Now that Indiana has decided to take the great leap ahead and embraced modern centerfire rifles for deer, the question is going to be what rifle to buy. I have had a lot of thoughts on that very idea over the years. Dig around on this weblog, starting with the suggested readings at the bottom of this article, and you will find the sum of my thoughts. However, in celebration of the new rules, I am going to give y’all something fresh. If you want the bottom line, just skip down to the last paragraph. Any way you go in this, the best time to start thinking about a new deer rifle is soon.
Let me begin by saying that the restrictions Indiana placed on its hunters was, at least in one way, a good thing. It made folks think about taking deer close-in. Starting off as a bowhunter did pretty much the same thing for me. Most whitetails are taken within 80 yards. The chamberings that Hoosiers have been allowed for the past 15 years are perfectly adequate for your average deep woods venue where a shot beyond 100 yards is hard to come by. Where the new rules will be the most benefit is out beyond 100 yards, out in the open fields. Yes, one rifle can cover those situations. In fact one rifle could also cover still hunting on the ground, drives, anything you can think up, I could probably suggest a rifle that would do it all. My question is why? Whatever you have for hunting Indiana now is probably all right for close-in work. What you are probably looking for is something to reach out further shooting from new venues.
Let me just also mention that for all the support I had for expressing my views regarding Indiana’s proposed changes in its rifle regs, I was a bit appalled at some of the ignorance and wrong -headedness by those who were against “High-Powered Rifles.” It would seem that a sizeable part of Indiana’s adult population thinks that y’all are going to have a big circular firing squad on Opening Day and that Hoosiers cannot be trusted with the same sort of rifle that folks across the river in Kentucky have been using for decades. The other theory I found laughable was that Indiana was the wrong sort of place for ” High-Powered Rifles” because it was so flat. This is opposed to Ohio, where folks always said shotguns were required because it was so hilly.
I have been writing on this subject for 20-some years. Most of it is captured on this weblog. I still agree with my earlier thoughts on what makes a good deer chambering: anything goes. It depends more on what you want to shoot. My best advice still stands: stick to the middle path. Yes, a 243 WIN is a perfectly decent deer round. Yes, 300 WIN Mag takes a lot of deer every year. 45-70 is an awesome cartridge. On the other hand, my guess is that you will be happiest with something closer to the middle.
What is the middle? 300 Savage, 7mm-08–something about there. A bit past the middle is 30-06 and 270 WIN. 308 WIN is right about there too. You do not have to get exotic. If you have a good reason for being exotic, then you probably do not need or want my advice.
What caliber is best?
I prefer .30, and most of my deer rifles are .30-somethings. At the bottom end, you have 30-30 Win, then 300 Savage, 308 WIN, 30-06 and 300 Win Mag — basically the same bullet driven by increasing amounts of powder. On the 7mm side, there is 7-30 Waters, 7mm-08/280 Rem and 7mm Rem Mag. you can throw 270 WIN in the middle of that continuum as well. Which is better? Honestly, the deer will not know the difference inside 80 yards.
35 caliber? 35 Rem on the low end, 358 WIN and then 35 Whelen. I love shooting 35-somethings, but I cannot honestly recommend it over a 30-Something. On the other end of the spectrum, 25-06 is one of my current favorites, but it does nothing a 30-06 does, except it does it with remarkably less recoil. At the same time I started using 25-06, I also started experimenting with 8mm. Yes, that’s a good one too. They all are good. The good news is that you probably won’t make a mistake with whatever you choose. My guess is just you will be happiest if you stay in the middle. If you are looking for a short simple answer: buy a 30-06 and be happy.
When I said 300 Savage was my idea of an ideal deer cartridge, I was thinking about the fact that most hunters kill their deer inside 80 yards. 300 Savage is great at that range. However, it starts to flag at 150 yards. Yes, I know, folks talk about the 30-30 being effective to 300 yards, but I am talking about the real world. For me, a 30-30 WIN and a 44 Mag are only effective within the first 80 yards. The 300 Savage is effective out to about 150 yards. The 30-06 is great out to 300 yards. However, beyond 250 yards, I would get my butt up and move closer.
I would be the first to admit your mileage may vary. However, it all depends on how much effort you want to put into it. Let me explain. A trip to Walmart the night before the hunt, procuring a rifle, with a scope mounted and bore-sighted, will yield a hunting rifle that might be reliable to no more than 25-50 yards. Take your pick of chamberings. It’s whatever is left in the case. I am not recommending this as a practice. I am just giving this as a baseline.
