Whatever your reason for reading this piece, you’re somewhat interested in the subject of deer hunting — the adventure, the benefits of harvesting your own meat, or the camaraderie with friends and family. Choosing your first deer rifle shouldn’t be an exercise in frustration but an exciting and unique opportunity; read on for some helpful pointers.
If you’re looking for a first deer rifle for yourself or a loved one, today there are more options to choose from than ever before. From calibers, barrel length, and colors to even more in-depth choices such as rate of twist and factory or handloaded ammunition, there’s a pairing for anyone just getting started. If you, like me, can’t afford a top-of-the-line custom rifle, most mainstream rifle manufacturing companies offer a “base model” of some of their more popular lines, the trade-off being perhaps a less expensive stock or a different finish on the gunmetal. The bones of the rifles are the same, though, so you’re still getting that company’s proven actions, safeties, etc.
Picking out a first deer rifle is a lot like a first car — there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Where you live, the type of land, and the size of deer you’re hunting can all play a factor in where you should start your search. Even your stature and expected shooting distances should be considered. Are you somewhat familiar with firearms? Do you have a certain action or model of rifle that you’ve shot in a rimfire version that felt comfortable?
First, choose a model of rifle that fits you well. If you’ve shot a .22 LR in a popular platform and liked it, that may be a good place to start. If you don’t have a favorite rimfire, don’t fret, most sporting goods stores have knowledgeable enough help who can point out the different models while explaining the differences.
Decide what action you prefer. Maybe in the dense Eastern woods a shorter-barreled lever action would make more sense, whereas the Western states and their generally more extended shooting situations may require a longer-barreled bolt action. Heft the rifle and see how it feels; shoulder it and pay attention to how well it naturally comes up on target. After trying this with several models, a person should get an idea for what different features of a rifle feel more natural.
Once you’ve got a model picked out that fits you well — something that shoulders naturally and isn’t unwieldy to carry — now you must choose a caliber. While many hunters have a somewhat limited preference for bread-and-butter rifle-makers, those same guys can be rabidly loyal to a certain caliber. There’s a reason though: The hunting cartridge industry is pushing the ball like never before, offering customers nearly limitless options to tweak their setup to their exact need or style. This affords people never-before-seen results in their shooting prowess; entire books have been filled on this subject alone. Suffice it to say, with a little online research, a first-timer will likely garner more advice and information than they know what to do with.
If your rifle is only going to be used for deer and antelope-sized game from short to medium ranges (maximum 300 yards), anything .30 caliber or under should suffice with a proper cartridge choice.
New hunters may feel overwhelmed when first purchasing ammunition that they’re planning on taking a deer with, but it’s important to know the basic ammunition fundamentals before choosing. For instance, a full-metal-jacketed bullet will not expand and deliver its energy nearly as well as a proper hunting bullet, which is designed to expand or fragment, transferring as much of its energy as possible for a quick, humane kill.
If you aren’t building or having handloads built for you and your rifle (a process of customizing cartridge components such as different bullets, primers, and powders to achieve better performance and thus better accuracy), there are many factory loads to choose from that are time-tested and will work well for the beginning hunter, assuming you’re going to begin harvesting game at average shooting distances for your region.
You may have to try several different manufacturers’ loads before you find one that shoots well with your rifle. A small variation in bullet weight or powder can make a new rifle sing and truly reveal its potential; however, if you can get three-shot groups with a circumference of less than an inch-and-a-half at 100 yards, I’d consider that plenty accurate for ethical situations a new hunter may face. Once you settle on a preferred cartridge, you should practice at various ranges and decide what an ethical maximum distance is to shoot at game, taking into consideration both marksmanship and rifle capability.
After you’ve chosen your rifle’s model and caliber and found some quality hunting ammunition that you and your rifle can shoot well, it’s time to head for the hills and practice some real-world shooting situations — lie prone and shoot off of a pack, shoot uphill, shoot downhill, etc. This will help you gain confidence and some in-the-field experience before deer season starts.
If you do your due diligence and follow these steps, you should now be comfortable and confident with your new rifle. While there’s much more to learn to become a successful hunter, starting with the right tools in your toolbox will ensure a positive experience and meat on the table when that first deer offers you an opportunity.