“It always seems impossible, until it’s done.” – Nelson Mandela
The First Deer Rifle Will Be the Second Rifle
As deer seasons are opening across the nation, as birthdays approach, or Christmas approaches I am frequently asked 2 questions, “What Hunting rifle should I get my teen or novice hunter?” or its kin “If I could only own one rifle what should it be?” I have already addressed the value of the .22 LR, in the previous post but this question is not the first rifle but the first deer rifle, i.e. the second rifle.
Background on My Interests When Johnson was president, the nightly news on our black and white TV was focused on the war in South East Asia, Westerns were on all three TV channels, we had a party line on the phone, and I was learning songs by the Kingston Trio I started dreaming about my first deer rifle. I had many years to refine my search, and my first deer rifle I made. I started shooting with my dad before I was a preteen a bolt action Remington Scoremaster Mod. 511 .22 LR that had hunted paper, tin cans, squirrel, rabbit and a couple of coyotes. I also had a single barrel break action 20 gauge Winchester which was the reason I had 3 worn spots in my back pocket as a kid. At age 9 I was dreaming of hunting deer from horseback with my 1892 Winchester chambered in 44-40 like Chuck Connors as rancher Lucas McCain carried in the TV western The Rifleman. The westerns and the guns of the west are what first got me interested in history.
In junior high, I was into wood carving and the father of a friend of mine saw my work and asked me If I could make a stock for a muzzleloading fowling piece, it was not a replica but a gun that had been hidden in a barn during the Mexican American war and for whatever reason was forgotten until Nixion was in the White House. But that is a different musing. The point is that guns not only taught me transferable skills, but the late Jackie Taylor, the owner of the Flintlock gun shop in Anaheim California, took an interest in me and my work and offered me a job in her gun shop when I was a preteen. That gun shop only sold and worked on muzzle loaders primarily guns from the years of the fur trade. In high school, I also started working for a gun shop that focused on the single action revolvers of the old west, later I worked with a gunsmith that made custom hunting rifles. Over the years I had many fine mentors and continued this well into my college years.
When I was deciding on my own perfect deer rifle I heard many parents come into the shop and ask, “What deer rifle should I get my kid?” That discussion topic I heard jawed on for many hours in the shop over coffee and donuts by those of various backgrounds, skill levels, and experience. Some were regulars others were in once and never seen again. Some definitely had ridged opinions mostly from those that were more “Hat than cowboy.” Over those years I met boys and girls in their teens and as young adults that had scars from scopes you could see through their eyebrows and teeth knocked that learned the hard way about recoil.
Because of my work at the gunshops, I was lucky before I could drive I was taking various rifles to the range to test fire after being worked on at the shop and being accompanied by experienced mentors.
I volunteered to test fire any new-to-me ammo that passed through the shop especially any custom rifles chambered in a wildcat ammo (ammo and rifle engineered, built, and tested by an independent). I at 110 pounds found some rifles were no fun to shoot. I learned alot. It turned that high school kid onto math and physics.
The gunsmiths I was working under that made custom rifles and encouraged me to build a deer/elk rifle. It was to be my 3-dimensional resume to help me in getting my own commissions. When my peers were customizing their cars I started acquiring the parts and selected a beautiful piece of figured maple for my deer rifle. I knew exactly what I wanted, I even had the checkering patterns and the inlays made hanging on the wall behind my work bench along with a photo of a Weatherby I was going to copy. I had the 98 Mouser action, Timney trigger, Leopold scope, the lineman mounts, the Pachmayr recoil pad all in boxes from Brownell at the end of my work bench. I knew it was going to have a Douglas Supreme barrel. Yep, I knew exactly what I wanted but I was still in doubt as to what it was going to be chambered for. The shop that was going to do the machine work called the shop I was working in to say they had time to start on my Mauser and I needed to make a decision. I had to make the decision and that high school kid wanted the best rifle from varmint hunting through elk and I was learning a lot.
The Goal is a Successful First Big Game Hunt
You as a parent or novice want their first big game hunt to be successful. I want you to understand your true goal of the first big game hunt is not killing a deer but remembering the hunt with fond memories. Killing a deer is not going to guarantee to make fond memories and not killing a deer doesn’t necessarily mean bad memories. If the novice hunter does not make a clean kill the novice hunter will not have a good hunting experience. Practice at the distance the novice will be hunting at is imperative. Having the right load for that distance and animal that is being hunted is in many cases more important than what the rifle is chambered in. We want the bullet to come to rest in the vitals not stop just under the hide or pass all the way through without expanding. We also need the hunter to be able to consistently put that bullet into that kill zone.
