Deer Rifles—How to Choose The Perfect Gun

Here’s an easy way to find the deer rifle that’s just right for you.

Deer Rifles—How to Choose The Perfect Gun
Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.

It is fall, which means that the leaves are changing and gun writers are doing articles on the “Great American Deer Rifle.” Picking out a new deer rifle? You can do it the easy way or you can do it the hard way.

The easy way? Buy a bolt-action rifle in .30-06, put a good 3-9X scope on it and call it done. You might also call this process boring. This gun can do the job any place deer are hunted. Is it perfect for all deer hunting? Of course not. Now we are getting to the hard stuff. But, it’s also the fun stuff. Most hard core hunters will want to refine their rifle choice to match their hunting style, region they’re hunting in and personal preferences. Here’s how to find a great deer rifle just for you.

Match Your Rifle to The Region

Photograph Courtesy of Howard Communications, Inc.
Matching your rifle to the kid of hunting you do is critical. In the East, where shots from a treestand are generally close, having a rifle that’s short-barreled and light enough to hoist easily into a stand is important.

Bolt actions dominate the deer woods today, but there are still places where a lever action, pump or even a semi-auto shines bright. It all depends on where you hunt, how you hunt and your preferences in rifles.

In the Northeast, tracking is a very popular way to hunt deer. It is without a doubt the best option for hunting big bucks in the North Country. I know this because I have written two books on the topic.

Those who track deer and those who love to still hunt in other parts of the country have similar needs in a deer rifle.

The most popular rifle for tracking is the Remington Model 7600 pump action. It fits the hand well and is not too heavy to carry all day long. It points like a shotgun for those fast snap shots and is extremely quick for follow-up shots. The most popular cartridges are the .30-06 Springfield and .270 Winchester. I use a .35 Whelen, but Remington stopped chambering the M7600 for the .35 Whelen cartridge so if you want one, it will have to come off the used gun rack.

Southern hunters are often in a box blind watching a greenfield. They have some of the same requirements that hunters anywhere in the country who watch clear cuts, powerlines or large agricultural fields have. They need a rifle that is light enough to carry to and from the stand easily and accurate enough for a longer shot. Lucky for them, this is exactly where a lot of the new rifle introductions have been focused. 

Today’s Precision Rifles

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor
Precision rifles, like this Savage BA Stealth, are finding their way into the hunting field because they offer incredible long-range accuracy—a big factor for hunting beanfields or for long shots on deer out West.

The precision rifle is very popular today and are very affordable. Ruger started the affordability trend with the RPR, now Remington, Savage and perhaps others have jumped into the market. The precision rifle is usually built on a chassis rather than a stock. The chassis can be adjusted to fit the individual shooter, so the guns can be tuned to the hunter. They are designed for long-range target shooting, but in an appropriate cartridge, they are a great choice for the hunter who may encounter a long shot. The downside of these rifles is that they tend to be a bit heavy, but that’s not a big problem if you are sitting on a stand.

The new generation of hybrid rifles are combining the best features of a precision long-range target rifle and a hunting rifle. The results are very accurate hunting rifles that can manage long-range assignments just fine. Examples include the Browning Hell’s Canyon Speed Ruger’s Hawkeye FTW Hunter or the Remington Model 700 Long Range. They are very accurate and light enough to carry. One big advantage is that they are chambered for some very powerful cartridges.

Precision rifles are usually short-action designs chambered for cartridges like the 6mm Creedmoor, 6.5 Creedmoor or .308 Winchester. These cartridges are all very capable for deer hunting, but a hybrid rifle in .300 Winchester or any of several other long-action cartridges provides a lot more wallop at the target.

Good Choices for First-time Buyers

If you are in the market for your first rifle, budget might be a big factor. Consider the new generation of budget-priced, bolt-action rifles. I just came in from the range where I shot a Mossberg Patriot in 6.5 Creedmoor that I am going to hunt blacktail deer in California with. I was using Barnes Vortex LR ammo with 127-grain LRX bullets. My last 100-yard group measured just under half an inch. That’s good accuracy from a precision rifle and outstanding from a budget-priced hunting rifle. I have also seen excellent accuracy from the Ruger American rifle, Remington 783 and the Savage Apex. Budget price does not mean budget performance anymore.

