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Deer Rifles East and West

Deer Rifles East and West

How and where you hunt has everything to do with your choice of rifle/cartridge/scope.

By Jon R. Sundra

There used to be a marked difference between what was considered an Eastern deer rifle and a Western deer rifle. Characterized by the slab-sided Marlin and Winchester lever actions, the typical Eastern deer rifle was short, fast-handling and capable of six or more rapid follow-up shots.

And because those shots were typically 100 yards or less, iron sights were the norm until the ascendancy of the scope in the 1950s. It follows, too, that typical lever-action cartridges like the .30-30 Win, .32 Win and .35 Rem were considered perfectly adequate.

Out West, it was a different story. The Western hunter needed a rifle that was more accurate and had more reach. Rapidity of fire was not a major consideration, and scopes were considered, if not mandatory, nearly so.

By far, the favorite cartridges were the .270 Winchester and the good ol’ .30-06. The rifles typically sported 22- or 24-inch barrels and weighed between 8 and 9 pounds, field-ready.

These are broad generalizations, mind you, because there were many exceptions. In the East, for example, the Savage 99 was an extremely popular rifle with whitetail hunters. Although it was a lever-action, it was quite different from the classic “Winlin” in that its action could handle high-intensity rounds like the .250 and .300 Savage, and its box magazine made possible the use of wind-cheating spitzer bullets. The traditional lever guns’ tubular magazines were limited to trajectory-challenged flat-nosed slugs.

Deer Rifles East and WestThere were also hundreds of thousands of surplus guns pressed into service, most of which were, with the exception of simply sawing off the full-length forearms, used in their original military calibers.

Out West, there were just as many exceptions to the rule, the biggest that the Marlin and Winchester lever guns were just as popular there as back East. The difference, however, was they were primarily in the hands of folks who lived and worked in hunting country on a daily basis. These were primarily meat hunters for whom there was no urgency to fill a license within a few days’ time. Most encounters with game were by chance while doing something other than hunting. It was more important to have a rifle handy for mountain lions, coyotes and marauding bears than for deer.

No sir, when I talk about the Western deer rifle, I mean the guns used by serious hunters, those who traveled to neighboring states or came to hunt mule deer in the American West. These hunters were quick to embrace the bolt-action rifle along with the high-performance cartridges and scopes that made them so much more effective at the long distances trophy hunters were prepared to shoot.

If you were shopping for a new rifle in 1950, probably 90 percent of your options consisted of bolt-action sporters — a category dominated by the Remington 721/722 and the Winchester Model 70 — or the various lever actions of Marlin and Winchester. Again, there were exceptions, like Remington’s 81A semiauto and 141A slide action, and, of course, the Savage 99.

In the old days, if you wanted a bolt-action rifle, there was little further delineation beyond that; it pretty much meant a sporter, i.e., about a 7 1/2-pound rifle with a 22- or 24-inch barrel averaging about .600 inch at the muzzle. Today, we have ultralights, 18-inch barreled carbines, 20-inch semi-carbines, sporters and lightweight sporters with 22- to 24-inch barrels in standard calibers, and 24- to 26-inch barrels 
in magnums.

Deer Rifles East and WestWe also have varmint rifles, which, when chambered in big game calibers, become beanfield rifles to be hoisted into elevated stands and used to dump deer in the neighboring zip code.

Among the viable non-bolt actions and the various single-shots of Browning, Ruger, New England Arms and Thompson/Center, there are similar niche models with varying physical characteristics to make them more suitable for some applications than others, just as with bolt guns. All are available in the .308 Win family at the very least, and many can be had in belted and short-magnum chamberings that make them suited for hunting much more than just deer East or West.

There is no question, though, that the bolt-action rifle now typifies the Eastern as well as Western deer rifle where recent sales of new guns are concerned. I emphasize “recent” because if you survey some regions in the Eastern U.S. and Canada, you’d still find lever guns giving bolt actions a run for their money, but only because the men and women behind them have been using the same gun for decades To them, a deer rifle is simply a tool, one they already own, don’t dote on and don’t feel they need another.

Okay, so the bolt action has come to epitomize the deer rifle both East and West, and the lines distinguishing them are blurred. That doesn’t mean there are none, however. Given the differences in terrain, conditions and the average shooting distance encountered on a typical (if there is such a thing) whitetail hunt, as opposed to a mule deer hunt, there are still some differences that make one type gun more suitable than another, and those differences have to do with physical characteristics, caliber and one’s choice of scope.

