What makes the best deer-camp rifle? Well there are some basic rules. Tradition is important, so your camp gun should be a classic, or at least a modern classic. It cannot be hideous to behold, because the other guys will behold it.
The 10 Best Deer Camp Rifles
At camp, a gun is something of a show piece. Of course, it has to be tough, reliable, and generally get the job done. There’s a reason why you bothered to put up the meat pole. Finally, like all rules, these are occasionally broken. Here are our picks, in no particular order. Let the debating begin.
Model 99 fans call it the greatest all-around deer rifle ever made, period. No doubt, it’s the greatest lever, and it looks right at home on the wall of a traditional camp. Fairly light and perfectly balanced, the 99 has a decent trigger, takes well to a scope, and fires high-intensity rounds accurately enough for moderately long-range shooting. In other words, it handles like a lever and performs like a bolt.
When the 99 debuted in the last year of the 19th century, it was so far ahead of its time—with its hammerless receiver and rotary magazine allowing for high-power rounds with spitzer bullets—that no comparable lever appeared for another 56 years when Winchester rolled out the Model 88, which still was not as good a gun.
You can hardly go to a Northeastern big-woods deer camp and not see three of them on the rack. This is the rifle that Larry “The Legend” Benoit made famous, and it remains hugely popular as a woods gun for all the same reasons that the greatest deer tracker ever carried it: it’s handy (especially the carbine version, which Remington designed specifically for Benoit); it offers quick backup shots; and it’s more accurate than a pump has any right to be. It’s also dead reliable, which is why it gets the nod here over its semi-auto sibling, which is a hugely popular camp gun in its own right.
Despite its silvery finish, the M77 isn’t flashy; its trigger isn’t polished and it rarely cuts cloverleaf groups. What it does is work every time, in any weather. There are hunters who’ve never cleaned their 77s, fearing that doing so might bring an end to their decades-long deer-killing streak. The Mark II’s Mauser 98-style, controlled-feed action, steel wing-style safety, and hammer-forged barrel are made to last until the end of time, let alone next season. In large swaths of the country, particularly in Texas and the southwest, the 77 in .25-06 or .243 is the most classic deer rifle of all, and the one you’ll still find on the gun rack nearest the best hunter’s bunk.
Vintage deer-camp photos are strewn with Model 94s because for the better part of a century, this was the American deer rifle. Since the gun’s debut in the fall of 1894, Winchester has sold nearly 10 million of them. You don’t see many 94s today outside of North Country camps, where the old timers follow hoofprints through cedar swamps to within yards of bedded bucks. But for guys with the skill to hunt close with their feet on the ground, nothing carries better, comes up quicker, or has the cache of the great Model 94. The Carbine version, shown, is as handy in a treestand as it is in tight cover.
Introduced in 1962, the Model 700—with its excellent button-rifled barrel and superb trigger—has long held the reputation as the rifle to own for deer hunters who value accuracy above all else. There is little doubt that the Model 700 action has been the basis for more super-accurate rifles (both Remington and custom guns) than any other. In its many forms (the Mountain Rifle in the big woods, for example, and the Sendero overlooking southern beanfields)—the 700 remains a deer-camp fixture.
Marlin introduced the 336’s forerunner, the Model 1893, a full year before Winchester rolled out the venerated 94. But it took decades—and the introduction of the optical sight into common use—for deer hunters to realize that the Marlin is in many ways the better gun, particularly for modern hunters, as its solid-top receiver takes naturally to a scope, the trigger can be tuned for a better pull, and it tends to be the more accurate rifle. From the Pennsylvania hills to the Mississippi bottomlands to the Western timber (where a few holdout cowboys shun the modern bolt) the 336 is the lever-gun you’re most apt to see in today’s deer camp.
Widely regarded as the finest American factory rifle every made, the Model 70, introduced in 1936, put it all together: classic good looks, total reliability, and excellent accuracy for the time. In the open country of the prairie states and the mountain West, it’s not enough to be a hunter; you have to also be a rifleman, which is why you see “The Rifleman’s Rifle” (both the Sporter and the Featherweight) in so many western camps. Everyone prizes the pre-64 version, but today’s Model 70 is as good as ever.
In parts of the heartland (where legal), a deer-camp gun is best kept uncased and barrel down in the pickup, where it’s ever-handy should a coyote need killing on the way to the stand. So, in 1987, when Ruger introduced a more powerful version of its quintessential truck gun, the Mini-14 Ranch Rifle, bluejean-wearing deer hunters took to it like Catahoulas to flatbeds. Some hunters will question the 7.62×39’s power (it’s an AK-47 round), and purist may bemoan the gun’s gangly 20-round magazine and anvil-like trigger. But the 7.62×39 is only slightly less energetic than the .30-30 Win., a deer-stand friendly 5-round mag can be swapped in a second, and the gun’s M1 Garand action saved the world, so cowboys have no problem trusting it to thin the whitetail herd.