That same rifle and scope, with a couple of trips to the range and a several boxes of ammo to test, and a final sight-in setting the scope to be 2 inches high at 100 yards will yield a hunting rifle that will reliably take a deer somewhere out beyond 200 yards. With a 30-06, 7mm-08, 270 WIN, 308 WIN– anything in that general range, you are good to go.
However, if you have decided to get out of the middle of the road, do not expect things to be so easy. Yes, you may know a buddy that took a deer in Kentucky with a 35 Rem at 300 yards. However, answer me this: how much drop does a .308 200 Grain bullet fired from a 35 Rem have at 300 yards? How did he know it was 300 yards? How much drop would it have had at 275 yards? 325 yards?
Just so you know, I ran the numbers through my copy of PointBlank software. It is free. I suggest you go out on the web and snag a copy. You will also need a chronograph, because this is all highly dependent on the actual velocity of the bullet, not what is printed on the box. The drop of a .358 200 Grain Hornady RN fired with a muzzle velocity of 2000 fps is 38.25 inches at 300 yards. Aiming at the deer’s boiler room would have buried the bullet in the dirt several yards in front of the deer.
If you vary by 25 yards in either direction the drop changes by about 10 inches. Your buddy was damn lucky, that deer was a lot closer than 300 yards, or he had put in a lot of work to get this just right and had a laser range finder and a drop table pasted to his stock. I’m just saying.
It used to be a general belief that 4″ at 100 yards (4MOA) was sufficient for deer hunting. My assertion is that the closer you get to 1″ at 100 yard (1MOA) accuracy out of the box, the cheaper it will be in the long run to test new ammo and new scopes. Nowadays, with the Ruger American Rifle and others, you can get that kind of accuracy at the bottom price point.
I never did like that 4 MOA rule of thumb. In a way, it made sense that if you planted a bullet within 4 inches of where you were aiming, no one (including the deer) was going to know. On the other hand, 4 MOA allowed for so much room for error, I could never tell if it was the gun, the load, or me. This was especially true for non-supported shots.
Once I got to reloading, I found a lot of my rifle that had probably been pushing that 4 MOA limit were now shooting 2 MOA or better, and it became a lot easier to see the effects of better form, better loads, different bullets, etc.
The other aspect of this is how you register your scope. If you have a 4 MOA rifle and sight in 2 inches high at 100 yards, now you have a bit of a conundrum. By sighting 2 inches high at 100 yards, with a lot of deer chamberings you do not have to worry about distance until well out past 200 yards. However, if you couple that with a 4 MOA rifle, now you have a much larger potential spread. 4 MOA can end up minute-of-bushel-basket in a hurry.
35 years into the sport, I find a session at the bench is much more productive with a 1-2 MOA hunting rifle than a 3-4 MOA rifle. It is just so much easier to see what’s going on. Even on windy days, I can shoot more productively. My ranges have also lengthened, because I now trust that I can accurately hit something beyond 200 yards. Even the rifles I use from a treestand are all probably pushing 1-2 MOA. It takes me 50% fewer shots to get a new rifle or new load wrung out. It costs less and I have more time for scouting. With a few of my rifles, I can bring them out in October, fire one round down range and know they are good to go. With a 3-4 MOA rifle, I am going through a box or more of ammo to get the same level of confidence.
Hoofing it on the ground, knocking deer out of cover, I still like a 12 GA slug. You will not find anything better at 25 yards. At that range, anything goes. Whatever you have been shooting will still work.
If you have been hunting out of a treestand or ground blind in the woods, then you probably know your biggest limitation is the distance you can see deer. For me, hunting in Kentucky, just up river from Indiana, I know I have about an 80 yard maximum in the woods. At that range, anything goes. A 44 Mag is just fine. A 30-30 WIN is not going to buy you anything different.
However, let me just say that having hunted with a 30-06 out of treestands for years, I can tell you that there is a special kind of awesomeness to 30-06 at close range. Overkill, up to a point, is a good thing.
My favorites? My absolute favorite deep woods chambering is 308 WIN downloaded slightly to match a 300 Savage. However, from a stand I have hunted with just about everything in my deer battery from 30-30 WIN to 35 Whelen.
My absolute favorite deer rifle in a treestand is a Savage 99 lever action, but it has not been made in 15 years. You probably already know how you feel about bolt actions. Whatever you feel, it probably is not wrong. Semi-autos? I hunted with a semi-auto Remington 742 for twenty years, and I finally put it aside and started using a Remington 7600 pump. They all make great deer guns. I do not use single-shot rifles for deer hunting, as I always prefer to be ready to take a second shot. I get to take one about twice a decade. However, a big part of what I think makes a conscientious deer hunter is his ability to take a follow-on shot whenever practical. I do not like having a wounded deer standing around watching me while I reload.
