I can’t say I really I love the current trend to build rifles as inexpensively as possible; I tend to like finer rifles with walnut or carbon-fiber reinforced stocks. But the trend is here, and it’s tough to put that cat back in the bag. Once Remington introduced its Model 710 and later its 770 that sold for around $300 in 2007, the floodgates opened. Now nearly every major manufacturer builds an economy gun to compete in this market rather than conceding it to the competition. The guns are cheap to the touch, hard on the eyes, and their actions aren't always smooth. But, as much as I hate to like these guns, there is something amazing about them: They shoot. So, considering that a new smart phone that will last you two years or until it gets wet now costs $600, any one of these rifles should last generations—all for under 400 bucks. Here are five.
1. Of all the rifles below, Savage’s Axis might be the least likely to win a beauty contest. But if there’s one thing the company does well, it’s making homely rifles that shoot well. One reason for this was due to the company’s game-changing barrel nut system that allows the manufacturer to adjust the chamber for headspace (the tightness of the bullet as it sits in the chamber), something that adds to accuracy in an economically friendly way. Then its adjustable AccuTrigger revolutionized the rifle world as we know it. But then, feeling the market pressure from Remington’s new line of inexpensive rifles, Savage dropped its price even lower with its Axis line. It still features the barrel nut system and AccuTrigger, but it’s placed in a less expensive stock. Other than features that all rifles come with these days, like pre-drilled holes for a scope, a buttpad and sling swivels, it features a detachable magazine, a 22-inch barrel and 6.5 pounds of "great personality" that will punch three rounds into a group just over an inch—maybe better. It comes in eight popular calibers and the excellent 6.5 Creedmoor. I found it online for $368. savagearms.com
2. Ruger entered the inexpensive gun market with its American rifle line, which is very similar in design as the others with its injection-molded plastic stock that sports integrally molded bedding pillars. Its Predator model comes in varmint rounds, but also the 6.5 Creedmoor and .308 Win., so it can also be an excellent deer and do-it-all gun. It has a great adjustable trigger. Its rotary, flush-fitting magazine is a Ruger hallmark, but this rifle also comes with a couple features not seen on most rifles of this price class, including a threaded barrel for a suppressor and a Picatinny rail for easy scope mounting. I shot this rifle extensively out to 600 yards, and was amazed at what it can do, all for under $399. Ruger.com
3. Debuting in 2013, Remington’s 783 represents a vast upgrade over its bare-bones 710 and later 770 rifles. Compared to these, some might even say it looks good with its modernized lines. It has several features that are legit, including an upgraded metal magazine and latch (polymer magazines are one thing, but I can’t stand plastic latches), Savage-style barrel nut, an adjustable trigger and a pillar bedding system that free-floats its button-rifled barrel. One thing I don’t like is its small ejection port that makes clearing jams and feeding individual rounds into the chamber difficult. The design does, however, likely add to the action’s rigidity and therefore to its accuracy. While it’s not as smooth as a 700, the 783 is a great rifle for the money, especially considering it comes with a scope, albeit a cheap one, all for $399. remington.com
4. Of all the rifles here, the Mossberg Patriot Kryptek Highlander pleases my eye the most, what with its Kryptek camo pattern, straight-line stock design and spiral-fluted bolt. But more important than its looks, the 7-pound rifle also shoots thanks to a 22-inch button-rifled barrel and adjustable trigger that goes all the way down to 2 pounds. A couple of little things give this gun a more expensive feel, like its barrel’s recessed crown that protects it from dings, and its knurled bolt handle that probably adds more class than grip for which it’s intended. All in all, this is a lot of rifle for the money. Choose an all-around caliber, and this could be the one rifle that you’re neither afraid to show off around the campfire, nor beat around in your truck. I found this camo model at Gander Mountain for $399 with free shipping. mossberg.com
5. Thompson/Center (TC) entered the bolt-action business about a decade ago, and now it's delving into the economy rifle game with its Compass model. In my experience, TC rifles shoot great thanks to their quality barrels and proprietary 5R rifling. Like the other guns here, the Compass depends on a molded plastic stock to cut much of its cost—so don’t expect any Kevlar or hardwood. I like this rifle’s three-position safety, tactical-looking bolt handle, excellent TC action and its 22-inch barrel that’s threaded for a silencer. Like its competition, it has an adjustable trigger, and I wouldn’t buy a rifle today without one. I can overlook its plastic magazine knowing that this is a wonderful rifle for an incredible price. $399 tcarms.com