Choosing the best deer rifle is an investment in the future. Naturally, the immediate goal is going to be to get a good, dependable and reliable rifle that is capable of bringing down a deer. The rifle must be comfortable and well made. It should also be reasonably priced. The price needs to be appropriate to the value.
It is going to be used to put food on the table, after all. It would be senseless to get something that is difficult to use, inappropriate for hunting deer or so expensive that it goes far beyond the budget. If it is too expensive, a hunter may not have money left to purchase ammunition, deer bags, a quality hunting or skinning knife or anything else that would make the hunting successful and more enjoyable.
If the rifle is well-made and is taken care of properly, it can last for many years, though. Thus, the importance in choosing the best deer hunting rifle specific to a person’s particular requirements can’t be stressed enough. Thankfully, it isn’t greatly complicated to choose the best rifle for hunting deer, once the hunter knows what to look for and why.
Defining Deer Rifles
What is it that makes a rifle a deer hunting rifle? It isn’t simply a case of a rifle being capable of killing a deer. A small-caliber rim-fire rifle can kill a deer at close range. For that matter, even a strong pellet gun can kill a deer at very close range, provided that the pellet placement is correct. Neither the small caliber rifle nor the pellet gun would be considered a deer rifle, though.
Rifles for hunting deer generally have a few traits in common that set them apart from other firearms. A few of these traits are heavy bullet weights, high muzzle velocities, effective range and a large RHP (Relative Hitting Power or Stopping Power). You might notice that the caliber isn’t mentioned. There is a reason for this and the reason will also be explained.
The weight of a bullet is usually given in grains, abbreviated as gr. While the weight of a bullet isn’t directly defined by the rifle, a deer rifle is one that can deliver a bullet of adequate weight to bring down a deer fast and efficiently. It should be noted that ‘bullet’ is a reference to the projectile, not to the cartridge or shell. Many people confuse these and refer to the cartridge as the bullet, so clarity is needed on this point. Since the bullet is the projectile, the weight of the bullet is only a portion of the weight of the cartridge, which also includes the weight of the casing, powder and primer.
Though bullets come in various weights, the most 150 gr., 170 gr. and 180 gr. are common for hunting deer. When these bullets hit the deer, they often knock the animal from its feet and depending on the bullet placement, they also often kill immediately. This is ideal, not only for the sake of the animal, but also to prevent the necessity of having to track the deer until it drops.
Amount of Powder
The other component of RHP, as well as the muzzle velocity, is the amount of powder the cartridge holds. Slightly over-simplifying it, the more powder the cartridge holds, the faster the bullet moves. A deer rifle has a chamber capable of holding a cartridge that is large enough to hold a substantial amount of powder. Thus, the small chamber diameter of a standard .22 long rifle necessitates using much less powder than is possible with a standard .30-06. Since this means that even with a lighter bullet the muzzle velocity is smaller, the .22 lr is limited to accuracy within about 150 yards or less, plus it has a low stopping power. The .30-06, on the other hand, typically has a high muzzle velocity even with a 180 gr bullet. It is usually efficient for distances exceeding 500 yards and the rhp is high.
It should be remembered that both the amount of powder and the weight of the bullet both contribute to the stopping power. If the bullet is light and the amount of powder is large, the muzzle velocity can be great, but the bullet can pass entirely through a deer at close range. This is because the rhp is low.
Caliber of the Rifle
The rifle caliber is important in differentiating between deer rifles and small game rifles. Putting it simply, small calibers are primarily best suited for small game. A .22 long rifle isn’t considered to be a deer rifle. Even a .223 isn’t a deer rifle, though the chamber is usually large enough to contain a cartridge that holds more powder.
There is a reason the caliber wasn’t mentioned above, though. There are rifles that aren’t particularly high caliber that are still suitable for hunting deer. For example, there are hunters who swear by using a .243 for deer hunting. This isn’t what might be considered to be a high caliber, yet within 200 yards or so, it is fairly accurate and has a reasonable amount of stopping power. This is true of a .270 as well.
