The Modern Whitetail Rifle


The grand old 7x57 is one of my favorites for whitetails. It is not ideal in the most open country, but at our place in Kansas there are no shots it can’t handle.
The grand old 7×57 is one of my favorites for whitetails. It is not ideal in the most open country, but at our place in Kansas there are no shots it can’t handle.

The buck came in from my right, almost invisible, and tended a scrape behind a screen of trees for several minutes before stretching his neck forward. I am not by nature a “neck shooter,” but by that time I was nearing cardiac arrest. As soon as I had a clear view of his rut-swollen neck, I shot him, and he died in his scrape.

This was on my little place in Kansas. Although I hesitate to call it great, it’s good whitetail country. I’ve been there eight years, and I’ve been lucky (and not always picky); Kansas is a one-buck state, and I’ve taken a buck every season. That 2015 buck was taken with an LAW Model 704 in .280 Remington, mounted with a Leupold 4.5-14X. In most Kansas seasons I’ve used a favorite deer rifle, my Todd Ramirez 7×57…but scattered in there have been an AR-10 in .308 and my trusty old Rifles, Inc. .300 Weatherby.

The old 7×57 isn’t exactly a long-range cartridge…but that’s not the point. My 2014 buck, taken with the .280, was less than 30 yards. I have one field that offers a 340-yard shot, but most of my country—like a lot of whitetail country—is thick timber. In other places I’ve taken some long shots at whitetails, but in my country the longest shot I’ve ever taken was in that field. The deer, some does followed by a nice buck, split the difference and came into the middle. I think that shot was possibly 125 yards…and that’s the longest shot I’ve taken there. Nothing else has been even beyond 100 yards. I have always used a scoped rifle…but I’ve never used its full capabilities. I’ve had no shot that couldn’t have been taken with an open-sighted .30-30.

Caroline Boddington used her Ruger 7mm-08 to take this Texas whitetail. The 7mm-08 is a perfect choice for youngsters and ladies…and not a bad whitetail rifle for anyone.
Caroline Boddington used her Ruger 7mm-08 to take this Texas whitetail. The 7mm-08 is a perfect choice for youngsters and ladies…and not a bad whitetail rifle for anyone.

I would submit that my old 7×57 is a pretty good whitetail cartridge. Likewise the almost identical 7mm-08 Remington. The .308, whether in AR or any other action, is also a fine whitetail cartridge. I would accept, however, that I was grossly overgunned with my .300 Weatherby Magnum. Honest, I can’t exactly recall why I was using it in that particular season. Although I’ve used that rifle a lot here and there, that is the only time I’ve employed it in Kansas…but of course it worked.

Neighbor Chuck Herbel and I pool our land for a small outfitting operation. Since most of our shooting could be easily handled by a .30-30 (or a slug gun) I don’t make specific recommendations as to what rifles our guests might bring. It isn’t that it doesn’t matter; it’s more that almost anything will work! To date no one has brought an open-sighted rifle. Fixed-power scopes are rare; I saw a fixed 4X scope last season, the first I recall. Most, obviously, are variables, with 3-9X a good average. Note that, this past season, when I was in the timber and had that buck at 30 yards, I had my 4.5-14X turned down all the way!

I haven’t kept proper track of the rifles our hunters have brought into deer camp, however, there are two things I am sure of: Everyone has used a scoped rifle; and no one has brought a .30-30. Again, a Winchester ’94 or Marlin 336 would do just fine in our country, but we’ve never seen either. Instead, we have seen almost entirely bolt-actions except for one single shot, and two or three semi-autos. The most popular cartridge has been the .30-06, followed by the .270 Winchester.

SCI Regional Field Rep Mike Hagen used his .300 Winchester Magnum to take this ancient whitetail buck. You don’t need a .300 for whitetails, but if it gives you confidence then that’s what you should choose.
SCI Regional Field Rep Mike Hagen used his .300 Winchester Magnum to take this ancient whitetail buck. You don’t need a .300 for whitetails, but if it gives you confidence then that’s what you should choose.

This past year yielded an incredible surprise. In the last few seasons we’ve seen a couple of .300 Winchester Short Magnums, but in 2014 we had three .270 WSMs in camp, almost a quarter of our total hunters. There have also been 7mm Remington and .300 Winchester Magnums. Necessary? No. Do they work? You bet!

