A buyer’s guide for the best budget bolt-action rifle and scope combos currently on the market.
We all like nice things. Luxury cars, posh clothes, fancy cell phones, whatever your vice might be, it’s nice to have the good stuff. But when it comes to rifles, that attitude can get really expensive. And while none of us would turn down a $10,000 Blaser R8, most of us aren’t lining up to pay for one.
For the vast majority of hunters, a cheap rifle will put as much meat in the freezer as an expensive one. And these days, those budget rifles even come with scopes.
But are they any good? We got a whole pile of them to find out.
Out Of The Box And Into The Woods
Before we get into individual reviews, let’s talk about some big-picture things.
First, don’t make your decision based on the MSRP. While MSRP ranges widely among these rifles, prices we’re seeing in stores are much closer. The cost shouldn’t dictate your choice since these are really a lot closer than the MSRP makes you think they are. Check local and online pricing before committing.
Secondly, none of these rifles should be bought and then immediately taken to harvest an animal. You need to check the level of the scope, the torque on the mount and scope rings, zero the rifle and test with your preferred ammo. Some retailers will level, torque and bore sight the rifle for you, but not all, and almost none of them without your asking for them to do it.
Lastly, all of these packages have strengths and weaknesses, all get the job done, and they’re all great values for their price. But they have limitations. Depending on the hunting you want to do, these rifles might not cut it.
Savage Axis II XP & Bushnell Banner 3-9x40mm
For the money, this is a capable rifle. But since it’s the cheapest of the lot—by a large amount—you really need to manage your expectations.
The rifle and scope both feel really cheap. That’s understandable—they are really cheap.
Cycling the action has a distinct sandpaper feel to it that goes away after 100 cycles or so. The bolt feels rough to the touch, with a bolt lift that requires you to power through it. And the scope is a lot less than impressive. Although, shockingly, the Bushnell Banner wasn’t the worst scope of the lot—more on that later.
The scope does its job; it held zero, it gives you a clear enough picture to see game in the trees, and the adjustments are good enough. But, as the price would lead you to believe, this is about as low on the totem pole as we’d ever go for an acceptable hunting scope.
Bottom line: This is a cheap rifle. Does it work? Yes, it does. Even with the annoying Savage trigger safety blade, action that feels like pot metal, and Walmart scope, the Savage puts rounds where you send them and does it for a scary low price.
This might not seem like a positive review, but considering the price, we don’t hate this rifle. We wouldn’t pick one for a lifelong rifle, but for a beater that fills the freezer or a loaner rifle to introduce your non-hunting friend or family to, it won’t fail you. And that’s what really counts.
It’s a cheap rifle and scope, but it isn’t a bad rifle or scope.
MSRP is $530, but we’ve seen them for about $470 in stores.
Howa Gamepro 2.0 & Nikko-Stirling 4-12x40mm
We really want to love this rifle, and in a way, we do. Having owned and shot a lot of Howa 1500 rifles before, this one’s no different—the 1500 is a great rifle.
For the price, Howa might just deliver a better rifle than anything else on the market. The HACT trigger is almost certainly the best factory two-stage trigger you can get. The action is second only to Tikka, and the overall build quality and precision are outstanding in this price tier.
Even the Hogue stock is amazing—soft, grippy and great to shoot.
The blind magazine isn’t our favorite, but it’s a good, hinged design that works well for a hunting application. It’s also pretty easy to change out if you feel the need.
But then we get to the scope: the Nikko-Stirling 4-12x40mm. As professionals with standards, it’s our unpleasant duty to say there’s basically nothing redeemable about this scope—except that it didn’t break during testing, but we also didn’t set out to abuse any of these packages.
While every other rifle in this review had a scope level to the rifle, the Nikko-Sterling came torqued at a fairly light 18 in-lb, but with the scope off plumb by about 8 degrees. This was clearly noticeable before even looking through the glass.
This probably didn’t happen in shipping, as the scope was undamaged and the coating under the rings didn’t show any wear. Perhaps this slipped through quality control; it was the only gun/scope combination to arrive this way. Once disassembled and fixed, we took it to the range. The results were … unimpressive.
The eye box is tiny even at minimum magnification, and at max magnification finding the sweet spot is extremely hard. This is made worse by the way it’s mounted. Unless you have a neck like a giraffe, the scope is too far forward, and once you find it, it’s like looking through a straw. The edges are dark, light transmission poor, and the chromatic abrasion would look amazing if this were a kaleidoscope.
To top it off, the turrets are exposed and really tall, which for a hunting rifle, is simply a bad choice. In fairness, the other scopes in this review aren’t amazing. But they’re definitely big improvements over this one.
Apples to apples, the Howa 1500 is the best rifle in this review, but the Nikko-Stirling scope is unquestionably the worst.
MSRP is $650, but in-store could be around $615.
Savage 110 Apex Hunter XP & Vortex Crossfire II 3-9x40mm
If the Savage Axis II XP were the Maruchan ramen of hunting rifles, the 110 Apex Hunter XP would be Top Ramen. It’s still inexpensive, but it’s a lot better than the bare minimum.
The action is much smoother, the bolt lift feels like a normal rifle, and the stock has checkering all over the place and feels great. Even the butt pad gets a major upgrade and helps dampen a lot of recoil.
While it still has the same Savage parts we don’t love, namely the trigger safety blade and a bolt release that requires pushing a button while pulling the trigger, those are pretty easy to forgive when you’re looking for a budget combo that works.
