Favorite Deer Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

I have been fortunate to own and hunt with a large number of deer rifles during my 40+ years of deer hunting. Most were entirely satisfactory, some had flaws that made me glad to change to something else, and a few stick out in my mind as particularly appropriate for the purpose.

This article is about the latter, listed in alphabetical order with a paragraph or two about each. All are factory produced rifles available on the new or used markets. I have resisted the temptation to include custom built rifles not available to the public. Most of these models are also included in the article "Deer Rifles in the Field" (see the Rifle Information Page), and they received good grades there, too.

You will notice that accuracy is not even mentioned below, as all of my favorite rifles are plenty accurate enough for deer hunting. Hair splitting accuracy from a bench rest is inconsequential in a deer rifle. Far more important is practical accuracy in the field. That is, how a rifle performs when the requirement is a fairly quick shot from a field position. All of the rifles below pass that crucial test with flying colors.

My home state of Oregon is populated by Columbian blacktail deer, a forest dwelling species, and mule deer. There are even a few whitetail deer in Oregon. So I have favorite deer rifles in calibers suitable for hunting in the woods and in more open country. Actually, most deer rifles can do both.

Browning Model 1885 Low Wall

Winchester 1885 Low Wall
Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co.

This is the modern version of John Browning's first successful centerfire rifle design. Marketed under the Browning brand for years, it is now sold under the Winchester brand.

Whatever the name on the barrel, the single shot Low Wall is one of the finest falling block single shot rifles ever designed. Its action incorporates a self-cocking, rebounding, external hammer. It is hard to conceive of a safer action for a hunting rifle than a Low Wall. The highly polished blue finish on the barreled action and glossy finish on the checkered walnut stock are executed to Browning's usual high standards. The 24", light contour, octagon barrel extracts full performance from modern cartridges.

Because the Low Wall is a lightweight version of the larger High Wall 1885 action it is easier to carry in the field. Even with the supplied 24" barrel, this rifle is only 41" in overall length, or about the same as a bolt action carbine with a 20" barrel. But, with its slender receiver and lacking a bolt handle protruding from its side, it is much trimmer than any bolt action. It handles better and is easier to carry in either hand or slung over either shoulder.

Various scopes have graced my Low Wall over the years, usually a 3-9x40mm variable of reputable make. My Low Wall is chambered for the .243 Winchester, a flat shooting, long range deer cartridge. Other calibers have been available over the years--the calibers offered seem to vary frequently--most notably .260 Remington. If you happen to spot one of those somewhere, my advice is to buy it!

Marlin Model 336SS

Marlin 336SS
Illustration courtesy of Marlin Firearms Co.

The lever action Marlin Model 336 is one of the all time great deer rifles. The stainless steel and walnut 336SS version with the carbine length 20" barrel is my favorite. Other standard Model 336 carbine variations come in blue steel and walnut, in calibers .30-30 or .35 Remington.

The 336SS is available only in .30-30 Winchester, which is no problem as the .30-30 is one of the all time great deer cartridges. The .30-30 is a reliable medium range (200 yard plus) harvester of deer that won't kick you out from under your hat.

That deer dropping range can be extended to around 250 yards if you choose to shoot Hornady LeverEvolution loads from the 24" barrel of a Model 336XLR. The XLR is a stainless steel 336 with a gray laminated hardwood stock that is produced specifically to take full ballistic advantage of LeverEvolution ammo. The Marlin 336XLR is also available in the new .308 Marlin caliber, which approaches the performance of the .308 Winchester.

One of the big advantages of the Marlin 336 design is its solid top receiver and side ejection that make low and over bore scope mounting easy. I prefer a one-piece Leupold standard mount for maximum strength and rigidity. A fixed power scope in the 2.5x or 4x range is perfectly suitable, as is a variable power scope in the 1-4x or 2-7x range.

Ruger M77RSI

Ruger 77RSI
Illustration courtesy of Sturm, Ruger & Co., Inc.

This is the handiest of all my bolt action rifles. It is easy to carry on a stalk and walk (still hunting), and handy when entering and exiting a hunting vehicle.

