June 24, 2021
Whitetail hunting is more than a mere hobby for many of us. Rather, it’s a passion bordering on obsession. While we might use any old lawnmower available to mindlessly cut the stupid grass, we take pride in our deer rifles. Many of us have already settled on one that likely has attained near-family-member status in the safe. But other whitetail hunters may be just beginning their search, and with so many options available these days, it can be a fun hunt indeed. Certainly, what matters more than the rifle is the hunter’s skill with it, but regardless, here are one whitetail hunter’s favorites.
But First, Calibers
An average whitetail buck weighs about 150 pounds and is not particularly tough to kill. While any legal caliber from .223 Rem. to .458 Win. Mag. will work, it doesn’t mean they’re all ideal. I consider the minimum bonafide whitetail caliber to be .243 Winchester and the maximum to be 7mm Rem. Mag. Anything larger is undue wear on your shoulder, on your pocketbook, and on the whitetail’s chops. (If you wish to end this debate immediately, discontinue reading and choose a .270 Win., .308 Win., or .30-06. But I get paid to write about this stuff, so humor me as I nitpick what constitutes whitetail perfection.)
In open country, say the western plains or southern bean fields, mid-caliber, high-velocity cartridges, such as .25-06 Rem., .257 Weatherby Mag., .260 Rem., 6.5x284 Norma, .26 Nosler, .264 Win. Mag., 6.5 PRC, and .270 Win., are ideal. Huge Canadian deer at long distance? Go 7mm Mag. or Aught 6. My favorite for long-range whitetails is the .270 Win. Why? It’s a 130-grain bullet going 3,050 fps!
For the majority of hunters in typical whitetail country where shots average 100 yards but could easily be 25 yards or, potentially, 250 yards, you simply don’t need that type of flat-shooting firepower. Ideal is the .257 Roberts, 6.5 Creedmoor, 7x57 Mauser, 7mm-08 Rem., and .308. Win. I love the 7mm-08 Rem. and believe it to be the perfect all-around whitetail caliber due to its sufficient energy, short-action length, and mild recoil. Then there are other considerations. Some guys hunt deer in bear or boar country, so they should probably go with something heavier, like a .270, .308, or .30-06—just in case.
Scenario: Treestand in Heavy Cover
Avg. Shot Distance: 35 yards
My go-to rifle for tight treestand hunting in woods where mature bucks tend to hang out is a Remington Model 7 KS in 7mm-08. Just 37 inches in total length and weighing exactly six pounds with sling and scope, I can literally shoot it with one hand from a tree. It’s also great for ground blinds. With its 1.4-inch groups it’s not a world-beater, but for shots under 100 yards, that matters not. It’s simply perfect for close-range whitetail hunting. However, with Remington closing shop, who knows if more Model 7s will be available. But the concept holds: A short-barreled, lightweight, mountain-style rifle in a short-action, midsize caliber is perfect for the majority of treestand timber hunting. Nearly every rifle company makes one, so choose one in your price bracket with enough money left over for a great compact scope like Leupold’s 2-8x36mm.
Other Options: Winchester XPR Stealth, Browning AB3 Micro-Stalker, Tikka T3x Superlite, Kimber Adirondack
Scenario: Timber, Still-Hunting/Stalking, Deer Drives
Distance: 15–100 yards
For Benoit-style stalking, hound hunting, or Pennsylvania-style deer drives where the whitetail is likely to be haulin’, a quick-pointing repeater is preferred. The historic choice is Remington’s 7600 GameMaster pump, but again, because nobody knows what’s in Big Green’s future, I’ll choose the Browning BAR MK3 Stalker. A modern version of the company’s classic semiautomatic centerfire, this 22-inch-barreled, matte-finished, 6 pound, 10-ounce deer slayer is as fast as Doc Holiday’s six-shooter, handy, reliable, and surprisingly accurate.
Other Options: Marlin 336, Henry Big Boy, Winchester 94, Savage 99
Scenario: Box Blinds Over Open Prairies or Bean Fields
Distance: 250–600 yards
Long-range rifles are demanded in areas where the hunter is mostly stationary, using binoculars to spot game at long distances. When a shooter buck presents itself, stalking closer isn’t much of an option. In these cases, accuracy trumps all else, including comfort in carrying, as most LRRs weigh nine to 10 pounds before a scope is mounted. While nearly every noted rifle maker offers a good one, I must pick one, and so I’ll factor in cost as well.
The Bergara HMR is a hybrid hunting/target rifle and everything long-range hunters want at a, ahem, modest cost.
Other Options: Springfield 2020 Waypoint
Scenario: Areas Mandating Shotgun Slugs
Distance: 200 yards or less
A dedicated slug gun with a full-length rifled barrel, rigid action, and a scope is superior to a converted bird gun. The Savage 220 XP is a 20-gauge bolt-action shotty that delivers less recoil and great groups.
All-Around Bolt Action
Most guys don’t want a six-pound rifle because it can be too light and wispy if the situation calls for a long shot or if the pulse is pumping like a Cat diesel. Light rifles also tend to be more finicky accuracy-wise. Most hunters don’t want a nine-pound behemoth, either. They want something around seven to eight pounds that shoots bullets like sub-MOA laser beams, is durable, reliable as a hammer, and affordable. Lucky for us, these rifles abound, ranging from $400 to $14,000.
While I’m not a huge fan of the El Cheapo rifle trend for the reasons listed in the intro, just about every major manufacturer makes one, and I can’t argue with their effectiveness. They just don’t look or feel great. Go with the Ruger American. Why the Ruger American over the Savage Axis, Mossberg Patriot, T/C Compass II, or others? Simple. It comes with a Picatinny rail installed.
Other options: Browning X-Bolt Composite, Bergara B-14 Ridge, Sako 85 Finnlight II
The Do-It-All Gun: Savage Impulse Big Game Rifle
For those deadly hunters who prefer one gun for all whitetails, from treestand hunting to spot-and-stalk, long-range, and even for when they drive deer with Uncle Durrel near Danville, Pennsylvania, there are a few rifles out there that are truly like a Swiss Army Knife.
One that comes close is the new Savage Impulse Big Game, a straight-pull bolt-action rifle that can do anything a regular bolt action can in terms of accuracy but is much faster, therefore it’s perfect for follow-up shots often required during drives. It’s compact, fast, and accurate.
At around 8.5 pounds, it’s not light, but its weight allows it to shoot a variety of ammo accurately, even at ranges longer than you’d actually shoot a whitetail. It’s got about every feature hunters want: integral Picatinny rail, fully adjustable stock, Cerakote finish, AccuTrigger, threaded barrel, side-mounted sling studs, and more. If I could have only one rifle—and I didn’t have $10,000 for a Blaser R8 Professional—this rifle chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor or .308 Win. would be my choice for all deer hunting.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.