New shooters are excited when they receive their first Permit to Acquire ‑ and why shouldn’t they be? But what to buy? Senior Correspondent Rod Pascoe looks at some of the things to consider when making that all-important initial purchase.
While it may sound obvious, the overriding criteria when choosing a firearm of any type is it must suit the job you want it to do. Brand, model and cosmetic appearance can be a factor for some people but shouldn’t get in the way of the important technical, ergonomic and practical features. Unlike a new car, buying a firearm from a gunshop generally means you won’t be able to take it for a ‘test drive’, so before the Permit to Acquire (PTA) arrives, spend some time researching prospective firearms and, where possible, hook up with like-minded shooters who are already doing the thing you want to do.
They may even invite you to fire a shot or two at the local range but at the very least, spend time talking to and observing experienced shooters at every opportunity. This is by far the best form of research, so when you do visit the gunshop with your PTA and hard-earned cash you’ll have a clear idea of exactly what you want, rather than what the shop wants to sell you.
Choice of firearm and ammunition will depend on what the bullet has to do when it arrives at the target – does it have to deliver a fatal hit on an animal, put a hole in a paper target or maybe knock over a weighty piece of steel? Once you’ve answered this the next question is: What size is the target and how far away is it? I won’t open the ‘what is the best cartridge?’ can of worms as this article discusses general principles of ammunition selection without favouring any particular cartridge. With several hundred options, ammunition choice is a subject worthy of further articles.
Some new shooters have expectations which may exceed the capability of their equipment and themselves, then become frustrated and disappointed with the results. The hunter who wants to hike the high country will choose a lightweight rifle in a calibre appropriate for the quarry they’re hunting. This rifle will work well up to 150m or so but isn’t going to perform well over longer distances. Similarly a heavy, long-barrelled target rifle with a fast-twist barrel to accommodate heavy bullets will shoot out to 1000m with precision. But at 10kg or more you’re not going to be carrying it around the bush.
There are dozens of target shooting disciplines each with its own appeal and enjoyment and each requiring varying degrees of skill and commitment. You may have recently joined a rifle, clay target or pistol club so by now you know what matches are shot there. Grab hold of and study the rules for the match you intend shooting as among other things, those rules will determine the equipment specifications for a given competition and form the basis of your purchase. Manufacturers who produce firearms specifically for target shooting have all read the rulebooks to make sure their guns, from the factory, already conform.
On the other hand some matches can just as easily be shot with an off-the-shelf hunting rifle such as in Rifle Metallic Silhouette. Firearm choice will depend on the rulebook and at most big competitions, shooters are required to present their firearm to a ‘gun check’ to ensure the equipment specifications have been met.
Apart from the technical rules, become familiar with the way the match is run as this may give you other pointers to the rifle you choose. For example, if the course of fire for a match requires you to discharge five shots in 30 seconds, a rifle with a four-shot magazine will place you at a distinct disadvantage.
If you’re hunting, the ammunition you choose is one of the most important considerations. The calibre has to be appropriate ‑ and legal ‑ for the target animal. Have a look at SSAA’s Comprehensive Guide to Shooting and Hunting as this valuable resource not only outlines the current regulations, it gives some sound and thorough advice on all aspects of hunting and target shooting competitions. Apart from what you intend to hunt, consider the terrain and distances you’re going to be shooting over. In Australia we have it all from rugged mountains and densely-wooded forests to deserts and grasslands, from tropical rainforest to dry bush and river flats, creeks and wetlands.
Are you trekking the countryside or waiting in a hide? Maybe you’re spotlighting from a vehicle. These things will help determine your choice of calibre, rifle weight and so on. In more open country you could opt for a much heavier barrelled ‘varminter’ capable of longer distances. In this situation a calibre of 6 to 6.5mm or one of the more powerful .224s would work well provided you’re only working with smaller game. If you’re after larger animals such as pigs, goats or deer then you need to look at heavier calibres with a preference for a 7mm or .30 calibre. In thick scrub you might consider a lever-action rifle for a quick follow-up shot and use open sights for fast target acquisition at short range.
Finding a suitable shotgun is a little less complicated as with only four or five gauge choices and a range of interchangeable chokes the decision is made easier. There are many factory-loaded ammunition options, in terms of velocity and shot size, to cater for all hunting and target shooting situations.
