My first deer rifle was a Sako in .243 Winchester that my dad, a master woodworker and an accomplished gunsmith on the side, built for me back in the 1970s. It was, and still is, a sweet little thing—a real shooter. I can tote it to the range and fire 1-inch groups with 100-grain loads all day long. On a cool, quiet morning when I’m feeling good and haven’t had too much coffee, I can lean into a bench, anchor the .243, peer through the old Leupold scope and proceed to smash 1 MOA, clustering three shots and sometimes five close enough to cover with a half-dollar.
I’ve killed lots of whitetail does and bucks with that rifle, which is a real looker, with its fine walnut stock, Monte Carlo styling and Dad’s exquisite hand checkering. Though I would baby the .243 to no end, I would not hesitate to pull it out of the safe, dust it off and use it anywhere in North American deer country, save perhaps for the mule deer plains or the Canadian bush where 300-pound bucks lurk.
In the early 1980s, boring into my hunting prime and feeling the need for more power, I went down to the gun shop and shelled out a couple hundred bucks for a shiny, new Ruger M77 in .30-06. I remember the Ruger ads of the day touting it as a “lightweight sporter.” By today’s standards, that 9-pound rifle is hardly a fast-wielding featherweight. But man, what a workhorse!
I lugged that .30-06 up and down mountains and across plains. I killed a lot of game with that gun—too many whitetails to count, along with muleys, sheep, elk, black bears, goats and a couple of gargantuan moose. The Ruger never let me down, and it is unquestionably one of the best rifles I have ever owned. I retired it fondly and kept looking for the next best thing.
Throughout the last couple of decades, I have gone through my share of Brownings, Winchesters, Remingtons and a few custom jobs of various actions and calibers, from the venerable .270 to the all-purpose 7mm Remington Magnum, to the shoulder-thumping .338 Winchester Magnum. I toppled a lot of deer and other game with those rifles, and I enjoyed every one of them. And still, I keep looking.
For the hunter, the quest for the ultimate rifle never ends. Heck, it’s half the fun of the game. To aid in your ongoing search, here are some key traits to consider—things I’ve learned in my quest over many years.
I’ve shot whitetails and mule deer with some 15 different cartridges, and from those experiences I’ve drawn the following simple yet practical conclusion: Choose a caliber that shoots a premium 130- to 165-grain bullet accurately out to 300 yards, and you’ll be in great shape for deer anywhere in North America. The .270, .280, .308, .30-06 and 7mm Remington Magnum fit that criteria and are top choices for deer.
But my word, they are certainly not the only choices. As mentioned, I am a fan of the little .243, and I would not balk for a second to use it on small-bodied to midsize whitetails anywhere in the country. The key is to use a top-notch, 100-grain bullet in the .243, like the Sierra GameKing, and then to put that pill smack behind a buck’s shoulder blade.
The .243 is a fine choice for ladies and kids, but the 7mm-08 is a little better. The latter cartridge allows you to use a heavier bullet (140 grains) than you can in the .243, but it produces only a smattering of more recoil.
Now here’s something for you power boys. If you live out West, or travel out there regularly for the dynamic duo of elk and mule deer, you ought to choose your cartridge accordingly. The .270 with a 130- to 150-grain bullet will do the job, though it is the bare minimum. The 7mm Remington Magnum or the .30-06 is better. The .270 WSM and .300 WSM are fine mule deer choices. In recent years, I’ve shot a lot of bucks with a Remington Model 700 chambered for 7mm Rem. Ultra Mag., and I like it. The .300 Rem. Ultra is a good and popular option, too.
I confess to being pretty narrow-minded: I prefer a bolt action, plain and simple, and largely for aesthetic reasons. Cradling a bolt gun in the crook of your arm as you hike to a stand or along a ridge makes you look and feel like a seasoned deer hunter.
