Outdoors: Examining the top deer rifles


Small bore rifles like the .243 Winchester and the 7mm-08 Remington have low recoil and are favorites among women and youth hunters.

There are two topics for hunters sitting around a fire in deer camp, the rut and the top deer rifle. I would be hard pressed to determine which one gets the most discussion. Deer hunters love their firearms and many have their reasons for the rifle they use for hunting.

For some hunters it may be a rifle that has been in the family for a few generations. For others it was the gun their father bought them to begin hunting. All hunters can give some type of reason for choosing the gun and caliber they use today.

Alabama deer hunters are a special breed. They know what deer gun works and why. Some hunters have chosen their gun and caliber from research, others from experienced family members. For longtime deer hunters, there is only one choice, a rifle they have always used. But for many deer hunters there are a few favorites put back in the gun safe.

The classic 30-30

Back in 1894, John M. Browning showed a lever-action repeating rifle design to Winchester. Within six weeks Winchester had the first Model 94, lever action in .30 caliber. The rifle was first known as the .30-30 Winchester Center Fire (WCF) and was listed in their catalog in 1895. The WCF was one of the first rifles to use smokeless powder in a metallic cartridge.

Rival gun maker Marlin used the designation .30-30 dropping the Winchester name. The .30-30 indicates a .30 caliber bullet with 30 grains equivalent of black powder. Today, the modern designation is .30-30 Winchester. The original was in production for over 100 years.

In 1936, Marlin developed a lever-action repeater in .30 caliber. The gun was first released in 1948 as the Marlin 336 in a .30-30. The Marlin had a top receiver with a side ejection for empty shells. This feature allowed for mounting a scope and it became popular with deer and other hunters nationwide.

“My first deer rifle was a Marlin .30-30,” said Bobby Martin of Talladega County. “I sold a load of pulp wood to buy that gun.”

It has been said among old deer sages and outdoor writers the .30-30 has taken more deer than any other rifle in history. As deer hunting grew in popularity from the late 1930s the .30-30 lever-action rifle was the main choice for hunters.

What made the .30-30 popular with hunters? First, it was light-weight and compact. The rifle was a logical choice among deer hunters in the south, especially Alabama. With dense forests and thick swamps, hunters could get off a quick shot.

Second, the .30-30 had low recoil, but delivered plenty of power to put down a deer. The smooth lever-action made for an easy follow-up shot if needed. Effective range of the .30-30 is around 150 yards. But, in the thicker deer woods, most shots at a deer were under 100 yards.

“The .30-30 was short and easy to handle,” Martin said. “You could carry it all day and not get tired. The rifle was a good fit and simple to swing and shoot.”

The .30-30 cartridge originally had a blunt tipped bullet. This was a safety issue since many of the lever-actions had a tubular magazine and the cartridges were one behind the other. A sharp tip on the bullet could strike the primer hard enough on recoil to fire a round in the magazine. Some of the later models .30-30 rifles had rotary magazines to offset this problem.

A few years ago, Hornady released a new cartridge, LEVERevolution on .30, .44, .357 and .32 calibers especially for lever-action rifles. This new ammo revitalized the old deer rifle. Many hunters will pick up their Winchester or Marlin lever-action and head out to the deer woods.

More power and longer range

During World War I, soldiers were introduced to a larger cartridge, the .30-06 Springfield. Firearm manufactures continued to make guns for the military and began introducing firearms for hunting using the .30-06 cartridge. The .30 is the caliber and the 06 is the year the cartridge was first introduced, 1906. The thirty-ought six as it is pronounced was the mainstay for the military until the mid-1980s.

Ask a middle-aged deer hunter to show you his favorite rifle and more than likely he will pull out a Remington 740 or one of its offspring (742 or 7400). These semi-auto rifles are probably one of the top deer rifles in Bama. Any deer hunter growing up in the 1970s or ’80s had or wanted a .30-06 for hunting.

“I was raised up around the .30-06,” said Edwin Taylor of Talladega County. “The Remington 7400 is a smooth-shooting accurate rifle.”

A large part of the popularity of the .30-06 was the longer range and flat trajectory of the bullet. As deer hunters moved to open fields and large cut-over areas, longer shots were more commonplace. An ought-six rifle with a quality scope was capable of taking a deer past the 200-yard mark. And 300-yard shots were possible with the right setup.

Hunters didn’t seem to tolerate the slightly heavier recoil in the .30-06. But the design of the semi-auto helped alleviate the kick to the shoulder. Also, the 06 was better suited for larger game like elk, mule deer and bear. Alabama hunters planning a trip out west were prepared with their .30-06 in hand.

“There are plenty of different bullets available in .30-06,” Taylor said. “The ammo is easier to find and it is not as expensive as some other rifle ammo.”

Old and new kids on the block

It is difficult to mention deer rifles and not give the .308 Winchester some ink. Compared to the .30-30 and the .30-06, the .308 is the new kid on the block. Developed in 1952 and later adopted as a 7.62 x 51mm round for NATO, the flat trajectory makes the .308 a choice for military snipers.

There are several different rifle brands and actions available in the .308 caliber. Browning, Remington, Ruger, Savage and others all make various actions chambered in .308. Also, there are many different bullets styles and ammo brands available.

Youth and small frame hunters will appreciate rifle calibers in .270 Winchester, .280 Remington and 7mm-08 Remington. These sizes have lower recoil and plenty of knock-down power for deer. The .270 was released in 1925 and is actually a necked-down version of the .30-06. The .270 was made popular by Jack O’Conner a long time writer for the Outdoor Life Magazine.

“I like the .270 in a M77 Ruger,” said Chris Mitchell of Talladega County. “It fits me and my hunting style and I can hit with it.”

Some hunters use the .243 Winchester and the .223 Remington calibers for deer. Both cartridges are low on recoil. While these are legal and have taken their share of deer, there is some debate as to whether these calibers have enough energy downrange.

There are more rifles and calibers we didn’t even mention. So what’s the best deer rifle in Alabama? That question has many answers, depending on who you ask. But one thing is for certain, deer hunters in our state have plenty of options to name their favorite hunting rifle.

Charles Johnson is the Star’s outdoor editor. You can reach Charles at ChrJohn7@aol.com.