Just what is a deer rifle? At the risk of sounding stupid by stating the obvious, just about any centerfire rifle used for hunting deer qualifies as a deer rifle. Obviously, though, some rigs are better suited to the task than others. Over the 37 years that I’ve been writing about guns for a living I’ve come across some outstanding deer rifles–at least they were to my way of thinking. Of course, it depended on whether I was hunting whitetails or mule deer and where and how I was hunting, but that, too, pretty much goes without saying.
One of my all-time favorites for eastern whitetail hunting is a no-brainer because it’s been a favorite of five generations of deer hunters. I’m talking about the Marlin lever action. Yes, the Winchester 94 proved to be even more popular over the years, but I’ve always favored the Marlin 336 action and its side ejection that allows a scope to be mounted over the bore. Winchester did address the side-ejection issue in 1983 with its Model 94 XTR Angle Eject, but with all 94s now history, it’s a moot point.
Like a couple of other rifles I’ll be talking about here, the fact that I consider the Marlin to be one of the great deer rifles is not based on my having used them to take hundreds of deer. In fact, most of my deer hunting, by choice, has been done from elevated stands that command long shooting lanes where typical lever-action cartridges are not at their best. Indeed, I’ve used Marlins to take more black bear and mountain lion than I have deer because those are two applications where I knew that any shooting was going to be at close range.
That’s all changed, though, now that Hornady has introduced its truly revolutionary LEVERevolution ammunition with FlexTip bullets. In conjunction with new, high-performance loadings, this new technology changes the very nature of the traditional lever-action rifle. Now that highly efficient spitzer bullets can be used in tubular-magazine rifles like the Marlins and Winchesters, trajectories and downrange energies have been dramatically improved. In the .30-30 chambering in particular, the retained energy and drop figures are such that it actually becomes a near-300-yard deer cartridge.
I’ve owned Marlins chambered in .35 Remington, .375 Winchester, .444 Marlin and .450 Marlin. All but the .375 Win. is available in the new Hornady loadings, along with the .30-30 and .45-70 Gov’t. In these new LEVERevolution loadings, these larger-caliber rounds become 200-plus-yard cartridges. Amazing.
Whenever it’s been appropriate, then, I often use my Marlins because there’s just something so right about being in whitetail country with a traditional lever-action rifle in your hand. It looks right; it feels right.
Prior to this year I would have picked a 336 carbine in .444 Marlin with a low-range variable scope like a 1.5-4X as being one of the great deer rifles I’ve known. With the advent of this new Hornady ammo, however, and Marlin’s equally new Model 336 XLR rifle that was developed specifically for it, I’m not so sure I wouldn’t take it in .30-30 caliber because, like I said, it’s now a whole ‘nother ball game. In any event, it would still be a Marlin lever action in my stable of great deer rifles.
As much as I like the Marlin, the vast majority of my whitetail hunting has been done with bolt-action rifles chambered for short-action cartridges. I’m not talking about the new generation of short-action magnums, but the short-action standard calibers like the .260 Rem., 7mm-08 Rem. and .308 Win. I really can’t envision any eastern whitetail scenario any of these three cartridges couldn’t handle short of purposely stretching beanfield tactics to the limit. By that I mean deliberately posting oneself at the edge of a 500-yard crop field.
There are many production guns that have all the attributes needed to make what I consider the ideal all-purpose whitetail rifle, but the one I have the most personal experience with and would choose is Remington’s Model Seven in 7mm-08 Rem. It’s true that Browning, Howa, Weatherby, Winchester, Savage, Sako and Ruger, among others, all offer similar carbine versions of their flagship rifle, but where the Model Seven trumps them all in my eyes is that, while all the others are based on shortened versions of those companys’ standard-length action, the Model Seven is a shortened version of Remington’s short action. In other words, it is lighter, shorter and more compact than anyone else’s short action.
There have been several iterations of this handy little carbine over the years, and I’ve owned or used several of them, but the current ones I think are the best. The original Model Seven had a pencil-thin 18 1/2-inch barrel, which I thought was too short–too short to look right, too short to feel right and too punitive velocity-wise. Before long, however, they increased it to the current 20 inches for standard calibers and 22 inches for magnums. Four models are offered: an all-stainless, synthetic-stock version called the SS in standard and short-magnum calibers and the traditional blued-steel/walnut-stocked CDL, also in standard and magnum calibers. The CDL version is seen on the cover of this issue.
I am not a fan of super-light rifles, and the Model Seven
doesn’t go overboard there either. Weights range from 6 1/4 pounds for the Seven SS to 7 3/8 for the CDL Magnum. I have the SS version in 7mm-08, and I’d have a hard time designing from scratch a more delightful deer rifle. Topped with a compact, midrange variable scope, this rifle allows me to confidently hunt whitetail deer virtually anywhere and under almost any conceivable circumstance. Like I said, there are many good production-grade lightweight carbines out there, but the Model Seven gets my vote. And I could probably be just as happy if it were chambered in .260 Remington or .308 Winchester.
