The right deer rifle

Brad Allen

I suppose a better description for our deer rifle would probably be the medium game hunting rifle. This is because just about all hunters that I know use their favourite deer rifle to take other game when the opportunity arises. The deer species that we have here in Australia vary a great deal in size from quite small with the little hog deer to very large with the mighty sambar. However, by world standards, they all fall into the same category of medium-sized, thin-skinned game and are all hunted with a myriad of different calibres.

Many years ago, before government restrictions were introduced in relation to calibres and bullet weights in some states, one of the favourite calibres for hunting sambars in the Victorian High Country was the .243 Winchester, and not necessarily with a 100-grain projectile. Those old hunters took plenty of sambars with the .243 and a lot of them recommended and used 80-grain bullets. Their reasoning was that a ‘well-placed’ 80-grainer killed far quicker than the 100-grain load, due to its higher velocity and increased shocking power. The key here being a ‘well-placed’ shot.

At about the same time in hunting history, another favourite calibre for fallow and red deer and other larger feral animals was the diminutive .222 Remington with the 50-grain projectile. Back in the 1960s and ’70s, even the .243 was considered by many to be a ‘larger round’, but there were thousands of deer culled in New Zealand at that time and a great deal of the deer cullers were extremely successful, hunting with their .222s, but they were well-versed marksmen and they picked their shots.

That being said, the calibres that are considered for hunting our Australian deer species today vary from a realistic minimum with the venerable .243 Winchester for the smaller to medium species, right up to the great .338 Winchester Magnum, which would have to be one of the best Magnum calibres for our heftiest deer and other big feral and game animals.

Between those two tried and true cartridges, there is a veritable smorgasbord of calibres and cartridges available for hunters to choose from. So many in fact, that it is quite easy for the new hunter to suffer information overload while attempting to work out which is the best round for their intended purpose.

Let’s start with the .243 Winchester, which is an old favourite of mine and the second centrefire that I ever owned, in a Sako Forester with a 4-10 Pecar scope. I used that rifle to take all manner of game including pigs and a few red deer with 87-grain Hornady projectiles and it worked a treat. Projectile design and manufacture have come a long way since then and premium projectiles from numerous different makers are now available for the .243, which have enhanced its performance as a perfectly acceptable hunting round for our medium-sized deer. The .243 has mild recoil, so can be used effectively by anyone who is recoil sensitive, or by smaller statured hunters in lighter rifles. It’s a real favourite at our main hunting property, with several younger hunters using it with excellent results for goats, pigs and fallow deer. My favourite factory round for the .243 is the 100-grain Remington Core-Lokt, which performs well on both red and fallow deer.

Stepping up to the .25 calibres, there are a few cartridges that will fit the bill, although the .25s have never really gained the popularity of other calibres. The .257 Roberts still has a few diehard followers and the .25-06 has its own fan club. But without doubt the top dog of the .25s has to be the revered and still reasonably popular .257 Weatherby Magnum. Shooting premium 120-grain projectiles at 3400fps, it stays flat and hits hard, just about as far out as you can see them, but there’s a price to pay with expensive ammo, excessive muzzle blast and short barrel life.

The 6.5mm cartridges have been around a long time but have never really had a big following in Australia either. Possibly the most popular of the 6.5s is the old 6.5x55 Swedish, which fires a 120- or 140-grain bullet at 2700 and 2500fps respectively. It’s still a favourite in the Scandinavian countries for hunting game up to the size of moose. The biggest drawback for the cartridge here in Australia is that it’s mostly found in ex-military 1896 Mauser rifles, which are strong enough, but they cock on closing the bolt, taking it out of the league of the great Mauser 98. Remington’s recent answer to the 6.5x55 is the .260 Remington, which almost duplicates the 6.5x55’s ballistics and can be had in most makes of rifle. With the right bullets, it would fit the bill nicely as a calibre capable of taking most of our deer species with minimum recoil.

Ah, at last, my favourite deer calibre, the .270 Winchester. It has been around since 1925 when it was introduced by Winchester in its Model 54 bolt-action rifle and has been going from strength to strength ever since. It was specifically designed as a flat-shooting deer cartridge that could be made in relatively light rifles, without excessive recoil. With it, I have successfully hunted most of the feral and game animals available in Australia, including buffaloes and plains game in Africa. With premium projectiles, in the 130- to 150-grain range, the .270 Winchester is a great performer. The only other factory cartridges in this calibre worth considering are the .270 Weatherby Magnum, which is an excellent round that only suffers from a lack of available rifles, and the .270 WSM, which has never really taken off in Australia for some reason.

There are several popular 7mm cartridges, starting with the 7mm-08, which is ballistically similar to the 120-year-old 7x57mm Mauser. There are several 7mm Magnums in existence and all perform similarly well. They include the 7mm Remington Magnum, 7mm Weatherby Magnum and 7mm Winchester Short Magnum. When I was 16 years old, I bought a 7mm Remington Magnum in a new Ruger M77 rifle. It was an excellent performer on pigs and deer, but was heavier and longer than the .270 and I could not really tell the difference on game.

Some of you may have thought, he’s forgotten the .280 Remington! No, I haven’t, I’m just leaving the best until last. This is the cartridge that the .270 should have been, as it’s just a little bit more versatile all round, owing to a better useable selection of projectile weights ranging up to 160 grains.  The .280 is truly an excellent round for all of our deer species.

