The author takes great pleasure in the rifles he carries. Here are his top choices for hunting whitetails and muleys.
By Clair Rees
Shivering in the pre-dawn darkness, I burrowed even deeper into my down jacket. Opening morning of Utah’s mule deer season meant snow and near-zero temperatures. The crackling stars began to fade as the sky took on an orange tinge. Aspen trees gradually took shape at the edge of the small clearing.
I was hunting familiar territory. I’d taken more than one deer as it sauntered along the well-used trail I huddled beside. Halfway up Mud Creek, overlooking Strawberry Reservoir, was a natural pass deer liked to use. Finding a likely ambush site an hour earlier, I’d made myself comfortable, then settled down to wait. Thousands of other hunters in the nearby hills would have the deer on the move. Opening day could be highly productive for those who chose to simply sit and wait.
Thirty minutes later, my patience was rewarded. Snapping branches alerted me to something moving down the trail. After several long moments, a fat, young buck — three points to a side — appeared 120 yards away. This wasn’t a trophy I’d pay to mount, but its tender venison would be a welcome addition to my freezer.
As the distance closed to 70 yards, I eased the rifle to my shoulder and carefully aimed for the animal’s chest.
What kind of rifle? Over the years, I’ve completed basically the same scenario with a number of different rifles. In a lifetime of hunting, I’ve accumulated a wide variety of firearms designed to drop everything from coyotes and prairie dogs to elk, moose and Alaska’s giant grizzlies in their tracks. Many of these multi-threat rifles wouldn’t be out of place in the deer woods. On a recent Saskatchewan hunt, everyone else in camp relied on a gaggle of .338 and .300 magnums to drop the big-bodied deer for which the area is noted. I was amused when the camp’s owner and guide suggested the .308 I carried may not be up to the job.
When I’m hunting game that can claw and bite in seriously bad weather conditions (think Alaska in mid-November), I want a strong, extremely reliable stainless-and-synthetic bolt-action rifle that packs plenty of punch. The 5 3/4-pound stainless .375 H&H Model 70 Rifle’s Inc. made for me a number of years ago is ideal for this kind of duty. A highly effective muzzle brake makes this featherweight behemoth manageable for use on elk-sized critters as well.
Many favor 7mm and .300 belted magnums that will “reach out and touch” deer at sometimes silly distances. The vast majority of both mule and white-tailed deer I’ve taken in the past 50 years have dropped no farther than 100 — okay, maybe 150 yards — from the muzzle. I have no desire to hunt with a Mt. Palomar-scoped beanfield rifle designed to be deadly into the next county.
I’ve done my share of long-range shooting when conditions seemed right and I thought the gods were smiling. Sometimes I succeeded; other times I didn’t. Hail Mary shots may be justified when hunting sheep in impossible terrain, or you’ve got a rock-steady rest and you’re certain of the wind and distance. But I no longer try to stretch the range when I settle my crosshairs on deer. Deer hunting is one of my most pleasurable pastimes, and I now choose to do it with the rifles that please me most.
I’ve shot my share of B&C deer, and seeking ever-larger trophies is no longer on my agenda. I hunt deer for the pure joy of it. The rifles I carry are part of this joy. Instead of a long-range magnum with a utilitarian synthetic handle, I prefer light, easy-carrying rifles, usually with genuine walnut stocks.
My favorite deer rifles? Let’s start with a classic that ruled the roost for more than half of the last century. My father, grandfather and millions of other hunters relied on .30-30 Winchester or Marlin lever rifles. They didn’t shoot at deer that were 250 or 300 yards away, relying instead on stalking skills to get within sure range. These men were hunters in the pure sense of the word — not marksmen who bragged about how far away they could kill game.
When I first began hunting, lever-action carbines were a lot more popular than they are today. Carrying one reminds me of a simpler, gentler time when rifles and sights were less sophisticated, and shooters didn’t require laser rangefinders and bullet-drop-compensating scopes.
None of my .30-30 and .44 magnum lever rifles wear scopes. These little rifles are so light and well balanced they’re a pure delight to carry. I’ve said before that installing a scope on lever-action carbine is like fitting a cat with ski boots. You turn something sleek and fast into a lumbering mistake far less likely to make you smile.
The open sights these rifles come equipped with are part of their charm. They’re accurate at a practical maximum of 150 yards, which is roughly the effective range of a .30-30 cartridge (.44 magnums top out at around 100 yards). Killing a deer cleanly with a lever-action carbine seems much more rewarding than shooting one at 400 yards with a tricked-out beanfield rifle.
Another lever classic I dote on is a Model 99 Savage. Mine is chambered for the .308 Winchester, my all-time favorite deer cartridge. Sadly, Savage discontinued this century-old design a decade ago. Mine is of recent manufacture, so it sports a removable clip instead of the classic rotary magazine. With that exception, it’s basically the same rifle Savage introduced in 1899.
An older friend I once hunted with used an open-sighted Model 99 chambered for the .300 Savage, the forerunner of today’s .308. He was the finest natural shot I’ve ever known and would carry no other rifle. Two of my childhood buddies (and their fathers) also favored the Savage 99. I think of them whenever I carry my 99 afield.
