It’s late autumn now, so your deer season might be over. My deer hunting is coming up soon—next week I’m going to the thick brush of Quebec’s Anticosti Island, a place I’ve long wanted to see. Then, after Thanksgiving, comes “my” deer hunt, the 12-day rifle season on my Kansas farm. I decided which rifle to use in Anticosti a long time ago, but I’m still pondering exactly what I’m going to use in Kansas.
This is a rare luxury. I love my job, but I have to produce what my editors want. This often means that I have an obligation to use a particular new rifle or cartridge on a hunt instead of one of my old favorites. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; it’s fun to try out some of the new whiz-bangs. On the other hand, there’s a down side: constantly switching rifles, cartridges, and optics is probably not a great key to hunting success! Never forget the old adage “beware the one-gun man.”
I’m not complaining, mind you—I know I’m fortunate. I get to spend a lot of time at the range and in the field for a living. All that time has shown me that choosing a sound deer rifle and sticking with it critical, perhaps especially so for the multitude of hunters who are limited in both practice time and days afield!
Slide, Single-Shot, or Semiauto—Which Action is Right For You?
For deer hunting there really isn’t any “good, better, or best,” but some comments are in order. In general, as long as the stock fits you and you achieve an adequate level of confidence and familiarity, choice of action isn’t really important. All the common rifle actions—slide, semiauto, bolt, lever, single-shot, even doubles—are chambered to effective deer cartridges.
However, if you hunt from stands, like many of us do, one of the problems I’ve seen with semiautos, slide actions, and some lever actions is you can’t baby them; you pretty much have to slam the bolt home in order to be certain it’s fully seated. So perhaps you walk into the woods with your rifle ready, just in case. But when you get to the stand, safety and common sense dictate you unload, climb up, and then load, which is noisy. For stand hunting, therefore, I prefer the silent operation and easy loading/unloading of a bolt action or single shot.
For a second shot, only the rare double chambered to a deer cartridge is faster than a semiauto. Nothing is slower than a single shot. Realistically, even with a lot of practice it’s uncommon to be fast enough for a second shot with a single-shot rifle, especially in whitetail woods. But the first shot should be the most important, and using a single shot creates a mindset that makes one very careful with that one shot!
Even a single shot can have its downsides, though. I like stand-hunting with a single shot, but it has the disadvantage of being either fully loaded or fully empty. In a vehicle, on horseback, even slung over your shoulder, it should be fully empty, with no magazine to fall back on if a sudden opportunity appears. In general, though, it doesn’t matter what rifle action you prefer, so long as you are completely familiar with it and it’s chambered to a sensible deer cartridge.
Choosing a Cartridge for Deer Hunting
Choice of cartridge probably spawns the most (and lengthiest) campfire arguments. There are dozens of great deer cartridges! On the lower end I’ve shot a lot of deer with centerfire .22s, mostly .223s and .22-250s. They work pretty well, especially with today’s heavier bullets, but you must pick your shots with care. On body shots, for example, you can’t expect much of a blood trail to follow. I think of them as cartridges for experienced hunters who are willing to be patient.
On the upper end, I’ve shot a lot of deer with 6.5mm, 7mm, and .30-caliber magnums… and a few with larger cartridges as well. They work just fine, and confidence is critical. However, unless you hunt in really open country (and especially if you’re among the growing group of serious long-range shooters,) there is no reason to use a magnum cartridge for North American deer hunting, and no reason for any cartridge larger than .30-caliber.
To my thinking, the best choices for deer hunting start with the .243 Winchester and work their way up to the .308 Winchester and .30-06. The .243 has long been the odds-on choice for beginners; it’s easy to shoot and effective, though you need to understand that the .243 isn’t a long-range deer cartridge. Bullet weight and energy limit sensible use to perhaps 250 yards on deer-sized game. The .308 and .30-06 are too slow to be ideal long-range hunting cartridges, but they are awesome deer cartridges. They’re also good choices for larger game such as black bear and elk.
Adapt your Cartridge to Your Conditions
In between, then, is a huge spectrum of versatile cartridges that will handle most deer hunting conditions. The .25s have their following, as do the 6.5mms. I’m more of a .270 and non-magnum 7mm fan, but there are lots of good choices. What’s important is to understand the capabilities and limitations of each cartridge, judged against your deer hunting conditions.
For instance, my corner of Kansas is heavy oak ridges. Only a couple of our stands offer shots as far as 200 yards, and we have no “long range” situations. A good old .30-30 would be perfectly at home in most of our stands, but my personal favorite there (and in a lot of places) is the great old 7×57 Mauser. If you prefer the more modern 7mm-08, great. If you prefer a mild 6.5mm, whether it’s an old 6.5×55 Swedish Mauser or a newer 6.5mm Creedmoor, we’re on the same page.
Right now the Creedmoor is selling like hotcakes, but reader mail suggests there is some confusion. The 6.5mm Creedmoor is a wonderful long-range target round because it is accurate, produces little recoil, and remains supersonic well beyond 1000 yards. It is also a great deer cartridge… but it is not a long-range deer cartridge! It just doesn’t have the bullet weight or energy. Sure, you can stretch it to perhaps 300 yards, farther than most of us really need to shoot, but that approaches its sensible limit as a deer cartridge. Exactly the same can be said of the .257 Roberts, the other mild 6.5mms, the 7mm-08, and my pet 7×57.
Options for Open-Country Hunting
For deer hunting in more open country it’s pretty hard to beat three cartridges based on the .30-06 case: The .25-06 Remington, .270 Winchester, and .280 Remington. The .25-06 shoots very flat and achieves meaningful velocity with the heaviest .257-inch bullets. It’s almost a cult cartridge among Texas hunters and is a fine choice for medium-sized deer down their endless senderos. The .280 Remington also has a faithful following; it is faster and flatter-shooting than the .30-06, and takes advantage of the full range of 7mm bullets.
My personal favorite for open-country deer hunting, and to my thinking one of the very best choices for all-around deer hunting, is the good old .270 Winchester. It shoots flatter and kicks less than the .30-06, is plenty powerful enough for any deer that walks, and has quarter-mile capability, which is as far as I’m likely to shoot at a deer.
Eagle Vision: Sights and Scopes
Choice of sights is important, but pretty simple. In certain close-range conditions, I like to use open or aperture sights, but a lot of deer hunting depends on the first and last minutes of light. In close cover, a red-dot sight is great, but for all-around deer hunting the magnifying riflescope is the obvious choice. Variable-power scopes ranging from 2-7X to 4.5-14X are good choices. Right in the middle is America’s all-time favorite 3-9X, which still a fine choice. My advice is to choose a good scope from a good brand, and if your budget requires compromise, choose a less expensive rifle and a higher quality scope!
My Fall 2017 Kit
So, what am I carrying this fall? Well, I’m taking one of the new Rigby Highland Stalkers to Anticosti. It’s roll-marked .275 Rigby (7×57), a perfect choice for the island’s big-bodied deer at close to medium range. That’s for an assignment… but it’s a most welcome one!
In Kansas, I’m still undecided. It probably depends on which stands I sit. For sure my 7×57 will be handy, likewise a .270. But I’ve got some close-cover archery stands that are still pretty good during rifle season, so on some days I might go reactionary and use a traditional lever action. And of course, I might not get a shot at all! I’ll let you know how it goes.
Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world.
For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.