It's such a wonderful experience; picking out a new rifle can be as exciting as Christmas morning to an eight-year-old. There are so many different designs, styles and niche-type rifles available, it may warrant a bit of exploration before jumping into the deep end of the pool. I know enough guys who have purchased a rifle sight unseen, only to be disappointed upon arrival.
With the popularity of long-range target shooting, many shooters are taking advantage of the chassis rifles. However, there is a definite difference in feel between a chassis rifle and a traditional hunting rifle—that is rather obvious—and that difference can be a negative factor for those who are not used to it. The same can be said for a target rifle, with its heavy barrel and beefier stock. Some of the budget rifles, equipped with polymer stocks and magazines, will turn some people off and yet please others. There's a lot out there, and I'm a firm believer in holding a firearm—or at least another model of the same gun—in hand before buying.
Very few rifles can do it all; they each do something very well, but there are different tools for different jobs. So when you're shopping for a rifle, make an honest evaluation of what you expect to do with it. If you're shopping for a hunting rifle, think long and hard about what you plan to hunt. Does your bucket list include mountain and/or backpack hunting? If so, weight is definitely going to be a factor. Thin barrels can affect group size, opening up group size as the barrel heats up. Doesn't necessarily mean it's the end of the world, but the accuracy expectations should not be that of the heavy barreled target rifles. Too often I've seen shooters with a light, trim rifle—perfect for hunting situations where the rifle is carried far more often than shot—complain that the rifle prints groups no better than one-MOA, expecting that every modern rifle is a one-hole gun. It just isn't so.
Are you the kind of hunter who spends most of his or her time on or in a stand? Perhaps a bit more rifle weight won't bother you in the least; I've found that rifles with a bit more heft tend to settle down faster, making longer shots from a stand much easier. Looking for a solid paper-puncher? I like the heavy target barrels; they don't heat up quickly, and they are more rigid, usually enhancing accuracy.
Does the new rifle have a detachable magazine or fixed magazine? I would lose my head if it were not attached to my shoulders, and prefer a fixed magazine; it gives me one less thing to lose in the field. If you prefer the quick reloading capabilities of the detachable magazine rifles—and of course I'm referring to the bolt action rifles here, as the MSRs are of one design—then I'd recommend ordering a spare magazine if the rifle isn't already shipped with one. I've seen many fans of the Remington and Browning autoloaders turn their rifle into a single shot while in the back country.
Where do you prefer the safety to be located? If you're used to a tang safety, a three-position safety can feel very strange, and the reverse applies as well. Habit is habit, and more than once I've personally reached to the wrong location to disengage the safety. This is just a small thing, but a point to consider when shopping for a new rifle. Obviously, if you're switching to a new action style, each will come with its own set of particulars, but you'll need to be aware of the subtleties.
Stock fit can be a real game changer as well. The American standard length of pull—usually between 13 ½" and 13 ¾"—is a bit short for me. It wasn't until I used a Heym rifle, made in Germany, with a 14 ¼" length of pull, that I realized how much better the rifle fit me. I can definitely use a shorter rifle, but I now feel like I'm creeping up on the stock a bit. Many rifles are now being manufactured with an adjustment for stock length, and that's a wonderful thing. The prettiest rifle, if it's considerably long or short for your frame, will not be pleasant to shoot.
Barrel length can affect balance, along with all the other factors. I've always been a fan of longer barrels, as it aids in muzzle velocities in the magnum cartridges, and helps the muzzle settle down under field conditions. Some folks don't want the longer barrels, especially those who hunt the thick woods where every last bit of velocity doesn't make a difference, and the 24" and 26" barrels can become difficult to maneuver. Again, be honest with yourself about the expectations of your new rifle.
An adjustable trigger can turn a dog of a rifle into a winner. A rifle with an unadjustable trigger can be a source of frustration to me, unless it comes properly tuned. I don't like the 5 to 6 pound pull that some rifles are set to, and when buying a rifle, I figure in the price of a replacement trigger if needs be.
To me, a rifle takes on a persona of its own, especially when I spend time making memories with it, so I choose carefully. At the very least, I want to hold a representative of the model before I consider buying one, in order to ensure that the appointments are what I like, and that it feels the way I expect it to. A pound one way or another can really change the feel of a rifle, as can stock dimensions that are different than what you are expecting. Do your homework into the particulars of a chosen rifle, and you'll be a happier shooter.