Editor’s Note: This week I’m trying to answer the question everyone asks at this time of year, “What’s the best deer rifle and bullet for me?” I’ll tell you about some of my favorite deer rifles and why. I’ve also included information from the readers of numerous deer-hunting Facebook groups who’ve answered this question for me. Someone may mention your favorite rifle, as well as others you don’t like. However, remember, this is a look at the various rifles preferred by hunters across the country, who hunt different kinds of terrain. You may be surprised at some of the exotic guns mentioned, but also will find interesting the outdoorsmen who have hunted with the same guns their entire lives. Let me know if this column helps you to decide what deer rifle is best for you or gives you new ideas on a deer-hunting rifle. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I can’t remember a time when I didn’t hunt deer. Even when I was in elementary school, and my home state of Alabama had few deer to hunt in much of the state, due to the Great Depression of the 1930s when people wiped out much of the herds for food, our neighbors across the street (the Shipman boys) and their dad had a pack of deer dogs and a place to hunt them. My family would go deer hunting every Saturday during the season with them. Back then, rifles were pretty much taboo in Alabama. As one huntmaster told our group, “Taking a buck with one of those high-powered deer rifles just ain’t sporting. That poor old buck gets out of his bed, goes to get something to eat and never knows there’s a hunter in the woods, until he’s dead. Those darn deer rifles can shoot a mile or more and kill somebody you can’t even see. But when you put a pack of hounds in the woods, that buck knows there’s trouble coming and realizes he needs to get out of the woods quickly, while dodging the shotgun hunters trying to take him. Now, boys, that’s sporting.”
Attitudes about hunting and what’s sporting and not sporting as well as hunting tactics have changed drastically in the last 50-60 years. In the South where dogging deer once was king, we’ve seen a huge reduction in the number of dog deer-hunting clubs. When I decided to try to become an outdoor writer, I asked a friend of mine who traded guns, “Will you get me one of those high-powered deer rifles with a telescopic sight and a sling? I will pay $150 for it.” My friend said, “You’re not going to get much of a deer rifle for $150.” I told him, “That’s okay, since I’m not much of a deer rifle shooter.” About a month later, my friend brought me this old rifle with a scope and a sling, “And I got you a box of ammunition to go with the deal,” my friend said. The box of ammunition was really an ammo canister with a lot of loose ammunition in it.
“Why does that rifle have two triggers?” I asked. The only gun with two triggers I knew about was a double-barreled shotgun. My friend explained, “That’s called a set trigger.” Then I asked, “Does that make it better than a rifle with only one trigger?” My friend assured me that it did and showed me how to operate the set trigger. Since the rifle didn’t have a name on it, I asked, “What kind of rifle is this?” My friend answered, “It’s a .30-06 that’s made in one of those European countries.” I said, “Okay, I’ll take it.”
The first time I took my high-powered deer rifle with the telescopic scope on it hunting, I went on a hog hunt in South Carolina. All the hunters were asked to take their rifles out to the rifle range and sight them in. I took my ammo box out to the rifle range and started shooting my rifle. Each time before I took a shot, I’d set the back trigger and just barely touch the front trigger, and the ole rifle would fire. The only place I didn’t hit the target was in the center. Bullet holes were all over that piece of paper, and some shots didn’t even hit the paper. Finally, one of the guides who was watching all of us shoot said, “Let me shoot that gun.” I gladly obliged, presuming he was a much better shot than me. However, after firing three shots, his bullets were hitting all over the paper too with no resemblance of a pattern. “Let me see your ammunition,” the guide said. I handed him the ammo box. Then the guide told me, “Here’s your problem. You’ve got armor-piercing ammunition in all different sizes of bullets and weights of powder. I can’t find any two bullets in this can that are alike.” “Is that bad?” I asked. The guide looked at me, smiled and said, “It’s not good. You stay here. I’m going to run to town and buy you a box of bullets that are just alike. Then I think we’ll be able to sight in this rifle.” Once the guide returned to the rifle range, he put those new bullets in my old high-powered deer rifle and sighted in the scope with three shots. When he fired the next three shots, you could cover the bullet holes with a quarter.
I learned plenty about deer rifles that day. I quickly realized that my new deer rifle with a telescopic scope and sling could shoot better than I could. Over the years, I’ve learned to shoot better. That gun, which I eventually learned was a Mannlicher .30-06 made prior to World War II, harvested numbers of deer and made me look like I knew what I was doing. I still consider that gun one of my favorite deer rifles.
When I asked deer- hunting Facebook groups, “In your opinion, what’s the best hunting rifle – caliber and make – for taking deer and why?” Here’s what I learned.
* Michael Talton – “Would be hard to make an argument against the Winchester or Marlin lever action .30-30. Probably taken more deer than any other rifles. I personally like my Ruger No. 1 in .25-06.
* Clint Ludlam – I love my Ruger .25-06!
