By Jon R. Sundra
Depending on circumstances, these are the guns that typify the type the author likes to use. The bolt-action carbine with a midrange variable scope can handle any situation out to at least 250 yards, while the classic lever action is fine for really close work. Guns like his Ruger No. 1 in 7.21 Lazzeroni Tomahawk and the Ruger M77 in 7mm WSM are needed only for extreme-range whitetail hunting.
Imagine, for a moment, three avid and highly experienced whitetail hunters, each arguing the merits of his favorite rifle.
One of ’em swears by a traditional lever-action .30-30 carbine with open sights. The second guy champions his 22-inch-barreled, bolt-action .30-06 with a 3-9x variable, the consummate “do-everything” rifle. The third uses a 26-inch heavy-barreled target/varmint rifle chambered for the 7mm Rem Ultra Mag and topped with a 6-18x scope.
Who’s right? Well, they all are because each of them arrived at his particular choice based on experience and preference.
For where and how all of these guys hunt, their rifle choice works. The answer is really no more complicated than that, but because it is so obvious, it’s often glossed over by a lot of gun writers in the rationales they use to justify a given rifle or cartridge for article purposes.
The fact of the matter is that virtually any rifle can be a highly effective deer-harvesting machine under the right circumstances. Therefore, the intelligent hunter avoids situations where his rifle and/or preferred tactics put him at a disadvantage.
I mean, it’s not like we go to bed the day before the opening of the season and say to ourselves: “Where am I going to hunt tomorrow?” Assuming we’re talking about a local, unguided hunt, most of us know exactly where we’re going - whether it be public lands, private property or a hunting club lease - and we know what tactics work in that environment. Indeed, as long as an area remains productive, we tend to hunt the same place year after year, because the more familiar we are with an area and the deer that inhabit it, the more comfortable and confident we are hunting there.
Our choice of ordnance, however, isn’t always based on where and how we hunt; as often as not, it’s arrived at by coming at the problem from a totally different direction. If, like me, you’re an equipment geek who’s fascinated with rifles, cartridges, ballistics, etc., you’re much more likely to choose where and how you hunt based on what best utilizes the capabilities of your equipment and shooting skills.
Savvy deer hunters avoid situations where their rifle and/or preferred tactics put them at a disadvantage. Few areas in the country don’t offer both short- and long-range hunting opportunites.
The guy with the beanfield rifle, for example, isn’t going to hunt thick timber or brush country. Rather, he’s going to choose a stand overlooking a power line right-of-way or a large pasture or crop field where long-range shooting is not just a possibility, but likely. He wants to use the reach he has available in that 7 Ultra Mag of his, so why would he climb into a stand where he can’t see more than 75 yards in any direction?
At the other end of the spectrum is the gent who hunts with a traditional lever-action carbine. We’re talking guns like the various Marlins and Winchesters chambered for cartridges like the .35 Rem, .30-30 or .45-70 fitted with open or aperture sights. If he’s a more progressive type, it could be a .444 or .450 Marlin with a low-range variable or fixed-power scope. In any case, this is not the guy who’s going to post himself at the edge of a 600-acre beanfield. It’s just common sense.
Let me emphasize here that if you book a whitetail hunt with an outfitter, chances are you’ll be posted in a permanent, elevated stand. Depending on the part of the country, some or all of those stands could be in wooded areas where you won’t have to shoot more than 75 to 100 yards. In another region, every established blind could be set up where medium- to long-range shooting is all you’re likely to get.
Barring the aforementioned scenarios, or hunting on a lease of limited size, there are few areas in this country where you can’t find the conditions you want. Even in Maine and New Brunswick where I hunted the thickest whitetail cover imaginable, I had the option of posting myself where there were long shooting lanes in at least a couple of directions.
Over the last 40 years, I’ve hunted whitetails in most of the Eastern states, as well as in several Western states and Canadian provinces. From stands where I couldn’t see more than 30 yards in any direction, to ones situated overlooking cropfields that were more than 1,000 yards long, I’ve hunted deer under just about every condition imaginable. Naturally, I’ve come to prefer certain types of rifles over others, depending on circumstances.
It has been awhile since I’ve still-hunted or participated in a drive, but both tactics are typically used in fairly dense woods or brushy areas where the average shot is less than 75 yards, often considerably less. It is under those conditions that I’ve always wanted to use a traditional lever-action carbine like the Winchester 94 or Marlin 336, simply because for more than half a century they represented the quintessential “deer rifle.” That era was before my time, but I wanted to experience what it was like. Short, light, fast-handling and capable of spitting out rapid follow-up shots, these classic saddle carbines are ideally suited to close-cover deer hunting. Then, too, there’s something about the balance and one-hand carrying qualities of a saddle carbine wearing nothing but iron sights that no other rifle type can match. If you’ve never carried one yourself, you can almost experience what it’s like vicariously when watching any one of many John Wayne movies. A 94 in his hands looked like it was a part of him.