To accomplish all that it is required to match the gun and ammo to the hunter, game, and terrain. To make it mean much more to your novice hunter involve them in the whole decision-making process, they will learn much and become much more connected to you and the gun and that connection and the stories will get passed down to the next generations. They may also get hooked on the history, math, and science.
So What is the Best Deer Rifle? It Depends
What I had learned in all the years. There is no one correct answer to this question but several. When asked that question my typical answer is, “It depends. The factors I will address here are:
- Type of game intended to hunt
- Strength and mass of the shooter
- Terrain of your hunting location
- Local ordinances
- As with most decisions, personal preference is a big factor and largely based on emotion
# The Action
## Bolt Action
I am a big proponent of the first rifle being a bolt action, they are simple, reliable, robust, and seemingly have infinite ammo options. As the young shooter matures into an adult and develops more skill, experience, and strength the bolt can be fed much more powerful loads for elk and larger game. They are inherently safer for the inexperienced shooter than the semi-automatic. As a range safety officer, firearms instructor, and mentor it is easier for me to see that the action is open and clear than with a semi-automatic or slide (aka pump). Before the semi-automatic fans get their feathers ruffled let me just say, I have semi-autos I see great value in them, it is simply my belief that a young person just learning to hunt is safer with a bolt action, they lend themselves to teaching the good habits (such as keeping the rifle in the shooting position) and skills (shooting prone) I want to instill. The bolt action sporter also raises less negative emotion in the families, friends, and neighbors than the scary looking AR based rifles. Once family, friends, and neighbors become more comfortable with the novice hunter shooting and owning a firearm, the other types of actions can be eased in.
## Lever Action My second choice for the action for the beginner hunter in a deer rifle is the lever action. Toni and I own and shoot more lever action rifles than bolt action, they fit our style of hunting and the terrain we hunt in, we have a love for their history. They are also the backbone of our shooting program in our school and camps. Though not as easy to see if the chamber and magazine are clear when I see that the lever is down I know the action is open and safe. A draw back is they are more complicated with many more parts, harder to clean, and can jam for the beginning shooter. Lever actions cannot be shot in a prone position without developing the bad habit of taking the firearm out of the shooting position. Lastly, there are fewer options of ammo for them. With the tubular magazine bullets with the sharp points are unsafe to shoot, the cartridges are lined up primer to point and with sufficient recoil could discharge ammo in the magazine causing injury to the firearm, the shooter, and bystanders. Many of the models of lever actions are not made for the high pressures of today’s ammo choices.
Pump Action Pump action rifles for big game can be found in vintage rifles but not common today, they have similar pros and cons as the lever action.
Break Action Safe, dependable, and uncommon today. There are some new survival rifles being offered in single barreled models, target guns, and period guns being offered today. A draw back with them is they cannot be loaded in the prone position.
Side-by-side rifles (SxS) were popular for dangerous game until the 1950’s then less favored to bolt-action rifles. These rifles are reliable, in that they are simple and robust, and most importantly are two redundant rifles sharing the same stock. However, they are heavy and costly. English or European gunsmiths continue to make these fine firearms and fit and form are important to them. Johann Fanzoj made SxS have a base price of $20,000 and their typical rifles go out the door for $150,000 dollars. Probably not what you are thinking of for a first deer rifle.
What Ammo That depends a young teen either sex and average size for age 14 (or a slight woman), the youngest age big game tags may be purchased to hunt unaccompanied (ages 12 and 13 accompanied by an adult 21 or over). The young teen will want a rifle that will not hurt when the teen pulls the trigger, if it does the teen will be afraid to pull the trigger, will flinch, or worse not want to shoot at all. A 160 lb 17-year-old football player is going to be able to handle the heavier bigger game loads in stride.
The Type of Terrain If you’re hunting is in small mountain meadows or in the woods the hunter does not need a rifle with a long reach with most shots taken at less than 100 yards. In the rolling hills of the prairie, shots taken at greater than 150 yards will be common. In states the are flat and rifles that can cast a bullet miles out may be regulated against.
