Lightweight, Long Range Deer and Antelope Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
The expectations of hunters who are seeking a handy, relatively lightweight, deer and antelope rifle that can reach out beyond 400 yards to bag game are probably unrealistic. The idea of shooting at deer at extreme range (beyond 300 yards), except under the most unusual circumstances, makes my blood run cold. Fortunately, there are several excellent, common, and versatile cartridges that will do about everything that 99.9% of hunters and shooters can do under normal field conditions at ranges out to approximately 300 yards. There are even a few calibers that can reach even further for special circumstances and the tiny minority hunters who can shoot well enough to use them.
The maximum range any hunter should allow himself to shoot at a deer is whatever range that shooter can keep all of his shots in a 6" circle, using the position from which he will be shooting in the field (usually sitting or standing). It would do hunters a great deal of good to shoot at a 6" bulls eye at 100, 200, and 300 yards with their hunting rifle from both the standing and sitting positions, and from an impromptu rest (a tree branch or large rock would be typical). The shooter should be timed (or time himself), and not allowed more than 30 seconds to get off each shot, starting from a casual standing position with his rifle slung over his shoulder and the safety on.
What most deer hunters discover first is a new appreciation for the sitting position, and second that they are not reliable beyond 100 yards (if that) from standing. 200 yards is long range for most good shots from sitting. Remember that the standard is 100%. Four out of five in that 6" bull is not good enough, because you cannot allow yourself to wound one deer out of five--that is 20% and totally unacceptable.
I use a 6" bull instead of an 8" bull (which more closely represents the heart/lung area of a small deer) because there are so many uncertainties in the field. 6" groups achieved at the range will certainly open up to 8" or larger groups in the field. Remember, you will be shooting at animals of uncertain size and angle, that blend into (rather than stand out from) the background, across uneven terrain, which may move at any moment, and when you are possibly winded and certainly excited. (If you are not excited with a trophy in sight, something is wrong.) Give it a try and then see if you really need a deer rifle with a trajectory allowing shots in excess of 300 yards.
My suggestions for the best deer calibers for shooting out to 200 yards are explored in my article Ideal Deer Cartridges. For longer ranges, the following cartridges have a trajectory flat enough with appropriate loads to keep their bullets in a 6" circle at any range from the muzzle to 275 yards (or farther), and are or have been available in a lightweight hunting rifle with a barrel no longer than 24": .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, 6x62 Freres, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .257 Roberts +P, .25-06, 6.5x55, 6.5x57, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Remington Magnum, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, 7mm-08, .284 Winchester, .280 Remington, 7mm Rem. SAUM, 7mm WSM, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .300 Rem. SAUM, .300 WSM, .300 Winchester Magnum, and 8x57JS.
I particularly like the standard calibers from .24 (6mm) to .28 (7mm), and especially those that will work through a short action. While the .24 caliber to .32 caliber Magnums easily qualify ballistically, I don't recommend any of them for use in lightweight rifles. Their performance suffers while their muzzle blast and recoil become disconcerting in a 22" barrel, and a 24" or longer barrel tends to negate part of the advantage of a lightweight rifle. The full length standard calibers, like the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, and .30-06 are also no picnic to shoot in a lightweight rifle.
Lightweight and highly portable bolt action rifles with 22" or shorter barrels and a catalog weight of 7 pounds or less, which are chambered for at least some of the above cartridges and are commonly available in North America include the following.
There are also many rifles from lesser known brands as well as single shot, lever action, and autoloading rifles from well-known manufacturers that qualify. In short, there is a wide selection of handy, lightweight deer rifles.
For the longest range shooting (beyond 300 yards) the 6x62 Freres, .240 Weatherby Magnum, .257 Weatherby Magnum, 6.5x68, .264 Winchester Magnum, .270 Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 7mm STW, 7mm Ultra Magnum, .300 Weatherby Magnum, .300 Ultra Magnum, .30-378 Weatherby, and 8x68S will do everything that can be done. These cartridges are not common in lightweight rifles, however, nor (possibly excepting the 6mm cartridges) are they pleasant to shoot from such rifles. These ultra-high velocity cartridges require long barrels to achieve their impressive performance, and fairly heavy barrels to consistently achieve the accuracy required for extreme long range shooting. A medium to heavy weight hunting rifle is the inevitable result, and that is a subject for another article.
Copyright 2002, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.