Having tested and hunted with dozens of factory-produced bolt actions over the years, I can say this. The hunter looking for a new rifle can hardly go wrong by choosing a Remington Model 700, a Browning A-Bolt or a T/C Venture. Most modern bolt guns will prove extremely rugged and dependable in the woods for years to come. While some individual rifles will shoot better than others right out of the box, all bolts will give you all the hunting accuracy you need, provided you test several brands of ammunition and then sight-in with the load and bullet weight the rifle likes best.
I’ve hunted with Browning BAR rifles, Winchester SRX and other autoloaders, and I’ve got to admit I like them more and more. It’s a myth that an autoloading rifle is not as inherently accurate as a bolt action, especially the newer models. The truth is, a repeater like the Browning BAR or Remington Model 7400 may shoot as well as or better than a bolt action. And when shooting a .30-06 or heavier caliber, any hunter will appreciate the nominal recoil of a stout, gas-operated autoloading rifle. The repeater will never be as popular as the bolt action in the deer woods, but it has its place and is worth a look at some point in your gun-buying days.
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AR rifles, like the camouflage-stocked Remington R-25 chambered for the .308 Winchester, are becoming increasingly popular with some hunters, especially our war heroes and vets. As compared to a bolt or even a traditional autoloading rifle, a short, boxy, pistol-gripped AR has a completely different look and feel. It is a more complex firearm with more moving parts, and it takes some getting used to. But these can be excellent and legitimate 300-yard deer guns. There is virtually no recoil, and they are more accurate than you might imagine. Shooting 1 MOA with an R-25 or similar AR in .308 with factory hunting ammunition is very doable. If you like this rifle type, go for it.
You hardly ever see a single-shot or a pump action in the hands of a whitetail hunter these days, but you do see a fair share of lever guns, especially in the Northeast. If you hunt strictly in tight, thick cover and are intrigued by the idea of a short, fast-handling timber rifle, give the “cowboy action” a look. Marlin rules the market here; its Model 1894 and Model 308MXLR are good choices.
The industry standard for a hunting rifle’s barrel used to be 24 inches. Today, you’ll find a range of barrel lengths, typically from 22 to 24 inches. Numerous studies have shown that lopping off a couple inches of barrel steel does not affect a cartridge’s velocity all that much, at least not by deer-hunting standards. But it does reduce a rifle’s weight a bit.
And to dispel yet another old fable, most of the sleek, new, thin-walled, 20-inch-barreled rifles I’ve tested shoot nearly as accurately (certainly within any shooter’s natural margin of error) as the 24-inch-tubed bolt actions I used to lug around the woods. I’ve come to prefer a short-barreled arm that is lightweight and easy to maneuver in brush and in a treestand. Do check into some of the new Kimber rifles that are out there—the Mountain Ascent is the lightest production bolt gun on the market today weighing in at a scant 5.3 pounds without a scope.
Some hunters prefer the look of a silver stainless barrel, while others like a more traditional blued look. It’s up to you.
It’s a simple question: wood or synthetic? Wood is more apt to crack, split or warp, though in reality that is rarely a problem. How many walnut stocks have given you trouble over the years? One time on a mountain mule deer hunt, I cracked a big hole in a brand-new composite stock. A synthetic stock is tough but certainly not indestructible. Stuff can happen. The bottom line is that both types of stocks are tough and durable.
The biggest problem I’ve experienced with wooden stocks is that they are susceptible to contracting and expanding due to changes in the humidity. I’ve left my home in muggy Virginia with my .270 or .30-06 shooting the lights out at 100 yards. Upon arriving in cool, arid Arizona or eastern Montana, I’ve checked my rifle and found it to be dead-on…or 3 or 4 inches off!
A rifle shimmying in the gut of an airplane can get knocked out of zero every once in a while, but I think that excuse is largely overblown. I believe that changes in air density and especially humidity have much more to do with shifts in a rifle’s point of impact (POI). The problem is magnified when your rifle wears a walnut stock, but I’ve experienced mysterious shifts in POI with composite-stocked rifles, too, even though a synthetic material is impervious to moisture and supposedly cannot expand or contract. Hmm, strange. The lesson learned is that after traveling cross-country, be sure to test-fire any rifle before hunting.
