Those who intend to hunt in the firearm deer seasons are beginning to think seriously about what they need to do to get ready. This happens about this time every year — the topic of rifles comes up, and sure enough the question was directed at me this past week, “What is the best rifle to use for deer hunting?”
No one rifle or caliber can do everything, so my standard answer is, “The best rifle for deer hunting is whatever rifle you can shoot best!”
It really doesn’t matter whether you are shooting a .22-250 or a .460 Weatherby Magnum, being able to put the bullet where it counts is the most critical part of the equation.
If you know anything about bullets and ballistics it is obvious that a .460 Weatherby Magnum is more gun than you need for deer, but something like a .243 is a very viable option for many shooters. I had never hunted with a .243 until a few years ago. I was impressed.
Originally marketed as the 6mm Winchester, the .243 Winchester cartridge was introduced back in 1955. American shooters have always shied away from “metric calibers” for some reason. It has only been recently that the 6.5mm Creedmoor broke through this mental block and the caliber, and rifles chambered for it, may be the hottest things on the market.
So in 1956, Winchester changed the name of the 6mm to the .243 Winchester and put it in its famous Model 70 bolt action rifle. As they say: The rest is history.
The cartridge was quickly adopted by Savage for their Model 99 lever action and Model 110 bolt action rifles. European manufacturers began chambering bolt action rifles for this round. Other American firearm manufacturers recognized the growing popularity of the .243 and began chambering their rifles for it, too. The .243 probably gained quicker and wider acceptance by hunters around the world than any other cartridge in history.
The cartridge has a well-deserved reputation for accuracy, mild recoil, and depending on the choice of bullet, a very capable rifle for everything from prairie dogs to antelope and deer. Topped with a quality scope, the .243 is an excellent choice for almost any hunting scenario we would have in western Nebraska.
Now, if your deer hunting typically takes place in river bottoms or heavy timber where shots are 100 yards or less, the venerable old lever action .30-30 is tough to beat. Probably the most famous rifle in this category is the Winchester Model 94. The fact that over 5 million of these rifles have been produced tells you something. Marlin’s Model 336 is a .30-30 and also an excellent rifle.
The .30-30 has very manageable recoil and has the power and energy to drop deer, elk and bear sized game. What more could a hunter ask for? It is not a cartridge designed for long shots, but it can hold its own in the hunting world.
The .30-30 is one of those historically unique “double number” rounds. These cartridges were developed in the days of black powder, yet were popular enough to make the transition into the smokeless powder era. For cartridges like the .30-30, .38-55 and .45-70, the first number represented the caliber while the second number was the number of grains of black powder in the original cartridge.
My best advice to a new shooter or someone who may be hunting deer for the first time this fall is to try a variety of rifles in different calibers and see which one you like. As long as your favorite rifle is in good condition, meets the energy requirements for Nebraska big game hunting and you can consistently put the bullet where you are aiming, you have a good deer rifle.
If you intend to hunt the rifle season, now is a great time to be scouting. Temperatures are mild and deer are only being pressured by harvest activities. The will usually revert to their normal routines as soon as all the farm equipment leaves the field.
All deer, regardless of where you hunt, need the same basic elements to survive: Shelter/cover, water, food. If you do your scouting and find the areas that provide these needs, you will be successful.
When I watch or scout deer I make a note of where they are coming from, where they are going and where they stop to forage. I then attempt to backtrack them to their bedding areas. Bedding areas are usually a constant thing. Deer may change their travel patterns or food sources due to harvest or movement of people in the field, but they will continue to use the same bedding areas unless disturbed. These are normally deep, dark tangles of vegetation. Look for the densest brush and you will likely find deer.
Next, I search for food — days are growing shorter and temperatures get cooler. Growing season has stopped and deer instinctively know winter is coming. At this time of year, deer began to feed more — both in volume and more often. Crops like corn and soybeans are ripe now, just when deer need them. I look for heavy trails where deer enter and exit the fields.
If you have any fruit trees where you hunt, check them out for feeding activity. Deer like apples and pears. Trees on abandoned or overgrown homesteads will hold more deer than a manicured orchard. Too much activity occurs around a working orchard and deer will tend to find elsewhere to eat.
The one exception I’ve found related to deer tolerating human activity is vineyards. Nebraska’s wine industry is growing and more vineyards are on the landscape each year. Deer apparently like grapes, too. The deer in many vineyards have become accustomed to the activity around them so they stay close. I have had some vineyards in the region ask if I could help “thin out” their deer populations. Yep — I can. Good luck with your deer season.