There is probably no other calibre with such a large selection of available bullet weights, or the amount of appropriate deer cartridges on offer than the .30 calibres. Starting with the ever-popular .308 Winchester, which has proved itself worldwide as an apt deer cartridge since its introduction back in the early 1950s. There are several popular cartridges in the magnums including the .300 WSM, .300 Win Mag, .300 Weatherby Mag and .308 Norma Magnums. All are good performers on deer-size game and my son Bill used his Sako .300 WSM in Africa on plains game with excellent results. However, my pick of them would be the .300 Win Mag, as it is easy to obtain ammo and there’s a great selection of reasonably-priced rifles available for it.

Once again, I have left the best until last, the respected .30-06 Springfield, brother to the .270 Winchester. The .30-06 is more than 110 years old and still going strong. It handles projectiles for deer from 130 to 220 grains without a problem. My youngest son Morgan has a Steyr-Mannlicher Pro Hunter in .30-06 and has shot foxes, pigs, goats, fallow deer and a buffalo bull loaded with 180-grain Barnes TSX projectiles. The .30-06 is a great old performer that still punches way above its weight.

The last calibre that I will consider here is the .338. Currently, there are only three cartridges in this bracket that offer any availability of factory ammo. The first and smallest is the recently released .338 Federal, which is based on the .308 case. Its heavy projectiles combined with relatively small case capacity translate into low muzzle velocities and thus curved trajectories, relegating this cartridge to close-range work in wooded environments.

The other two cartridges in this calibre are the .338 Winchester Magnum and .340 Weatherby Magnum. Both work rather well on all medium game and can also be used effectively on big game up to, but excluding, dangerous game. I have owned a .338 Win Mag for more than 15 years and have used it on deer, goats, pigs and buffaloes in Australia. I have also taken quite a few African plains game species with it including zebras, blue and black wildebeests, kudus and warthogs. I only use the one load in my .338 Win Mag for everything, consisting of the 2250-grain Barnes TSX projectiles at 2840fps.

The downside to the .338 Win Mag is that it kicks like a mule, as my rifle is a lightweight Kimber Montana. The all-up weight with Zeiss 3-9x42 scope, mounts, sling and four rounds, is only 8.5lb. It’s a great rifle to hunt with and it kills everything emphatically, but it’s no fun to sight-in at the range.

That pretty well sums up the majority of the currently available cartridges that are on offer for a medium-game or deer-hunting rifle. Of course, there are many others that I have not mentioned here, but there are not enough pages in Australian Hunter to list and talk about them all.

After choosing your calibre, you will need to decide what type of rifle you want it in, as there are literally hundreds of rifles available in whichever calibre you choose, including single-shots, lever-actions, pump-actions and of course, bolt-actions.

There are a couple of single-shot rifles that fit the bill nicely, but in reality, they are usually far more expensive than bolt-actions and are generally relegated to serious experienced stalkers. The Ruger No.1 is a beautiful stalking rifle and probably the most popular of the single-shots and comes in many calibres.

As far as lever-actions go, there are only a few to choose from that are offered in any of the aforementioned calibres, the Miroku MLR and Browning BLR being the main contenders. Years ago, I bought a Miroku lever-action in .243 for my second eldest boy Tom as he is left-handed and back then left-handed rifles were in short supply. So, if a lever-action is your choice, either a Browning or a Miroku will do the job.

There are several pump-action rifles available, but by far the favourite among Aussie deer hunters, is the Remington 7600, which can be had in a calibre to suit any of our deer species, from .243, .308, .270, 30-06 and the hard-hitting .35 Whelen, both in carbine and rifle configurations. In .270, .308, .30-06 and .35 Whelen, it’s a firm favourite with our sambar hunters.

However, the mainstay of most serious deer hunters during the past 100-odd years has been the bolt-action repeater, which affords the hunter with adequate accurate firepower at an affordable price. Personally, I tend to lean towards the Mauser 98-style actions with their large claw extractors for positive case extraction, but virtually every major arms manufacturer offers strong, reliable bolt-actions that will do a good job.

The other consideration is whether you choose stainless steel or blue metalwork or a synthetic or wooden stock. I personally prefer stainless/synthetic rifles for hunting, as they are not affected by extremes of temperature or humidity and a good synthetic stock won’t warp or swell, thus never disturbing the zero of the rifle.

Blue steel rifles can rust and wooden stocks can warp and swell when exposed to excessive moisture. I experienced this firsthand during a five-day pack hunt many years ago where it rained the whole time, swelling the wooden stock on my Parker-Hale .243 to the point where the bolt would not operate properly and the fore-end warped against the barrel. It took a full 12 months for that stock to dry out and shrink back to normal. This is never going to be a concern with a stainless/synthetic rifle. Sure, they don’t have the same ‘eye appeal’ as a deeply blued, walnut-stocked rifle, but they are a far more stable and practical choice for hunting in extreme weather.

Whether you use open sights or a scope on your deer rifle is another question, but in reality, the vast majority of hunters are going to use a scope, and I have addressed this very issue previously in my article on hunting riflescopes in the February 2017 Australian Shooter.

So, there you have it. I hope that I have answered more questions than I have posed, and now the choice of calibre, make and model of your deer hunting rifle is up to you. Enjoy the hunt

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