More commonly, deer rifles are 30 caliber and above. Still, talking about calibers is confusing at best, at least for most people. Since many people may have an urge to make their selection based partly or entirely on the caliber of the rifle, it is worthwhile to take a look at some of reason for the confusion regarding calibers.
The caliber is the diameter of the bullet, either in inches or millimeters. Thus, a .300 bullet is a 30 caliber bullet that should measure 300 thousandths of an inch in diameter. The reason I used the operative word, ‘should’, is that this isn’t exact and it can be confusing because of the inaccuracy. For instance, a .30-06, .30-30 and a .308 are all 30 caliber. However, the actual diameter of the bullet isn’t .300 inch. The diameter is actually .308 inch. Additionally, though the bullets are .308 in diameter, the cartridges aren’t interchangeable.
Picture courtesy of Mitch Barrie
As if that doesn’t cause enough confusion, the second set of numbers can mean various things. The -06 in .30-06 stands for the year in which the rifle was first manufactured; 1906. Logically, a person might think that the -30 in .30-30 would mean that the rifle was first manufactured in 1930. If he or she thinks this, though, they’d be wrong. In the case of the .30-30, the -30 is the amount of powder that was originally used in the bullet, in grains. So .30-30 cartridges originally held 30 grains of powder.
This is all interesting, to be sure, but the real point is that as long as the caliber is large enough to have good rph and a high muzzle velocity, its importance in choosing the best deer rifle is minimal and subject to personal preference.
The muzzle velocity or speed of the bullet when it leaves the rifle is actually a function of the cartridge rather than the rifle. However, as has already been explained, the rifle needs to have a chamber large enough to accommodate the cartridge. Larger shell casings can hold more smokeless powder, so the bullet travels at a faster speed when it leaves the barrel. (We’ll ignore the fact that speed and velocity aren’t the same thing. For the purposes here, the difference isn’t very important.)
The hitting power or stopping power has been explained. This is a function of both the muzzle velocity and the weight of the bullet. Muzzle velocity also has a huge bearing on the effective range of the rifle. This can be understood with a simple demonstration.
If a hunter discharges the rifle, shooting horizontally over level ground, and at that exact moment another person drops an identical bullet, both bullets will hit the ground at the same time. This means that if it takes a second for the bullet to hit the ground, the faster it is moving when it leaves the barrel, the greater the distance that will be covered before it hits the ground. The effective range of the rifle is greater.
This also isn’t exact, because some rifles have a flat trajectory and others don’t, and some brands of ammunition out-performs others, but the principle is still valid.
Deer Rifle Styles
Up to this point, we’ve been talking about the performance of the deer rifle in regard to bringing down a deer. The rifle style is also important, if you want to purchase the best deer rifle you can get.
The action is a reference to how a cartridge is loaded into the chamber. There are three primary kinds of action that are available for deer rifles, as well as a couple minor ones we won’t cover here. The primary actions are semi-automatic, bolt action and lever action. Each has strong points and weak points. It is a good idea to consider each individually.
Image by Ulflake76
A semi automatic rifle is one that fires a bullet each time the trigger is depressed, without the need to manually eject the spent casing and to crank another shell into the chamber. As the name implies, when the trigger is squeezed, the bullet is fired, the casing is thrown out of the chamber and the next cartridge is slid into the chamber, ready for the next squeeze of the trigger.
A semi auto is simpler to use in that less effort is needed in order to shoot time after time. It is designed to work until the magazine is empty and needs to be refilled. The weak points are that this action encourages hunters to give up quality in favor of quantity. In other words, a person may end up taking less care in aiming and firing, since they know they can pop off round after round.
Also, this style of deer rifle tends to be more prone to jamming. If the spent casing isn’t properly ejected, it can cause the next shell to become wedged in. By the time the jam is corrected, the deer is usually long gone, if the previous shot didn’t bring it down.
Semi-autos are also inherently more dangerous because it is easy to squeeze the trigger inadvertently. Accidentally discharging the rifle makes it more likely that someone else could be shot.
Additionally, this kind of rifle is often not as durable as rifles with other kinds of action, since the firing mechanism can wear out faster.
