Go into a sporting goods store, mom-and-pop gun shop, small diner, church, meeting hall, or anywhere else like-minded people gather, and discuss deer hunting. There are a few topics of conversation that will always get a good argument brewing. As deer hunters, it seems we love to argue about our sport almost as much as we love hunting. Luckily, the arguments tend to be as good-natured as the deer hunters themselves.
One of the best and longest-running arguments is that timeless question: what is the best rifle for deer hunting? Let’s get this over with quickly. There is no one best deer rifle. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s true. If you’re legally hunting with any rifle, that’s the best deer rifle, period. Why? Because you’re hunting! Let’s look at some of the variations on the theme, though.
A word on taking the shot
If I had a nickel for every time I heard growing up that the .30-30 was the best deer caliber and rifle, well, I’d have enough money to buy a really nice .30-30. The reason often given is that “.30-30 is a great brush gun and can shoot through anything.” That comment makes me cringe.
If anything gets between your muzzle and the target, it doesn’t matter which type of gun you’re shooting. It can and will alter the course of the bullet. I don’t care if you’re shooting a .375 H&H or even a .50 BMG. If you don’t take a clear shot and just throw a bullet through some brush, you’re hoping for the best. You shouldn’t be taking that shot anyway. Wait for the good shot and don’t be “that guy.” A round-nose bullet, like the .30-30, may in fact not be deflected as much from an impact with brush and the like, but any “obstacle” can alter the course of any bullet. Several years ago, I was involved in some test-shooting through thick brush at a range with several different rifle-caliber combinations. Sometimes we hit the target, sometimes we didn’t. The important thing we learned was that never once did the bullet go exactly where it was aimed. That alone makes it not worth attempting.
There are real reasons to want a .30-30 for deer hunting, however. For one, lever guns are just cool. There is a lot of history behind the lever action. Another is that most are short, tough rifles that handle well. That is what makes them a good choice in tight cover. Another reason to love the .30-30 is that the ammo is easy-to-find and usually pretty cheap. Wait, cheap, easy-to-find ammo? Sign me up!
Bullets make up part of the argument about .30-30s, too. The usually have a rounded nose, unless you’re looking at Hornady’s excellent LEVERevolution offerings. I’ve heard just about every argument for and against certain bullets. In some states now (California—I’m talking about you), you can’t use lead-based bullets anymore. There are lots of good, but more expensive, non-lead options out there. Copper bullets, like those offered by Barnes, can be effective against deer.
With smaller calibers, bullet selection is more vital. You want one that will carry enough weight and energy to effectively kill a deer. Remember, it’s tissue damage and hydrostatic shock that kills quickly. Even if a bullet fails to expand, if it transfers energy and causes enough tissue damage, the deer is going to die. Deer aren’t bulletproof tanks made of Kevlar. They are tough, however, as you can tell by the number of times you’ve heard or seen one hit by a car and run off. Get the right bullet for your game and gun and you’ll be fine.
There are variables to take into account when selecting a caliber. Range is one. Ammo cost might be one depending on what you’re shooting and your budget. A .223 is on the smaller end, but it can be a lethal deer round. On the flip side, a .375 H&H can be a very effective deer round, but it’s not for everyone. Be sure to check the regulations for your state that you’re hunting. Know the rules and follow them.
I do have my favorites, but I don’t want to present them as what I objectively think you should have for deer hunting. I have killed plenty of deer and other critters with a Winchester Model 70 in 7mm Remington Magnum. That’s not to say it is always the gun I reach for, but more often than not I grab that gun. I have sent a lot of bullets downrange with it and am comfortable using it.
I would like to add the fact that there are better rifles for some situations and because of that fact, I need to have more than one rifle. If my wife reads this, I need those guns. The best reason to buy a new rifle is because you want it.
I hear guys all the time say they want a new rifle because they might be going “out West,” a common thing to hear in the Midwest. Sometimes you want a lightweight rifle, especially if you’re going to be carrying it for a long time for a backcountry hunt. Lighter weight usually results in more felt recoil, so you might not want it for every hunt. You also might want to have some different calibers around just to spice things up.
I’ve found that the best reason to own more than one good deer hunting rifle is having additional firearms on-hand to loan to a new hunter. I remember taking my wife out deer hunting for the first time, which I was able to do thanks to having more than one good gun. She now hunts with me all the time, and I can spend that much more on hunting stuff. See, that alone has made me a smart hunter. You may disagree with me on some of what I’m saying here, but you can’t argue with that.
Images courtesy Derrek Sigler