Paired with a Vortex Crossfire II 3-9x40mm, this is probably the best scope offered in these combos. They’re decently durable, work well, and you can trust Vortex to take care of any issues that might come up.
The eyebox is a little tight, and the glass isn’t amazing, but for the price, it’s better than what you used to get.
Another big plus is that the scope is mounted via a 1913 rail. Not only does this give you a lot more options in terms of mounting the scope where you need it, but it also makes replacing the scope a lot easier should you decide to do so.
The 110 Apex Hunter XP is a solid rifle. The Vortex Crossfire II is a solid scope. Of the two, the scope is a lot easier to upgrade if you wish to down the road.
MSRP is listed at $710, and the street price we’ve seen is about $650.
Winchester XPR & Vortex Crossfire II 3-9x40mm
This is another combo bundled with the Crossfire II 3-9x40mm, so we won’t waste ink talking about it, since it’s exactly the same scope as the last package.
We haven’t used the current lineup of Winchester rifles very much, so we didn’t know what to expect, but we quickly found that we liked it. A lot.
On opening the box, Winchester wins some points because they include two magazines. We’re fans of that because two is one, and one is none. Nothing sucks more than having to cancel a range or hunting trip because you forgot or broke your only mag. And it wins some points by having a 60-degree bolt throw. The bolt body is extra thick and heavy, and while it isn’t the smoothest bolt to cycle, the weight actually makes it feel pretty nice and is harder to bind up than most of the other bolts here.
Maybe this is a strange comparison, but the thicker bolt kind of feels like the difference between shooting a .45 ACP and a 9mm. The smaller bolts of the other rifles are a hair faster to cycle and take less effort, but the bigger bolt of the XPR feels smoother due to how much mass is moving.
Winchester is really proud of their MOA trigger system. They advertise it as having zero take-up, zero creep and zero overtravel. We have to agree. While a touch heavy, it’s an outstanding single-stage trigger.
MSRP is $710, but again, the store price is lower at about $650.
Mossberg Patriot Synthetic & Vortex Crossfire II 3-9x40mm
The Vortex Crossfire II 3-9x40mm in this package is pretty common. See above.
The best part of the Mossberg Patriot is the overall aesthetics of the rifle. The fluted bolt, fluted barrel, lightning bolt in the trigger safety … we just really dig it. Mossberg put some effort into the design to make a budget rifle that also looks good, and we appreciate that. While there’s nothing brilliant about the rifle, there’s nothing too bad, either. The bolt is lighter than most others on this list. That makes chambering rounds faster and a little easier, and as much as we dislike trigger safeties on rifles, this one at least looks cool. The bolt lift is on the heavy side, but the bolt knob has a lot of checkering and a nice shape to it. The stock isn’t something to write home about, but it does stock things well enough.
There’s one thing about the Patriot that stands out however, and that’s the trigger. User-adjustable between 2 and 7 pounds, it feels crisp and familiar. We’re fans of this, but your taste might differ.
MSRP is $631, but most stores seem to have it in stock for about $520.
Ruger American & Vortex Crossfire II 4-12x44mm
Ruger stands out a little by including the 4-12x44mm instead of the 3-9x40mm Crossfire II that seems so common in these packages, and while its glass is the same, we’re not sure the extra magnification really matters. But the extra 4mm of the objective lens makes a noticeable difference in how much light is gathered. The 4-12x44mm version is brighter in the 4 to 9ish range than the 3-9x40mm version. Past that, things get a little darker. But in that sweet spot, this is a better scope.
Will it be the difference between meat on the table or not? Probably not, but it’s nicer to use.
Ruger also scores points because the scope is mounted on a 1913 Picatinny rail—just like with the Savage 110, this gives you a lot of options for where your scope sits and makes adjusting the rifle to fit you a lot easier.
And they score more points by having a threaded barrel for suppressor use.
Those features are in its favor, but the rest of the rifle is unremarkable. The stock is very plasticky, the grip molding is OK, the bolt is a bit chunky with heavy bolt lift, and the butt pad is about the same as any other butt pad. Between the nicer scope, the 1913 rail and the threaded barrel, the Ruger American earns a place in our Top 3 on this list.
In full disclosure, this was the second Ruger American tested. The first had a chamber issue and needed to go back. From what we’re told, there was a manufacturing change, and the first rifle happened to be one of the unlucky few that got caught in the middle of that change. This second rifle has worked flawlessly.
MSRP feels high at $880, but the store price is much more reasonable at around $700.
Is A Rifle And Scope Combo Worth It?
For the reasons outlined above, none of these combos are really a home run—a couple of standup doubles, but nothing that’ll knock your socks off.
We don’t say that as a bad thing, it just is what it is. When you’re looking at a price point like this, you have to manage your expectations.
For an absolute bare-bones option that you don’t need to really think about, that Savage Axis II is a lot of bang for your buck. If you want something a little nicer as a first hunting rifle, Winchester’s XPR is a great contender. The combo we liked the most is the Ruger American, but the one that delivers the best bang for the buck is the Mossberg Patriot, assuming you don’t want to mount a can.
If you want to press the easy button and just want something you can pick up off a shelf, pay your money and take your chances. But if you want a better long-term experience, you might want to look at getting a rifle, scope, mount, and rings separately.
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the December 2023 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.
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