The Model 99 isn’t a half-minute rifle. It’s capable of three-round 1 3/8-inch groups at 100 yards — plenty good enough for hunting deer at any reasonable range. I’ve killed a handful of mule deer with this rifle (for some reason I’ve never hunted whitetails with it), and I know I can rely on it. Lever-action rifles evoke pleasant nostalgia, and the Model 99 is no exception.
I’ve always been a fan of light, compact, short-action rifles, and when Remington introduced the Model Seven several years ago, it was love at first sight. I own five Model Sevens in various configurations. Two are chambered for the .308, two for the 7mm-08, and one (an Alaskan Wilderness Rifle from the Remington Custom Shop) digests Remington’s great (but endangered) .300 Remington Short Action Ultra Magnum.
A few years ago, I dropped a nice Montana buck with this rifle. With the exception of my .30-30 and .44 magnum saddle carbines, my other deer rifles are chambered for the .308, 7mm-08 or the 6.5x55mm Swede — all moderately powered rounds perfectly suited for the deer woods.
Another of my Model Sevens wears a laminated, wood-to-muzzle Mannlicher-style stock. I can’t explain it, but full-length stocks leave me weak in the knees. I fell in love with them the first time I saw a Model 1950 Mannlicher Schoenauer carbine with its split receiver, butter-knife bolt handle and smooth-feeding rotary magazine. One day I hope to find one of these gorgeous carbines I can afford. I’d like it in the classic 6.5x54mm chambering, but this version is becoming hard to find and commands a premium price. In the meantime, I’ll make do with full-stocked carbines like my MS Model Seven, which digests 7mm-08 ammo.
The .308 I took to Saskatchewan a few years ago was a Kimber Model 84. This delightful featherweight weighs just 5 1/2 pounds in spite of its walnut stock. Complete with a 3-10x42mm Habicht Swarovski scope, the rifle hefts an easy-carrying 6 1/2 pounds.
With 168-grain Barnes Triple-Shock handloads exiting the muzzle at 2,750 feet per second (fps), the Kimber regularly punches tight 5/8-inch three-shot groups at 100 yards. That’s practically varmint rifle performance from an ultralight deer gun. The trigger breaks at a crisp 2 1/2 pounds — another reason I fell in love with this rifle.
After freezing my fanny off in a series of ground blinds and elevated stands, I finally got the drop on a decent 10-point buck. It was an easy shot from just over 100 yards. The deer made a single, mighty leap before coming to rest. The Triple Shock bullet had penetrated completely, pulverizing the animal’s vitals. A big, bellowing magnum could have done no better.
In my opinion, Kimber’s Model 84 comes awfully close to being the perfect deer rifle. It’s light, handy and more accurate than it needs to be. The bolt operates with incredible smoothness, and the trigger is a dream. To top it off, this rifle wears a walnut stock. The wood doesn’t have high-grade figuring, but the checkering is sharp and clean. It’s another rifle that’s simply fun to carry.
My favorite deer rifles all bring me pleasure, and that’s certainly true for the most recent addition to my hunting battery. A few years ago the people at Serengeti Rifles crafted a fine, custom-made rifle to my specifications. Naturally, I requested a full-length Mannlicher-style stock. I asked that it be chambered in 6.5x55mm. That’s just a tad larger, but more widely available, than the 6.5x54 Mannlicher-Schoenaer cartridge.
Factory ammo starts a 140-grain bullet from the muzzle at a sedate 2,525 fps. Because several aging rifles fire this round, it’s factory loaded to just 45,000 psi. My Serengeti custom Walkabout carbine can digest considerably hotter handloads.
Predating the .30-06 by a handful of years, the 6.5x55 was adopted by both the Swedish and Norwegian military back in 1894. It remains highly popular with European hunters. According to carefully kept records, more Scandinavian “elk” (moose) have been killed with the 6.5 Swede than with any other cartridge.
My carbine wears a Serengeti 4140 chrome moly M1999 action and a stainless-steel barrel. The action shares features with the Winchester Model 70 and Mauser 98 actions, including a spring-loaded claw extractor and controlled-round feeding.
This rifle sports all the custom touches, including a polished feed ramp and ejection port. Bolt lugs are lightly polished. Naturally, the bolt is jeweled, and the trigger sports a creep-free 3-pound letoff. The AAA walnut stock with its fancy burled butt section and superb fine-line checkering makes this rifle a real showpiece.
With 140-grain Hornady SP Interlock factory loads, the rifle produces 1 1/8-inch five-shot groups at 100 yards. Barnes 120-grain Triple Shock handloads do nearly as well, yielding 1 1/4 MOA performance. I own other rifles capable of greater accuracy, but none that give me the pleasure of ownership my Serengeti carbine provides.
I own very few custom rifles, and none languish behind steel or glass. Rifles are meant to be used, and my prized Serengeti carbine will be carried afield many times in the coming years.
When I hunt deer today, it’s a much more relaxed pursuit. I don’t need another monster rack hanging from my wall, and I don’t crave braggin’ rights for long-range kills. Instead, I take pleasure in hunting at a leisurely, unhurried pace and stalking within sure range before attempting a shot. I also take pleasure in the rifles I carry — and now you know what they are.
Reprinted from the July 2008 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.