Whitetail Hunting photo
Dan Saelinger

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By David E. Petzal Let us all praise the whitetail deer: eater of shrubs, wrecker of cars, biological miracle, inhabitant of dreams. I know men who can kill a charging Cape buffalo without a change of pulse rate but who become undone at the sight of a big whitetail buck. He is our national big-game animal, and as such he has had a lot of guns dedicated to his untimely demise. Some of them, over time, have become standouts. The best ones, traditionally, are light and handy and chambered for cartridges that do not cause seismometer needles to jump when you pull the trigger. The other kind, used for keeping vigil in tree stands, are long, heavy, and superaccurate. Here are the 10 deer rifles that I favor above all others. The Savage is my favorite; after that, it all depends on my mood. 1. Savage Model 99 Lever Action: The only lever action as advanced as this one–the Winchester Model 88–was not built until half a century after the 99 debuted in, unsurprisingly enough, 1899. This graceful rifle was chambered for high-intensity cartridges from the get-go. It takes naturally to a scope, can be very accurate, and has quite a decent trigger. The rotary-magazine 99s are more desirable than the detachable-magazine versions and command big money. The first big-game rifle I ever got my hands on was a Model 99 in .300 Savage. The 99 combines most of the virtues of a bolt action with the strong points of a lever gun. How do you beat that? Dan Saelinger
2. Winchester Model 94 lever action: I don’t mean the late-manufacture 94s that were tortured into accommodating scopes; I mean the real 94s that were made for use with iron sights and without apologies. In the rifle’s prime years, between 1894 and 1963, more than 2 1/2 million were made, and although it was produced in a variety of calibers, the .30/30 is the classic load for this gun. The 94 is easy-carrying, fast-handling, light-recoiling, ultrareliable, and accurate enough to do the job. What more do you require? It is a relic of a time when deer hunters did not inhabit trees or lust to take shots into the next county. They figured that if they could stalk on foot and get real close, they were real hunters. Dan Saelinger
3. Marlin Model 336 lever action: Everything said about the 94 applies here, but as I’ve stated elsewhere, I think the 336 is the better gun. It’s a bit heavier, but the ones I’ve shot have been considerably more accurate, and the solid-top receiver means that you can use a scope. You can also tune the trigger for a much better pull than the 94 offers. Dan Saelinger
4. Remington Model 7600 (shown) and 760 slide actions: Two of the most underrated rifles ever built, they combine several huge advantages and a few minor drawbacks. In terms of getting off fast aimed shots, they are barely slower than autos (and just as fast in the hands of a practiced shooter), but they don’t jam (something uncleaned autos specialize in doing). They point fast, and some of the ones I’ve shot have been very accurate. On the minus side, the triggers are dreadful, and there’s nothing you can do about it. The slop in the fore-end drives some hunters mad. Dan Saelinger
5. Winchester Model 71 lever action: From a sales standpoint, the 71 was a failure. It was made from 1935 to 1957, only 47,000 were produced, and the gun was chambered for only one cartridge–the .348. But the Model 71 is not only a whitetail rifle par excellence, it is also powerful enough to be a good bear, elk, and moose hunting rifle. Moreover, it was built during Winchester’s heyday, and every 71 I’ve ever handled has been a prime example of why guns from this period are so prized by collectors as well as hunters. Dan Saelinger
6. Mannlicher-​Schoenauer Model 1903 Bolt Action: Do you yearn to set yourself off from the slobbering herd? Well, how about a full-stock carbine that has a 17.7-inch barrel, weighs only 5 1/2 pounds, has a rotary magazine and a double-set trigger, and is arguably the finest factory-produced rifle ever made? That, friends, is the original Mannlicher carbine, chambered in 6.5x54mm. It has its drawbacks, but I guarantee you that no one else in camp will have one. The price is even doable: in excellent condition, $1,500. If someone were to try to make it today to the original standard of quality, it would cost three times that. Dan Saelinger
** 7. Remington Model 600 Magnum (shown) and 660 Magnum bolt actions:** Commercial failures at the time, these two carbines are only now being appreciated for what they are. The 600 came out in 1965. Chambered for a brutally effective little cartridge called the .350 Remington Magnum, it had a high-contrast laminated stock, a dogleg bolt handle, and a useless nylon rib. Light, short, and powerful, it was seen as an excessive kicker at the time. It lasted two years and was then replaced by the nicer-looking 660 Magnum, which in turn lasted just a few years. Both rifles embody the same virtues as the Model 71 Winchester; they are terrific deer rifles but have the power to go way beyond deer. And their recoil is nothing unusual by today’s standards. One note: Some rifles in the 600 and 660 series had their triggers diddled with by unqualified people. If you buy one, have a gunsmith check it out. Dan Saelinger
** 8. Marlin Model 1895G Guide Gun lever action:** Possibly the ultimate expression of real power in a small package, this little beast is chambered for the ancient .45/70, but renewed interest in the cartridge gives you all sorts of options that didn’t exist when it was introduced in 1873. With factory ammo, it’s a mild-kicking load that will kill deer quickly and spoil little meat. With Hornady LeverEvolution spitzers, you have a real honest-to-goodness 200-yard deer killer. And with the custom hard-lead loads put together by Garrett Cartridges, you can hunt anything–and I do mean anything. Dan Saelinger
9. Jarrett Beanfield bolt action: There are a lot of places where creeping and peeping are not productive tactics, where sitting in a stand makes more sense. South Carolina is one such locale, and Kenny Jarrett–a card-carrying South Carolinian–perfected the beanfield rifle for taking long, long shots at whitetails that are far, far away across beanfields or whatever crop you prefer. Beanfield gun is now a generic term, and it means a bolt action, heavy in the barrel, mounted with a powerful scope, chambered for a flat-shooting cartridge. If a Jarrett might send you to the poorhouse, then consider a Savage Tactical Rifle in .25/06. It’s not customized, and its components may not be as high grade as those used in Jarrett rifles, but it’s still a beanfield rifle. Dan Saelinger
10. Tar-Hunt RSG-12 bolt action: On the other hand, there are places where you can’t hunt deer with a rifle, so you either endure the horror and shame of using a bow or you get a slug gun. For the latter option, the Tar-Hunt stands supreme. I’ve seen nothing that will shoot along with it. Technically, it’s a slug gun; in reality, it’s a rifle that fires slugs. Used within its range limitations, it will outshoot just about any true deer rifle you can name. Dan Saelinger