Of the action/barrel options, the over-and-under field guns still dominate the scene although self-loaders, single-shots, lever-actions and side-by-sides still have a place in certain situations. Furthermore, you can also shoot the 5-Stand and Sporting Clays matches with a sporter or field gun and some people even shoot Skeet and Trap with them although specialised firearms are made, and preferred, for these events.
As with rifles, the rulebook for target shooters and state and territory game and wildlife laws along with ethical hunting practices will play a major part in your ultimate purchase, so read all you can and talk to experienced shooters about your options.
Buying your first handgun requires a couple of other considerations. As with all forms of target shooting, the rulebook will determine the equipment you need for a particular match. But unlike rifles and shotguns, pistols and revolvers can only be used for target shooting as hunting with them is forbidden in Australia. Secondly, depending on your jurisdiction, a new pistol shooter may only be allowed to buy a certain type of gun with their first PTA and subsequent firearm purchases will have to wait until the end of training or probation period.
Handguns are either built for a specific competition or are adapted to a target shooting match. By that I mean an off-the-shelf, non-target pistol used in certain action or practical matches, either in their original form or after some modifications have been made. Examples of these matches are IPSC, WA1500, the Action and Service matches. Again, the rulebook will be the guide to what you can and can’t do by way of altering firearms.
Another aspect to buying pistols and accessories is you’ll probably seek a specialist pistol dealer rather than buying from a regular gunshop. This is because generally not many shop staff have any knowledge of, or interest in, the dozens of pistol matches and most gunshops realise pistol clubs have their favourite specialist dealer or armourer. Additionally you’ll find most clubs have access to a specialist pistolsmith who’ll provide services on an array of work from minor alterations and adjustments to complete trigger jobs or making and fitting custom barrels.
So far I’ve looked at buying a firearm to suit a specific purpose but you should also begin to think about your individual situation, personal preferences and where you intend to shoot. For left-handed shooters there are plenty of firearms available with either left-hand or ambidextrous grips, stocks and actions – it’s certainly better than fumbling around with a right-handed version of a bolt-action rifle for instance. Other types such as lever and break-action firearms are generally not an issue for left-handers.
You may have your heart set on a particular cartridge which may be rare or unique. Cost and availability of ammunition and reloading equipment and components plays a part here so choose a calibre where ammunition is plentiful or, if you decide to load your own, ensure the reloading equipment and components are readily available.
Does the ammunition match the rifle and its task? Barrel twist rate and its relation to bullet shape and weight is a consideration affecting precision. Generally speaking, heavier bullets require a higher or faster twist rate to optimise stability. Customising ammunition is a specialised topic and deserves more space than this article allows, but the point is your load development and preferred choice of ammunition will go hand-in-hand with the specific purpose of the firearm and degree of precision and reliability you require.
Your choice of sights is something determined by the particular application and distances involved. There’s a mix of open sight and telescopic sight matches for target shooters so find out if you need vision correction glasses or a diopter and whether they’re allowed in the rules. Some rifle models are fitted with open sights with the option to add a scope, others have ‘bare’ barrels and require an optical sight to be fitted.
You need to be aware of the requirements of the individual range or club you intend shooting with. This doesn’t just apply to target shooters but hunters looking to develop loads and sight-in rifles or pattern shotguns. Ranges operate to a set of rules and approvals that determine which firearms and ammunition can be used and some clubs or ranges will limit or refuse the use of certain equipment. A common issue at many clubs is the use of muzzle brakes so if buying such a rifle you could choose one where the brake is removable. Similarly, larger cartridges such as .50 BMG and a number of the Magnum-loaded .30 and .338 calibres are also forbidden at some ranges due either to approval restrictions or local rules.
You may not be able to afford a specialised firearm for every particular situation so you’d like one gun to cover a number of options. It may be for hunting a variety of species types and sizes in different environments or one rifle to shoot Rifle Metallic Silhouette and Field Rifle which does just as well for some hunting on the side.
Whatever you do, don’t waste your first PTA and don’t be impatient, work towards obtaining something you’ll value and use forever. Some people let the heart rule the head and override commonsense and ‘for sale’ notices and websites are full of impulsive firearm purchases. And while it may be possible to find a one-size-fits-all solution, avoid settling for something that’s going to be a compromise – unable to do any one job particularly well.
As your interest and skill in the shooting sports grow, so too will the number of firearms you accumulate and, over time, you’ll build on your collection with fit-for-purpose firearms. Consider too that down the track you may be presented with new hunting opportunities or introduced to other target shooting sports and find your current firearms don’t suit the new environment or conditions. Again, go back to basics, do the research and try before you buy.