It occurred to me the other day that this might be a good time to start a new conversation about deer rifles. Guys will be thinking about possibly buying a new rifle about now, maybe their first. So it is probably a good thing to throw something up on the wall and get the ball rolling.
To be honest, the best time I've found to buy a new deer rifle is just after season ends. A lot of guys sell their rifle to pay Christmas and winter heating bills. You get a lot of good deals. However, now is also agood time to be out there getting a new rifle broken in. I usually break out the deer rifles just after putting away the turkey guns. The worst time to get a rifle is the night before season. We've all seen it: you show up at Walmart on the eve of season and see somebody handling the stock. What are they thinking?
First off, I want to get something off my chest: there is no single perfect deer rifle. We all have favorites, but it is all based on our own peculiar experiences. The fact of the matter is any center fire rifle cartridge that is legal in a state is going to be adequate for killing deer. Although I do not recommend this practice, 25 ACP will kill a deer. In some states it is legal. There is also no perfect action for deer. Some guys like levers. Some guys prefer bolt guns. I started with a semi-auto. About the only action I do not recommend for beginners is a single-shot. The only reason for that is that it does not allow for a fast follow-up shot. I am a big advocate of at least being ready to take a second or third shot if the deer cooperates and does not run off. Most times, my scope falls back on 4 sets of toes in the air, so the point is moot.
Scope? I use a scope. I am now past fifty and my eyes are not what they were. A scope is almost a necessity for me. Whatever you pick, be willing to practice until you are competent, and be willing to accept the limitiations. My kids did not hunt until they could hit a pie plate offhand at 50 yards. One preferred doing it with irons. One started with a scope.
Lastly: Recoil does not kill deer. Shot placement does. You do not need a 300 Rem Mag or a 7mm Rem Mag to kill deer. Buy a 30-06 or a 270 Win and enjoy yourself. Most guys dream of taking deer out past 200 yards. Most guys shoot deer inside 100 yards. I do the bulk of my work inside 50 yards. Find a deer rifle that will shoot accurately and practice with it. You will not be able to make up for a bad shot by having a bigger rifle. Do not buy a rifle, because your last rifle did not produce a "bang-flop" kill. Deer sometimes run; it is just the nature of things.
The big take-away from this rant should be that whitetail deer are not that hard to kill. This is a sport that is more about good woodsmanship than technology. Do not over-brain this thing. Go for what makes you feel the best.
What are my favorites? I'm a big proponent of the middle way. I'm not into the fastest bullet, the biggest bullet, the farthest shot, the most expensive shooting system. I personally feel there is a fairly narrow window of what you can do with the basic equation of Force= Mass X Acceleration before you either A) Exceed the performance of the lead/guilding metal of the bullet and blow it up or B) Exceed the performance of the deer's innards and exit the animal. Somewhere in there, you have to figure in proper expansion of the bullet. Bore? 40-something is on the high-end, 20-something is on the low end. In the middle is 30-something. Hmmmm. about .308 or thereabouts for a nice middle ground. I believe the 30-06 is overkill on deer, but the best overall cartridge for game on the North American Continent. 30-30 WIN? It is definitely a good deer cartridge, but it is not my favorite.
300 Savage. Personally, I don't own a 300 Savage, but I do own 30-06, and 30-30 WIN and .308 WIN. I reload. I took the 308 WIN and backed it off to 300 Savage levels and found a recoil level that I could call home. It's a bit more than the thutty-thutty, but it has a range that will take a 165 grain bullet out to 200 yards. Beyond that, and I'm getting up and moving closer. I shoot these out of a Savage 99. This is my favorite, but before you run out and try to buy one, remember that the Savage 99 lever has not been made in over a decade. 300 Savage rifles and ammo are still out there, but they are both harder to find than 308 WIN. I am primarily hunting out of stands, and I seldom take a deer out beyond 80 yards.
The bulk of my deer rifles are in 30-06. I have bolt-actions and semi-autos. Yeah, it's overkill, but overkill can be a good thing up to a point. My son shot my M1 Garand for several years as a youth rifle. He was good with it. It fit him. The gas-operated semi-automatic action reduced the recoil considerably. I also shot a Remington 742 semi in '06 for years.
I have one 30-30 WIN Marlin 336. There is nothing wrong with it. #3 son is 11 and he's taken deer with it. I personally feel (not think) it is a bit under powered compared to the rest of the rifles in my rack. My point in including this rifle is not to knock it. Rather, I want show that even the most popular deer cartridge of the last 100 years is not everyone's favorite, and that those preferences are not always rational. If you are looking for what I feel is the bottom-end of that "middle way" this is it. On the top end is my next choice.
On the other end of the spectrum, I have a Remington 7600 in 35 Whelen that I use on the deer. It makes them dead as a 30-06 to be sure. It does not make them any more dead. In fact, I was a bit surprised that Whelenizing a deer didn't do all that much more than any of my other rifles. "DRT" or "BANG-FLOP" is an ideal, nothing more. The first buck I shot with this rifle stood and took 3 rounds into the heart/lung area at 80 yards and just kept staring at me without flopping over. It felt like I was shooting blanks. It was a fluke, however. A bunch of deer have all gone down smartly since. The only reason I mention this is another guy might conclude that he needed a bigger gun, or premium bullets or some other fix. About all I did was switch from Remington PSPCL Corelokts to SPCL Corelokts, and I cannot be sure that fixed anything. Somebody just suggested the spire-pointed Corelokts might be a little slower to expand than the round-nosed ones.
What I really like about this rifle is that it is a pump. It is a bit faster for me to operate than my bolts or levers. It is not as complex or as picky as my semis. It is certainly one of my more accurate rifles. I can strip it down after a soaking rain and not loose zero on the scope. I can fully operate the rifle with gloves on. As a result, this has become my designated rain gun.
Best deer rifle? At normal treestand distances a 12 GA shotgun with 2 3/4 Remmie Sluggers will do as good a job as anything. If you like a 30-06 at 200 yards, you should see what it does inside 10 yards. The next guy up may throw .223 Rem on the wall, and after him some guy will make the case for .375 H&H. Best is what you feel confident practicing and using. I have given you my best advice. What's yours?