When you think "whitetail," you think "adaptability."
With whitetail rifles, think "versatility."
Whitetails are found in thick brush, heavy forests, and deep swamps. Whitetails are also found in prairies, mountains, and on the far side of cultivated fields. Conceiving the perfect rifle for all whitetail under all conditions is a tall order!
In thick cover your grandfather’s fast-handling .30-30 is still a darned good whitetail rig, but it won’t offer the ranging abilities you need in open country. Whether you’re looking across a stubble field in Saskatchewan or a soybean field in Alabama you need more reach. A case can be made for flat-shooting behemoths like the .30-378 Weatherby Magnum. Except the fastest cartridges need extra-long barrels, and they also need considerable gun weight to keep recoil manageable. Long, heavy rifles aren’t pleasant to carry all day. More importantly, they are extremely awkward in a lot of deer stands and blinds. So the fast-stepping magnum can have a place in the wide-open spaces, and the traditional brush gun will never lose its utility in the thick stuff. Neither is truly versatile so neither is a "perfect" whitetail rifle.
If you’re extremely careful about shot placement and don’t over-extend your range, any centerfire cartridge from .22 caliber upwards is adequate for deer hunting. "Ideal" is another story. The size of the animal varies as much as the hunting conditions. The average "eatin’-size" whitetail usually weighs less than 150 pounds-but in many areas a big buck can weigh more than 300 pounds.
In skilled hands 6mm’s from .243 Winchester upwards are extremely effective, but I’m convinced that the 6mm’s light bullets are poorly suited for the largest whitetails. So I think "perfect" deer cartridges start with the faster .25-calibers and work up to about .30 caliber. If a cartridge is fast enough to allow shooting to 300 yards without a lot of holdover, then it will be suitable for at least 99 percent of all shots at whitetails. There are dozens of cartridges that fill the bill.
While there’s no great harm in being "overgunned," no whitetail hunting requires calibers larger than .30. There is also no harm in choosing versatile, flat-shooting magnums, but no whitetail hunting actually requires a magnum cartridge. My personal choice for the most versatile and most perfect whitetail cartridges falls to the veteran triad formed by the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, and .30-06. All are powerful and efficient cartridges that anchor deer up close . . . but also shoot flat enough to handle almost any shot most of us have any business taking. In fairness, a host of other cartridges such as the 7mm-08, 7mm Mauser, .308 Winchester, and magnums up to the .300’s are equally good, and most could be used interchangeably with no difference in effect on game.
To a great extent cartridge choice will dictate action. Bolt actions and single shots are available in almost any cartridge imaginable, but choices are much more limited in lever actions, slide actions, and semiautomatics. My personal preference is the bolt action. Strong, accurate, and reliable, it is also quiet to operate, and (excepting the single shot) is the simplest and easiest to load and unload. You can easily and silently remove the cartridge from the chamber when crawling through a thicket-or when climbing in and out of treestands. The single shot lacks the advantage of a magazine in reserve, but it will be shorter and handier than any repeater with the same barrel length. The other repeating actions are generally slower and noisier to load and unload. But any action type chambered to an adequate cartridge is perfectly suitable for hunting whitetail deer.
Gun Weight and Barrel Length
I’m not crazy about extremely light rifles. They’re harder to hold steady, and most whitetail hunting is not so physically demanding that gun weight is a major issue. On the other hand, still-hunting requires being ready to shoot for hours on end-and treestand hunting often means maneuvering the rifle in awkward positions. So too much gun weight is worse than not enough. The ideal for me is a rifle that weighs about 7 ½ to eight pounds. Most factory hunting rifles fall nicely into this niche.
Overall length is equally important. In open country I tend to like long barrels. They offer more velocity, and a little extra barrel weight makes a rifle steadier to hold, especially when you’re breathing hard. However, long barrels can be a real problem in the close confines of a deer stand. For all-around whitetail hunting 24 inches is the maximum sensible barrel length, and a 22-inch barrel is much better. This is another argument in favor of "standard" hunting cartridges. They do pretty well with shorter barrels, while most magnum cartridges really need at least 24 inches of barrel.
The whitetail rifle should be scoped. This is not so much a matter of distance as it is the scope’s light-gathering capabilities during the critical periods at dawn and dusk. The most popular scope in the world today is a mid-range variable. 3-9X is the perennial favorite, but the utility is about the same between 2.5-8X and 3.5-10X. Scopes in this range are ideal for almost all deer hunting. You can turn the scope all the way down when you’re on a stand in close cover or still-hunting the timber. You can turn it all the way up if you have a shooting opportunity at longer range. Most of the time, if you’re smart, you’ll keep your scope set on about 4X.
You need much more accuracy at 300 yards than you do up close, and if you’re serious about genuine long-range shooting you need all the accuracy you can get. But for most shots at whitetails extreme accuracy is not essential. More important than raw accuracy is the ability to get the rifle into action quickly and confidently, and place that bullet somewhere in the basketball-sized vital zone at whatever range you are comfortable shooting. All rifle actions and all commercial rifles (excepting the occasional "lemon") are capable of enough accuracy for almost all deer hunting. Still, I like accurate rifles because accuracy builds confidence. So my own favorite deer rifles are likely to be bolt actions with good barrels, capable of producing very small groups when I do my part.
My Perfect Whitetail Rifles?
Sorry, I can’t narrow it down to one. I have specialized rifles for close cover, and also for long-range. But for whitetail hunting I’m most likely to reach for one of two .30-06 bolt actions, a wonderfully accurate synthetic-stocked rifle by Kenny Jarrett; and an equally accurate Remington 700 stocked in walnut. Both have 22-inch barrels, wear mid-range variables, and weigh about 7 ¾ pounds. I’ve carried one or the other in almost every whitetail habitat imaginable, and I have great confidence in both. After all, that’s the most important attribute for your perfect deer rifle, whatever it might be.
Many of the fine guns that Cabela's has in their Gun Library are listed online.
Arguably the most experienced hunting writer alive today, Craig Boddington has hunted big game in 29 American states, five Mexican states, and seven Canadian provinces . In addition to his vast North American hunting background, he has been on 46 African safaris and has thoroughly hunted 25 different countries, effectively spanning all six continents.
He currently lives on California’s Central Coast when he’s not away hunting or on duty with the U.S. Marines. His work includes numerous magazine articles as well as 14 books on hunting and shooting (several of which can be obtained through Cabela’s).
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