The Deer Rifle

By Chuck Hawks

What is the ideal deer rifle? Unfortunately, I do not believe that there is a single definitive answer to that question. However, in my years of hunting, observing and researching, I have formed some opinions and I'll pass those along.

For one thing, there is probably little need for a universal deer rifle. Most of us cannot afford to hunt all over the country, let alone all over the world; therefore, we should focus on finding the best rifle/cartridge combination for the particular area(s) in which we do hunt. I have found that the type of rifle most commonly used in a particular region is usually the best for that region.

Deer rifles are commonly available in several action styles: lever, bolt, autoloading, pump, and single shot. The bolt action and the lever action are the biggest sellers.

Some of the top selling single models are lever actions, the Winchester M 94 and Marlin 336. Lever action rifles are also made by Browning and Ruger. Reproductions of famous lever action rifles are sold by a number of smaller firms, some of which like EMF, Navy Arms, Rossi, and Uberti are fairly well-known. The excellent but now discontinued Savage 99 lever gun is still widely available on the used market.

There are more models of bolt action rifles available than any other type of action. All of the major American rifle makers offer centerfire bolt action rifles in their line, including Browning, Remington, Ruger, Savage, Weatherby, and Winchester. Various foreign firms also produce bolt action rifles, some of which, like Beretta, Mauser, Sako, and Steyer-Mannlicher are well known worldwide. In addition, there are many small companies producing bolt action rifles, some of which are custom made to the buyer's specification.

The top six deer cartridges in North America, in terms of factory ammunition sales, are the .30-06 Spfd., .270 Win., .30-30 Win., .308 Win., .243 Win., and 7mm Rem. Mag. All of these are popular deer cartridges, but they are clearly diverse in their capabilities. Below we shall see where they, and the rifles that shoot them, fit into the deer hunting picture.

Woods rifles

In the deep woods, such as the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest where I live, one still sees many lever action rifles. Winchester Model 94's, and Marlin Model 336's predominate, along with some Browning BLR's and Savage Model 99's.

The .30-30 Winchester is by far the most popular caliber in lever action rifles, while the .243 Win., 6.5x55, .260 Rem., 7mm-08, .270 Win., .308, .30-06, .300 Savage, and .45-70 also have their fans. All of these cartridges are also perfectly adequate for black bear, as is the .32 Win. Special, which made its reputation as a deer and black bear cartridge. Specialized brush cartridges such as the .35 Remington, .356 Winchester, .375 Win., .44 Magnum and .444 Marlin are less popular than one would expect. Perhaps the wildcat .338-57 O'Connor wildcat will make some inroads in this market now that it is finally getting some publicity.

Most woods hunters like the idea of a fast second shot, and the lever action provides that, along with considerable aesthetic and traditional appeal. The .30-30, in particular, is also seen as a good choice for young or inexperienced hunters (as well as canny old pros), as its recoil and muzzle blast are moderate, and its killing power fully up to the task.

One encounters a large number of bolt action .243, .270 Win., .308 Win., and .30-06 Spfd. rifles of various sorts, along with a sprinkling of other calibers such as 7mm-08, .280 Rem. and .303 British. Bolt action rifles are by far the most popular type in the high intensity calibers, but occasionally one sees a Browning or Remington autoloader or a Remington Model 760/7600 pump gun. Many hunters use 7mm and .300 Magnum combination elk and deer rifles for all of their deer hunting. This trend is increasing, particularly among young and/or inexperienced hunters.

In the non-magnum calibers short carbine length rifles seem to be popular, whatever the type of action. Barrel lengths typically run 18 to 22 inches; barrels over 22" long tend to get in the way in heavy cover. Low power scopes, or variable power scopes which can be set to a low power, are all one needs. A 1-4x or 2-7x variable scope is plenty, although 3-9x scopes are the best sellers, and iron sights are still fairly popular. Many hunters dislike a sling in the woods, because of its propensity to catch on stray branches (although, being lazy, I prefer to use one). I understand that the situation is much the same in other parts of North America where deer are hunted in heavy cover.

Open country deer rifles

Of course, a lot of deer hunting takes place in open country quite different from the forests of coastal Alaska, British Columbia, the Pacific Northwest, New England, Michigan, Minnesota, or much of the South. The Rocky Mountain states of the west, for example, are noted for long range deer hunting.

What is favored in open country is a rifle chambered for a flat shooting cartridge and equipped with a medium-to-high variable power scope. Bolt action rifles predominate in these circumstances, although a modern lever action or autoloader that can handle high intensity cartridges is also suitable. So is a strong single shot rifle like a Ruger or Browning.

Longer barrels are favored for open country shooting; they maximize the performance of high velocity cartridges. Minimum recommended barrel length is usually 22 inches, and 24 or 26 inch barrels are better. Telescopic sights are the norm, with the 3-9x and 3.5-10x sizes being the most popular. Slings are commonly used, both for carrying and as an aid for shooting. Shooting sticks and bipods are popular accessories.

