July 21, 2015
By Joseph von Benedikt
Deer season is only a few long months away. Visions of aspen-crowned sage slopes, frost-covered oak leaves on the forest floor, and long antler tines floating above the CRP haunt and inspire you. Perhaps a shot went astray last fall because of worn or ill-fitting equipment, and you need the confidence that a new, quality rifle would bring; perhaps you want more reach, more distance than your trusty old .30-30 lever-action offers; perhaps old uncle Waldo crossed the great divide and left you with money enough for the deer rifle you've always wanted. Heck, you don't need an excuseâ€”no one can have too many good deer rifles.
Outstanding rifles are plentiful on the market, and if you're the avid deer hunter we think you are, you're probably familiar with most of them. This list of top options showcases freshly introduced models; a few of brand-new design and a gaggle of variations on proven existing models.
There are precision bolt-actions with extended reach; there's a brush-country thumper or two; and there are several almost-affordable custom-quality rifles that offer better-than-average accuracy at a price comparable to what a new Remington 700 cost in the '70s. So shrug off the melancholy, wave the pre-season blues goodbye, and peruse this list for inspiration. Who knows: You just might find your new perfect companion for that all-important time in the deer woods.
Browning X-Bolt Long-Range Hunter
Whether you believe that shooting at big game at long range (whatever your definition of that is) is the epitome of riflemanship, or you opine that shooters who indulge in such practices are soulless narcissists devoid of ethics, the movement is upon us. Manufacturers of rifles, optics, and ammo are building purpose-specific products catering to long-range hunting. Browning's X-Bolt Long Range Hunter is one such, employing the company's inherently accurate yet lightweight action, fit with a 26-inch heavy sporter profile stainless barrel, glass bedded for accuracy and consistency into a composite stock. Camo is Browning's own BuckThorn Tan. Several popular long-reaching calibers are available; my vote goes to the flat-shooting 26 Nosler. Weight: 7 lbs., 6 oz. Price: $1,430.
Browning BAR Stalker
Not only are semiauto deer rifles great where the action is close and fast, but they offer superb advantages to disabled veterans and other folks. A paraplegic friend recently drew a very good trophy bull elk tag, and he's getting set up for it with a Browning BAR in 7mm Rem. Mag. fit with a muzzle brake and topped with a Burris Eliminator III rangefinding/drop compensating scope. Paralyzed from the waist down, he also has limited use of his left hand, which complicates recoil control and prevents him from dialing turrets or running a bolt while maintaining control of his rifle. With this rig, he's got legitimate quarter-mile range and follow-up capability without assistance. The new iteration of the BAR shown features a rubber armored black synthetic stock, and is available in most popular hunting calibers. Weight: 7 lbs. 4 oz. (short action). Price: $1,260.
Legendary Arms Works Professional
Although a very young company, L.A.W. has already earned the resounding endorsement of writing/hunting legends such as Craig Boddington and Ron Spomer. How? They offer custom-rifle performance at a more reasonable price. Note that I write "more" reasonable: you can still buy two Remington 700s for the price of one L.A.W. rifle. However, the L.A.W. provides a custom-grade controlled-feed action; match grade, lapped, stainless barrel; and Timney trigger, all bedded into a superlative hand-laid composite stock by Mark Bansner. On a "par" scale, ergonomics are an Eagle. Available in most popular calibers and many wildcat cartridges, rifles weigh in at between 6.5 and 7.0 pounds, depending on barrel length and caliber. Price: $1,829.
Mossberg MVP Light Chassis Rifle
The innovate MVP line continues to grow, building on its tremendous success as an adaptable bolt-action platform. The latest is the Light Chassis rifle, and it bodes fair to be our favorite. Chambered in 7.62 NATO (.308 Win.) it's fit with a maneuverable 18.5-inch barrel and secured into an aluminum chassis-type stockâ€”which is all the rage among precision shooters these days. A collapsible AR-type stock makes it adaptable for various-size shooters, and an aggressive muzzle brake makes it easy for small-frame and recoil-sensitive shooters to fire. Capacity is 10 rounds, so be sure to check local regulations before hunting deer with it (and, if necessary, obtain a 5-round magazine). While it's not your typical deer rifle, it's one that will be at home in the woods and will assist you in pulling off difficult shots. Weight: 8 lbs., 8 oz. Price: $1,438.