The rifle must not weigh so much that is a burden to take into the field, but not so light that its recoil is punishing, and the stock must be the correct length for the shooter to be a natural reach for the trigger and for their forearm. The rifle must be suitable for the terrain and laws where you will most often hunt. The firearm should be safe for the teen or novice to learn on. The teen or novice will want to use it for a wide variety of game, therefore, we need to have a broad range of loads available. Here are just some of the good first choices that the deer rifle can be
#.30-06 Springfield My Deer Rifle – Spoken as thirty aught six uses .308 diameter bullet. When Teddy Roosevelt was president and Henry Ford was two years away from selling his first Model T the now forgotten 30-03 was shortened in 1906 for what the military called the “Cartridge, Ball, Caliber .30, Model of 1906”, or just M1906 it was shortened to simply .30-06. Interestingly before the .30-06 the second number referred to the number of grains of black powder, not the year. Even though it started being replaced by the military in 1954 the US military was still ordering this ammo in the early 1970s. It saw duty in WW1, WW2, Korea, and Vietnam. It was first chambered in a bolt-action M1903 Springfield rifle and was used in the bolt-action M1917 Enfield rifle, the semi-automatic M1 Garand, the Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR), and numerous machine guns, including the M1919 series. It was used by the military of 50 different countries. From 1906 on it was a favored hunting round for all game in North America, many sources say it is the most popular hunting ammo still today after over 110 years. With MidwayUSA, the largest internet ammo company, offering over 300 choices in .308 projectiles in many styles and ranging from 110 to 220 grain. Many popular cartridges use this same projectile, .30-30, .30 carbine, .308 Winchester, .300 Winchester mag. and many more. .30-06 can be loaded into loads from varmint to grizzly. Brass and other components are also readily available.
For the handloader, it has been said that the .30-06 contain the .30 carbine, .30-30 and the .308 depending on how you load it. It can be loaded in a comfortable to shoot light varmint load suitable for the slightest of frame teenage boys and girls through a shoulder bruising grizzly load when they become adults. It is also a long distance round.
Because surplus cases were (and still are) plentiful, its large volume for the powder charge and other attributes of its design it was easily throated up or down to became the parent cartridge to make .22-06, .243-06, .25-06, .270, and more, some we will talk about below.
Spoken as two seventy, the .270 Winchester will fit these needs nicely. it was released in 1925 when Ford was still making the venerable Model T; the Model T is now gone and the .270 Winchester is even more popular today. The .270 Winchester cartridge is actually loaded with .277 inch diameter projectiles one source MidwayUSA offers 77 choices in this diameter to fulfill most any need. It can be loaded with 100-grain bullets for varmints, around 130 grain for whitetail, and 140 – 180 for elk, moose, and bison. Yes, bison, my friend and former student Gary Bond took a bison with a .270 Winchester. The lighter loads have little recoil and are a pleasure to shoot. As the teen or novice builds skill and confidence, loads can be increased with corresponding increase in recoil. The .270 Winchester with 130-grain factory loads is more than capable of taking deer and is still pleasant to shoot. Because it was born from the .30-06, if you are going to get into reloading the .270 Winchester is very cost effective, .270 brass is plentiful and .270 bullets are available on the shelf and again in many weights and configurations. If the novice hunter is hunting in vast open space and rolling hills the flat trajectory and reach of .270 Winchester is a great ammo to have that bolt action rifle chambered in.