The M77RSI is light, but not ultra-light, and well balanced due to its graceful Mannlicher style stock. This is a good thing, as an ultra-light rifle chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge kicks like the devil. The M77RSI still kicks, but is manageable. The little Ruger also comes with a full size buttstock designed to fit an adult shooter, not a stock with a shortened length of pull like the Ruger M77 Compact.

The principle drawback of the M77RSI is its very short 18.5" barrel. That is really too short for a high intensity cartridge like the .308 Win. The result is excessive muzzle blast and seriously curtailed velocity. However, a 150 grain bullet still chronographs at around 2600 fps (depending on the specific load), and that remains a deadly deer missile. Other .308 M77 variations, such as the M77R Standard Rifle, are better in the all-around rifle role, but the M77RSI is a tough bolt action to top as a deer rifle.

Ruger No. 1A Light Sporter

Ruger No. K1-A
Illustration courtesy of Lipsey's, Inc.

My falling block K1A Light Sporter is a limited edition model with a stainless steel barreled action and walnut stock in .257 Roberts. Standard No. 1A rifles are blue steel and walnut. Mine wears a 2-7x variable power scope, a fine choice for most deer rifles that minimizes the scope's negative effect on the rifle's handling.

It is hard to imagine a better deer rifle than the No. 1A Light Sporter. It is about the same length overall as a .30-30 lever action with a 20" barrel, although a little heavier, and the No. 1A has the advantage of a 22" barrel for better ballistic performance and is available in an assortment of high intensity cartridges. The best of both worlds.

Of course, a single shot rifle is not as fast for follow-up shots as a lever action repeater, or even a bolt action. But, it is fast enough. And, I subscribe to the old Indian saying, "one shot, deer; two shots, maybe; three shots, never. If you don't make the first shot good, you are very probably in deep trouble no matter what kind of rifle you are using.

Falling block single shot actions are short and have no unwieldy bolt handle protruding from the side of the action. This makes them exceptionally easy to carry in the hand when still hunting or, if mounted, in a scabbard. They are also the safest action if you spend a lot of time getting into and out of a vehicle, as they are so fast and easy to load and unload.

Winchester Model 70 Featherweight

Model 70 Featherweight
Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

The Model 70 Featherweight, recently discontinued, is one of the best and most famous bolt action hunting rifles in the world. Standard calibers, such as the 6.5x55 for which my blue steel and walnut Featherweight is chambered, come with a 22" barrel. That is my favorite length for a high intensity (non-magnum) cartridge such as the versatile 6.5x55.

The Model 70 Featherweight is actually a light, but not ultra-light, rifle. The Featherweight strikes an excellent balance between portability and ballistic performance. It is not as handy as the M77RSI, but it delivers nearly full velocity and less muzzle blast. Like the Ruger M77RSI, it comes with an adult size stock. The weight of the two rifles is similar.

My Featherweight wears a Weaver V9 scope, and in the recent past wore a 2-7x variable. Both scopes are entirely satisfactory for the rifle, the caliber, and deer.

During its last year of production the Model 70 Classic Featherweight was catalogued with a stainless steel barreled action and a walnut stock. I have no idea how many of these were actually produced, but I'd sure like to have one in 6.5x55 or 7mm-08!

Winchester Model 94

Winchester Model 94
Illustration courtesy of U.S. Repeating Arms Co., Inc.

The lever action Winchester Model 94, discontinued in 2006, is the most famous deer rifle of all time. Nothing handles better, or even as well, as a Model 94 carbine with a 20" round barrel. Mine is the traditional walnut/blue configuration chambered for the unbeatable .30-30 cartridge.

The Model 94's slender receiver makes it one of the worlds finest walk and stalk deer rifles, and it is equally at home in a saddle scabbard. The Model 94 looks right, feels right, and shoots right.

Being a pre-'64 model, mine wears a Leupold 2.5x fixed power scope in a "scout" type mount forward of the receiver. Later angle-eject Model 94s can wear their scopes mounted on the receiver and overbore, and the same scopes recommended for the Marlin 336 (above) are also perfect for angle eject Model 94s.

The manufacture of new Model 94's may have been discontinued by the powers that be in Belgium, who obviously don't understand North American deer hunting, but there are plenty of good Model 94s on the used market. So many millions of Model 94s were manufactured during their 100+ year production run that there should be no shortage of suitable deer hunting rifles for years to come.

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