Today's Mule Deer Rifle
September 23, 2010
With trophies as scarce as hen's teeth, the right rifle is more important than ever.
Last year was pretty good to me. On opening day in central Wyoming, I took the best mule deer I've had a chance at in about 20 years. Then, in early December, from a deer stand in Georgia, I shot my best whitetail in a decade.
The two areas couldn't have been more different. In Wyoming I was hunting in high sagebrush hills cut by fingers of aspen; in Georgia I was in dead-flat ground in the middle of a pine forest. On both hunts I carried the same rifle: A .264 Winchester Magnum, 26-inch barrel, laminated stock, built by Serengeti Rifles in Kalispell, Montana. Interestingly, the shots were somewhat similar, the whitetail at 200 yards and the mule deer at about 235.
Back when I was a young and aspiring writer, a story idea that was sure to sell was a piece on mule deer rifles or "western" deer rifles. In those days there were a lot more mule deer in the West, but the whitetail population explosion was just beginning. So another standard story back then was something along the lines of "eastern deer rifles."
We "all-knowing" gun writers did our best to keep the rifles and cartridges for each situation completely separate. In those days, recommended western deer rifles were generally scoped bolt actions chambered to flat-shooting cartridges. Eastern deer rifles were lever actions from Winchester and Marlin or perhaps pump guns and semiautos from Remington.
Today, of course, a scoped .270 bolt action is a very standard eastern deer rig, and the line between western deer rifle and eastern deer rifle has blurred considerably as whitetail hunting has changed. In many parts of their range, whitetails have moved out of thick cover to agricultural areas, where a bit more reach is often desirable. Not to mention the fact that whitetails have expanded their range into regions of the West where once only mulies were found.
Changes in mule deer hunting have been subtler. Then and now, the mule deer is a creature of open country, so the same flat shooting, scoped rifles touted in the 1970s remain fine choices today. One big change, however, is that there are fewer mule deer today, and a whole lot fewer big bucks. This means that an opportunity on a trophy-class mulie is truly more precious, so it's ever more important to have the right equipment so as to best capitalize on a chance when it comes along.
I suppose there are specialized circumstances for hunting mule deer where a fast, hard-hitting close-cover rifle might be the best choice. Honestly, though, I'm just not aware of any. Blacktails in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest are different, but with mule deer I have never seen hunting situations where one can count on a really close shot.
I also don't know of any hunting situation where a long shot is an absolute certainty. So while a proper mule deer rifle needs a bit of reach, I wouldn't want one that was too heavy to maneuver or that had a scope with so high a minimum magnification that I couldn't take a close shot if one came along. (Interestingly, I think this pretty much describes the average whitetail rifle today.)
In my own battery, I can't say that I have any "whitetail rifles," unless you count the mandatory .30-30. I do have quite a few "deer rifles." Naturally, being a serious fan of the great old .30-06, I have more than a few rifles so chambered, but if I were going on a serious mule deer hunt, I wouldn't pick any of 'em.
The author's Serengetti .264 is a great shooter and carries well — two important characteristics for any mule deer rifle.
The .30-06 is one of the most effective, efficient and versatile of all hunting cartridges--and therefore one of the most useful. It can be used at considerable range, and in fact I used a .30-06 to make the longest shot I have ever made on a mule deer, in Nevada back in 1978. But the .30-06 is not an ideal long-range cartridge. Or, perhaps better put, there are better long-range cartridges.
I have written that there is no necessity for any belted magnum in deer country. I stand on what I have written. The triumvirate of the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington and .30-06 are collectively ideal for just about any deer hunting in North America. I believe the .30-06 to be the most versatile of the three--but for strictly deer hunting both the .270 and the .280 are superior, because both have plenty of power for any deer that walks, and both shoot flatter than the .30-06.
Mind you, shooting at longer ranges is largely a state of mind. An aerodynamic bullet from a .308 Winchester or a .30-06 carries plenty of energy to cleanly take any deer at any sensible range. And at some point even the fastest magnum .30 requires holdover to make a good hit. So it always comes down to reading the range and knowing your cartridge's trajectory. But why make things more difficult than necessary?
I'm very comfortable with a .30-06 out to 250 yards, maybe 300, maybe a bit more--but after that my confidence level drops quickly. Having said that, though, last year I hunted mule deer in west Texas as part of a TV show where Knight was one of the sponsors. I asked them to send me a KP-1 single-shot in .30-06, loaded with Federal's 165-grain Ballistic Tip load.
When it came time to take a 300-yard shot at a really great buck--on camera, with an unfamiliar rifle--I knew I hadn't chosen the perfect tool. Fortunately I hadn't chosen a totally imperfect tool; the buck dropped like a rock. But if he'd been standing just another 50 yards away, well, I'm pretty sure I'd have passed the shot.
Again, I stand on what I've written. A "magnum"--whatever that is these days--is not essential for any deer hunting. Standard cartridges such as the .270 Winchester and .280 Remington shoot as flat as many of our popular magnums, kick less, make less noise and offer plenty of power.
But many serious mule deer hunters--and plenty of whitetail hunters as well--do choose magnums. At the start of my hunting career the classic mule deer cartridge was the .264 Winchester Magnum, at least partly because of the reputation of the Winchester Model 70 in which it was introduced, and because of the cachet of the long-barreled Westerner version of the Model 70.