With a lever action rifle, the lever is brought down all the way and then back up, each time the rifle is fired. When the lever is brought down, the spent casing is ejected and the next cartridge in the magazine is brought up, ready to load into the chamber. Bringing the lever up causes the next shell to slide into place, so the rifle is again ready to fire.
A lever action isn’t as fast as a semi-automatic. However, it also isn’t as apt to jam. A weakness is that if the lever isn’t fully depressed, the empty casing may not eject. If this happens, a jam can occur when the lever is brought back up. While this could be avoided if the hunter is looking into the breach of the rifle, normally their attention is going to be on the deer.
Still, lever action deer rifles are popular. They also are normally durable and long lasting, if the manufacturer has used diligence during the production of the firearm.
Image by Swedish Army Museum
Bolt action rifles are also quite popular. In this style, the shell is held in the chamber by a heavy bolt that locks into place. When the firearm is discharged, the bolt is brought upward, manually, which unlocks it. Pulling the bolt back slides the empty casing out where it is then ejected. As the casing is ejected, the next cartridge moves into place to allow the bolt to push it back into a firing position once the bolt is again locked into place.
Although a person can mishandle the rifle, such as by trying to fire it prior to locking the bolt completely into place, bolt action rifles are considered by many hunters to be the safest of the three kinds of action. They are also among the easiest to clean, since the bolt can normally be removed entirely, which opens the breach for the passage of the cleaning rod. The fact that the bolt can be completely taken out means that the firing pin can also be replaced more easily, if that is necessary.
The weak point of bolt action rifles is that they are usually the slowest of the three, in regard to re-chambering a cartridge. Hunters who use this style of rifle normally operate under the assumption that they are only going to get one shot, and at best two, before the deer is no longer a viable target.
Best Deer Hunting Rifle for the Terrain
Knowing the traits of a deer hunting rifle is only part of what should be considered when selecting the best rifle for deer hunting. The terrain should also be thought about. The best rifle for hunting in dense underbrush isn’t necessarily going to be the best rifle for hunting in open country. For example, a rifle with a long barrel can catch on branches and limbs in an area that is overgrown. A short barrelled carbine would probably be less likely to snag in the brush.
Shorter barrel lengths tend to equate to less accuracy, however in brush, a shot of more than 75 yards is likely to be rare. This means that the best deer rifle for brush hunting is probably going to be one that has a shorter barrel, even if it isn’t quite as accurate at greater shooting distances. A shorter barrel also usually means that the rifle is going to be lighter, which is good if a hunter is navigating through underbrush.
Likewise, the best rifle for hunting deer in brush isn’t necessarily going to be the best 400 yard deer rifle. At 400 yards or more, accuracy becomes more important and the rifle must deliver the bullet to the target without the obstacles of brush being a concern. The weight of the firearm also isn’t going to be as much of a worry. The hunter probably isn’t going to have as many obstacles to need to worry about, so a rifle that weighs a pound or two more shouldn’t make an appreciable difference in the hunting experience.
Obviously, the best rifle for hunting deer is going to depend greatly on where the deer are that are being hunted.
Of course there are deer rifles that are intermediate. These are rifles that aren’t normally thought of as accurate at 400 to 500 yards, though they certainly can be and they are still usually capable of bringing down a deer at this distance. The barrel normally isn’t made for long range shooting. However, it is most likely going to be longer than that of a carbine or brush gun. Because of the intermediate length of the barrel, this kind of rifle is also intermediate in over-all weight. As it happens, my favorite deer rifle happens to be an intermediate one; a .300 Savage.
Top Deer Hunting Rifle Brands
This brings us to the brands that are the most likely to produce the best rifles for hunting deer. There are a lot of great brands, so I’m only going to mention a few that are well known for the quality and craftsmanship of their deer rifles. This information is given primarily to let you get to know a little about the companies and how they began. Note that these aren’t listed in a particular order, except for the first. It is talked about first merely because it has already been mentioned.
