rec.guns FAQ: VI.E. The Ideal Deer Rifle

VI. Hunting Issues

E. The Ideal Deer Rifle

by Jonathan M. Spencer (

Question: I want to take up deer stalking. I want to buy a rifle purely for deer. Which rifle is the ideal deer rifle?

How many times have we seen this question in rec.hunting? Yup, it's a FAQ. So here is a reasoned answer to that FAQ, providing generalised advice.

I am, of course, open to comment and constructive criticism. If I simply have failed to mention your favourite cartridge, or rifle, then that's just tough. But if I've ommitted something important, or got something plain wrong, please tell me. Implicit in the title is the fact that we are not considering small deer such as muntjac. But also what's good for deer is fine for pronghorn antelope and other similar sized animals too.

I am assuming that a modern centrefire rifle is to be used. The rifle could be bolt action, lever action, self-loading, falling block, or hinged action (like a shotgun). We have to consider what is the (?minimum) set of criteria the rifle has to meet 9not in any order):

  1. sufficiently accurate;
  2. crisp, adjustable trigger;
  3. fits the shooter, is comfortable in the aim;
  4. large enough _calibre_ to fire a heavy enough bullet;
  5. large _cartridge_ to produce a sufficient velocity;
  6. acceptable recoil;
  7. light enough to carry for several hours;
  8. accepts a suitable optical sight.

Some of these are absolute, others are subjective.

This advice is for the average deer stalker and I presume that he (that includes she, of course) is not an especially proficient rifleman, and is hunting under 'real world' conditions. Hence a standing or kneeling shot may be taken. Therefore, I presume shots will only be taken at heart/lung area, and then only broadside on or almost so. For the red, whitetail or mule deer, this means a circular target area of perhaps 8 or 10 inches in diameter.

It seems that most factory rifles are capable of shooting out-of-the-box groups of five at 100 yards to around 2 inches or less. Many seem capable of groups of 1 inch. In terms of shooting deer at distances out to, say 250 yards, pretty much any factory rifle is capable of delivering the accuracy required although it may be necessary to try several brands of ammunition to establish which the rifle likes best. Most factory rifles will produce best accuracy with a bullet that is near the heaviest weight for that type of rifle. For example, a 308 or 30-06 will shoot better with 180 to 200 grain bullets than they will with 110 grain bullets. (The choice of bullet types for deer is the subject of another FAQ.)

In deer stalking, the first (and hopefully only) shot counts. It should be remembered that many rifles do not shoot their first shot from a cold and clean barrel to the same point of impact as from a fouled (or warm) barrel. Therefore you must practice with your rifle to learn how it behaves from a cold and clean barrel -- or make sure you hunt with an already fouled barrel.

This is not a treatise on triggers but some discussion is warrented. I feel it is important that the rifle should have an adjustable trigger for one simple reason if no other: those rifles that do not have adjustable triggers seem to come with triggers that require excessive force to fire them, and for accuracy this is _a_bad_thing_. The Ruger M77 Mk II is a prime example of a non-adjustable heavy trigger. Other brands, such as the Remington 700, Winchester M70, the Sako line of rifles, do have adjustable triggers. You may be able to buy an after market replacement trigger (eg Timney, Jewell) for your rifle, but why should you have to?

So what is the ideal trigger weight? A trigger that is less than 3lbs is liable to be fired unintentionally (I've done it on the range several times) especially with frozen fingers, and is thus danger to those around you for several miles. A trigger weight any more than 5lbs is excessively heavy IMO. A 3 to 3.5lbs trigger is about right.

A trigger should not 'creep', that is, move under finger pressure, any appreciable distance before the firing pin is released. A 'creepy' trigger means that the shooter can never be sure exactly when the rifle is going to fire, and this introduces anticipation or doubt, and this can lead to snatching the trigger or flinching -- both are bad for accuracy. The finger should take up the pressure on the trigger and it should fire at that instant. Some factory rifles come with very crisp triggers (eg Sako) and some come with creepy triggers (eg Brno Mod 2E, Ruger M77 MkII). Of course, it may be possible for a good riflesmith to turn a mediocre trigger into a good trigger, but how much nicer if it comes that way from the factory!

The rifle has to 'fit' the shooter, although this is less critical than in the case of a s/s shotgun it is still important. It you have to stretch or hunch to see through the scope then you won't shoot any good. The American made rifles tend to have straight buttstocks whilst the European made rifles tend to have raised cheek pieces whilst both achieve the same degree of drop at the heel. Some rifle stocks are designed for use with low mounted optical sights, others for use with iron sights. A butt stock made for use with iron sights will leave your cheek unsupported if an optical sight is used. Be sure to handle many variations to find what does or does not fit before handing over your hand earned cash.

It must be remembered that the *rifle* is not the weapon, but is merely the means of delivery. It is the *bullet* which is the weapon. I won't get into a theroretical discussion of 'hydrostatic shock' or any such hoary issue, but we need to consider what parameters can be used to judge what makes a particular cartidge suitable for deer. In this country (England) we are required by law to use a rifle that is not less than .240" in calibre and produces a minimum of 1700ft-lbs at the muzzle. This *could* result in one using a .243 Winchester rifle and 60 grain varmint type bullets pushed at high velocity, which would be an entirely inappropriate choice. So we need to consider more than just calibre and velocity.

