As we all know, Native Americans were knocking over venison with stone broadheads before pilgrims showed them how to do it more noisily with flintlocks. We then marched a steady progression through caplocks, blackpowder cartridge rifles, .30-30 Win. lever actions, sporterized military bolt actions in .30-06, California custom magnums in a wild rainbow of calibers (that delivered anything but rainbow trajectories) and finally the World’s Best Whitetail Rifle of today.
Drum roll, please … the ideal, all-around whitetail rifle is a stainless steel bolt action that weighs 6-7 pounds. It should have a 22-inch barrel chambered for 7mm-08 Rem., .260 Rem., 6.5mm Creedmoor or 6.5-284 Norma. There—you have options.
The stock should be a stiff synthetic in a traditional shape. No thumbholes, no tactical grips. Mount a 2-10X42mm scope on it and you’re golden.
If this sounds old fashioned, you need to quit fantasizing and get real: We’re talking about whitetail hunting, not brown bear hunting. Not 600-yard varmint shooting. Not tactical midnight SWAT raids. A mature buck weighs 130- 250 pounds and doesn’t wear a Kevlar vest. Most are dropped with one or two shots inside of 200 yards from a mix of croplands, open woodlands, brush, swamps and cattail sloughs. Almost none are felled by the 10th bullet in a magazine. Or even the fifth.
A whitetail hunter needs to sit, wait and take a careful shot. Or stroll, shift, glass, spot, stalk, sneak and again take a careful shot. Rarely does any hunter take a jump shot these days. We choose our bucks carefully and our shots more carefully. We don’t have to shoot fast or often, but we do need to remain alert while hunting about 8 hours a day, 2 or 3 days in a row. We must be able to carry a rifle easily without tiring and swing it into position to send an aimed shot within 2-5 seconds at ranges from 10 to, rarely, 400 yards. Without flinching. That’s a big one. Without flinching.
You aren’t going to do all this consistently with a 10-pound rifle wearing a 28-inch barrel, or a 5-pound rifle with an 18-inch barrel, unless you train a lot more than 90 percent of hunters are willing to train. My “ideal rifle” is a compromise: It’s heavy enough to tame recoil, but light enough to carry and use smoothly. It’s compact enough to move easily through thick cover, but powerful enough to shoot flat to about 300 yards without holdover. It’s not flashy—just deadly.
I’m not alone in selecting the 7mm-08 Rem. as an ideal whitetail round. Many veteran deer hunters swear by it, and here’s why: In a 7-pound rifle, this short-action round (the .308 Win. necked down) will drive a 140-grain bullet 2,800 fps, which is enough to deliver 2,100 foot-pounds of energy (fpe) at 100 yards and retain just over 1,000 fpe at 500 yards. Dead deer. But the free recoil energy at the shooter’s shoulder is only 15 fpe.
Compare this to the .30-06 pushing a 150-grain bullet 2,900 fps. It produces 20 fpe of recoil. So, if you think .30- 06 recoil is a bit unpleasant, imagine trimming it back 25 percent.
Or, load up the .260 Rem., which is the same brass case as the 7mm-08 Rem. necked down to .264 inches, with a 140-grain bullet going 2,700 fps. It will recoil with only 13.3 fpe.
The 6.5mm Creedmoor will do the same, and the 6.5-284 Norma will match the recoil of the 7mm-08. Because the .264-inch bullets at 140 grains are narrower than the .284-inch bullet of the same weight, they’ll fly farther before falling and retain more energy downrange. Not much, but enough to make them as effective as the 7mm-08 with a slight recoil reduction.
Should you doubt the killing efficiency of these “little” cartridges, consider that Mr. W.M.D. “Karamojo” Bell more than 100 years ago terminated roughly 1,000 elephants while using a 7x57mm Mauser. The 7x57mm shoots just a bit slower than the 7mm-08 Rem.
