The terrain you hunt determines the kind of deer hunting you will do and what calibre and type of rifle you use. If you intend to hunt in wooded country and brush you have no need of a long- range rifle with high-power scope. Moreover, the geography may also dictate the way you hunt; some methods of hunting are more productive in certain kinds of terrain but are seldom worthwhile in others. The term “deer rifle” then is too all-embracing.
For example, in wooded country still-hunting is the method favoured by most hunters. This done by pussyfooting along a trail, moving only a sort distance at a time before stopping to take a good look all around. Another method is to sit quietly on stand near a deer trail. The idea is to find a likely spot before dawn and ambush the deer as they return from a feeding area to bed down.
Translating this into gun terms, you will have scant use for a .300 Magnum rifle with a high-power scope. On the other hand, with a rifle ideal for woods hunting, like a .30-30 carbine, you’d be undergunned for a 300 metre shot in open country. Some deer are found in what we call “brush country” where shots are rarely more than 50 metres and almost never more than 100 metres. This means you can choose any rifle that will deliver “hunting accuracy” and with a lever-action rifle this is usually defined as groups of 3 inches at 100 yards or metres.
The “mountain deer rifle” embraces two types of hunting – close- range and long-range. While you must be equipped for the latter, the rifle of necessity must be a compromise in that it should be light enough to carry in steep terrain without fatiguing the hunter. It must also perform well at long range and yet be handled fast enough to prove itself on a close and unexpected shot if you should jump a deer from its bed. We might actually call this an “all-around” deer rifle.
This type of rifle comes into its own when a deer is spotted across a gully or over an open mountainside where a flat-shooting rifle is appropriate. This is common in areas like Water Valley and red deer range in Queensland where one can often see a lot farther. The mountain hunter will sometimes be presented with a shot as far as he can shoot and be sure of scoring a clean kill. If the deer is far enough away to make a sure kill uncertain he should try to stalk closer to make a telling shot, that’s what hunting is really all about. In the majority of cases, however, it’s simply a matter of sizing up the animal, measuring the distance with your laser rangefinder and making a careful shot.
Your rangefinder will let you know if the deer is too far away to shoot at. I hold no brief for the hunter who goes afield armed with a super magnum fitted with a high-range variable-power tactical scope with the intention of shooting his game at 1000 yards-plus. That may be fine for a military sniper but his skills have been honed far beyond the capabilities of those of the average hunter.
Most popular mountain rifles are chambered for cartridges in the .270 Winchester class and carry scopes in the popular 2-8x and 3-9x sizes with a Duplex-type reticle. There have been scopes designed with various rangefinding reticles built in. Usually these are variables so you can move a pair of stadia wires closer together or farther apart to bracket a deer precisely 3 feet high, then read the range from a scale that appears in the scope. These are called BDC (Bullet Drop Compensator) reticles, but how do you know the deer is exactly 3 feet high? Maybe he’s standing in tall grass or brush. Maybe he’s a small deer or a giant. Unless you know all these things this BDC gadget is useless.
Another design employs cams in the scope’s adjustment to compensate for long range. In use, you first zero the scope for 100 yards. Then, using the appropriate cam you can turn the elevation dial to 200 yards and be on at that distance. You can do the same thing out to 500 yards. This is fine if – and it’s a big if – the cam is precisely right for the cartridge your rifle chambers. Undoubtably the most precise scopes are those with an integral laser rangefinder to measure the range and a reticle that allows a dead-on hold. The Burris Eliminator is most impressive, but a bit too big and bulky for a mountain rifle.
Gimmicks aren’t really necessary on a deer rifle. A flat shooting cartridge combined with a basic scope, sighted-in for the longest point blank range allows precisely placed shots out to 300 yards and that’s about as far as the average deer hunter should be be shooting at game from any field position.
That’s a long shot that should only be taken by a man who knows his rifle and can shoot it, and has it properly sighted in. Very few hunters are capable of shooting at ranges beyond 300 yards, only a skilled marksman should take a shot at 400, and then only when every condition is right.
This is all very well and good, except that you must find out what degree of accuracy your rifle can deliver. You must sight-in your own rifle in order to find out what it will do in your hands. This should be done from a bench rest using a rifle rest or sand bags making sure you everything exactly the same for each shot fired – the same pressure against the stock, the same grip, the same cheek contact and so forth. It is essential to strive for absolute consistency, because the rifle will begin to recoil before the bullet leaves the barrel, and the way the rifle is handled in recoil has an effect upon the bullet’s flight.
A three shot group is plenty for any deer rifle, because light barrels tend to heat up in firing. Any light sporter that puts three shots closely together will be an effective deer rifle; you don’t need a five-or-ten shot group to kill a deer.
Rifles used for woods hunting used to be sighted in to hit point of aim at 100 yards. In most cases this allowed shooting at any deer by holding dead-on within about 150 yards. But today the old standards for leverguns have been surpassed, and the range of woods rifles has been extended by Hornady’s LeverEvolution ammunition and faster, more potent cartridges like the .308 and .338 Marlin Express, both of which provide bolt-action performance in Marlin leverguns.
For our largest deer species, the .338 Marlin Express shoots a pointed 200gn bullet at 2565fps and at 100 yards delivers as much punch as the heavier 325gn .450 Marlin. If your criterion for a deer cartridge is 1000 ft/lb of energy, the .338 Marlin Express delivers 1469 ft/lb at 400 yards against 1197 ft/lb for the 160gn .308 Marlin Express! That’s surely enough for sambar – if you hit ‘em right!
Woods rifles frequently are fired in heavy cover and brushy conditionsgivingrise to the term “brush-busting.” Rifles shooting big, fat slow-moving bullets are claimed to be good brush busters. They supposedly are able to plough in a straight line through twigs, branches and foliage amd still hit a deer.
This is pure fallacy. Bullets must have an unrestricted path to the target or they are going to be deflected and not hit. Trying to shoot through brush is stupid. Light, fast bullets will usually fragmentate when they hit a twig or branch, and even the heavy 500gn .458 bullet will suffer some deflection.
This supports the argument for mounting a scope on a levergun for deep-woods hunting. It will allow you find a gap in brush and sneak a bullet through it. A scope for this kind of woods hunting should be of low power as ranges are generally short. It also offers the advantage of allowing you to see better at dawn and dusk, often when you can’t see iron sights.
Is there such a thing as an “all-round” deer rifle? Sure. Any rifle can qualify as long as it’s used within its limitations. It’s perfectly acceptable to use one rifle (as long as it’s right for you) for all your deer hunting no matter where you hunt. But always aim to make the first shot count and do not depend on follow-up shots. That ought to put meat in the pot and antlers on the wall for you.