by Naomi K. Shapiro and Stuart Spitz
If there's one hunting subject that engenders different opinions, it's which deer rifle to choose. Let's bypass the "emotional imperatives", and try to settle on some generally-accepted facts:
There are many variables -- and therefore it's not ONLY the rifle that you have to consider when making a purchase, it's the weight of the bullet, type of action, scope... lots of things. While not everything can be covered in a short article, here are just some of the basics to consider in choosing the best deer rifle.
AGE AND GENDER
The first thing to consider is WHO is going to using the rifle. Age and gender play a big role. For instance, no sane person is going to select a 45/70 buffalo gun with a 300 grain bullet for a kid or a woman (but sadly it does happen -- you know, the old, "Me Tarzan, You Jane" bit -- even though "Jane" may be poorly-equipped to handle anything even close to it and isn't going to be hunting for a T-Rex anytime soon).
If a young person or woman starts out by being handed a super-high-powered rifle, the first shot fired will be their last. The noise. The tremendous recoil. The missed target. These all will provide an immediate negative impact (literally and figuratively) on the first-time shooter. Don't give anyone a rifle that'll scare or frighten them. Make sure it's something that they can handle and "the caliber be damned." Many savvy hunters will start a kid or woman out with something as simple as a .22. The new shooter will be able to handle it, and recognize how its mechanism operates. And, after a bit of "break in," will then be able to emotionally and physically tolerate something bigger. Of course it's ESSENTIAL that any new shooter take a gun-safety course. That's a "gimme." Safety is "job one!" Never forget that.
OK -- we've now gotten past the initial "training" time, and are ready to move forward. General speaking, a .243 or .270 will work just fine in most instances for a kid or a woman, and it'll surely get the job done. These calibers have good range, and don't have the kick or recoil of something like a .30-06 or a 7mm mag.
TYPE OF TERRAIN AND RANGE OF SHOT
Select a deer rifle that's going to be right for the type of terrain you're generally going to be hunting. For instance, if it's going to be short range (25 to 50 yards), with heavy brush and cover, a good choice might be a 30/30 or .35 caliber. Stick to lever action, or auto-loader, and no scope.
These rifles work "fast" and "easy," and will get through heavy brush quickly and accurately. They're light, they're easy to operate, and pack enough wallop to bring down your deer.
The most popular caliber to use longer shots (100-200 yards) in generally open areas is the tried-and-true .30-06. Indeed, after over 100 years, many hunters and marksmen still consider the Springfield Model 1903, .30-06, bolt-action Army rifle to be among the most accurate rifles ever manufactured (all you lovers of the Mauser Model 98, or .308, or .300 mag notwithstanding).
The '03 Springfield was updated in WWII, and used as a sniper rifle -- any of you who saw "Saving Private Ryan" will recognize that fact. If you can find one (they're classics and are not cheap), it's one heckuva deer rifle.
But most any other .30-06 bolt action rifle will work equally well. The '03 Springfield just happens to be a personal favorite. If you want something that'll work for even longer range (up to 600 plus yards), use the hot, flat-flying 7mm mag. (We know a deer hunter -- actually caribou in this instance who nailed one with a 7mm mag at 650 yards -- with OPEN SIGHTS, standing position, in Quebec -- once-in-a-lifetime shot, but he says he does it all the time. Yeah. Right). Everyone has their favorite manufacturer --Remington, Browning, Winchester, Mossberg -- they're all good. Make sure, if you want super-accuracy, to use a bolt action only. Auto-loaders and lever actions work just fine, but they don't have the accuracy of the classic bolt action system.
As for scoping -- same general story: Nikon, Bushnell, Leupold all make excellent scopes and the cost can be very high -- depending on the light they draw in and their amplification. If you're going to do medium-to-long range shooting, you will need a scope. The new pinpoint laser scopes are terrific -- but can be expensive.
As for bullet weight, that'll vary. For short, heavy range cover, use 180-220 grains, which will blow through brush and thick cover. For mid-range out to 200 yards, 165-185 grains will be optimum (the '03 Springfield, .30-06, 172 grain bullet load is classic). For real long-range use a 150 grain bullet in conjunction with a .243, .270 or 7mm mag.
HUNTING AREA RESTRICTIONS
If you deer hunt in areas where RIFLES ARE PROHIBITED (and there are those areas in populated areas so check carefully before you head out), you'll need to opt for a shotgun. A shotgun with a slug barrel. Nothing long range, but lots of deer hunters love to use these shotguns because the slug has tremendous stopping power.
Many deer hunters long for the days of Jeremiah Johnson, and prefer a muzzleloader, like a Hawkens or equal. One shot, big caliber, big stopping power, and with all the modern appurtenances in manufacturing, loading, and firing, it's quite accurate. Muzzleloaders can be used during regular deer hunting season, or the muzzleloader-only season, which usually occurs after the regular gun deer season.
WEIGHT AND MATERIALS
The "newest of the new" rifles have composite materials in much of the construction. The rifle is lighter, less prone to erosion, rust or breakage.
Some like the "heft" of wood and steel. Others don't. It's strictly what YOU are most comfortable with, however, and there's no "right or wrong."
Before purchasing a deer rifle, do your "due diligence." Consult with those whom you know have been deer hunting for many seasons, and a local gun shop.
They sell them all, and they can give you specific tips and suggestions to help you in your decision. You'll get a very wide range of opinions and, at times, some very heated arguments.
Do you need "bells and whistles", or a million other options? In the end,
choose the rifle that fits YOUR needs and YOUR abilities without regard for what someone else thinks is best.
The bottom-line is, getting that elusive Yooper's "30 Point Buck" and, with the right rifle, you might! (By the way, someone actually got a legitimate 30 pointer this past season).