The Best Rifles for Deer Hunting: One Man’s Opinion

Bryan Hendricks has had a love affair with rifles for many years, and not just one particular one.

Bryan Hendricks has had a love affair with rifles for many years, and not just one particular one.

I love only one woman, but I love a lot of different rifles. Blonds, brunettes, long ones, short ones, gentle ones and temperamental ones … I love them all because to me, a hunting rifle is art, the ultimate union of form and function.

By Bryan Hendricks

This isn’t about the best cartridge for killing white-tailed deer. They all do it authoritatively. A .223 Remington in competent hands works as well as a .338 Winchester Magnum, so why limit yourself to just one? Using diversity of rifles in different calibers can enhance your enjoyment of the hunting experience.

My lifelong love affair of rifles began as a child with the .30-06. My dad had a Remington 740 semi-auto, and like many men from the World War II generation, he acknowledged no other cartridge. His taste for other luxuries was extravagant but that was the only rifle he ever owned.

My father-in-law was the same way. He served in the Pacific Theatre, and he considered the M1 Garand the ultimate rifle. He believed the .30-06 was the Tyrannosaurus Rex of all cartridges. The day I proved to him that the .308 Winchester shoots the same bullet as the .06, at roughly the same velocity, was like telling a little kid that there is no Santa Claus. He never spoke of such things with me again.

Always remember to protect your hearing when shooting firearms, as discussed in this DDH TV flashback:

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Who knows why hunters bond with certain cartridges? Maybe it’s the way the numbers roll off the tongue. Say it out loud, “Three-Oh-Eight.” Swoon! My first one was a Winchester Model 70 Classic Stainless Featherweight with an auburn finish that glows in the soft light of a southern November morning. It’s wickedly accurate with 150-gr. Hornady Spire Points or Sierra GameKings powered by 45 grains of IMR 4064, and at 300 yards, it drops deer like an NFL linebacker hitting a Pop Warner running back.

I’ve had many .308s, including one I wish I’d kept. It was a Mauser Model 2000. It looked just like a Mark V Weatherby, but with iron sights, and it was one of the most gorgeous rifles I’ve ever known.

Rifles offer hunters the opportunity to practice and become proficient at longer ranges, although many hunters seem to be more comfortable with shots of 250 yards or less.

Rifles offer hunters the opportunity to practice and become proficient at longer ranges, although many hunters seem to be more comfortable with shots of 250 yards or less.

Ironically, the .308 succeeded the .30-06 in military supremacy, and while its fans are ardent, the round never supplanted the .30-06 in the hearts of American hunters.

Why? Because the aught-six is distinctively American, born in war and proven afield. I have two. One is a Winchester Model 70 Classic Super Grade. The other is a 1967 Grade II Browning BAR, a first-year production model. I hunt with that one, and it’s very accurate with 150-gr. Hornady Boattail Spire Points powered by 56.5 grains of IMR-4350. Reloading lore insists on using small-base dies to resize brass for use in semi-automatics. I use regular, full-length resizing dies and have never reloaded around that did not feed, fire and eject cleanly in the BAR.

I love the old BAR’s clean, angular lines, its weight, the way it feels in my hands and the way it jumps to my shoulder. On still, cold mornings, I pass time admiring the straight, tight grain of the walnut through the blond finish and marvel at the impressionistic engravings of the deer and pronghorn heads on the receiver.

Somewhere along the line, I fell in love with the 7mm-08, the .308’s attractive little sister. Mine is a Remington Model 700 BDL, a rifle that must have been designed especially for me. I worked up a half-inch load at 100 yards featuring a 130-gr. Speer soft point powered by 41 grains of 4064.

I’ve never killed a single deer with that combination. I’ve always killed them in multiples. The most memorable day was a two-day antlerless hunt in Missouri’s Chariton County in 2004. A herd of does wandered into my wooded stream bottom, and I killed four in about 30 seconds. In 2009, it took two more with the same charge pushing 130-gr. Barnes Triple Shocks.

SEE ALSO: Big Buck Secrets You Can Use to Kill More Deer!

Like the .308, a good 7mm-08 hunting round leaves the muzzle at a speed of about 2,500-2,700 feet per second. Consequently, and because of its light recoil, some dismiss the 7-08 as a good choice for kids or women. That’s true to the extent that a light-kicking cartridge is easy to shoot accurately, which makes it suitable for any hunter who values quick, humane kills. But would you trust it to kill the monster buck of a lifetime? Doug Speight of Greenbrier, Ark., killed a bighorn ram in New Mexico with a 7mm-08 in 2010 that scored 181 and weighed 400 pounds. It’s sufficient for any whitetail it’ll ever encounter.

whitetail deer hunting

What is your deer hunting rifle worth? Depending on how much you love different rifles or want to hang on to it, the value may vary.

A few years ago the 6.5×55 Swedish made its periodic goodwill tour through outdoor journals. Developed in 1891, the elderly “Swede” is very popular in Europe, but unappreciated in the United States.

One entered my arsenal in 2007 while I perused a selection of new Ruger M77 rifles at a local gun shop. The owner handed me one chambered in 6.5×55 and said, “You need to take this one home with you. I’ll make you a helluva deal on it.”

As in $350! It had been on his shelf for nearly eight years, and he wanted it off his inventory. I gave it an old Redfield 3-9X40 Wideview scope and promptly shot under an inch with factory ammo, 140-gr. Remington Core-Lokts.