Moving west, where the typical shot at a mule deer is across a valley to an opposing slope, I want more rifle, more cartridge. For this type of hunting I always choose a bolt-action 7mm magnum of some sort, a 24-inch barrel and usually fitted with a 6X fixed-power scope. Here again, there are many off-the-shelf production rifles that fit those requirements, but whenever I have the chance to hunt with one of my own rifles, it’s always a custom job that fits the foregoing parameters.
By “custom” I don’t mean anything fancy: None of my personal rifles are–fancy, I mean. What makes them custom is that I start with the action of my choice that I have barreled to my contour and chamber specs, then glass bed it and finish it myself using an aftermarket drop-in laminated stock of straight-comb classic configuration. The end result is a very generic rifle the likes of which can be found in the catalog of any of the major manufacturers mentioned earlier, plus most of the importers and semi-custom makers as well.
There is nothing unusual about my rifles other than that they are chambered in the caliber I want, whether it’s a standard or wildcat; it is throated to a dummy cartridge seated with the exact bullet to the depth I plan to use; the barrel is of the length and contour I want; and it’s stocked exactly the way I want it. Naturally, I have my choice of actions in either chrome-moly or stainless and a matching barrel, fluted or smooth. Lately, I’ve come to prefer all-stainless rifles and fluted barrels.
As for the specific chamberings, I own or have owned generic-type rifles as I’ve described using Remington 700, Winchester Model 70, Ruger 77 Mk II, Lazzeroni, Carl Gustaf, Montana and Sako actions in various magnum-class 7mms, among them the wildcats .280 RCBS and my own 7mm JRS, 7mm Weatherby Magnum, 7mm Rem. Magnum, 7mm Dakota, 7mm WSM, 7mm SAUM and 7.21 Lazzeroni Tomahawk.
Again, any one of these rifles of mine could be considered composites, if you will, possessing those features that would qualify each of them as one of the Great Deer Rifles I’ve Known. For me, the perfect western deer rifle looks pretty much like one or more versions of the flagship model of any of the gunmakers mentioned. The barrel measures anywhere from .600 to .625 inch at the muzzle and is 24 inches long to take advantage of most, but not all, of the potential ballistics that a moderate-size magnum case (as opposed to super mags like the Ultra Mag, Lazzeroni Firebird and 7mm STW, which are not efficient enough for me) can provide.
The stock is of a simple, classic style, and the scope would be a midrange variable that cranks up to no more than 10X and has an objective no larger than 42mm. With this kind of rig and under the right circumstances–meaning a steady-enough rest–I’d be quite comfortable taking shots out to 400 yards, especially now that any such attempt by me assumes the use of a laser rangefinder to verify the distance.
The last candidate for Great Deer Rifles I’ve Known requires a different mindset altogether because I’m thinking single-shot rifle, specifically the Ruger No. 1-B. I’ve used No. 1s in various calibers for as broad a spectrum of game as you can imagine, from groundhogs to elephant. Although hunting with a single-shot does change one’s attitude about the importance of that first shot, the fact of the matter is, if you’re prepared by having a second round handy–like in a wristband on the off hand as I do–with a little practice you can get off an aimed follow-up shot in less than five seconds. And in western hunting one often gets a second shot at a mule deer when it’s far away and it doesn’t know exactly where the danger’s coming from. Bottom line is that it’s really no great handicap to hunt our western deer with a one-shooter.
There are six variations of the Ruger No. 1, but the Standard Rifle–the 1-B–has always been my favorite. It is not a light rifle by any means, but with its standard 26-inch barrel, you get maximum velocity from whatever cartridge it’s chambered for, yet the overall length of the gun is more than three inches shorter than a 24-inch-barreled bolt action. The No. 1 has a wonderful feel and balance to it, and, well, it’s just a classy rifle and a classy way to hunt.
The Ruger No. 1 is now available in 11 models covering 24 different calibers ranging from the .22 Hornet to the .458 Lott. I own only one No. 1 at the moment, and it’s a custom job that’s had three different barrels on it: 7mm Remington Magnum, 7m
m Dakota and its current chambering, the 7.21 Lazzeroni Tomahawk. All are in my favored bore size, but the 1-B is offered in several ideal western deer calibers, including .25-06, .270 Win., .270 Wby. Magnum, 7mm Rem. Magnum and .300 Win. Magnum.
The No. 1 is not everyone’s idea of a perfect western deer rifle, but it sure is one of mine. For me it makes how I get my buck more important than getting it at all. That makes it an honorary member of Great Deer Rifles I’ve Known.