Nosler M48 Patriot
Built on Nosler's own custom action, fit with a premium, match-grade, hand-lapped stainless barrel, and bedded into a lightweight Aramid-fiber stock, the M48 Patriot is as fine a hunting rifle as you can obtain south of two grand. Sure, that's a lot, but when you consider that it offers guaranteed sub M.O.A. accuracy, has a hand-tuned match-grade trigger, is Cerakoted to make it impervious to moisture and wear, and comes in just about any caliber you can think of, you'll realize it's worth it. I've used an M48 with extraordinary success at long range, consistently hitting deer-vital-size targets out to 800 yards. Weight: 6 lbs., 12 oz. to 7 lbs., 8 oz. depending on caliber. Price: $1,795.
Remington Model Seven LS
A sleeker, slimmer little sister to Remington's legendary Model 700, the Model Seven is available in a new, particularly attractive guise: a moisture- and temperature-impervious laminate stock offers the same profile and contours as early Sevens; the barrel is a very maneuverable 18.5 inches; and it weighs only a shade over six and one-half pounds. Iron sights are standard, making for a great back-up sighting system to your scope or as a stand-alone system for fast-and-furious action on close whitetails and hogs in thick cover. Magnum calibers are offered with a 22-inch barrel, and weigh a few ounces more. Currently, it's available in .223 Rem., .243 Win., 7mm-08 Rem., and .308 Win., as well as select short magnum calibers. Price: $1,039.
Ruger M77 Hawkeye FTW Predator
A combined effort between the shooting instructors at the FTW Ranch in Texas (some of whom happen to be retired Navy Seal Snipers), this rifle features a tough laminate stock with adjustable length-of-pull spacers, a cold hammer forged stainless steel barrel, and an excellent two-stage adjustable target trigger on it's controlled-feed M77 Hawkeye action. Chambered in the superb, efficient 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge, it's a legitimate 1,000-yard gun in the hands of a skilled rifleman. (Not on deer, mind youâ€”but it'll flat wear out a steel target.) Only a decade ago, deer hunters with long bean fields to shoot across had to spend several thousand to obtain the type of performance this rifle will provideâ€”for $1,099. Weight: 8 lbs., 1 oz.
Sauer 404 Elegance
No deer gun roundup is complete without one really, really fine rifle, one that causes hunters to fling fiduciary responsibility to the vagrant winds and spend the equivalent of a semester's tuition at their kid's college. Sauer's new 404 Elegance is an obscenely beautiful rifle that will shoot as well as it looks. Since the bolt locking lugs engage the rear of the barrel directly, the action is machined of "aviation-grade high-alloy aluminum," meaning that it's far lighter than any steel action. That high-tech receiver is fitted with twin ejectors for reliability, an adjustable-position trigger, a manual cocking slide on the bolt shroud that decompresses the firing pin spring when disengaged and is bedded into a stock of shockingly beautiful walnut. Even cooler: the barrel and bolt face are interchangeable, enabling the owner to convert the rifle between several calibers. Weight: Something confusing in kilograms (about 7 lbs). Price: We're afraid to ask ($3,800-plus).
Savage Model 16 FCSS Weather Warrior in .338 Federal
Tried and true on the whitetail battlefields across America, Savage's Model 16 needs no introduction to deer hunters. It's a robust, reliable design that typically shoots all out of proportion to its cost, especially the versions with the AccuTrigger and AccuStock upgrades. What's new about this particular rifle is that it's chambered in the hard-thumping .338 Federal cartridge, which is, in simple terms, a .308 necked up to .338 caliber. It doesn't push bullets really fast, so it's not a long-range proposition like the .338 magnums, but courtesy of their large frontal diameter, bullets fired from it hit like the proverbial freight train. Plus, the cartridge is very efficient: recoil is minimal for such a powerhouse, and you'll never wear the 22-inch stainless barrel out. Six different Savage rifles are now chambered for the .338 Federal, but this is probably the best deer rifle among 'em. Weight: 6 lbs., 12 oz. Price: $911.
The biggest departure in Winchester bolt-action rifle design since the Model 54 was introduced in 1925, the radically different XPR features a three-lug bolt; button-rifled chromoly barrel affixed to the precision-machined bar-stock steel action via a barrel nut, which enables precise, easy headspacing, Winchester's M.O.A trigger system, polymer trigger guard and magazine, and innovative steel interface pads in the stock to ensure concentric, consistent bedding. It's available in black or camo synthetic stock, chambered in .270 Win., .30-06 Spfld., .300 Win. Mag., and .338 Win. Mag., and in a combo with a factory-mounted Vortex scope. Weight: 7 lbs. Price: $550 and up.