In the West, what today is the perfect mule deer rifle hasn’t changed all that much over the last half-century. That means the typical rifle is a scoped sporter with a 22- to 24-inch barrel in standard calibers, and 24 to 26 inches in magnums. What has changed is the distances shots are taken. Part of that has to do with the fact that collecting a trophy mule deer today has become more difficult than bagging a trophy whitetail — something no one would have predicted 50 years ago, and the fact that our equipment has extended the maximum practical range for even the average marksman.

The typical Western hunter today, then, is just as likely to be carrying a 7mm or .300 magnum as a .270 or .30-06, and no one considers him overgunned. It’s not that mule deer take any more killing today than they did 50 years ago; it’s just that it often has to be done from a lot farther away.

Deer Rifles East and WestScope requirements, too, have changed, but not nearly to the extent that the optics manufacturers would like you to believe. To hear them tell it, unless you’ve got a variable scope with a 30mm tube that cranks up to at least 12x and has a 50mm objective, you might as well stay home. Truth of the matter is, if you’re faced with a now-or-never shot at a buck standing 400 yards away (you know he’s 400 yards because, like any serious trophy hunter today, you’ve got a laser rangefinder), you can make good use of at least a 6x magnification, if not 7x or 8x. As for needing more X’s than that and an objective bell the size of manhole cover, that’s just Madison Avenue.

In the East, it’s a different story. The physical characteristics of the deer rifle itself have changed, as well as the calibers and scopes deemed suitable. For one thing, deer drives are not as popular as they once were. Make no mistake, drives can still be highly productive. In many areas, it’s the only way to have a chance at a decent buck. Under those conditions, where shots are generally under 100 yards, any old lever action chambered for a bowling-ball-trajectory cartridge under iron sights is at least adequate, if not ideal, for the task at hand. But it’s not the safest way to hunt if you’re one of the drivers, and it’s one of the reasons that in some states slug shotguns are now the only firearm type allowed for 
deer hunting.

In states (or regions within states) where centerfire rifles are allowed, bean-field tactics are becoming more and more prevalent with whitetail hunters. My statistics may be off, but if memory serves, over 95 percent of the whitetails harvested in the eastern half of the country are taken within 300 yards of a road of some sort. That being the case, what has just been described as the typical Western deer rifle is just as well suited here. Indeed, when you don’t have to walk more than a couple hundred yards to your stand, you can even use a beanfield rifle if you so choose. Once you’re in the stand, you’ve got a comfortable seat and a rifle rest there in front of you, so the weight of the rifle and its other physical characteristics are of little concern.

With those kinds of things going for you, why would anyone choose to place that elevated stand in thick forest where one can’t see 50 yards? If you’ve got a rifle/cartridge/scope combination capable of making clean kills out to 300 yards and more, and you’ve got the steady rest needed to make such a shot, you’ll want to locate that stand where you have at least one shooting lane that takes advantage of the rifle type, and the ballistic and optical capabilities on which you made your buying decisions in the first place.

In the final analysis, it boils down to the fact that the mule deer hunter doesn’t have a lot to say about the conditions under which a shot is likely to be presented; it’s going to be long or very long. The Eastern hunter, on the other hand, has a lot to say about the kind of shot he’s likely to get, and that should determine his choice of rifle, cartridge and scope. He can, for example, locate his stand at the edge of a fire break where shooting lanes off to his right and left extend forever — the beanfield scenario, if you will. Or he can bust brush in hopes of jumping a buck out of tight cover for which he’ll need a rifle that’s light, fast-handling and has rapid follow-up shot capability and a low-magnification scope with a large field of view. Two extremes, to be sure, but both are common scenarios in the East and ones over which the hunter has control.

Subscribe Today!Another thing that’s changed with regard to the Eastern deer rifle is the calibers for which they’re chambered. Just because one chooses to still-hunt thick cover or participate in deer drives doesn’t mean one must saddle himself with a lever-action cartridge that peters out within 150 yards. Today, we have choices of very light, fast-handling bolt actions chambered for short-action cartridges like the .260 and 7mm-08 Rem, or .308 Win, which are fully capable of dispatching the largest white-tailed buck out to 250 yards or more.

It’s true we have a lot to say about the kind of shots we’re going to be presented with by virtue of where and how we choose to hunt, but we don’t have total control. If that unlikely long shot presents itself, why not have a rig that can cut the mustard?

Reprinted from the December 2007 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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