If there is one way to get folks talking off the cuff, it is to broach the subject of deer rifles and calibers. Everyone has a favorite their dad, granddad, or aunt used to tame the Wild West and deplete the Elk herds in downtown Burbank. The problem is what works for one doesn’t work for the other, at least it doesn’t work as well.
We don’t talk about the stove as much at the shop, but we set the wire ablaze with opinion. The facts are difficult to discern by the beginner. Those with experience know the deal and often learn from a well-written opinion. The emotional imperatives must be divorced from the subject, so instead, let’s climb the logic ladder.
A rifle is an interesting and useful instrument. Handloaders and recreational shooters may have a different idea of what is best—compared to the average shooter who fires a box of ammunition a season to get sighted in before hunting. (Some of those guys get their deer every year—the rifle is just a tool.)
It’s not just the rifle; it is the weight of the rifle, the scope, and the type of game. I cannot cover it all. However, I can get you started. Meet me halfway, and do your study and research.
First, consider who will be using the rifle. If you are going to find a rifle for the other half there are low recoil deer killers aplenty. The 6.5x55mm Mauser enjoys an excellent reputation for accuracy, penetration, killing power on thin-skinned game, and low recoil. A rifle that may be a light kicker to a seasoned shooter will batter a slightly-built female or a youngster. The first shots may be the last they wish to take, and even if they grit their teeth and manage to fire the rifle, they will not shoot to the rifle’s potential.
Another good choice is the .243 Winchester. This caliber is not only a decent deer rifle—given good shot placement—it is a great varmint caliber. The .223 is popular for many uses but still seems a bit light for deer, but at least there are good bullet choices that allow good penetration.
As one example of recoil and its different perceptions, a shooter could not get his wife to fire the AR-15 .223. She did not like the blast and noise. Recoil isn’t there to most, but then most of us have become used to the .223’s blast. Well, on the same outing, the shooter brought along a .30 carbine. The lady took the rifle and fired 100 rounds through the carbine. She would have fired more had the ammunition supply not gave out.
Yet, most of us would reckon the .223 and the .30 carbine are pretty much in the same light-recoil category. The .30 carbine—accuracy and power, wise—isn’t a deer caliber. But this is a good example of the differing perception of recoil. Too much recoil results in a missed target, flinching, and an overall negative experience. By the way, did this shooter work her way up to the .223? Yes, she did.
While the .30 carbine wasn’t an ideal deer caliber, after some acclimation to centerfire shooting, this lady was able to get up to speed with the .223. The Federal bonded 62-grain load would be an acceptable deer load in .223 if the shooter has the opportunity this season.
Men tend to choose a heavier caliber than they really need. If you are an experienced shooter, and feel limited by the .30-06 Springfield, then by all means consider a 7mm Magnum or .300 Magnum. But only if you have the experience to handle these cartridges.
Range is increased and so is short-range killing power. As for myself, if I need more than the .308 Winchester, the .30-06 Springfield is my rifle. With careful handloading and the Hornady 168-grain A Max, I feel that I can do just about anything that may be done with the .300 Magnum— with less overbore and recoil. But that is a very personal decision.
A caliber I respect a great deal is the .270 Winchester. Often called the rifleman’s caliber, the .270 is accurate and flat shooting. I simply began with the .30-06 as a teen and never looked back. Had my first rifle been a .270, I would have been well served. There are other very good calibers such as the 7x57mm Mauser, a wonder cartridge that hits hard with modest recoil, and the 7mm-08.
For most shooters, most of the time, the .308 Winchester is a good choice. There are more highly developed loads for the .308 Winchester than any other caliber—save perhaps the .223 Remington—and each load offers good performance. As an example, my personal Remington 700 SPS Tactical loves the Fiocchi 155-grain SST and delivers excellent accuracy.
The next step is to look at the lay of the land. Will you be hunting in thick brush or heavily wooded areas? If the shot is likely to be 25 to 100 yards, the .30-30 Winchester may be what you need, or the hard-hitting .35 Remington.
I find a short fast handling .308 works better for me, but the lever-action rifle is practical, fast handling, and affordable. For those preferring a modern self-loader, the list is short. The Browning Automatic Rifle is available in several calibers. The Browning Stalker in .308 is my favorite. Fast handling, accurate, and reliable, I find it a fine choice for most uses.
These rifles, the BAR, and the lever-action rifles such as the Marlin, are light enough, fast into action, and hit hard. One of my personal favorites is a much used Remington 1903A3 .30-06 Springfield. The rifle handles fast enough, and the aperture sights are excellent for short-range deer and boar. It hits hard.
For longer shots, and stretching the average in open terrain, the popular combination rifle purchased with a bore-sighted scope isn’t a bad choice. Available in a number of popular calibers, the Savage Axis and Mossberg Patriot offer good performance for the price. I suppose the reader may have detected a preference for the .308 Winchester. Well, the .308 just works for me, and I have plenty of brass and a number of good loading combinations.
The .308 requires only a short action while the .270 and the .30-06 demand a long action rifle. The .308 is about all of the recoil the occasional shooter will like and the .308 is accurate and powerful enough for deer and even elk to 200 yards. The old adage of 200 pounds of game at 200 yards may be stretched with the .308 and good shot placement.
Another consideration is the material the rifle will be built of. Steel actions sometimes have modern cast bolt handles. Decide just how much of this type of material you will be able to tolerate. It is better to bite the bullet now and purchase a Remington 700 over the Remington 770, as an example, if the utilitarian rifle will lose its shine. On the other hand, consider this, the Remington 738 isn’t expensive but is often a first class shooter with excellent accuracy.
The Savage Axis rifle also delivers good performance. Are you happy with a 2 MOA rifle at 100 yards with average hunting loads? The Remington 738 may actually turn out to be a 1 MOA rifle, but the glass you choose to mount and the shooter, mean much.
As for synthetic stocks, the rifle is less subject to corrosion and warping of the stock. My two favorite rifles wear the exceptional Hogue Overmold stock, so you see where I stand. A big consideration is weight. A 6.5-pound rifle kicks more than an 8.0-pound rifle in the same caliber using the same load. If you are going to trek across a mountain, the lighter rifle is better, given good accuracy. Just be sure to practice recoil control.
Sometimes the walk is short and the range long. That is when we need a bean field rifle. The bean field rifle is designed for firing at longer range. It may have a 26-inch barrel, good optics, and weigh 10 pounds. It will be very accurate. As an example, my personal Remington 700 SPS Varmint rifle will group the Hornady .308 Winchester ELD load into less than an inch every time at 100 yards, and often enough, it will break .7 inch when I do my part.
As you can see there are many choices. The best rifle for you is the rifle you have, and the one you have mastered. Be aware of the choices and make a choice that suits your needs.
What is your favorite caliber for deer hunting? What is your favorite model deer rifle? Share your answers, and a hunting story or two, in the comment section.
Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooters Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.
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