Kentucky holds its modern weapons season starting in mid November. At that time, deer are more often than not still in the woods, munching on the last of the acorns. However, as the last week of season approaches, getting on towards Thanksgiving, the deer are venturing more into the fields to pick at the remaining weeds and grasses. I find myself filling my last tag from the ground, looking out into a field, usually with a bolt gun with a scope. I am prepared to take a deer out to about 250 yards in the last minute of legal hunting. Most of the shots are within 150 yards.
What do I use in the fields? Mostly bolt guns, Mostly 30-06 and 35 Whelen. Of them all my Whelenizer has taken more deer in the past decade, but I recently swapped it out for a new 30-06. The 35 Whelen was just a tad too much. The rounds cost twice as much and kicked about a third more. The Whelenizer was a sure bet, but really no surer than a 30-06. It did not make the deer any deader. The Whelenizer is a Remington 7600 Pump gun. Pumps CAN be as accurate as bolt actions. I do not recommend the semi-autos only because they are not necessary. They add weight. They are a bit harder to clean.
I have hunted exclusively in Kentucky for over a decade, but I hunted southeastern Indiana quite a bit, starting in the early 90’s, and the conditions are identical. I have never hunted a stubble field that has its own zip code, and I know they do exist as you get to the north and west. My admonition to those contemplating such a hunt is to try and work towards keeping the shots as short as possible. Do not see a big field and think you HAVE to take a 600 yard shot. Hunt the peninsulas, the corners, the islands, and when you see deer out in the middle, do not immediately assume 338 Lapua is your only hope. The deer do not live in the middle of the field. They only visit. I have big hay pastures at the farm, and I have better luck hunting the trails just inside the treeline than I do firing out into the middle of the field. Remember that Indiana hunters were just given permission to hunt deer with long-range cartridges. It does not mean you have to do it.
Who makes the best rifles? It depends on what you mean by best. If your budget is $1000, then you probably do not need me. I have spent 30-some years buying sub-$200 basket cases and turning them into proper deer rifles. I will limit my suggestions to what is new on the shelves at the store.
The AR Platform
No, you do not need an AR platform to go deer hunting. If you want to hunt deer with an AR, you want to do so, because you want to hunt with an AR, not because you want to hunt deer. If you want to hunt with an AR, stick with 308 WIN. I warn folks to stay away from 300 Blackout, just because it is somewhat limiting when you talk whitetail deer. I do not recommend 7.62X39 either, unless you are talking 50 yard shots. Both 300 Blackout and 7.62X39 perform slightly below the 30-30 WIN. The one other AR-friendly round I do think is worth something is 458 SOCOM. However, it was already on Indiana’s list. It too is sharply limited by effective range.
I am very partial to Ruger these days. I bought a Ruger Hawkeye in 30-06, and if I had the chance to take one rifle for everything forever, that would be the one. I bought a Ruger American this year in .223 REM. It is a fine rifle and as plastic stocks go, the American has one of the best.
For years, Savage has been making one of the best rifles for out-of-the-box accuracy. The Accu-Trigger is well worth it. Whether it is worth more than a $400 Ruger American is going to be in the eye of the beholder. I have heard good things about the Axis, but I generally hear better things about the Ruger American.
The Weatherby Vanguard is another one I would look at seriously. Remember that it is a Weatherby in name, but it is made for Weatherby by Howa. Howa is great. The Vanguard is great. I’m just saying. Everyone besides Ruger nowadays is outsourcing their low end rifles with mixed results. The Vanguard is one of the better examples.
What? Not Remington? My impression has been that Remington’s quality has been slipping while the others have all gotten better. There is a Remington rifle I recommend for Indiana deer hunting, and it is not the 700. If you are really looking for that one gun that will do it all, I would find either a used 760 or 7600 or the new 750. Buy it in 30-06 and you will not have to go any further. I have been extremely happy with mine. My only warning concerns the magazines. Keep the magazine and its attachment points on the rifle squeaky clean. Buy a couple extra mags and be ready to have them fail on you. Over the years, I acquired half a dozen. One deer season I came home with only one working mag.
What about the rest? If you dig around enough on the Internet, you will find scary stories about nearly all the makes and models. I do not want to spread rumor, but I would have you look around and form your own opinions.
