A couple of weeks ago I was speaking with a hunter who had grown up in eastern Europe under a Communist regime. When he came to the United States, he said, the first thing he did was go to a Kmart and walk down the aisles in wonder. So astounded was he by the variety of goods that he went back a second and third day to make sure it wasn't a trick.
So it is with whitetail hunters. We are besieged with rifles, bombarded with cartridges, and beset with scopes. You can get more conflicting advice on a deer gun than you can on the stock market. But be of good cheer; salvation is at hand. The answers to all your questions (aside, of course, from the romantic, theological, and financial) follow.
Let's begin by accepting the fact that speed of fire is valuable in military weapons and nowhere else. Flinging lead is futile no matter how fast it flies out the bore. Ninety-nine percent of the time, a deer is taken or lost on the first shot. So we can immediately rule out those actions whose main virtue is speed of fire: the lever, the pump, and the auto.
But, you ask, what about that 1 percent of the time where a fast second shot could decide whether you eat venison or corned-beef hash? In the real world, it just doesn't help. The availability of fast repeat shots beguiles hunters into sloppy shooting, and they miss far more than people who are forced to do it right with the first pull of the trigger. As an international-caliber high-power shooter I knew used to snarl, "Rapid fire is the crutch of the incompetent."
This leaves us with the bolt, which, coincidentally, is also the strongest, the most reliable, and the safest, and comes with the best trigger. How are you going to argue with that?
The ideal weight for a deer rifle is between 7 and 8 pounds with scope, sling, and a full magazine. In this world of marvels you can buy bolt guns that weigh as little as 5 or 6 pounds, but they are extremely hard to hold steady because they are so light.
For most whitetail cartridges, a barrel of 22 inches is about ideal. A longer barrel is more difficult to maneuver through the brush, and it adds weight. For cartridges like the 7mm/08 and .308, which don't burn a lot of powder, you can get by with 20 inches, and that makes for a very handy gun. The price you pay is a little added muzzle blast, but it's nothing you can't live with.
Wood is beautiful; wood is a miracle of nature; wood does strange and unpredictable things when exposed to changes in the weather. Your wood-stocked rifle that shot perfectly in the bogs of Mississippi may shoot a foot higher than it was sighted in for when you take it to the mountains of Montana. That is why we invented Kevlar, fiberglass, graphite, epoxy, and all that other soulless stuff that, when made into a rifle stock, does not shift, warp, or bend. You can drive tent stakes with a good synthetic stock.
The strongest and lightest synthetic stocks are made of Kevlar, and equally good ones, although heavier, are made of fiberglass. Below this level are a half dozen other materials that are much less expensive, but satisfactory.
Blued steel (chrome moly, for the metallurgically inclined) looks nice and is traditional. Stainless steel is jarring to some, and is tougher to machine, but it rusts much more slowly in rain, snow, and dew. Stainless barrels also last longer because they are more resistant to the scorching of powder gas. This one is a toss-up: If bright metal offendeth thee, go with blued steel. If you'd rather not worry about the rifle, get stainless.
Deer are small, fragile animals that are almost always taken at close range and don't require a caannon to put them down. This selection of deer cartridges will delight and amaze you with both their good manners and their efficiency:
The .270 Winchester made its debut in the 1920s, but it is still an unbeatable combination of ample power, flat trajectory, and minimum recoil. It will handle anything from antelope to elk and has dropped more deer quickly than anything else I've used. I took one to Africa in 1988, and it did just fine. (A friend of mine used to hunt African lions with a .270, and he's still alive.)
The 7mm/08 is a .308 Winchester necked down to .284. It has minimum recoil and is absolutely deadly at ranges out to 250 yards, beyond which its modest velocity makes the .270 a better choice. The best 7mm/08 loadings I've used are the Winchester Supreme cartridges with either the 140-grain Ballistic Silvertip or the 140-grain Fail Safe bullets.
The .308 Winchester (see above) is best used with any quick-expanding 150-grain bullet. You will smile; the deer will not.
The .30/06 is actually too powerful for all but the biggest deer, but how can you omit it? The best bullets are quick-expanding 150- and 165-grainers.
Scopes There are other wonderful scopes that will do just fine for deer, but these four are excellent.-D.E.P.
Leupold Vari-X III 1.5-5x
Small, light, and you can see the whole world through it. If you're going to hunt in the brush, there is nothing better anywhere. $520-$580
Leupold Vari-X III 2.5-8X
A masterpiece. Maybe the best all-around scope for American hunting ever made. Plenty of power for just about any kind of shooting, but with very little weight and bulk. $550-$700
Weaver Grand Slam 3x-10X
This is an excellent riflescope that retails at a price that's not to be believed. We don't know how they do it. $346
Zeiss 3x-9X Conquest
Like the Weaver scope above, an incredible bargain. They must be stealing them off trucks at some point. $499
Swarovski 3x-10x AV
The family that owns the company listens to what other hunters say. This scope is built to American tastes with superb optics and (for what you get) reasonable pricing. $832