Building a small game hunting rifle fox jumping in snow

Building a Small Game Hunting Rifle

If you’re anything like me, picking all the pieces for your next small game hunting rifle can be a chore. Wasting money on parts I won’t use means ammo that I will never get to shoot. Picking the right parts the first time can save you money and headaches down the road.

Factors to Consider for the Perfect Small Game Hunting Rifle

Rifles tend to perform much better when you build them for a purpose. The coolest-looking or most expensive parts may not help your shooting at all. Picking the right caliber, rifle and the right scope can make all the difference in the world.

1. Intended Use for Your Rifle

You can’t build the perfect rifle without knowing why you are building it. The game you are hunting and the environment will have the largest impact on your selection.

Hunting prairie dogs at 300 yards has different requirements than if you’re clearing them from your garden 30 yards away. The 12 gauge you use for deer won’t leave anything but a red stain where the squirrel used to be.

Figure out how your rifle will be used and the rest will fall into place. Figuring out a realistic goal as step one can help you choose the correct parts for your build later on.

2. Weight

Recoil for most small game calibers is manageable for even the youngest hunters, so making the rifle heavier for recoil management is usually unnecessary. Many young hunters even start hunting deer with an AR-15 with heavier hunting loads. This works great for well-placed shots within 75 yards.

A heavy barrel, bipod, or aluminum chassis will add a lot of unnecessary weight to the build. However, a factory CZ 457 ProVarmint weighs 7.3lbs with a wood stock and heavy barrel. While this is on the heavier side after being fitted with a scope, this will help decrease sway while still being light enough to carry all day.

8lbs is really my happy place for a rifle, although 12lbs can be fine as long as it’s balanced properly. Anything near 15lbs is going to get heavy very quickly. We have a better breakdown on the weight of a rifle here.

3. Action

Most states will allow hunting small game with semi-automatics. As always, check your local regulations before making your purchase. I bought a .223 for plinking because I thought it was still against regulation to use a bolt action rifle for deer. The day I showed a buddy he asked why I didn’t get a .308 for hunting. Purchasing a second rifle cost a lot more than the ammo I was so worried about the cost of.

Most semi-automatics are heavier and less accurate than a bolt or lever-action rifle.  This is because tolerances are generally tighter in a bolt action.

If you intend on stretching a 22LR to 200 yards, a bolt action may be the way to go. For faster follow-up shots at closer distances, a semi-automatic is usually the way to go. However, nothing beats practice. I have dropped 4 woodchucks before any started running with a 20-year-old Marlin bolt-action.

Acceptable accuracy means you don’t need to hit a single hair on the squirrel, but anywhere in a kill zone will get the same job done.

4. Caliber

Without getting into which caliber is the best in the world, we can all agree you shouldn’t use a .50 BMG for squirrels or a .22 Mag for grizzlies.

Realistic expectations of hunting distances are huge here. The 22LR loses most of its energy after 75 yards. The 17HMR will drop rabbits at double that distance while the 5.56/.223 will still be supersonic past 400 yards with a 20” barrel.

There are a million calibers. Find something you can afford to practice with. You’ll be better off than if you bought the most expensive newest bestest cartridge on the market when you can’t afford a box of ammo.

5. Scope

The right scope will allow you to zero the rifle easily and make consistent hits. A lot of new shooters see a scope for $45 on Amazon and think they’re getting a good deal.

While these may last a few seasons there are a few issues I’ve found. They don’t zero very well and moving your dials to the same spot isn’t going to put hits in the same place.

A red dot can wash out your target if it’s turned up too high and won’t offer much zoom. A 3-9x is great out to 400 yards and a 6-24x should cover anything past that. There are a lot of shooters making hits at 1000 yards with a 12x scope.

Know what your usual hunting distance is going to be. You’ll want enough magnification to properly identify your target. Don’t just buy the most expensive scope with the highest numbers though. Too much magnification at closer distances can make the target difficult to find and magnify your movements.

Most people walk around the woods at the lowest zoom setting. This allows faster target acquisition for the majority of your shots. On farther shots, you will usually have more time to adjust your scope.

6. Trigger

Most common 22LR platforms have drop-in triggers to decrease the pressure required to fire.

I run factory triggers on anything I can’t get a TriggerTech for. This includes all of my rimfire firearms.

Putting an aftermarket trigger in a hunting rifle can be dangerous if you set the weight too low. Just the pressure of your glove can set the gun off before you realize you’re on the trigger.

I try to set most of my triggers around 3lbs. This allows a light enough pull to not disturb the rifle but still get a good feel in the cold with gloves.

What to Expect From a Rifle Depending on the Budget

Knowing how much money you are willing to spend on the project and having a plan can make it hurt your wallet less in the long run.

Knowing where to spend and where to save can make all the difference down the road.

As a general rule, you’re better off with a $1,800 scope on a $200 rifle. A low end scope will never allow an expensive rifle to perform at its full potential. A shifting zero and bad tracking can make your new rifle a nightmare.

This is what you can expect out of your rifle depending on your budget.

Under $100

Don’t expect glass on your rifle in this category unless you got it used.

While only a few models are offered near this price, the accuracy and reliability will most likely suffer.

Under $500

This is a great range for a small game rifle. You can really get a good bang for your buck with most low-cost .22LR or 17HMR rifles near this price point.

A Ruger 10/22 with a Vortex Copperhead scope will handle all the little backyard critters. Great for squirrels and training younger shooters as well.

If a scope isn’t necessary at the time, you really can’t beat the quality of a CZ 457 at this price. These rifles are bedded and floated out of the box with a 1MOA guarantee. While yes there are rifles that will shoot tighter groups, 1MOA is a pie plate 10 football fields away. Most people would be happy with that.

Expect to do a bedding and free-float job on lower-end rifles that aren’t pillar or block bedded. This can usually be done for less than $20 over a weekend if you don’t mind learning a new skill.

2 MOA at 100 yards is around average for rifles in this category.

Under $1,500 

Almost all the goodies here. You can pick up a CZ Rifle with a Vortex or Leupold scope and be incredibly happy with your purchase. If you do things right you can even get a new trigger.

We shot .5 MOA groups with factory and match ammo with the heavy profile barrel on the CZ 457.

$3,000+

If you can dream it you can build it. Integrally suppressed .22LR anybody? Custom triggers and actions. Leopold scopes. Whatever tickles your fancy. Just have a plan going in and make sure every poiece you buy has a purpose.

Step One is Make a Plan

Get an idea of your budget and get to work on the parts list. There are a ton of resources for good reviews and information online about what brand or caliber you should buy. Most of these will offer a discount code.

Do your research on what certain calibers were designed to do, not just what one guy on a forum says can be done. Yes people make shots at 1,200 yards with a 5.56, but that is far beyond what the cartridge was ever designed to do.

Make sure you buy a quality scope with good customer service. Hunting rifles can see a lot of abuse and investing in good gear will save a hunt down the road.

Comment below with your favorite hunting rifle.

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