Veteran hunters know that rifles and cartridges are overrated because they’re just mechanisms for delivering the real hero in this equation— the bullet. Choosing the right one ensures that these light rifles live up to their potential. The great news here is that we have, literally, dozens of great bullets from which to choose, everything from fairly fragile, “explosive” ones to crazy-stout, tough ones. We can step down toward 100 grains or up as high as 160 grains. Lighter bullets shoot flatter at hunting ranges; heavier bullets retain more energy. Frangible bullets usually break up in the lungs to disperse tissue damage. Controlled-expansion bullets usually shoot through whitetails, leaving an exit wound to facilitate blood trailing. Choose your favorite. Both .284- and .264-caliber bullets weighing 140 grains have high-sectional densities and, with sleek shapes, high-ballistic coefficients (BC) for superior downrange performance, including minimal wind deflection.
The average 140-grain 7mm bullet should boast a BC of around .45. Zero this at 230 yards and, if launched at 2,800 fps, that bullet will strike 2.5 inches high at 100 yards, peak 2.8 inches high at 130 yards and strike only 5.7 inches below point-of-aim at 300 yards. That means you could hold on the vertical center of a whitetail’s chest and park that bullet within the heart/ lungs vital zone out to 290 yards. You don’t even need to use a rangefinder. No hold under. No hold over.
If the wind is blowing 10 mph, this trail-bullet will deflect 3.4 inches at 200 yards and 7.3 inches at 300 yards. Energy at 300 yards remains 1,528 fpe.
The 140-grain 6.5mm with a BC of .49 and velocity of 2,800 fps will fall only 5.6 inches at 300 yards and drift 6.7 inches. Energy at 300 yards is 1,590 fpe. This is practically no difference, which is why I can recommend all of these cartridges equally.
Should you wish to compare these short-action cartridges against the familiar performance of the .30-06, here are its 300-yard numbers when driving a 150-grain bullet (BC .40) at 2,900 fps: bullet strike, 5.5 inches low; wind deflection, 7.9 inches; energy, 1,660 fpe.
Dance around these numbers all you want, but the results are the same: Our smaller caliber, shorter-action cartridges deliver .30-06 performance with 24-40 percent less recoil. Less noise, too.
BUT WHY THE BOLT ACTION?
I won’t insist you shoot a bolt action, but I sure recommend it. Here’s why:
A shaft of steel that glides through a thick, steel channel to turn several thick, deep lugs into steel recesses isn’t complicated, but it sure is strong. Bolt actions have been tested to hold back more than 125,000 psi of pressure. That’s more than double what a .300 Wthby. Mag. is rated.
Simple and durable.
Lift, pull back, push forward, shove down. Bang. There’s not much to go wrong. No complicated linkages, pistons or seals. Many bolts will function even after falling into a bucket of sand. Even if the magazine fails and you have to load one at a time, it’s pretty easy to drop a round in and shove it home. There are no forward bolt assist plungers on a bolt action.
You can slowly open a bolt action and snick home a round with hardly a sound, and then unload just as quietly.
Slick and compact.
Start crawling through brush with a banana clip hanging from your rifle and you’ll begin to appreciate the low contours of a traditional bolt action. Three to five rounds in a magazine that fits flush with the stock bottom are probably two to four more than a good hunter will ever fire at one deer.
Carry with chamber empty and there’s no chance of a discharge. When you see your game, you can bolt home a round in a half-second.
Barrels can be full-length bedded to stiff stocks or free-floated to tune your level of accuracy. Bolt-action triggers are some of the finest ever made and most are easily adjusted.
Safe to clean.
Remove the bolt with the push of a button and clean from the breech to prevent undue wear at the muzzle crown.
My idea of the ideal whitetail rifle doesn’t have to be yours. There’s plenty of room for personal tastes here, but at least consider my points. They might prevent you from buying something superfluous or too powerful to shoot accurately, and accuracy is the most important part.
Bonus Video: Low Recoil Ammo