History of the Hunting Rifle in America

History of the Hunting Rifle in America

Hunting is one of America’s oldest traditions in the more than four centuries since settlers first disembarked in Virginia. Back then, hunting was simply necessary for people to stay alive. And while today hunting is treated more like a sport and less like a necessity, there are still many people and families living in the United States (particularly in remote areas) who rely on hunting big game to feed themselves. 

The quintessential tool for a hunter in America is and always has been the hunting rifle. Of course, the term ‘hunting rifle’ itself is very vague. It can refer to literally anything from a single shot musket to a semi-automatic AR-15

Let’s dive into a brief but thorough history of the hunting rifle in America.


The first settlers who left England and founded colonies in Virginia in the early 1600s were armed with single shot matchlock muskets. A matchlock utilizes a match that must be ignited in order for the rifle to fire. The first settlers depended on these rifles to hunt for game as well as to defend their settlements against attacks from the local Native American tribes. 

True flintlock rifles like we are more familiar with today were not introduced until 1630. Flintlock rifles were much easier to shoot accurately than matchlock rifles, and it didn’t take long for them to reach the colonies.

Flintlock muskets, which were used by militaries all around the world, were also used by ordinary civilians for the purposes of hunting. This began a consistent theme that we have seen since then, where rifles originally built for military purposes were and are also used by civilians for hunting. 

Single shot flintlock (and later cap lock) muskets remained the primary long gun of the American up until the early to mid 1800s, when it was replaced by more modern technology. 


The mid to late 1800s is noted for the rapid development in firearms technology. This was when the first repeating rifles such as the Henry and Winchester lever actions were released. These rifles could carry up to fifteen cartridges and had a much faster rate of fire. As with before, they were originally built for military use (the Henry saw extensive service in the Civil War) but were quickly adapted to hunting purposes as well. 

The Winchester 1873 .44-40 carbine, for instance, was sufficient for bringing down game such as deer and antelope. What’s more, is that the caliber could likewise be used in certain Colt Single Action Army revolvers, permitting a hunter in the American West to use the same ammunition for both his rifle and handgun.


The bulk of bolt action rifles used by American hunters beginning in the early 1900s were simply sporterized versions of bolt action rifles. For example, the Springfield M1903 bolt action was adopted as the standard issue American infantry rifle after the turn of the century, and sporterized surplus versions of the rifles were later used for hunting purposes.

The reason why these rifles were so popular was simple: surplus military rifles are rugged, accurate, fire commonly available ammunition, and are usually inexpensive. Even bolt action rifles not originally built for the military were usually based on military designs. The popular Winchester Model 70 bolt action (colloquially known as the ‘Rifleman’s Rifle’), for instance, was based heavily off of the Mauser rifles that saw wide use in both World War I and II.  


Carrying on the tradition of military rifles being repurposed for hunting purposes, it’s been an increasing trend for semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 to be used for hunting as well. Many veterans of the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan Wars were well acquainted with the AR-15 platform and eagerly purchased their own sporterized ARs when they returned home to use for hunting big game. 

Today, the AR is the best selling semi-automatic rifle on the market. It is highly accurate, ergonomic, and has a customizable platform.


It’s very likely that we will continue to see modern day military rifles being used for hunting purposes. As firearms technology continues to evolve, so will the rifles we use for hunting.