CARTRIDGES

The trend toward fairly quick-stepping general purpose cartridges is obvious. Only recently has the .22 centerfire become legal in Kansas, and while I’ve used them elsewhere, we haven’t yet seen one on our place. I’d just as soon not! With heavier bullets they are unquestionably effective, and with almost no recoil are conducive to good shot placement, essential no matter what, but especially when the caliber and bullet are on the light side for the game. This is

Left to right, 7mm-08 Remington, 7x57 Mauser, .308 Winchester, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .30-06. To my thinking these are the “best of the best” whitetail cartridges. Most versatile of all are the .270 and .280 because they shoot a bit flatter than the rest.
Left to right, 7mm-08 Remington, 7×57 Mauser, .308 Winchester, .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .30-06. To my thinking these are the “best of the best” whitetail cartridges. Most versatile of all are the .270 and .280 because they shoot a bit flatter than the rest.

especially problematic in thick cover, where getting the perfect shot presentation is pure luck. The lightest cartridge I’ve seen in use there is the .243 Winchester, certainly a fine deer cartridge and a good starting point. The largest was a .40-caliber wildcat used by my friend Ed Segar, “just because.” We’ll throw that one out, and that leaves my .300 Weatherby as the heaviest cartridge we’ve seen used.

Of course, I don’t just hunt whitetails in Kansas. This year I also hunted in Georgia and Texas, and in other seasons I’ve hunted whitetails in a bunch of places. In both Texas and Georgia I used an LAW in .300 Winchester Magnum. Of course it worked…but I’m a gunwriter, so what I use for business purposes isn’t necessarily what I recommend! I’ve written this before, and I still believe it: There is very little whitetail hunting (if any) that actually requires a magnum cartridge!

Let’s understand, too, that there is a big difference between meat hunting and trophy hunting. If you’re after venison, you can be a bit pickier about your shot. If you’re after the biggest deer in the woods, you sorta need to take him when you see him! So I think of the .22 centerfires and 6mms as ideal venison gatherers but a bit light for hunting big bucks. On the other hand, whitetails vary considerably in size from place to place. The .25-06 is wildly popular among Texas whitetail hunters, and under their conditions it really is almost perfect. The deer are relatively small-bodied, and a lot of stands look down those endless senderos. Texas hunters need a flat-shooting cartridge, but their deer don’t require a cannon. The .25-06 is a fine choice…but I’m not sure I’d recommend it for Alberta or Saskatchewan, where shots can also be long and the deer get huge.

Donna Boddington and Michael DeWitt with a Texas buck taken with her MGA in .270 Winchester. The .270 is awesome for a lot of hunting, and it’s a great choice for whitetails.
Donna Boddington and Michael DeWitt with a Texas buck taken with her MGA in .270 Winchester. The .270 is awesome for a lot of hunting, and it’s a great choice for whitetails.

In my part of Kansas I reckon my old 7×57 and the ballistically identical 7mm-08 Remington are just about perfect, but if you wanted to use a .308 Winchester I certainly wouldn’t argue. None, however, shoot flat enough for my taste for general use. My personal favorite general-purpose cartridge remains the .30-06, and of course it’s a wonderful whitetail cartridge. However, there are places where you may need a bit more reach…and, honestly, no whitetail ever fawned actually requires a .30-caliber. So let’s keep the .30-06 as the parent case and neck it down to either .277 or .284. I reckon the two best all-around whitetail cartridges, suitable for almost anywhere, are the .270 Winchester and .280 Remington. The .270, long championed by Jack O’Connor, is wildly popular. The .280 is more of a cult cartridge. It has its notable champions, including Jim Carmichel, but it is not nearly as popular. The .270 shoots a bit flatter; the .280 with heavier bullets and more frontal area hits a bit harder. Take your pick!

Is there anything wrong with shooting a magnum? Certainly not. You need to shoot an adequate cartridge that gives you confidence, and being overgunned is not a major sin. It also depends on where and how you hunt. Kenny Jarrett created a business and a legend with his “Beanfield Rifle.” This was a different sort of whitetail rifle, a bit heavy and super-accurate, intended for reaching out across southern soybean fields. The majority of his rifles today are a bit lighter, but while, as a custom maker, he will cut a chamber to darn near anything, the majority of his rifles are fast 7mm and .30-caliber cartridges. The concept works, as do the cartridges. I’m actually playing with a Jarrett “Ridge Walker” in .300 Winchester Magnum right now, and, as I said, I hunted in both Texas and Georgia this year with an LAW in the same cartridge. In neither state did I draw a shot that justified the capability, but there’s nothing wrong with having it if it makes you feel good. Heck, having it makes me feel good! I see a lot of whitetail hunters carrying fast magnums from .270 to .30, so this is clearly a trend, but I remain convinced that magnum cartridges are not required for whitetail hunting.

