. Their Ridgeline Titanium FFT starts at $3,399 (MSRP) and an almost unbelievable 4.8 lbs.
Christensen Arms has been making premium lightweight hunting rifles featuring hand-lapped, carbon-wrapped barrels for years. Still, recently they’ve broken into a completely new category due to their FFT (Flash Forged Technology) carbon stock, which shaves a full pound off even the already-light carbon-fiber stocks used by other manufacturers. Combined with a titanium action, billet aluminum floorplate, titanium muzzle brake, and lightweight FFT bolt handle, the top-of-the-Ridgeline model (see what we did there?) will have you shaking your head in disbelief at the lack of heft.
Christensen Arms rifles also deliver in the accuracy department, and all of the company’s bolt-action rifles come with a sub-MOA guarantee. The Ridgeline is available in 10 chamberings from 6mm Creedmoor up to .300 PRC, with several options for left-handers.
Video: Christensen Arms Ridgeline Titanium Review & Compete Set Up
Other lightweight mountain rifles like Cooper and Montana Rifle Company have had their rabid fans and have come and gone (though Nighthawk Custom in Arkansas has recently acquired Cooper). Still, Christensen has weathered all storms and looks to be here to stay.
Kimber’s Mountain Ascent rifle ($2,370) is another solid choice in this superlight category, with their .308 Winchester version weighing in at 4 lbs 13 oz. The Gunwerks ClymR is also crazy-light but has an eye-watering $7,000+ price tag and spotty availability.
Lever-action love: Marlin 1895 SBL
For so-called stopping power, many experienced hunters after the large, potentially dangerous game such as moose or large bear, particularly in heavy cover, insist that a handy, large-bore lever-action rifle is not just a good choice but may save your life. Luckily for lever-gun fans, Ruger has bought the rights to the legendary Marlin name and technology and has released the new, improved Ruger/Marlin 1895 SBL (for Stainless, Big Loop lever) model in .45-70 Government caliber.
During the last few years of the Marlin company’s life, quality control began slipping as cost-cutting measures were employed. While some customers reported satisfactory rifles, many noted some problems. Marlin fans mourned the closure of the vaunted American brand. Still, they rejoiced when Ruger announced that they had not only purchased the rights to the name and designs but planned to release updated Marlin models that featured the legendary handling and reliability of the brand but with Ruger’s well-reputed customer service and quality control.
Video: Marlin Model 95 SBL .45-70 by Ruger
In a wise move (in our view), the first model Ruger released under the new Marlin name was the very popular 1895 lever-action .45-70 in durable and attractive stainless steel. The new SBL features integrated rear ghost-ring sights and a receiver-mounted Picatinny rail for mounting a scope if desired. The barrel is threaded for suppressors or muzzle brakes and includes a smoothly integrated thread protector. The big loop lever is an excellent compromise between the standard small loop and the goofy, sometimes unwieldy large loop levers you sometimes see on older lever actions, and it allows comfortable and rapid cycling of the action with gloves on or without.
You also get a sturdy, fiber-optic front sight, attractive gray laminate stocks with very attractive and useful checkering (with a slimmer forend than the old Marlin), and a nice recoil pad to help tame that mighty .45-70 thump. This isn’t your grandpappy’s trapdoor Springfield that can only handle black powder-level loads. The Marlin can take any heavy-loaded .45-70 loads within the full modern cartridge specs. Your shoulder may not survive, but the rifle will.
At a weight of 7.3 lbs ready to load (without an optic), and at an MSRP of $1,479, the new and improved 1895 is no lightweight in heft or price, but Marlin fans (as well as new converts from Ruger) are snapping these rifles up as soon as they ship, so if you want one, have your wallet ready when you find one for sale. Ruger/Marlin also offers a shorter Guide Gun variety without the Picatinny rail, in either blued or stainless finish.
Pro tip: If you want a .45-70 lever gun and don’t prefer the Marlin looks or features, Henry also offers a range of lever actions in this caliber, in multiple choices of finish, starting around $750 street price.
Best budget large-game hunting rifle: Ruger American and Savage Axis II (tie)
We understand that the above rifles in the $1,500-and-up price range aren’t possible for many hunters, so here are a couple of rifles that punch well above their monetary weight. Savage’s Axis line has been a perennial favorite for low-priced hunting rifles, and many buyers report sub-MOA accuracy with the right loads. Certainly, the Axis II, with its improved stock (compared to the original Axis) and a street price of around $329 without a scope, or as low as $409 with a usable scope mounted, counts as a best-bang-for-your-buck (or elk, heh) rifle. Savage has long been known for making highly accurate rifles and barrels for a competitive price, and the Axis II is no exception. We’ve seen 0.75 MOA groups with hand-loaded ammo, which is more than accurate enough for 99.99% of big-game hunting scenarios, and is likely more accurate than many hunters are.
Ruger’s American line of inexpensive bolt-action hunting rifles has proven extremely good value for money, with many buyers also reporting regular sub-MOA groups with quality ammunition. The street price for the Ruger is a little higher than the Savage, starting around $519, or $659, including a scope, which is still a smokin’ deal. Both are available in classic big-game hunting calibers (like .30-06), but we’d maybe opt for an Savage Axis II in .280 Ackley Improved unless factory ammo was a big priority. If you’re a first-time deer hunter and just want something that shoots straight and won’t break the bank, either of these choices will likely fit the bill and leave you smiling.
Store your hunting rifles in a Liberty Safe
Whatever hunting rifle you end up with (and if you’re like us, you’ll find you’ll be able to justify buying several), be sure to keep all your firearms secure from theft, fire, child access, and environmental damage in a properly humidity-controlled gun safe from Liberty. Our safes are available in various configurations, sizes, styles, colors, and prices to suit anyone’s taste and budget. Look at our online catalog, or click the dealer locator to find a Liberty Safe showroom nearby.