As this month's assignments were divvied up, I was relieved to draw "The Ultimate Mule Deer Rifle" article. It is a pretty easy assignment compared to the daunting task of defining "The Ultimate Whitetail Rifle". Think about it, whitetails can be found about anywhere in the US. Their terrain is so diversified, it is next to impossible to say one rifle is perfect for all situations. Mule deer habitat on the other hand is pretty standard. I would bet that over 90% of mule deer are shot in either open country or rugged mountains. Albeit, there are some exceptions, in fact I have even hunted mulies in areas that were more akin to whitetail stomping grounds than to mulies. Exceptions aside, mule deer like open vistas, rocky hillsides and waving grasslands. This similarity between areas makes selecting the "perfect rifle" an easier task.
Is There Such a Thing as "The Perfect Rifle"?
Pick up any outdoor magazine and it is easy to find an article on the "perfect" something whether it is rifle, pistol or shotgun. In my humble opinion, I don't think "perfect" exists-at least not for every person. Everyone has too many different preferences, personal tastes, likes and dislikes to ever have one perfect rifle for everyone. However, some choices are better than others and this article is designed to give you a starting place to find a rifle that is perfect for you.
If you are looking to purchase a rifle for a specific task, and it doesn't matter if the task is stopping a charging elephant or sniping distant prairie dogs, several questions must be asked. I have ranked these questions in the order of importance to me; your own desired features in a rifle may differ in importance. For example, some people put overall weight as their primary objective, or accuracy or maybe they are recoil sensitive. In any case, the questions remain the same-it is just the order that differs.
What Caliber to Choose?
Many different sub-questions have to be answered in order to accurately answer this main question. Since mule deer can be a relative large bodied animal, a reasonably stout cartridge should be used. This eliminates most calibers on the smaller spectrum and leaves calibers from .243 to .460 Weatherby. Since mule deer are often encountered in open country or across deep canyons, shots can often be around 350 to 400 yards. For this reason, a flat trajectory is a must. In my opinion, this eliminates all calibers with a muzzle velocity less than 2,700 fps.
The next series of questions regarding caliber choice are of a more personal nature. How much does the ammo cost, do you reload, is the ammo available locally, how recoil sensitive are you? These are all questions that help create your own perfect rifle and can only be answered by yourself.
Personally, I do reload so cost of ammo is not a huge factor and availability is not as much of an issue (however, I always keep in mind the possibility of losing my reloads and having to buy ammo at a local store).
I am fortunate that recoil does not overly bother me at the range or in the field, so my caliber selection is not hindered. For mule deer, I prefer either a .300 win mag or a .270. Both have about the same trajectory, but the .300 packs a bit more downrange energy and is affected less by wind than the .270.
What model of rifle?
Accuracy is especially important in a mule deer rifle, as the shots can lean towards the long side. You may ask yourself, "isn't accuracy always important?" Reasonable accuracy is, but not to the extent needed in a mule deer rifle. If you traditionally hunt whitetails in thick river bottoms, an open sighted, lever action may just be the ticket. It is fast to shoulder and provides a quick follow-up shot. The fact that it may only shoot 3-4 inch groups at 100 yards is of little consequence when your farthest shot is 50 yards.
But for a mule deer rifle, Minute of Angle (MOA) accuracy is the minimum I feel confident with and given the choice, I prefer better then this. Minute of Angle is a unit of degrees that is used to express roughly and inch at 100 yards, this cone increases with distance. For example a MOA rifle should theoretically be able to place 5 shots (the number of shots varies by individual but I personally feel 5 is a good number) within 1 inch at 100 yards, 2 inches at 200 yards 3 inches at 300 yards (MOA does not exactly equal an inch per 100 yards but it is close enough that most people use this definition).
MOA accuracy is all that is really needed to cleanly harvest a mule deer out to any range an average hunter should ethically be shooting. Sub-MOA rifles (groups smaller than 1" at 100 yards) are not technically needed but are a great confidence booster when a long shot presents itself.
With these accuracy requirements in mind, most lever actions, pumps and semi-autos can be eliminated. While there are some exceptions, bolt action rifles, will be the most accurate, versatile choice.
Size and weight
Size and weight does play a part in a mule deer rifle. You don't generally need a fast handling rifle for a quick shot, but I do prefer a lightweight rifle for ease of carrying. I have spent many days from before light till after dark hiking over some of the roughest country imaginable and a heavy rifle gets heavier with every step.
I prefer barrels in the 24-inch range for easy carrying, but in some of the over-bored magnum's you have to have at least 26-inches to wring the added velocity from the cartridge. Just because you are looking for a long-range rifle, don't be fooled into believing a longer barrel contributes to better accuracy-it does not. In fact, shorter barrels usually produce tighter groups than longer barrels due to their stiffer nature. Longer barrels do give more velocity (the amount per inch is dependant upon the cartridge and load) which can translate to a flatter trajectory but not tighter groups.
I like walnut stocks and blued steel but for a lightweight rifle that can take the abuse of rugged country and a few spills that are so often encountered while mule deer hunting, I prefer stainless steel and synthetic stocks. Should you fall and the stainless get scratched, it doesn't show as badly, can easily be repaired and doesn't become a problem rust spot. Synthetic stocks can also take more abuse than a wood stock and minor nicks and scratches don't show up like they do on wood.
Optic selection should match the rifle. Since a majority of your shots will be at longer ranges I like a high power variable. However, there are times when you will jump a buck out of his bed and too high of a magnification can be a problem. For this reason, I prefer variables in the 3.5-10 range or 4-14. Both can be cranked down for when you are walking, in case you surprise a buck, but for those long shots can be cranked up to higher powers for a detailed view.
For a dedicated mule deer rifle, I am very fond of the Rifles Inc. Strata. Based on a Remington Model 700 action, mated to a Dan Lilja barrel, this rifle weighs a feathery 4 3/4 pounds in .300 win mag. (with the integral muzzle break, the recoil is about the same as a standard .270) and is still extremely accurate. These rifles are a work to behold. Every bit of non-crucial metal has been removed or vented. The actions are trued and smoothed, completing the feel of a true custom rifle. They lack little in the way of accuracy as well and will usually shoot significantly better than MOA.
If a standard factory rifle is more in your cards, it is hard to beat the accuracy and weight of the Weatherby Ultra-Lightweight. It is offered in a variety of calibers and weighs in at 5 3/4 pounds. The laminated Kevlar stock is rugged and the aluminum bedding block ensures shot to shot consistency.
The scope I would pick to go on either of these rifles would be either the Leopold 4.5x - 14x with a 50-mm objective or the Cabela's Alaskan Guide 4.5x-14x with a 50-mm objective. They weigh 16.6 and 18.7 ounces respectively. Either is rugged enough and gathers enough light to be the perfect mule deer scope-all at a weight that will not weigh you down by the end of the day.
While it is not always possible to have the perfect rifle for many different species, it is possible to have a perfect mule deer rifle that fits your needs exactly. If you make your choice correctly this same rifle will also pull double duty as a great all around rifle for a variety of species.