When it’s time to select a new rifle for your deer hunting pursuits, it’s always best to choose the one that will suit your style more than something flashy, cool or expensive.
The perfect deer rifle isn’t. If that sounds confusing, consider how your 10-pound, heavy-barreled sniper rifle chambered in 7mm Rem. Mag. will drag you down in Idaho’s mountains. Or Maine’s Northwoods. Or even in Uncle John’s 10-acre woodlot. Then imagine how inadequate you’d feel aiming an open-sighted lever-action .30-30 Win. across 300 yards of cut corn.
The key to choosing the right rifle is to make that choice based on the kind of deer hunting you do. Or hope to do. I categorize deer rifles in four broad groups:
No. 1/Long Range: Call these beanfield rifles, sendero rifles or sniper rifles. They are usually 8- to 12-pound bolt actions with 24- to 30-inch barrels for wringing maximum velocity from each bullet. They can be chambered for anything from .22-250 Rem. to .338 Lapua Mag. Big scopes in the 4-20X range usually top these rigs.
No. 2/Short Range: Call these brush rifles or still-hunting rifles. They are usually 6 to 8 pounds and trim, with 18- to 22-inch barrels. Middle-road cartridges from .243 Win. and .30-30 Win. through short magnums are most common, with the 7mm-08 Rem. through .30-06 class smack in the center. Bolt, lever and slide actions work best with open sights or low-power scopes.
No. 3/All-Purpose: Your “average” bolt action in the 7-pound range with 22-inch barrels chambered for classic, do-all cartridges such as .257 Roberts, .270 Win. and 30-06. Not too heavy or clumsy for still-hunting woods, yet capable of reaching 400 yards. Add a 3-9X scope and you’re golden.
No. 4/Ultra-light: A specialty rifle for hunting hard and far, especially in mountains. Ultra-lights can qualify as short-range and all-purpose rifles, too. They’re usually fitted with a scope in the 2-8X36mm or 3-9X40mm range.
Choosing among these four types of rifles depends on how and where you hunt.
Stand hunting open country: If you’re going to sit in a blind or tree- stand overlooking big, open country where shots stretch long, a heavy rifle and flat-shooting cartridge could be ideal. You’ll need a good rest for the heavy gun. Prone tripods are great IF they clear grass, rocks and the roll of the ground. A slightly elevated perch or at least a sitting-height bipod increases functionality of heavy rifles. Unless you anticipate shots inside of 40 yards, scope power can start at 4X or 5X and go as high as you’d like. Big objectives add useful brightness at powers above 10X.
Stand hunting woods and brush: You’re essentially a bowhunter with a gun. Rifles in categories No. 2 through No. 4 will suffice. I’d lean toward lighter, more compact rifles that are easier to handle and aim with mini- mum motion, noise and fuss. Open sights will work, but I’d still use a scope for low light and for seeing clear shooting lanes.
Still-hunting: Think light, quick and handy — rifles such as the old M94 .30-30 Win. and Savage M99 that you can carry easily all day, yet quickly whip into action. You should get most shots inside of 150 yards, but the ability to reach out to 300 yards can come in handy. My personal choice is a lightweight rifle throwing 140- to 165-grain bullets anywhere from 2,700 to 3,000 fps. Scopes in the 2-10X range with 36mm to 42mm objectives are perfect.
Spot-and-stalk hunting: This is a more open habitat variant of still-hunting. You might crawl within bow range of a deer or pick it off from 400 yards. You might need to hike several miles, crawl several hundred yards or even run to cut off moving bucks. (Run ONLY with an unloaded rifle!) Mid-sized scopes in the 2-12X range should be perfect.
Caliber/cartridge selection doesn’t matter nearly as much as most deer hunters imagine. It’s all about bullet performance and accuracy. A 60-grain bullet in the heart/lungs beats a 300-grain bullet in the paunch. Millions of deer have been brought to the table by the old .30-30 Win. throwing a 150-grain bullet only 2,300 fps. Higher velocity matters only if you shoot past 200 yards.