The Ultimate Guide to the Best Deer Rifles & Guns

Of all the game animals hunted in this country, none have received more emphasis or attention than deer. Whether it be eastern whitetail, California blacktail or western mule deer, Odocoileus easily outranks all other four-footed game larger than rabbits or squirrels in terms of hunter popularity.

The vast majority of centerfire rifles sold to American sportsmen are purchased primarily with deer in mind. Similarly, many shotguns serve dual duty when deer season rolls around, and sales of ammo loaded with buckshot or rifled slugs soar in the fall and early winter months.

Handgunners also get their share of venison each year, and deer are the favorite target of those nostalgia-invoking riflemen who favor primitive muzzleloaders to newer, more modern armament.

So what is a "deer rifle"? Any rifle suitable for hunting deer would qualify, and some nimrods even refer to their slug-loaded shotguns as "deer rifles" because they throw rifled slugs.

Picture of a Finnish Tikka gun

Finnish Tikka chambered for 6mm Remington is a light, accurate deer rifle with low recoil.

Rifle Calibers and Cartridges

Many different calibers and cartridges are potent enough for use on deer, but some are much better than others. At the low end of the caliber scale, .22 centerfires such as the .223 and .22-250, and even the pipsqueak .17 Remington, have taken deer. For that matter, poachers have used the rimfire .22 long-rifle cartridge in deer woods with great success. Under ideal circumstances, deer can be killed with such cartridges, but that doesn't make them a good choice. A true sportsman owes it to his or her quarry to use a cartridge of adequate power to insure consistent, clean kills even when conditions aren't ideal.

In the hands of a skilled marksman with the patience and necessary woodsmanship to stalk his buck until the range is sure, a .22 centerfire will do the job. Unfortunately, most of us lack the skills and patience to get in close enough to place that tiny slug precisely, every time and without fail. Chances are, we'll be shooting at a running target, or one that's partly obscured by brush or branches. What's more, the range may be closer to 200 yards than 20, and a pounding heart and panting lungs are likely to be detracting from a rock-steady hold.

In other words, deer hunters need a cartridge with enough power to put a 150-lb. (or heavier) animal down when it's hit somewhere in the chest cavity. The bullet must be heavy enough and tough enough to hold together and not simply fragment when it strikes a rib. At the same time, the bullet should be constructed to begin expanding on impact. A projectile that mushrooms to a larger diameter kills more effectively than one that simply passes through an animal unchanged.

Most hunting bullets must strike with a certain amount of force to expand and perform as designed. This means they must be traveling at high velocities. Since a bullet begins slowing down as it leaves the muzzle, you should choose a cartridge case capable of holding enough powder to provide sufficient speed at reasonable distances.

The bullet itself must be heavy enough to do the job. Light bullets shed velocity-and energy-relatively fast, making them poor choices for long-range work. All these facts argue against the use of any .22 centerfire for hunting deer. The lightly constructed 55-grain projectiles thrown by .222, .223 and .22-250 factory loads simply aren't designed for killing deer-size game, and even when heavier 70-grain slugs are substituted by handloaders, these .22's are at a ballistic disadvantage.

At the other end of the scale are those bigbore magnums designed for large, dangerous game. There's certainly nothing wrong with hunting deer with a .375 Holland & Holland Magnum or even a .458 Winchester. These cartridges are adequate-or more than adequate for deer-size game, and from a "clean kill" standpoint they come highly recommended.

However, a rifle designed to stop a charging elephant or kill a half-ton grizzly is likely to generate more recoil than the average deer hunter will tolerate. In addition to being uncomfortable, sometimes bordering on downright unpleasant, heavy recoil promotes flinching and other bad habits not conducive to long-range accuracy.

To help compensate for recoil, rifles chambered for the large, magnum cartridges tend to be considerably heavier than most rifles favored for deer-woods use. This is another reason bigbore magnums aren't highly popular for hunting deer. No one enjoys toting more weight than necessary, and a 10 1/2- or 11 -pound scoped .375 H&H; is simply too much rifle to lug around all day unless you're expecting an African lion or Cape buffalo to charge momentarily.

That brings us to the great "middle ground" of American hunting cartridges, rounds ideally suited for hunting deer-size game. This selection begins with the .243 Winchester and the 6mm Remington, rounds that are virtually identical in performance although Remington's 6mm holds slightly more powder and has the edge when handloaded. These two rounds are offered in factory loads with your choice of 80- or 100-grain weights. Handloaders can choose among a variety of bullets weighing from 75 to 120 grains. For deer, stick with bullets weighing 100 grains or more, and leave the lighter stuff for shooting varmints.

About Ben Bo

I'm a lifelong hunter and woodsman living in Virginia. I love everything about hunting and enjoy taking people on guided hunts. My expertise ranges from deer, to coyote, and everything in between.

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