You have finally decided to take the plunge and become a deer hunter. Of course you need a gun capable of cleanly and quickly killing the whitetail deer. That’s right, I said ‘killing’, that’s exactly what you are going to do. There are lots of sanitized euphemisms for the act: harvesting, taking, or simply ‘hunting’ as the final act. You need to come to grips with the fact that you will be taking the life of another mammal pretty much equal in size to you; a living, breathing, beautiful animal that you should respect and appreciate in its sacrifice. The finality of this kill should at the very least elicit a feeling of remorse along with gratitude and finally, elation. If properly processed and prepared the meat from even the oldest buck can be a delicacy. There is another complete article on this subject. Suffice it to say that your weapon of choice factors into the quality of the meat. You want to kill the deer quickly and cleanly, not mangle or destroy it.
Now that the decision is made to become a deer hunter what gun should you choose. Some states only allow the use of shotguns loaded with slugs but for this article we will assume that a rifle is the desired choice. The good news is there are more good affordable choices in rifles today than ever before. There are many calibers and configurations to choose from but I am a firm believer in the tried and true classic rounds that have stood the test of time. They include the 30/06, .308, .270 Winchester, the .243 and the rifle that has probably killed more deer than any other, the lever action 30/30. Ammunition is relatively cheap and plentiful, under normal circumstances, for these particular calibers.
My personal favorite, for the man or woman that only wants one big game rifle is the 30/06. There is an old saying-“Beware the man who only owns one gun; he knows how to shoot it well”. There is a lot of truth to that statement. Practice is the most important part of marksmanship. Shoot often and know your rifle well. The 30/06 has been around for over a hundred years and has been used to kill every animal on the North American continent as well as all of the African big game animals. A well placed shot from this round will drop any animal in its tracks. Recoil can be a problem for small or younger shooters but even that has been addressed in recent years with reduced recoil rounds that can be bought off the shelf. I’ve tried them, they work! Virtually every gun manufacturer produces the 30/06 in various styles, grades and configurations. The venerable bolt action rifle traces its ancestry back to the 1903 Springfield adopted by the US Army after being outgunned in the Spanish American war. After WWI there was a flood of military surplus rifles that were made available to the civilian market cheaply. It quickly made a hit with the American hunters. It was cheap effective and extremely accurate. Many were sporterized with custom stocks and the actions converted to other calibers that are still popular today. I personally own a 1917 Remington version that still performs like a new gun. In fact it was used by a friend and novice hunter, four years ago, to take his first deer. My new favorite rifle is a Browning BAR semi-automatic in 30/06. There are a lot of great entry level rifles today that can be bought in the $300-$400 range. Savage, as well as Remington might be a good place to start but I don’t know of a single American manufacturer that doesn’t make an accurate dependable rifle.
It is impossible to talk about the 30/06 without next talking about the .308. They shoot exactly the same bullet only the case or cartridge is shorter. The ammunition is NOT interchangeable. The .308 also started life as a military rifle. The next rifle adopted and used extensively in WWII was the M14 in .308. Ballestically it is virtually identical to its big brother, shoots the same diameter bullet, and is still used on a limited basis by our military today. It is an excellent choice for today’s big game hunter as well. The shorter action actually makes it a little easier to work the bolt and allows for some additional configurations in shorter lighter rifles. There has never been good access to cheap military surplus rifles in .308 consequently they never became as wide spread in the general public as the 30/06, but is every bit as good for big game hunting as the larger cartridge.
Next is the .270 Winchester cartridge. It started life as a 30/06 cartridge that was necked down to accept a smaller diameter, lighter, faster and therefore better long range choice. I have taken many deer with a .270 and my son now uses it as his favorite rifle. Its uses include most every game animal up to and including elk, with the proper bullet, and I will discuss that more in depth a little later. In addition to deer, elk and black bear, much the same as the first two choices, the added speed and range of the .270 makes it a good choice for the longer range possibilities of antelope and coyote as well as the sometimes longer shots need for western mule deer. With a super-fast 90 gr bullet it is a great choice for coyote and other small varmints as well. Again, all of the major gun manufacturers offer a wide choice. My older Savage Model 110 has seen many years of excellent service. Equipped with 3X9 optics I have taken deer in excess of 200 yards without a negative incident. Recoil is similar to both the .308 and 30/06 and like the other two loads, reduced recoil rounds are available off the shelf for younger hunters.