* Jerry Harkins – More important than any caliber gun would be bullet placement. Personally, I shoot a Browning BLR 7mm-.08 with 140 grain Hornady Magnum. By taking your time and putting the bullet where it’s supposed to be, I never ever have had a deer run. I’ve have shot 100-pound does behind their shoulders with a .300 Weatherby Mag, and they’ve run hundreds of yards before they die.
* Bill Henson – .308 Ruger w/Winchester Ballistic tip…..one shot and done!..
* Josh and Majesta Stinson – I love my Savage .270 WSM. Ammo is a little high, but the farthest I have had one run is 30 yards. It’s all personal preference though.
* Bill Henson – My grandkid (10 years old) shoots a Ruger American .300 Blackout. The rifle only weights 6-1/2 pounds, and he is four for four. Last one was a nice 8 point at 118 yards.
* Zack Roberson – I shoot a .243 Remington, shooting 95 grain. It’s a great gun.
* Coby Wiginton – .308 Hornady 168 grain.
* Mark Baty – Remington 700 stainless synthetic .25-06.
* Danny Newman – Remington .30-06 with a Remington 150 grain Core-Lokt bullet. I have killed deer out to 400 yards with no problem
* Tres Parker – 7mm-08. I shoot a .300 Win Mag, which is a huge overkill. My next rifle will be that. My wife shoots one, and when she doesn’t go deer hunting, I take it. No recoil, shoots flat and true. Can find ammunition anywhere. Just a dang good caliber.
* Bennie Morrison – In my humble opinion, .308 Winchester. More variety than any other round. Can load light grain, and make fast or heavy to hit like a hammer. Can lighten the charge and virtually eliminate the recoil, which ain’t bad anyway
Alabama Deer Hunters:
* David Bloomer – It’s hard to beat my Steyr Pro Hunter mountain rifle in 7mm-08, because it’s so versatile. I can shoot good distances with minimal recoil, and it shoots a 140-grain bullet, so it has decent knockdown power. I also can let my son shoot it as well. I own many calibers – 7mag, .300 win, .300 wsm, .270 win, .270 wsm, but the 7mm-08 is the most versatile. I really love the short barrel for stalking and tree stand hunting.
* Matthew Pylant – I use a Marlin .30-30 with Win 150 Grain Ballistic tip. Gun was passed down from my grandpa.
* Rodney White – I’m not going to the woods without my 7mm. I love its knockdown power, and the fact that when you shoot deer with it, 99.9% of the time, they won’t take another step.
* Kevin Burt – .30-06, .280, .308…. All good. Winchester $ for $.
* Kerry Teague – .30-06. You can pick up shells anywhere, and it’s a good all-around gun.
* John Thomas – .308 extent take down power plus long range shot are easy for the .308.
* John Holifield – At least .30 caliber, .308 or .30-06. .30-06 may be a bit too much rifle for a lot of typical deer hunting, but that gun will drop deer on the spot.
* Byron Chapman – I hunted with a .30-30 for years. It’s a good gun, but you need to be sure and get a clean shot. With the .30-06, you can hit a deer in the big toe, and they will go down. lol!
* Wade Dunn – Not a .338 magnum. Most will say that’s overkill, but in fact, it’s a poor choice in a whitetail rifle. I have and use one elk hunting, and it’s devastating on elk but not deer. I will use it on one stand because of distance and the rifle scope set-up, but not my first choice.
* Chris Gone-hunting – Depends on where you are hunting. The best rifle for hunting open plains is not the best rifle for hunting heavy brush. If you are looking for a good all-purpose rifle, the Remington 700 in .308 can’t be beat. It has won the competitions at Camp Perry, at distances of 1,000+ yards, and can use a 180-grain bullet for heavy brush. The bolt action is accurate and reliable.
* Josh Howard – .300 mag. Don’t have to track them!
* John Pierce – What about the 6.5?
* Chipper Galloway – Savage .270 bolt action is a good gun. It’s not too light and not too heavy, but a great gun.
* David Bond – Scout .308 / .223 Rem. 700.
* Brittney Franklin Brasher – I’ve had all kinds from Remington to Thompson Centers. Nothing, in my opinion, will beat my Mossberg 100 ATR .30-06. I love the Accutrigger, and the caliber is the best for taking deer in my opinion.
* Koda McBride – To me, the .30-06 is a good choice for deer. I’ve loaded it anywhere from 110 grains to 200 grains. I prefer to use 180 grain round nose with it though. As far as the gun goes, it really depends on what you like, and what fits you. For me, that gun is an Encore. However, I do like the Remington 700 and the Ruger M77.
* Ron Crowe – Remington 700 in .300 Winchester Magnum – Crisp light trigger, glasses through a Nikon Buckmaster 3-9×50 and DRT!!! Puts the Meat in the freezer and/or bone on the wall.
I want to thank all of you who responded to my question. I’m sorry that space didn’t allow me to use everyone’s comments. Thanks again for your help.
To learn more about deer hunting, go to for John E. Phillips’ Kindle, Create Space and Audible books at johninthewild.com/books/#deer and to www.barnesandnoble.com for Nook books. For a free download on how to make jerky, visit johninthewild.com/free-books.