I’m not going to assume you have a deer rifle. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, doesn’t matter. The only assumption is that deer season is coming on fast, and you need a suitable rifle. Or, maybe you just want one. Also doesn’t matter. Depending somewhat on your luck (and more on practice and preparation), taking a deer is not a complex matter.
There are dozens of suitable choices. Some are better than others, but in the big universe of centerfire rifles, there are few that won’t get the job done.
But you might as well make a good choice. So, let’s start with some basic questions: Who is the rifle for? What kind of deer are you going to hunt? Where and how are you going to use it?
Who is it For?
Is the rifle for you, or perhaps for a spouse or a youngster? More important, is it intended for an experienced shooter/hunter, or somebody just starting out? Most important: Is the primary user of smaller stature?
At 5’9”, I’m exactly Joe Average, which is great, because factory rifles fit me perfectly. Daughter Brittany is about the same height, same deal. Donna is a few inches shorter. She can use “standard” stock dimensions in a pinch, but not with perfect comfort. Daughter Caroline is, well, short. The standard factory length of pull is pretty much unmanageable for her. Having never been tall, I have no experience with the opposite problem, but I do know that a too-short stock accentuates recoil and increases the likelihood of scope cuts.
Today most manufacturers offer “youth models” with shorter stocks. Several, including Mossberg and Savage, offer basic bolt-actions with adjustable stocks with removable spacers so length of pull can be shortened and then extended as a young shooter grows. We tend to take stock fit for granted, but it’s critical to managing recoil and shooting accurately.
What Kind of Deer?
The biggest whitetails are about the same size as the biggest mule deer, but mule deer average larger. Average mule deer country is probably more open than average whitetail country…so shots are a bit farther. Deer are not created equal! Northern deer are bigger in the body than southern deer. Also, you should evaluate yourself as a deer hunter. Are you primarily looking for venison for the freezer, or seriously seeking the biggest buck in the woods? There are significant differences in size (and stamina) between a tender young doe and a mature buck. There is also a difference in mind-set: Meat hunters are more likely to be able to pick their shots and distance; hunters after the biggest bucks need to be able to take any reasonable shot if their dream buck comes along. These differences should influence choice of cartridges!
Where and How?
Only you know what kind of terrain and vegetation you hunt in, and these are primary factors in dictating shots and shooting distances. In thick woods shots tend to be close and fast. In plains, mountains, and agricultural areas shots tend to be longer and also more deliberate, perhaps leading you to choose a flatter-shooting cartridge and a more powerful scope.
Methodology is also important. Do you hunt from stands or blinds, perhaps over agriculture or where feeders are legal? In stand-hunting, you have some control over your shots because of how you site your stand. If you hunt by spot-and-stalk, then your shot can be almost anything. Gun weight and fast-handling characteristics become more important!
Suitable deer-hunting cartridges are available in all action types: Bolt, lever, slide, semiauto, and single-shot. If you grew up with a lever-action, it may take practice to get used to a bolt…but the reverse is also true. I’ve hunted with all the action types, and I’m not sure it makes much difference. However, I will say that bolt-actions and single-shots are generally the quietest and simplest to load and unload: That’s something you do frequently in most forms of deer hunting: After you get on stand and before you climb down and, when walking, every time you encounter a fence or an obstacle.
I don’t worry much about the rapidity of additional shots, although I certainly concede that a quick second shot can save the day! Obviously, the semiautomatic is the fastest, and requires no hand movement. However, with practice, all the repeating actions are plenty fast enough in the deer woods. With a single-shot, you can practice all you want, but you’re just lucky if you’re able to fumble for second cartridge in time to use it. On the other hand, the single-shot tends to make you awful careful with that one shot!
On the California Central Coast, we have small blacktail deer in tight country, where longer shots are uncommon. Here, the .243 Winchester is easily the most popular cartridge and it’s ideal. In Texas, they hunt medium-size deer and many stands look down endless cutlines or senderos. The .25-06 is king…and it’s a great choice. Again, you know what kind of deer you hunt, and what the country is like.
Although they certainly work, I submit that no deer hunting in North America requires a fast magnum! But, for larger-bodied deer and for the full-range of shots, I submit further that all .22 centerfires, 6mms, and even .25s, are on the light side. I’ll keep this simple. Among so many possibilities, if I were to suggest a minimal number of ideal deer cartridges, I’d suggest just three: 6.5mm Creedmoor, 7mm-08 Remington, and .270 Winchester.
With bullets of 130 grains and up, all are plenty powerful for any deer that walks. All combine mild recoil with marvelous performance…and a wide choice in platforms and available loads. Now, despite the hype, the 6.5 Creedmoor is a long-range target cartridge, but not a long-range hunting cartridge. Neither is the 7mm-08; they are too slow, and past 300 yards drop quickly. The .270 shoots flatter and carries more energy…with only slightly increased recoil.
There are many other good options. If I wanted a deer rifle on an AR15 platform, I’d choose the fast, efficient little 6.5mm Grendel. But if I lived in one of the “straight-wall cartridge” states, I’d choose the new .350 Legend. On the other hand, if my deer hunting dictated close shots only, I wouldn’t overlook the great old .30-30 in a scoped lever-action.
If anyone cares, my personal favorite whitetail cartridge is the old 7x57. Though it lacks the nostalgia, the 7mm-08 is ballistically identical, but much more available so I’d be the first to say the 7mm-08 makes more sense in a new rifle. Also, not to be overlooked is the .308 Winchester, the classic short-action cartridge, powerful and versatile, but with a bit more recoil than any other cartridge discussed.
Regardless of the rifle and cartridge you choose, a scope completes the package…and don’t scrimp on optics! Basic bolt-actions are more affordable and more accurate than ever. So, if budget is tight, spend less on the rifle and more on the scope! This is especially important in deer hunting because those first and last minutes of daylight are so critical. I’m talking quality, not magnification! Big scopes are “in,” but high magnification isn’t needed unless you’re serious about extreme-range shooting. For most deer hunting continent-wide, the long-popular medium-sized variables in 3-9X or 3.5-10X remain ideal, but choose a good brand!