The irony of it is that I’ve never taken a whitetail with one of these rifles. The only successful deer hunt I’ve ever made was with the Marlin people back in the late ‘70s, and it was a mule deer hunt in Montana! The few other times I’ve used a lever-action rifle were busts, deer-wise, but I have taken several black bears using Marlins chambered in .444 or .375 Win, as well as mountain lions.
As much as I like the classic saddle carbine as a rifle type, it really doesn’t suit my preferred method of hunting, which is to post myself in a stand that commands a lot of country. I guess that’s because I’m a rifle crank of the first water, and snap shooting at running game, or simply shooting at close range, are things that just don’t turn on rifle cranks. Therefore, the type of rifle I prefer is one that can handle any situation out to at least 250 yards. That, of course, excludes any of the classic lever-action cartridges of round- or flat-nose configuration as dictated by tubular magazines and open sights.
Virtually every rifle maker offers a comparable version of Remington’s Model Seven, but if I had to choose a rifle that in its stock production form came closest to my idea of the modern “deer rifle,” that would be it. I am not a fan of short-barreled rifles or ones that are ultralight, but for whitetail deer hunting under all but the most specialized circumstance, this rifle and others like it are the exception.
The Model Seven was initially offered with an 18 1/2-inch barrel as standard. I found that to be too short; the gun just didn’t look right to my eyes. Remington’s long since changed that to where 20 inches is now standard. That’s just 11/2 inches longer, but it makes a great deal of difference in the looks of the gun, and looks are important to me, even if it has nothing to do with performance.
Incidentally, the Model Seven is not based upon the Remington 700 short action; the Seven’s is lighter and shorter in both receiver and bolt.
My favorite chambering is the 7mm-08, but this gun is also offered in .260 Rem and .308 Win, which are also superb whitetail cartridges. All shoot flat enough that with a 200-yard zero, you can hold middle-of-the-shoulder and not have to worry about trajectory on any shot from 25 to 250 yards.
In my experience, even stands built with long-range shooting in mind usually have woods or some sort of cover to the rear, meaning that if a deer approaches from behind, any shot you get will likely be very close. One should therefore have a variable scope aboard, always turned to its lowest power. Should something happen close in, you’ll be glad your scope’s at 2.5 or 3x. If a buck does venture out into that big field or firebreak in front of you, you’ll have plenty of time to crank up the power.
If I know that I’ll be hunting from established stands where extreme-range shooting might be offered, then my ideal whitetail rifle essentially becomes a typical magnum. By that I mean a 24-inch-barreled bolt action chambered in some version of a 7mm or .300 magnum, but only because of the extra reach that may be needed for shooting 300 yards and beyond.
I really don’t have a “favorite” in this category, but the several rifles I do own, though all custom jobs, are essentially no different from the typical “standard sporter” as offered by Browning, CZ, Howa, Remington, Ruger, Sako, Tikka, Weatherby or Winchester, just to name some. All my rifles sport straight-comb classic stocks of either laid-up fiberglass or wood laminate, and virtually all of the brands I’ve just named offer those same options on their production guns.
So there’s really nothing different about my rifles and those you can buy off the shelf other than my having started with an action, which I then had fitted with a barrel that’s chambered, throated and contoured to my specs. I then set the barreled action into a stock, which I usually glass bed and finish myself. I have such rifles based on Ruger 77 Mk. II, Winchester Model 70, Remington 700 and Howa 1500 actions, in addition to some others based on actions by lesser-known makers.
Again, a variable scope is the only logical choice here because there’s always the chance of something happening very close. The scope can be of a higher power range than that required for the previous category, but I am quite comfortable with a scope of 10x at most.
If you’re saying to yourself that my choice of long-range whitetail rifle is no different from the typical rifle one would use to hunt almost any thin-skinned, non-dangerous game on earth, you’d be right. At this point, however, I’ve got to mention that I’ve also on occasion used Ruger No. 1s, as I see no great disadvantage to a single-shot rifle when I know that strictly long-range shooting’s involved. I’ve always had a soft spot for these elegant guns, despite the fact they can be exasperatingly cantankerous. Even with a velocity-enhancing 26-inch barrel, I’ve still got a rifle that’s the same overall length as a 22-inch-barreled bolt gun. That makes a difference in an elevated stand. Besides, I’ve always felt that using a single shot was the classiest way to hunt.
In any case, the aforementioned category can be kicked up a notch by simply substituting a heavy-barreled varminter chambered in the same flat-shooting calibers, i.e., a beanfield rifle. It then becomes a highly specialized rig suitable only for long-range deer sniping from a rock-steady stand with a good rifle rest. To each his own, but for me that crosses over from hunting to shooting, and I draw the line there.
Reprinted from the September 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine