T&D Outdoors Columnist Dr. John Rheney first wrote about choosing a deer rifle in an August 2014 column. He could have had no idea how popular the topic would be. Over the three years since the column was posted to TheTandD.com, it continues attract a sizable audience. So, with deer hunting beginning on Aug. 15, Rheney today revisits the topic.
You want to start a fight?
Just start a conversation about deer rifles and state emphatically that your opinion on which caliber and which make is the best. Other hunters will willingly oblige you.
Most everyone who reads this column will have a deer rifle and there is a reason you have the very rifle that you hunt with. It could be cost, legacy, or just you like the way it feels in your hands. Nothing is going to change your mind. It is your rifle.There are many like it, but this is yours.
So I’m going to approach this article like I am writing to someone new to the sport who is contemplating the purchase of his first rifle.
Caliber is the first factor to be considered when buying a rifle for hunting whitetail deer. Deer are rather thin-skinned and light-boned animals. It doesn’t take a very heavy rifle to hunt deer as long as you make good shot placements. And therein lies the challenge.
I hunted with a 25-06 and 117 grain ammo for years. I never lost a deer. I seldom found a deer more than 40 or 50 yards from where it was hit by my shot. The problem with the 25-06 is that if I shot anywhere other than a straight-through shot on the ribs, the bullet would not pass through the animal. There was no blood trail.
Obviously, if I used a heavily jacketed bullet with no expansion it would, but lighter bullets need to expand and on doing so, they leave the energy in the animal and by definition don’t pass through.
Other rifles of the light-kicking variety are the .243, 6mm, and the 7mm-08. They are definitely good deer cartridges but would suffer on larger game. It has been a recent trend to hunt with the AR-15 series of semi-auto rifles. With the .223 or 5.6mm cartridge, you have a very light bullet of the 50 to 60-grain weight that can kill a deer but is terribly erratic. DO NOT SHOOT DEER WITH THESE OR ANY .22-caliber rifles.
More deer have been killed with the .30-.30 rifle than any other caliber. It was by far the most popular caliber until the GIs came home from World War II and brought their love for the 30-06 with them. The .30-.30 is usually a flat-nosed bullet set up to use in lever-action rifles and their tubular magazines. As a result, down-range performance suffers. Inside of say 150 yards, the .30-.30, .358 Winchester, .44 magnum, .45-70, .444 marlin and like cartridges work extremely well on deer and even much heavier game. They are simply not good “bean field” guns that are often used to take deer in the South.
If we take a small step up, we are now in what I consider to be the ideal class of deer and large North American game calibers. The .30-06, .270, .308, 7mm magnum, .300 Win. Magnum and similar calibers are heavy for deer but give the hunter a little room for error on shot placement and will take most any game of the North American continent up to the large bears, moose and elk.
The venerable .30-06, which is more than 100 years old, gained its popularity with servicemen who used it from World War I up to present-day action. It will carry bullet weights from 110 grains up to 240 grains, which makes it ideal for reloading.
Most all of the other aforementioned cartridges are compared to and/or are derived from its basic case. The .270 and 7 mm are a little flatter shooting. The .308 and .300 are slightly more accurate at extreme ranges.
There are more powerful cartridges like the Ruger short magnums and the Weatherbys, but to my way of thinking, nothing does everything as well as the .30-06. So let the wailing and gnashing of teeth begin. I have a .44 mag., a 45-70,a 25-06, (2) .308’s, a .270, a 7mm-08, a .375, and two .30-06s, but nine times out of 10, when I throw a rifle in the truck to go hunting, it is a .30-06.
I think this would be a good time to make another point. For those of you who own quite a few firearms, I would suggest you not store them all together. Sadly, in this day and time, firearms and electronics seem to be very in vogue with thieves. I store my guns in four different locations in two different counties. That way if a couple are taken, I don’t lose them all. I have burglar alarms, remote cameras, and hidden gun vaults but feel better if only a few guns are together in one place.
There are about as many manufacturers of deer rifles as there are calibers and styles. As mentioned before, there are single-shot, lever-action, semiauto, pump and bolt-action rifles. I own single-shot, semiautomatic, lever and bolt-action rifles. Of the five lever-action rifles I own, two are Browning BLRs, which have a cam-activated bolt and bottom-fed magazine. This allows for pointed modern cartridges. They are .308 caliber and the .308 functions well in a short-action, short-barreled rifle. They are light to carry and I use them for stalk hunting. My preference though is the bolt-action rifles and I love the Mauser-style action in the Ruger Mark II rifles.