OPTICS

Another trend is toward bigger and better scopes. This is a trend I fully support. The whitetail is one animal where the first and last few minutes of shooting light are often critical. Unless you hunt really open country, extreme magnification isn’t necessary, but a good, clear scope that gathers plenty of light certainly is! Larger objective lenses help, but there are two things to keep in mind: First, quality of lenses and coatings are more important than the size of the glass. Second, all things being equal (such as quality!), a 30mm tube gathers more light than the American standard one-inch tube.

Under most conditions our perennial favorite 3-9X scope (or 3.5-10X and similar) is plenty of power for whitetail hunting, but the newer scopes with greater zoom capability offer a lot of flexibility. I usually don’t scope a rifle just for whitetail hunting…as I mentioned, the .280 I used this season wore a 4.5-14X with one-inch tube; the .300 wore a VX6 2-12X, equally versatile and, with a 30mm tube, capable of gathering quite a bit more light. However much power you have, the real trick is remembering to keep the darned thing turned down unless you really need the magnification. With whitetails most of the time you don’t!

ACTIONS

A Doug Turnbull AR in .308 Winchester accounted for this eight-pointer. In any action the .308 is a great whitetail cartridge, suitable for anything except the most open country.
A Doug Turnbull AR in .308 Winchester accounted for this eight-pointer. In any action the .308 is a great whitetail cartridge, suitable for anything except the most open country.

For generations, the lever-action was the classic American deer rifle. Undoubtedly there are still millions of .30-30s by Winchester and Marlin in the field. There are many places, including my farm, where they remain perfectly suitable but, oddly, today there is a dearth of lever actions -chambered to truly versatile cartridges. The Savage 99, Winchester 88 and Sako Finnwolf are long gone; today the Browning BLR stands alone as a lever-action chambered to cartridges that I consider versatile enough for “all conditions” whitetail hunting.

Today what I see the most in the deer woods is the bolt-action, but it isn’t altogether a bolt-action world. In semi-autos only the Browning BAR and long-action Sauer are commonly chambered to truly versatile cartridges, but NEMO offers an upsized AR-10 in .300 Winchester Magnum. In slide-actions we have the traditional Remington and the reverse-action Krieghoff Semprio. Single-shots can be chambered to almost anything, and there are several very fine choices, from the Dakota Model 10 at the top end down through the Ruger Number One to the Thompson/Center.

On average, bolt-actions are probably the most accurate, but only in extremely open country does whitetail hunting require extreme accuracy. So I’m not going to make a suggestion as to the best action. To me it’s more important that the rifle be chambered to a cartridge that will work equally well in darkening timber…or across a soybean or wheat field. Provided you are familiar with the rifle and it gives you confidence, choice of action is pretty much up to you.

THE PERFECT WHITETAIL RIFLE?

Our whitetail is the most populous large game animal on Earth, numbering something over 35 million. However, our whitetail is avidly pursued by some 10 million American deer hunters, so he is the most hunter-educated animal on Earth. Part of what is fascinating about whitetails is there isn’t any animal more difficult to hunt, especially if we’re talking about mature bucks that have survived five or six hunting seasons. If you see such a buck, you want to be able to take him, whether up close or far away. That’s really the rub: A short, fast-handling “brush rifle” may be perfect in thick timber…but may be completely outclassed if you need to reach out.

So there probably isn’t a perfect whitetail rifle suitable for all conditions. Compromises must be made, and while the reverse may not be true, an accurate, flat-shooting rifle can be used up close and personal if necessary. Provided just one thing that we haven’t touched on, but is extremely important: Whatever you choose, the rifle must fit you. It must come up fast and smooth and on target. You must practice with it so that snicking the safety as you raise the rifle is second nature. And, since none of us are perfect all the time, whatever action you choose, maybe you’d better practice with a full magazine so that second shot comes just as naturally as the first! Shots at whitetails can be deliberate at longer ranges…or can come as a surprise, up close and fast. So don’t forget to keep your scope turned down!–Craig Boddington

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