Good calibers for long-range deer rifles include the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .243 WSSM, .240 Wby. Mag., .25 WSSM, .257 Roberts +P, .25-06 Remington, .257 Wby. Mag., 6.5x55, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Rem. Mag., .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, and 7mm-08 Remington. The .270, 7mm and .300 Magnum calibers are also common, particularly with those who hunt elk or other large species with the same rifle. Of these, the 7mm Rem. Mag. is the most popular. Not to be forgotten are the .30-06 Springfield and .308 Winchester, particularly when shooting 150 grain bullets.

Dual-purpose deer rifles

A standard length, bolt action .270 Win. wearing a 3-9x scope probably typifies the long range deer rifle. As we have seen above, a traditional lever action like a Winchester 94 or Marlin 336 in .30-30 with a 1-4x scope is the traditional woods rifle. But what if you live in a place, like Washington or Oregon, which offers both types of hunting (heavily forested country to the west of the Cascade mountains, and open country to the east)? All is not lost. That bolt action .270 will serve adequately in the woods if you set its scope to the minimum power. And that lever action .30-30 can reach out in excess of 225 yards if its scope is sighted to put the 150 grain bullet 2.9" high at 100 yards.

The .270 and .30-06 remain the most popular dual-purpose deer cartridges. Properly zeroed they offer a maximum point blank range close to or beyond 300 yards. These are fine cartridges for all-around rifles with standard length actions.

If you want something close to an ideal dual-purpose deer rifle, consider a short, handy, lever or bolt action rifle chambered for the .260 Rem., 7mm-08 Rem., or .308 Win. cartridges. A Remington Model Seven, or short action Browning Lightning BLR would be good examples. Equip one of these rifles with a high quality 2-7x variable power scope, zeroed to put a fast stepping bullet 2.5-3 inches high at 100 yards, and you should have a 285+ yard deer rifle that carries well and handles fast enough to serve very nicely in the woods. Essentially, your deer rifle has become an "all-around" rifle.

Combination rifles

One factor that confuses the deer rifle issue is the fact that many deer rifles are intended for use on other game as well. One common example is the combination deer, antelope, and varmint rifle. Another example would be the combination deer and elk rifle. Most of these combination rifles are bolt actions, although certain single shot, lever action and autoloading rifles will also qualify. In most cases, rifles chambered for the standard calibers will have 22" barrels, while those chambered for the magnum calibers have 24" or 26" barrels.

Combination deer, antelope, and varmint guns are usually bolt action or single shot rifles. The bolt action is more common, but the falling block single shot may be the best type of rifle for this combination. This is because the longer barrel typically fitted to the very short falling block actions allows high velocity cartridges to develop their full performance, while a very fast repeat shot is seldom an issue in this type of long range hunting. A single shot Ruger No. 1B Standard Rifle in .243 Win. or 6mm Rem. comes with a 26" barrel and has an overall length of 42.25 inches. For comparison, a Browning A-Bolt II Medallion bolt action rifle in .243 has a 22" barrel and an overall length of 41.75 inches. Since these are long range rifles, telescopic sights are the norm. The variable 3.5-10x and 4-12x models are popular choices.

Good cartridges for a combination deer, antelope, and varmint rifle include the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .243 WSSM, .240 Weatherby Mag., .250 Savage, .25 WSSM, .257 Roberts, and .25-06. These are flat shooting numbers capable of taking most medium size big game animals with a single well placed bullet, and also of reaching out for varmints at long range. The .243, 6mm Rem., .250-3000 and .257 Roberts are also seen as good choices for hunters who are sensitive to the blast and recoil of larger caliber rifles.

The combination deer and elk rifle is also most often a bolt action. But in this case autoloaders like the Remington 740/7400 and Browning BAR, as well as modern lever action, pump, and single shot rifles may be encountered. A fixed 4x scope, or variable 2-7x or 3-9x scope will do nicely. Because elk are large and tough animals, the cartridge will need to be more powerful than is strictly required for deer and black bear. Many hunters who buy a rifle specifically for elk choose a 7mm, .300, .338 or .350 Magnum. For a combination rifle, I think I would draw the line at the .300 Magnum.

A list of recommended deer/elk calibers would include the 6.5mm Rem. Mag., .264 Win. Mag., .270 Win., .270 Mag., .280 Rem., 7mm Mag., .308 Win., .30-06, .300 Mag., 8x57JS, .338-57 O'Connor, and .358 Win. At moderate range the .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin, and .45-70 Govt. will also do nicely, particularly in modern lever action or falling block rifles.


There you have it, deer rifles for the woods, open country, dual-purpose and combination hunting. Remember that most deer are killed within 200 yards, and bullet placement is by far the most important factor in killing power.

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Copyright 1999, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.