The book "White-tailed Deer" by Gary Clancy and Larry R Nelson (1991, Cy Delosse Inc., 128pp, 8.5"x11" (hardback), ISBN 0-86573-036-9, available from the NRA and **well worth** buying) provides some sensible general guidance on suitable calibres & cartridges for deer. (Note that 'calibre' and 'cartridge' are not synonyms.) These authors recommend that "for whitetails, a cartridge should deliver at least 900 ft-lbs of energy at the point of impact". If we accept this general advice, then how do we decide which cartridge should we use to deliver the weapon?

We need to throw a bullet that is heavy enough and fast enough to deliver sufficient energy to damage the deer's vital organs of heart and lungs so that the beast dies quickly. It may be obvious to state, but a bullet cannot deliver more energy than it leaves the barrel with, so we need to launch the bullet with a surplus of energy -- significantly more than the 900ft-lbs. We can consider the choice of the particular bullet in another FAQ but, for now, let us consider the external ballistics issues.

The kinetic energy of a bullet is a function of its mass and velocity. We can produce a given amount of kinetic energy by shooting a light bullet very fast or a heavier bullet somewhat slower. In the case ofdeer, experience over the years has taught that we are best served using a 'medium' calibre rifle firing a 'medium' weight bullet at high velocity. (Here, high velocity means over 2,000fps.) This delivers the required amount of energy in a package (bullet) large enough to dump sufficient energy into the deer whilst providing good trajectories (ie a few inches at most).

Thus, given the audience at whom this FAQ is aimed (pun intentional), we do not want to use a .17 Remington firing a 25 grain bullet at 4,000fps nor do we want to use 45-70 chucking a 350 grain bullet at 1,700fps. (Both are no doubt capable of killing deer, but are they the ideal choice? I say not.)

This leads us to select a calibre somewhere between a 6mm at the lower end of the scale and a .35" towards the upper end of the scale. These will fire bullets between 100 grain (the 6mm rifles), 140 grain (the 6.5mm rifles), 150 grain (the 7mm rifles), to 180 grain (the .308 rifles), and 200 grain (the .35 rifles). It should be noted that there is considerable overlap in these figures. The 6mm cannot fire more than 100-105 gr bullets and the .308 rifles can fire 220 gr bullets.

There are those who say the 6mm rifles are marginal, at best, for deer. This is quite untrue. The 6mm cartridges, such as the 243 Winchester, are more than capable of achieving clean kills on whitetail, mule, and red deer. However, one cannot expect to take 'Texas heart shots' at the south end of a north bound deer and expect a 100 grain 6mm bullet to travel through 4 or 5 feet of flesh and bones. (If this is the sort of shooting you plan on doing then you will need a larger rifle, and heavier stoutly constructed bullets.) However, I also accept that the 243/100 grain combination may not be the best choice for a large muscular red stag or mule buck in prime condition during the rut.

There is a wide range of cartridges available, and factory rifles are chambered for most of them. It's a buyer's market. So which cartridge to choose? Although I am a big fan of the 243 Winchester, I feel that the first time buyer looking for a stalking rifle to use at ranges out to 250 yards is probably wiser selecting a rifle chambered for a larger/heavier cartridge which (dare I say it?) will provide a margin of safety.

I am thus inclined to recommend a medium 6.5-7mm velocity cartridge (i.e. not the 243 Win nor the 7mm or 300 Magnums) to fire a bullet of around 120-140 grains or so at around 2500-2800fps. This sort of performance delivers a trajectory of 2" or so high at 100 yards for a 200 yards zero. Bearing in mind the size of the lethal area on a deer, 8-10", and added to that our factory rifle groups to no more than 2" at 100 yards (or 4-5 inches at 200 yards) this is a very acceptable trajectory. It also delivers 1450+ft-lbs at 200 yards, well above our 900ft-lbs minimum. And recoil is lighter than with the heavier .308 bullets or faster 7mm bullets. (One should remember that in strong winds, drift due to wind has more effect than the bullet drop. You don't beat the wind by buying a Magnum.)

So which cartridge dare I say is ideal, if not 'the' ideal? It should be realised that the reason why manufacturers introduce new cartridges is not to meet some otherwise unsatisfied need or demand, but to encourage the sale of rifles and ammunition, especially the latter. Therefore, it should also be realised that there is a multiplicity of cartridges that can meet any given need. (The same is true of bullets.) Thus, for example, the .30-30 Winchester and the .303 Savage both fire 150 grain bullets at velocities of around 1500fps whilst the 243 Winchester and the 6mm Remington both fire 100 grain bullets at around 3000fps and so on.

I feel that for the quarry and distances under discussion, on grounds of performance, there is absolutely no requirement for a magnum cartridge such as the 7mm Remington Magnum nor the 300 Winchester Magnum. Besides, the ammuntion will be relatively expensive and the gun may recoil unacceptably both of which will lead to lack of practice. (This is aside from issues such as barrel life.)

There are four cartridges which I *would* recommend to the first time buyer looking for a medium range deer rifle. Two of these cartridges essentially mirror each other in performance and which of the two one were to choose is, to a large extent, determined by geography. They are: the 7mm-08 and the 7x57 Mauser. The third is the 257 Roberts, derived from the 7x57. However, the 257 Roberts can fire bullets only up a weight of 120 grains. This is more than enough to cleanly kill deer, but the 6.5x55 Swedish cartridge can fire bullets up to 140 grains with very mild recoil and good ballistics and so it, too, is recommended.

But what if I want an all-round rifle for deer now maybe elk or moose or boar later, what should I buy?

Answer: a 30-06 from any of the major manufacturers will fit the bill.

It's a buyer's market and there should be no problem in finding a rifle chambered for the cartridge of your choice -- whatever that choice may be. Good luck!