At 100 yards and closer, this combination is a consistent one-shot killer. At longer ranges it had problems. In 2008, I squeezed on two does at a range of about 325 yards. A geyser of mud erupted beyond the first doe, as if I’d overshot. I was sighted in about 3 inches high at 100 yards and was hold- ing dead on the vitals. That deer ran, so I squeezed on the second doe. Another geyser erupted beyond that deer. It ran, so I shot again, producing another geyser beyond. It ran other 70 yards and toppled.

SEE ALSO: Never Question Again Where You Shot Your Deer After Seeing This!

During the post mortem, we found two entry holes at the aim point, but only one exit. It was only slightly larger than either of the entry wounds. The bullets had gone out the same hole. They had not expanded and had caused virtually no tissue damage. Which meant we had to look for a second doe in the dark. We found it hours later, about 250 yards from where I’d shot.

Like most domestic ammo makers, Remington loads its 6.5×55 ammo mild in deference to old military surplus Mausers in circulation. This keeps chamber pressures low and reduces the chance of damaging antique actions. The muzzle velocity of this ammo is about 2,500 fps. At 320 yards, the bullets apparently struck with too little energy to expand properly. They passed through and blew up in the mud. I remedied this problem at the reloading bench, using 44.5 grains of IMR-4831 to boost 140-gr. Sierra GameKings very accurately to muzzle velocities near 2,800 fps.

Of course, my Swede was lonely without its big sister, the 7×57. Another European classic, the 7×57 is ballistically similar to the 7mm-08. I bought a CZ-550 American online and fitted it with a Simmons Aetec 2.8-10X44. It shot a four-shot, half-inch group right out of the box with 140-gr. factory Core-Lokts. The next two rounds went through the same hole at 200 yards. This made me wistful because I cannot improve this rifle’s accuracy with handloads. That’s partly attributable to CZ’s set trigger, which breaks with a feather touch, and recoil is almost nonexistent.

Marlin Model 336C

Marlin Model 336C

I’ve always had a soft spot for lever-action rifles, especially when hunting in hardwood timber where shots are limited to less than 100 yards. The Model 94 Winchester in .30-30 is the gold standard for this genre, but I’ve always preferred the Marlin Model 336C in .35 Rem. I like the Marlin’s beefier design, and it feels better in my hands. The .35 has a little more punch than the .30-30, but for woodland hunting, the difference is negligible. I like the .35 because it’s because it’s different.

Most published loads for the .35 Rem. feature a 180- or 220-gr. slug, but I redefined the .35 by loading 158-gr. Hornady HP/XTP hollow points in front of 36.5 grains of Reloder 7. That’s a pistol bullet designed for .357 Magnum, but in this configuration, it screams. It kicks light, it’s accurate, and the rounds hit like wrecking balls. It’s also a lot more fun to shoot than the tank-buster loads.

Even more remarkable was my Marlin 375, a beefed up 336 chambered for the .375 Winchester. Mine was unique because it has a stainless barrel and receiver, with top shelf wood. It kicks lighter than a full-house .35 Rem. load, and it’s amazingly accurate at reasonable ranges. I once owned a Winchester 94 Big Bore in this chambering, as well. Regrettably, I let collectors talk me out of them, but I will have another someday.

SEE ALSO: If You Love Rifles and Deer Hunting, You Must See This Incredible Collection

For obscurity, the .264 Winchester Magnum is peerless. Several years ago, Remington released a limited run of its Model 700 CDL in .264 Win. Mag. Mine is blued, with a 26-inch fluted barrel. Its recoil does not live up to the ferocity of legend, and in my world, where big 7mm and 30-calibers reign, it always draws a crowd wherever it appears. Theatrics are important. Pull the stock out of the case and jiggle it a few times to suggest something big and unyielding inside. Then, pull it out very slowly. That 26-inch barrel seems to take forever to clear, and eyes widen the longer it takes. What can I say? Size does matter.

Learn about calling deer and vocalizations in this DDH TV flashback:

Either you love the Winchester short magnums, or you hate them. I love them, especially the .270 WSM. I never considered the 7mm WSM until the same shop owner offered me the same deal on an unwanted Ruger M77 as he did with the aforementioned 6.5×55 Swedish. My only quibble was its 22-inch barrel. I upgraded to a Mossberg 4×4, which has a 26-inch barrel and a factory muzzle brake, and it quickly became a favorite.

With 150-gr. Winchester Power-Max ammo, this rifle shoots fast and straight. I also acquired a few boxes of discontinued 160-gr. Winchester Fail Safe from the Internet because I am very fond of the Fail Safe bullet. While the 7 mm is the stepchild of the WSM line, ammo is abundant and easy to find in urban areas. Current reloading manuals list enough loads to make the 7mm WSM do anything you want.

People often ask me which rifle I would choose if I could have only one. That’s a question I can’t answer. I’m in love with whichever one I’m holding at the time.

Bryan Hendricks, an avid shooter, hunter and reloading enthusiast, is the Outdoors Editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.


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One thought on “The Best Rifles for Deer Hunting: One Man’s Opinion

  1. WVRidgeRunner

    Why is it that rarely do I see two of the best deer rifle cartridges ever developed. The .260 Remington, and the 25-06 Remington. I have both of those cartridges in a Browning A Bolt. Both of them are and have been 1 shot terminators for deer. And the .260 with 140 gr bonded bullets are also good for Elk and Black bears, and hogs. Not to mention the assorted array of sheep. It out performs the .308 ballistically at all yardages to 800. Check it out.

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