I took my first mule deer with a .264, and now I'm using one again. This is partly for nostalgia and partly because, today, I understand the performance of a fast 6.5mm a lot better than I did 40 years ago.
For most of my career, however, the classic mule deer cartridge has been the 7mm Remington Magnum, which is definitely more versatile than the .264. In my (often unpopular) view the 7mm Remington Magnum is not as versatile as the .30-06, nor does it hit as hard. But it does shoot flatter, and it remains a superb open country deer cartridge.
It is the single most popular cartridge that wears a magnum suffix, but in recent years it has slipped somewhat because we now have a whole spate of fast new cartridges (and renewed attention to plenty of older ones as well).
Big mule deer are few and far between these days, so the author likes a rifle with the ability to reach out when necessary. This Wyoming buck fell to his .264 Winchester Magnum firing 140-grain Hornady bullets.
As I said, some serious mule deer hunters have turned to faster cartridges, but it's not necessarily because they intend to shoot at extreme range. Rather, they're looking for the flexibility to take the offered shot with as much confidence as possible.
Of the serious mule deer hunters I know, their choices run the gamut and are based on years of experience and trial and error. Tom Arthur became a Wyoming rancher in retirement because he loves mule deer and has hunted them from Mexico to Canada. He's tried a lot of different rifles and cartridges, but his favorite has boiled down to a .280 Ackley Improved.
Nevadan Jim Jurad is another mule deer fanatic. As a hunter and occasional guide he's taken some spectacular mule deer in northern Nevada, and his favorite has become the 7mm Remington Ultra Mag.
Then there's Hunter Ross, a west Texas outfitter friend. For a Texan he's unusual in that mule deer are his thing. He, too, has hunted them from Canada to Mexico. He's taken some dandies and guided hunters to many more. His own favorite mule deer rifle is a Weatherby Mark V in .257 Weatherby Magnum.
I have written many times that the ultimate choice for versatility is a fast .30. So I find it interesting that all of my favorite mule deer fanatics choose smaller calibers.
As I mentioned, I have been using a .264 a fair bit, but I've also done a lot of mule deer hunting with both the .270 Winchester and the .270 WSM.
Yes, you can use a fast .30, and you won't be wrong. But with today's marvelous bullets you don't really need that much gun to reach out for deer--and perhaps the lesson I'm slowly learning is that, given adequate performance, we shoot better with the lighter calibers because they're easier to shoot.
Even if the potential ranges are the same, there are slight fundamental differences between the perfect whitetail rifle and the perfect mule deer rifle that have nothing to do with cartridge, caliber, accuracy, or terminal performance.
While the mule deer rifle must be flat shooting and accurate, it still must be light enough to carry all day in tough country. That factor sets it apart from heavy whitetail rifles meant for shooting out of blinds. One issue I have with long-barreled, heavy rifles designed for reach is that they can be unhandy in a blind--and can even be a game-spooking nightmare if you rap the barrel against roof or sides of the blind trying to get it into position--but this restriction doesn't apply to mule deer hunting. In open country I'll take a long barrel because it holds steady and offers a bit more velocity.
Scopes are another issue. Big whitetail bucks often don't step out until last light, so a large, light-gathering objective lens might make sense. But on mule deer rifles'¦well, you may need as bright a scope, but whatever you put on the rifle must be carried. So I generally compromise, and I definitely avoid the biggest scopes.
Yes, a .30-06 such as this Knight KP-1 can get the job done, but there are better tools out there for a serious mule deer hunt.
Magnification is a wonderful thing because it helps you reach out just as much (perhaps even more) than a flat-shooting cartridge, but in all cases it's easy to have too much of a good thing. I want a low-end magnification (where the scope should usually be left unless you need more) that will allow a close shot. But I want a high enough upper-end magnification to simplify longer shots. This suggests a 3-9X or 3.5-10X as a sound minimum, with something like 4.5-14X as the maximum.
Obviously all of this depends on the individual. My .264 with 26-inch barrel and 2.5-10X Leupold VX-7 weighs 10.5 pounds. It's a rifle I can carry in mule deer country, but it wouldn't be so for everyone. My wife, for instance, carries a .270 with 22-inch barrel that weighs a good four pounds less. It's too light and whippy for me, but it's just right for her.
So there is clearly a very broad range of suitability in rifle configuration--and a whole bunch of cartridges. What's important in modern mule deer hunting is that your rifle, scope, and cartridge combine to offer the accuracy, visibility, and power you need to capitalize on any sane shot when it comes along.
A minimalist approach, to me, might be the fast .25s. They have plenty of power and flat-shooting capabilities, and their light recoil makes shot placement easy. The only fly in the ointment is that .25s don't hold up in the wind as well as larger calibers.
The next step up is the fast 6.5s and .270s, all of which are spectacular, likewise the many fast 7mm cartridges. And then there are the fast .30s.
In my view the fast .30s with aerodynamic bullets are the ultimate combination of power, flat trajectory and wind-bucking capabilities. But they kick a lot more, and in recent years I've come to believe they aren't essential for mule deer hunting. That said, they work wonderfully, and there is definitely no need for anything larger in caliber.