Remington dropped their Model 750 semi-auto rifle a few years ago, ending more than a century of providing hunters with a self-shucking hunting rifle. I think that Browning may be the last of the breed with their BLR rifles. My BLR is in .30-06 and is accurate enough that I once shot the head off a rabbit at 300 yards with the rifle. (I won a bet and filled our bellies at the same time.)

New Ammo for Deer 

The ammo trend in deer hunting this year is for long-range hunting. Hornady has their new ELD-X long-range hunting bullet in most of the popular long-range cartridges now. That includes one of my all-time favorite deer cartridges, the .280 Ackley Improved. Look for more guns and ammo in this cartridge in the coming year.

Photograph Courtesy of Hornady Manufacturing Company
Almost every major manufacturer is now offering rifle ammo that is tailor made for long-range deer hunting.

Barnes has a new line of Vortex Long Range ammo with a wide selection of cartridges. I have long been a fan of Barnes bullets for their performance on big game and this new line has really impressed me with its accuracy. It meets the lead free requirements for places like where we will be hunting soon in California.

Remington’s Hypersonic ammo provides up to 200 fps. more velocity to help flatten the trajectory and to carry more energy to the animal.

Federal’s new long-range load, the EDGE TLR, features a Trophy Bonded bullet and is some of the most accurate hunting ammo I have tested.

Black Hills Gold Ammo has always been loaded with some of the best hunting bullets like the Barnes TSX. New this year they have added Hornady ELD-X bullets to several cartridges.


Modern Sporting Rifles

Photograph Courtesy of Wilson Combat
Modern sporting rifles are hugely popular with today’s deer hunters. The author has recently been shooting this Wilson Combat AR style rifle in .358 Winchester.

One of the biggest changes with this current generation of deer hunters is the acceptance of AR-style rifles for hunting. In the smaller AR-15 platform I am not a fan of the .223 Remington for deer, particularly from the shorter barrels common on these rifles. However, the .450 Bushmaster, .458 Socom and the .50 Beowulf are all hard-hitting cartridges that turn off the switches. The vast majority of deer, particularly in the East, are shot at distances of less than 200 yards and these cartridges can handle that if the shooter can.

The larger AR-10 or ARL rifles are designed for the .308 Winchester. That entire family includes some outstanding deer cartridges. The .243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington and .308 Winchester are all offered in these rifles. My personal favorite is the .338 Federal, which is a hard-hitting cartridge. I have recently been shooting a Wilson Combat AR style rifle in .358 Winchester, one of my all-time favorite deer cartridges.

The ARL rifles are rugged, dependable in any weather and are exceedingly accurate. This style rifle is very capable of long range hunting. As semi-autos they are very fast for follow up shots. The design ergonomics make these guns easy to hold comfortably in position while waiting. The pistol grip of the ARL rifle keeps the hand in a more natural position while you wait for the deer.

The Browning BLR lever action is chambered for several modern cartridges and has a following with deer hunters. The traditional lever actions once dominated the deer woods but have fallen out of favor in recent years. Still a great choice, they just are not all that popular with today’s new deer hunters. Some straight-wall cartridges, however, are enjoying a comeback of sorts.

The Rebirth of Straight-Walled Cartridges

Photograph Courtesy of Hornady Manufacturing Company
Cartridges, like the .45-70, are seeing a resurgence in states that previously allowed only slug gun hunting but are now allowing straight-walled cartridges.

Many states that had shotgun-only restrictions are now allowing straight-walled rifle cartridges to be used. The most popular are the .450 Bushmaster, .444 Marlin and the .45-70. Lever-action rifles, like the Marlin 1895 or Henry Lever Action rifle in .45-70, are an obvious choice. Where legal they are fast for follow-up shots. They are also accurate and easy to carry.

I’ll be hunting for giant Midwest whitetails this year with a Marlin 1895 in .45-70. I’ll have it loaded with Barnes Vortex 300 grain ammo and be ready for any shot out to 250 or maybe even 300 yards.

If you are like me, you look at all these choices and think, “I would really like one of each.” Economic reality forbids that of course, but you have to agree it sure is nice to have options.

About The Author: Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website