George Mauser invented this action for his namesake rifle in 1898 for the German army. It has functioned heroically through two world wars and has been copied in all European countries and in South America. The action has what is known as “controlled feed,” where its claw extractor grabs the cartridge and holds it level and inline as it feeds into the breech. If it does malfunction, it won’t let go of the shell until it forcefully ejects it and grabs the next one.
If you go to Africa to hunt dangerous game and show up with a magazine rifle other than one with controlled feed, you will find that your professional hunter will look at you with somewhat half curiosity and half fear. I digress.
A lot of the newer bolt rifles have a flat-bolt head with a pin-style ejector. If the cartridge gets a little out of line, say if the muzzle is not level or the gun is canted to one side, the cartridge neck may jam on entering the breech. The shell will flop around in the magazine well or worse yet bend and jam in the breech. This is not good if you are trying to get a second shot in on a wounded deer leaving the field. It’s really annoying if something that wants to eat you is about 30 yards away and coming at you in a blurred roar.
The Ruger doesn’t have the older-style claw that has a tendency to break (though easily repaired), but it does have controlled round feed by completely enclosing the case head with the rimmed bolt and ejector. Remington makes its great Model 700 for the military. Winchester has reintroduced its pre-64 model 70 in featherweight. Savage makes the least expensive but the most accurate rifle on the market.
Of course many people swear by Brownings and Weatherbys, but they are simply more expensive versions of the aforementioned rifles. Then you can get into the custom rifles like Jarretts and Dakotas, and European guns like Sako, Merkel, Griffin and Howe, Holland and Holland, and Jeffrey, but that expense isn’t necessary to get a rifle to hunt deer.
Deer are by nature nocturnal animals. So most deer hunters use scoped rifles in lieu of iron sights. So which are good scopes? It has been said by experts that if you need to economize on a deer rifle combo, buy the best scope you can afford and get a cheap rifle. I have owned Tascos, Bushnells, Redfields, Leupolds, Swarovski, Kahles, Leicas and Nikons. This is a generalization, but a good variable power in the 2x7 or 3x9 is the best power combo for my hunting. I have 3x12s but that magnification is useless in the woods.
Also the German and Austrian scopes seem to have a very narrow field of view, much like looking through a pipe, even though the manufacturer specifications say otherwise. Most human eyes cannot gather all of the light transmitted by a decent scope and nothing over about a 5mm exit pupil is needed.
Manufacturers of scopes often refer to the optic triangle. If you think of a scope’s internal workings as a prism with three sides, it may be helpful. Think of a triangle! One side would be the magnification of a scope. The next side would be the exit pupil or the diameter of the shaft of light emitted on the eyepiece end. The final side is the field of view of the scope. The bell end of the scope is simply the light gathering end and contributes nothing to the triangle.
If you stretch one side of the triangle from an equal-sided triangle to a right triangle, it changes the length of the sides. Thusly, if you increase the magnification of a scope, you then decrease the field of view. If you decrease the magnification, you increase the light emitted to your eye and increase the field of view. What does this mean? It means that a balanced scope with 4 to 7 power is going to gather more light at dark than a 12-power scope of the same quality.
There is a catch though. Even though very nice scopes can give you wide-exit pupil widths of 7 mm plus, the human eye (by virtue of the diameter of the pupil opening) can only use about a 5 mm exit pupil width. I cannot tell the light transmission difference between my bulky Swarovski 3x12x56 over a 3x9x40 Leupold. So what does this all mean?
When I reach into my gun vault for a rifle to throw in the back of my truck, is it my custom made .270 Mauser with the Douglas premium air-gauge barrel and fully floated bishop stock that shoots a .5-inch group all day long? No it’s the beat-up .30-06 Ruger with the plastic stock and compact 3.5x10x50 Leupold Vari X-3.
Why? It just fits me and I have traveled all over the world and taken every type of animal with hurried snap shots and shots out to 400 yards with it. It has never failed to feed even in wet, dirty conditions. It shoots about a 1-1/2- inch group at 100 yards with the heavy duplex Leupold and I can see well into the late evening until it is unethical to shoot.
So I guess in the end, the caliber, make and price of a deer rifle are secondary. Finding that rifle that is an extension of yourself and one that you have complete confidence in is the key. It took me a lot of trial and error, but that “aha” moment finally came.