When Weatherby unveiled the Mark V in 1957, most hunters didn’t know what to think. It didn’t look like their father’s deer rifle, with its fancy stock, glossy finish, and absence of iron sights. And the Mark V was chambered only in Weatherby’s fire-breathing magnums. In the field, the rifle delivered astounding power and suberb accuracy; it not only won hunters over but redefined long-range shooting. If you do not see a Mark V in any given Western camp, where flat-shooting is at a premium, it’s probably because you’re looking at a Weather Vanguard (the bargain version) instead.
At the start of this century, Kimber set out to build the perfect, lightweight mountain rifle. They combined a stainless-steel, Mauser-style action (designed to minimal dimensions for a given caliber) with a match-grade stainless barrel, and a Kevlar stock with Pachmayr pad—all put together and finished flawlessly. In .308, the 84M weighs a hair over 5 pounds. If it is not perfect, it’s close enough that deer hunters—especially Western mountain hunters—have made it modern classic.
Bonus: The Classic Deer Camp Shotgun
We narrowed the above list to centerfire rifles to keep things manageable, but we can’t leave out all the hunters who chase whitetails under shotgun-only regs. For the slug-gun crowd, one deer-camp classic stands alone:
Check carefully to make sure the 1100 you grab out of the gun rack is yours, because chances are good three or four other hunters have brought guns just like it to camp. The most popular semiauto ever made, the 1100 was the first reliable gas-operated shotgun, whose recoil-reducing properties were no less apparent to deer hunters than to waterfowlers. In the 80s Remington introduced rifled barrels with cantilever scope mounts that made the 1100 as accurate as it was soft-shooting. The late 80s also saw the rollout of the 11-87, practically the same gun but with a presume-compensated gas system that fired all 2¾- and 3-inch shells without switching barrels. Both are still hugely popular.
13 Must-Follow Deer Camp Rules
If showing off your perfect deer rifle is common law at deer camp, what other rules should hunters follow? Bill Heavey shares his 13 must-follow deer camp rules. No exceptions.
If a camp member should get lost, the distress signal is three shots, with an interval of 10 seconds between shots. This is so members may distinguish between the truly lost and those who are merely poor marksmen.
Nobody over 300 pounds permitted in upper bunks for any reason. One member is still removing plywood splinters from his backside after last year’s incident involving Tiny Binstock.
No lawyers allowed as guests. Ever. Even if he or she is a blood relation.
A dish is deemed clean if the user cannot identify last foodstuff eaten off of it.
Any hunter observed missing a shot under 150 yards at a standing deer will have his shirttail cut off in the presence of all camp members that evening. However, the “Henderson exception” stipulates that no hunter shall have more than three shirts destroyed in said manner per day.
Polypropylene long johns may be worn for no more than five days, or until fumes can be seen emanating from them, whichever comes first.
The Saran Wrap-over-the-outhouse-seat trick may not be perpetrated after the first week of hunting season.
A member shooting a buck under 100 pounds live weight (or doe under 70 pounds) must leave the animal where it drops. A party including the shooter and a majority of members present will then be assembled to retrieve the deer. Members hauling the carcass will express incredulity at the immense size of the animal and voice the fear of injuring their backs. This is intended to promote camaraderie and group cohesion.
A deer taken by a member may gain no more than 2 antler points per hunting year, with a 4-point maximum. To wit, a 6-pointer may be referred to as an 8-pointer the following season, and a 10-pointer the season after, but will never become a 12-pointer no matter how long the hunter lives.
Peeing off the porch is prohibited during daylight hours. Peeing off the south end of porch after dark is permitted provided no members are sleeping in impact zone.
Any boy shooting his first buck will, at that evening’s dinner, be given the choice of eating either the right or left testicle of the buck. Cook will serve 2 hush puppies of not less than 3 inches diameter each to the boy. After a suitable silence, boy’s father or guardian will say, “Hell, I’ll make it easy for you, son,” and consume one hush puppy whole. He will then smack his lips and declare, “Now that’s a good testicle!”
All poker debts incurred after 9 p.m. are to be rolled one decimal point to the left. Thus, $100 becomes $10, $1,000 becomes $100, etc.
Cellphones will be confiscated and dropped down the most-used hole in the outhouse, to be retrieved at their owners’ convenience. ––Bill Heavey