.25-06 Remington a Favorite for Many Hunters
“This wildcat also came from a necked down 30-06 cartridge case throated down to fit a .257” bullet. The cartridge is capable of propelling a 117-grain bullet at up to 3,200 ft./s but bullet weights today range from 85 - 120 grain depending on the game you will be hunting. Felt recoil is less than the 30-06 and shooters who are recoil sensitive may find the 25-06 more bearable than the 30-06. The 25-06 is generally considered to be a good round for medium sized game (deer and antelope) but has the energy to take an elk. With all calibers used in hunting, shot placement is the most important factor. Due to its speed and flat trajectory, the caliber is more popular in the plains and western states where hunters have the opportunity to shoot at longer distances. Choosing the right bullet for the hunt is crucial in harvesting the game ethically. Bullets in the 85-grain range can still obtain velocities of approximately 3,700 ft./s while 120-grain bullets can obtain velocities in the 3,000 ft./s range. All of the .25-06 rifles I have seen are bolt action rifles with numerous magazine configurations. My .25-06 is a bolt action with a removable magazine which holds 4 additional rounds for a total of five. That being said, I have rarely used more than one round to harvest an animal due to practicing whenever I can. The 25-06 is currently my “go to” rifle caliber. Non-lead bullets tend to be longer and require a higher rate of twist (1 in 10”) to stabilize in flight.” – Contributed by our friend Gary Brennan
The year was 1895 Grover Cleveland was in the middle of his second term, the movie projector is patented, Charles E Duryea patented a gas-driven automobile and the 1st auto manufacturer opens-Duryea Motor Wagon Company, first pro football game is played, and Winchester markets a rifle chambered in .30 WCF. This was the first small arms ammo to use the new powerful smokeless powder which was a factor in it being the first high-velocity ammo. It was later to be known as the .30-30 and was to become the most popular deer cartridge and feed the Iconic rifle the Winchester 1894 lever rifle and Marlin 1894, both designed by John Browning, it was the first sporting rifle to sell more than 1,000,000. It is said to have killed more deer than any other ammo. In our type of hunting in small mountain saddles in the forest this is what I most often am carrying into the field, a vintage Winchester chambered in .30-30 or .32 WS talked about next.
.25-35 Winchester (.25 WCF)
.32 Winchester Special 1901 Teddy Roosevelt took the office of President, Albert Einstein graduated and started teaching, William McKinley’s second inauguration, Spanish American war ended, Walt Disney and Luis Armstrong were born, Andrew Carnegie offers New York $5.2 Million To Build Libraries, it was 2 years before the Wright Brothers took their first power flight, and Winchester put .32” bullet in a .30-30 case and chambered their Model 1894 to shoot it and make a better elk and bear rifle. However, no matter how much I love this round and the guns that shoot it there are only 3 weights available for it, 160 grain, 170 grain, and now 200 grain. It is becoming a bit more popular there are no firearms currently manufactured chambered for this round though great serviceable used rifles are still available. As I said before this is my go to gun to hunt deer in our small mountain meadows that also have bear.
.308 Winchester / NATO 7.62X51 The .308 Winchester and the nearly equivalent military version NATO 7.62X51 a product of 1952 and officially replaced the .30-06 in the military in 1954 is now one of the most popular big-game cartridges and loads are readily available though the shorter case cannot be loaded with as much powder it is still capable of taking all game in North America. Because the .308 bullet is used in the .30-06 and the .30-30 as well as other popular cartridges there are more choices than any other bullet diameter. Brass and other components are readily available and can be used from varmint to big game. 6.5mm Creedmoor
.243 Winchester is a throated down .308 and designed as a varmint cartridge in 1955. It has become one of the most popular center fire cartridges and is definitely a low recoil ammo. It can comfortably be used for game from white tail deer and smaller. I have never shot it, but I know people that their go to deer gun is chambered in .243 Winchester.
.223 Winchester (nearly equivalent NAT0 5.56X45)
The .223 Winchester came to be in 1963 and the military version in ‘64. Again not a caliber that I have hunted with but it is very popular, though there are a lot of myths circulating about it that it is too light for deer. Its limits are the same as a .243 and .30-30 if hunting under 150 yards, not shooting bigger game this might be a good choice. With weight from 35 to 77 grains.
Hand Gun Ammo, .357, .41 mag, .44-40, .44 mag, and .45 Colt
I would be a hypocrite if I did not mention the lever action rifles chambered in these handgun ammos. .45 Colt is the backbone of our teen shooting program. We shoot this also in the revolvers that we work with the older teens with. We will most likely be adding the .44 mag to our class sets. At the distances we hunt in our forest area, 75 yards and less this ammo loaded as +P would work great for deer for us. If you’re going to carry a sidearm along with the rifle it makes perfect sense to have them chambered in the same ammo. In the 1870s many cowboys carried revolvers and rifles chambered in the .44-40. You may hunt with pistols with a 4-inch barrel or longer.
My Rifle My first big game rifle, the Mauser 98 sporter I made during my apprenticeship in high school, I had it chambered in .30 – 06 Springfield, but rifles are like tater chips you can’t have just one and writing this article has gotten me thinking about my next deer/varmint rifle. The information in this caliber addition was taken from numerous articles and from personal experiences. . If you reside in California, there are numerous non-lead cartridges available but be careful of the rate of twist in the barrel of your gun. . Now go out and make some lasting memories with your kids or grandkids.