The Savage Arms Company began in 1894, founded by Arthur Savage. Savage was somewhat of an adventurer and at one time, he even owned the largest cattle ranch in Australia. He had a couple of interesting inventions, in regard to deer rifles. One was a lever action rifle that didn’t require a hammer to set off the cartridge. The second was a magazine that actually counted the cartridges that were in the rifle, displaying the number on a brass plate. This made it a simple matter for a hunter to know exactly how many shells were in the rifle at any given time. Arthur is perhaps best known for producing rifles that could be purchased at a discount.
Winchester Repeating Arms
Winchester has been producing rifles since 1866. This brand name is extremely well known, especially among people who have grown up watching the old western movies and TV shows. They are often regarded as having produced the “gun that won the west”.
Originally called E. Remington and Sons, Remington Arms is the oldest American firearms manufacturer. The company was started by Eliphalet Remington in 1816. The company name, quality of their guns and products are known around the world.
Although Weatherby has only been producing guns since 1945 when Roy Weatherby founded the company, this is a brand name that is well respected. They produce quality firearms and are particularly well known for their magnum guns.
The Best Rifles for Hunting Deer
Our list of top deer rifles is given with consideration for the quality, craftsmanship, durability, accuracy and many intangibles that aren’t included here. This definitely isn’t to say that there aren’t other rifles on the market that aren’t excellent, nor is it saying that the best deer rifle for the reader must be one of these. The selection of the best rifle for deer hunting needs to be a personal choice and will often be subjective.
Winchester Model 64 Lever Action .30-30
Best deer hunting rifle for brush
Image courtesy of Cabelas
This deer rifle has a 24 inch barrel and it weighs less than seven pounds, fully loaded. The magazine holds five shells and this rifle is breach-loading. The stock is made of black walnut, so it also looks nice. It isn’t a rifle that would likely be used for ranges of over 150 yards, but in brush, it is surprisingly accurate.
The drawbacks of this rifle: Since it loads through the top and ejects the empty casings the same way, a top-mounting scope isn’t a great idea. A scope can be mounted to the side, though this is awkward. It is best used open sights, which isn’t too bad considering the range it is probably going to be used in. The model 64 isn’t easy to come by new, though it is carried by Cabela’s. It tends to be cost prohibitive, though, at over $1000.
This rifle is easy to load and light-weight. It has a great appearance and performs well for short range. In fact, it is hard to get much better than this for brush hunting. For brush hunting, I’d rate this rifle 4.0, despite the fact that I greatly enjoyed using this rifle. It isn’t as easy to find one, new, as it was years ago and it is now a lot more expensive than it was a few decades ago.
Remington Model 700 Bolt Action .30-06 Springfield
Best deer rifle for long range
Image courtesy of Cabelas
The model 700 .30-06 is stoutly built and quite capable of making those long distance shots, up to and over 500 yards. The barrel is 26 inches long and is heavy duty. The magazine holds four shells, which is reasonable for a rifle that is going to deliver a bullet to a target at a great distance. This rifle weighs nine pounds, so it isn’t light, but the weight adds to stability. The model 700 is side ejecting so it handles a scope without trouble.
What I don’t like about it is that the stock is black and gray, so is not very attractive. Of course a hunter could also replace the stock with one that was more attractive. The weight helps with the accuracy, but if the hunter plans on doing much walking during the hunt, it would be a good idea to fit it with a shoulder strap. This can certainly be done, but that doesn’t make the rifle especially great if you have to take a fast shot. Of course, distance shots usually aren’t taken in a hurry.
The model 700 might be the best long range deer rifle, but it wouldn’t be suitable for hunting in heavy brush. This rifle is rated 4.0, again because of the drawbacks.
There are several rifles that are excellent for intermediate range and for use in varied terrain. The first one listed is my favorite all-around deer rifle.
.300 Savage Model 99 Lever Action
Best deer rifle for intermediate range – Used
Image by Rex Trulove
The .300 Savage is my favorite deer rifle, as already mentioned. It is heavy, but quite accurate. It can be fitted for a scope, which mine is, and the rifle is excellent at intermediate range. The .300 has brought down many deer within 100 yards and though it is best classed here as an intermediate range rifle, it is also capable of bringing down a buck at over 300 to 500 yards.