A synthetic stock is lighter than wood, something I like, and it comes in a gray, black, green or even a camouflage finish. A modern, high-tech rifle looks sharp, at least to the eyes of some people.
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On the other hand, if you’re a charter member of the heavyweight rifle clan, you’ll prefer a walnut stock, or one crafted of laminated wood. And there is no denying the romance of wood. Every once in while I pull my old Ruger .30-06 out of the safe and run my hands over the stock’s dents, gouges, scrapes and scars. Twenty years of memories come flooding back—the stunning vistas of distant game country, the exciting stalks, the long, cold, unproductive sits, the awesome shots, the spectacular misses, the feel and smell of freshly killed game on my hands. You won’t get that with a composite stock.
Synthetic or wood? Both are good, the choice is up to you.
We live in a time where everybody sues everybody, a fact that is not lost on firearms manufacturers. For liability reasons, most hunting rifles come from the factory with trigger pulls of 5 or even 6 pounds. Over the years I have taught myself to shoot heavy-triggered rifles pretty darn well, both through shooting a lot and dry-firing even more at home. But no doubt, most people shoot a rifle better if it has a crisp-breaking, 3- to 4-pound trigger. Take a rifle to a good gunsmith and have him lighten the trigger load.
When was the last time you shot a deer with an iron-sighted rifle? When was the last time a buddy of yours did? Heck, when was the last time you heard of anybody doing it? You get my drift. The modern deer rifle, save perhaps for the lever gun used by a Northeasterner who shoots bucks at 50 yards in dog-hair-thick woods, must be topped with a quality scope. In my opinion, there is really no good reason for a new bolt action to wear iron sights, which only add ounces of weight to a rifle can snag limbs or vines as you stalk or raise or lower a rifle in a treestand. That fact is not lost on firearms manufacturers, which now offer many models sans iron sights.
You could top your rifle with a fixed 4X or 6X scope, but why? A variable-power scope can do everything a fixed optic can, and do it better. Crank a scope up to 8X or 9X for precise sighting-in at the range. Turn it back down to 4X when stalking or sneaking into a stand. If you spot a buck feeding in a soybean field or tipping through the western sage 250 yards away, grab a tree or fence post, rest your rifle, twist your optic up to 7X or 8X, and take him.
To dispel one last myth, a variable scope is just as rugged and dependable as a fixed power. I’ve flown hundreds of thousands of miles with rifles over the years. I’ve lugged them up and down steep mountains, and roped them into and out of thousands of tree stands. Knock on a wooden stock, I have never had a variable-power scope break or otherwise give me big trouble. I should mention that I use only first-rate, high-dollar scopes, some of which cost as much or more than the rifles I hunt with. My theory is that you can’t shoot a buck if you can’t see it, so use the brightest, crispest scope you can afford.
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A scope in the 2-7X, 2.5-8X or 10X, or 3-9X range is just right for a deer rifle. An optic like that provides all the magnification you need at the high end, and with a 32mm to 42mm objective, it gathers plenty of light at dusk or dawn. A scope that size is lightweight and sleek, and you can mount it low to a rifle, something that not only looks good but also enhances quick, comfortable aiming. In my experience, low-riding scopes are easy to sight-in and hold zero well.
My current taste in a deer rifle runs to a lightweight, composite-stocked, short-barreled bolt action chambered for a cartridge that shoots a 130- to 165-grain bullet into 1 MOA. With a rig like that, I can confidently hunt a buck anywhere in North America. But what new rifle models will hit the shelves next year? Maybe a new cartridge I’ll just have to try? I’ll never stop looking for my next best rifle. And neither should you—that’s half the fun of it!
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This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN™ Winter 2016 issue #205. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.