The .243 Winchester round started life in a .308 case that was necked down to accept this small fast bullet. Like the .270 it routinely exceed 3000 feet per second. The smaller diameter and lighter round does limit it to smaller game. It can be a great choice for young or inexperienced hunters that might be sensitive to recoil as there is very little felt recoil. It is extremely accurate and with the correct bullet is deadly on whitetail size game. I knew one old hunter that had killed over a dozen elk with a Savage 99 lever gun chambered in .243 and claimed he had never injured or lost a single animal. This is no doubt true but I would not recommend it. It is all about shot placement and that small bullet on a 700 pound animal can be very unforgiving. A shot placement only slightly off will leave a large animal wounded and suffering. No ethical hunter wants that to happen. Back to my earlier statement-he only owned one big game rifle, and he shot it well. The .243 is an excellent place to start with a young or female hunter. I plan to start my grandson on one in the near future. It is also a good choice for antelope and varmints.
No discussion is complete without mention of the 30/30. In 1894 Winchester introduced its Model 94 lever gun that became the most popular model ever produced. The design has been copied by innumerable manufacturers and is still being made today virtually unchanged. The romance imparted by the Western movies of the 1950’s-and 60’s has kept the popularity alive for over a century. The iconic 30/30 uses the same diameter bullet as the 30/06 and the .308 but the case size is somewhere between the two. It is a powerful round, more than adequate for deer size critters. I have killed many deer with my Winchester 94 short barreled trapper model. It is a pleasure to carry and a great choice for the heavily forested Ozarks where a shot of over 100 yards is rare. There were two problems with the Winchester 94 for the modern hunter. First, the spent shells were ejected from the top of the rifle requiring optics to be slightly offset to the side of the gun rather than centered over the barrel. This does affect accuracy beyond the point of aim aside from not being particularly ascetically pleasing. That problem was cured early on by the Marlin 30/30 which was a side eject configuration that is still available today in 30/30 and numerous other calibers as well. The other problem was endemic to the design of most lever guns. Both the Winchester and Marlin were tube fed, meaning that the magazine was a spring loaded tube underneath the barrel that required the shells to be nose to base in a row. The sharp point of one bullet resting against the primer of the next one definitely created a safety concern. Recoil or a dropped rifle could create a chain reaction of life threatening proportions. This necessitated the use of blunt tipped bullets which limited the ballistic performance of the old 30/30 and other blunt tipped bullets used in these tube fed rifles. Savage cured the problem in 1899 with a rotary configured magazine that allowed the use of pointed bullets that were years ahead of the competition. Unfortunately this model has not been in production in over 20 years but one in good shape is a prize. They were made in .300 Savage, .250 Savage (the first round to exceed the 3,000 feet per second barrier). In later year, they were made in .243, .308 as well as many other short action favorites including 30/30. Fortunately, for the longevity of the cowboy configured tube fed rifle a recent development by Hornady has saved the day. Hornady’s LEVERevolution ® ammunition is a pointed bullet with a soft polymer insert designed to cushion the tip of the round against the primer of the proceeding bullet. This allows the use of much more ballistically efficient ammunition in these type guns. They already provide this round is several popular calibers. This innovation will turn a 30/30 lever gun into a good 200 yard option. The one caution I offer for lever guns in the hands of inexperienced shooters is that un-cocking these hammer guns can lead to a finger slipping off creating an accidental discharge. I have seen this happen more than once. Caution is in order. A bolt action gun is much safer to use.
Always make sure that a new shooter is very familiar with their firearm. How to load and unload the gun is critical to safe operation. The most important rule is to always keep the muzzle in a safe direction, most hunters will at some time in their life have the misfortune of suffering an accidental discharge, to prevent tragedy make sure that your weapon is always pointed in a safe direction.
One additional bit of advice, make sure the bullets you buy are matched to the game you intend to hunt then practice with that particular round. Using a light varmint bullet on a deer is not something you want to do. Make sure you understand the differences in the types of bullets you can fire in your rifle. Happy hunting.