The biggest downside to this deer rifle is the problem of finding one. I’m biased and would rate this rifle a 5 but for it’s minor drawbacks (which I point out in my full review) I will give it a 4.5. Also, hunters need to understand that if you find one, it is going to be used and not new.
Winchester Model 70 Featherweight Bolt Action .243
Best deer rifle for young hunters
As the name implies, this rifle is light. Although it has a 22 inch barrel, the model 70 weighs less than 7 pounds. The magazine holds 5 cartridges. The rifle also looks nice, with a walnut stock. Additionally, the model 70 has a great recoil pad to reduce the kick. It is moderately priced at a bit more than $820, but is ideally suited for younger hunters and women.
Like most of the rifles listed here, the model 70 is also available in different calibers. Hunters who prefer can get it in .270, .308 and .30-06, as well as .243. As an intermediate deer rifle, this one would be rated 4.5 because it isn’t as inexpensive as it could be.
Though this is the case, the marks would be higher if the weight and stature of the hunters were taken in consideration. This would rate 5.0 as being the best rifle for younger hunters, as well as men and women who weigh 150 pounds or less.
Weatherby Vanguard Series 2 Bolt Action .308
Best deer rifle for intermediate range – New
Image courtesy of Cabelas
This rifle is a contender for the best deer hunting rifle for intermediate range, though like the .300 Savage, it has an effective range that exceeds 500 yards. The barrel has a length of 24 inches, which makes the rifle 44 inches in length, including the stock. The magazine holds five shells. The stock is a composite rather than wood, for long use without a lot of maintenance. The weight is only seven and a quarter pounds, which makes the rifle great for any necessary carrying. One thing I really like about the Vanguard 2 is that the trigger tension is adjustable down to two and a half pounds. The price is also reasonable, at about $550, depending on where it is purchased.
The Vanguard 2 is easy to use with a scope and if there is any doubt about the accuracy of this rifle, Weatherby guarantees that the deer rifle will shoot less than MOA. MOA is minute of arc. In other words, Weatherby guarantees that the rifle will lose less than 1/60 th of a degree of arc at 100 yards. This is a very small amount and it means that if the rifle is sighted in at 300 yards, you probably aren’t going to need to do much of an adjustment for a deer that is anywhere from 200 to 400 yards away.
It is hard to find drawbacks to this rifle and I’m not going to even try. There is also a temptation to say that this is the best long-range deer rifle. I don’t do so, only because of the relatively light weight of this firearm.
Best Deer Rifle Under $500
There are a lot of people that have difficulty in being able to spend much money on a deer rifle. Thankfully, it isn’t always necessary to sacrifice quality for lack of expense. It is quite possible to get an excellent deer rifle, new, for less than $500. This one even comes as a combination rifle and scope.
Remington Model 783 Bolt Action with a 3 to 9 by 40 scope
Best deer rifle under $500
Priced at under $350, this rifle has the quality people have come to expect from Remington, yet the firearm also comes with a scope. The deer rifles are available in .308, .30-06, .270, .243, 7 mm magnum and .300 magnum, each for the same price. Two small game versions are also offered; .22-250 and .223.
Except for the magnum versions, this rifle model has a 22 inch barrel and the magazine holds four. In the case of the magnums, the barrel is two inches longer and the magazines hold 3 cartridges. All calibers weigh a little more than 7 pounds.
In all cases, the trigger tension can be adjusted from 2.5 pounds to 5 pounds. The stocks are synthetic so they require very little maintenance and are weather resistant.
This is rated 4.5 because it has a bit of an accuracy drop-off beyond about 250 yards. This could very well be dependent on the caliber and the quality of the ammunition, however.
There you have it; what to look for when choosing and buying a deer rifle and a few of the rifles that are the best for hunting deer under specific circumstances. There are a great number of other deer rifles that range from being good to being excellent. There are also those that could be made a lot better.
Whichever you select and buy, we hope that you are pleased with the rifle you purchase and that you are successful in the hunt. Of course, that is the ultimate goal when selecting the best deer rifle; to be able to go out and bag your deer. You now have the ammunition you need to make the best selection possible (pun intended).