My eyes went over 15 years ago. I put scopes on all my rifles. It has only been recently my eyes have readjusted so that I iron sights for deer have really become an option again. When I first did my scope thing, I went cheap. In the past few years, I have been ripping off all the cheap scopes and replacing them with better optics. Bushnell scopes have really impressed me. I bought a 3-9X40 Elite for my Hawkeye. It is an awesome scope. I shot a doe this year in the last minute of legal hunting. I have also bought a few Bushnell Trophy 4-12X40’s and a slew of 3-9X40 Banners. Of the three, I will say that the 3-9X40 Bushnell Banner performs nearly as well as a Elite for a 1/5 the price. I bought one 1.5-4.5X40 Bushnell Banner this year so that I could re-scope my Whelenizer. I am in the process of converting my Rem 7600 to a deep woods stalking configuration.What did all this scope swapping buy me? It comes down to extra time on the stand. Any scope can probably work at 9 AM. As my eyes aged, I found that I could no longer look through my scopes and see the game in the first and last 10 minutes of hunting. All I could see was mud. Folks are going to laugh at me, because I recommend Bushnell and not Leupold or some other high-end brand. All I can do is report on is the number of Bushnell scopes I have mounted, and the pile of deer that have gone through my freezers.
My opinion on the biggest deer rifle arguments of all time:
30-06 vs 270 WIN: I have a completely irrational dislike for 270 Winchester. It is due to reading too many magazines at the barber shop at an early age. I’ll take 30-06. I’d be the first to admit my feelings on the subject are not rational. However, I will say that the arguments over the differences only start to make sense well out past 300 yards.
30-06 vs. 308 WIN: Yes, one of those will do nicely. Normally, you see an honest difference in ballistics out beyond 300 yards. However, I must mention that the difference between a short-action rifle and a long-action rifle can be more than meets the eye and more than just the weight you feel on your shoulder when you sling the rifle. The question is recoil, and it is highly dependent on the setup of the rifle. A 30-06 rifle, because the action is longer will probably be a tad longer overall and a tad heavier than a comparable 308 WIN rifle. Lighter rifles will deliver more recoil, given comparable ammo. Do not expect a 308 WIN rifle to recoil less. Overall, either is fine.
Head shots versus Neck shots vs. . .: Stop right there. The heart and lungs of a whitetail fit into a volume roughly the size of a soccer ball. Hit anywhere in the soccer ball and you have a dead deer. My favorite is a shot that takes punctures both lungs and clips the top of the heart. I do not deliberately shoot shoulder bones. My deer either fall where they stood or you can go stand where they were shot and see the carcass.
Is 30-30 enough? I am not going to say no. I have not had the best luck with it over the years. However, it is perfectly reasonable as a deer cartridge. Just do not try to do more with it than was intended. If this is your first foray into a “high powered rifle” you can honestly do better.
Managed Recoil Loads: Don’t. I regularly see guys buying a 300 WIN MAG with the idea they’ll shoot Managed Recoil Loads. If you want lower recoil, buy a 30-06. If that 7mm Rem Mag is too much for your shoulder, buy a 7X57 or 7mm-08. Getting stuck with Managed Recoil Loads REALLY limits your ammo choices. Having said that, I am a big proponent of reloading for whitetail deer. As a rule, I load as much as 5% off the published MAX load for whitetail deer. You just do not need a full-house load to kill a whitetail. However, that is reloading not factory ammo, and my loads are still considerably stiffer than the manufactured “Managed Recoil” stuff.
Premium Ammo: I have been putting deer in the freezer since Reagan’s first term. I have never once shot a deer with a plastic-tipped anything. Nor have I needed to. Find the cheapest ammo that shoots accurately in your rifle and go with it. For most of my career, I have reloaded using plain Hornady Interlocks and Remington Core-Lokts.
I can make a 30-30 shoot like a 30-06: Don’t. You’ll see articles about how to make 30-30 shoot like 308 WIN or 357 MAG shoot like a 30-30. Remember this is going up close to your face. If you want to shoot like a 30-06, buy a 30-06. I reload. I have been reloading since 2000. I have taken all my deer since 2000 with reloaded ammunition. In almost every case, I am reloading 5% or more off the published MAX load. I have never loaded above the published MAX.
The Bottom Line
If I were a guy that lived in Indiana, and I had been hunting with a 44 Mag Lever for the past decade, and I now could go out and hunt whitetail deer for the first time with a “high-powered” deer rifle, and I was itching to buy a new deer rifle and get the best deal? I would buy a Ruger American Rifle in 30-06 and a Bushnell Banner 3-9X40mm. I would then take all the money I saved on the rifle and begin testing ammunition, starting with the Remington Core-Lokt, Winchester Super-X and Federal American Eagle and testing 150 grain versus 165 grain. When I found what worked, I would buy a 5-10 year supply and be done with it. From then on, I would use the time I saved at the range scouting deer.