Let’s get one thing straight - The BEST rifle is the one that YOU shoot the best!
That said, the different types of rifles have different features that may or may not be optimal for a given purpose.
I immediately discard the semi-automatic rifle for the beginning hunter. Yes, it’s fast for repeat shots, but if you get a jam, you’ve got problems, and it tempts inexperienced hunters to just spray bullets into the area of the animal rather than accurately aiming at that one deadly point.
I also discard single shot actions. If you use one successfully you don’t need my advice, but for beginning hunters the lack of a fast repeat shot is sub-optimal.
A pump action is just as fast as a semi-auto for repeat, aimed shots, and will clear a jam quickly. I like them.
The lever action is a tad slower than a pump for repeat, aimed shots, but is slim for carrying in a vehicle or on a saddle, and is a fine choice if you like them.
The bolt action is slowest, but if you have ever seen a good shot using a bolt action rifle, ‘slow’ is relative. After the shot, you raise the bolt handle upward with your open palm, slam the bolt back with the open palm, then rotate your palm forward and slam the bolt forward and down and, nearly before the recoil has subsided, you’re ready for another shot. Rapid fire target matches have shown that, with aimed shots, a bolt action is nearly as fast as a semi-automatic action.
So what rifle do I think is best??
1. For fairly open hunting, shots from 70 yards , on up to 350 yards or so -
The controlled-feed bolt action based on the Mauser 98 action such as the Winchester Model 70, Ruger M77 and similar actions. NOT a Remington-700 style action, which is NOT a controlled feed action and in the excitement of a hunting situation, may result in your round falling to the ground as it’s being chambered. Next choice, either a slide or lever action rifle, although you may want to pass on some of the longer shots if you use these because they are just a little less accurate, as a general rule, than a good bolt action.
2. In thick brush, where 50 yards is a long shot -
Either a pump or a lever action, with a controlled-feed bolt action also being acceptable - the first shot is the important one.
Be Skeptical !!
Just because an ‘expert’ speaks highly about some rifle doesn’t mean they are right. Gun writers need to be paid by their magazines, magazines need to make money from advertisements, advertisers HATE critical reviews, so you don’t see many critical reviews in magazines. When the ‘push feed’ Remington 721 action, later refined into the 700, first appeared, all the writers raved about its ‘rings of steel’, but no one criticised its lack of controlled feed. Push feed is fine in a target rifle or a varmint rifle, but not for tough situations when the rifle may be moved violently and held in awkward positions. the Mauser 98 was designed for military use, for ABSOLUTE reliability. It is still unequalled for reliability in bolt actions, but push feed actions can be made cheaper, so all of the gun writers talked only about ‘rings of steel’.
How about plastic? Check some ‘modern’ rifles out and you will see plastic in odd places, like trigger guards. Plastic may be fine for many uses, but in my opinion it can’t match the durability of steel or aluminum for use in a firearm. Does it make a difference? Only when it’s the difference between working and not working in tough situations.
By the way, not all commercial Mauser actions are the same, the Charles Daly variant and others have been criticised for the use of too much plastic, the CZ seems decent, but the Fabrique Nationale version, such as in the old Browning bolt action - not the current push feed version, seems to be held in highest regard. I don’t believe anyone knocks the quality of the Winchester or Ruger versions. As usual, you get what you pay for, some European sources of Mauser actions are excellent, but expensive.
Asthetics, the appreciation of “how good the thing looks”, is obviously subjective, but some recent guns have received praise for their ‘contemporary’ appearance. I think ‘Eurotrash styling’ describes them better. The enormous power of the internet enables everyone to get exposure to many different views, mine included, so go to it and make your own independent judgement.