I’m shopping for a deer rifle–I’m an older dad of young boys, never hunted before, no family tradition, high time I started, et c. et c. Midlife deal, whatever. Anyway, I’ve been researching for more than a year now and have come to a few conclusions:
- 30-06 is my preferred load for whitetails. I’m new, I want something with a soft recoil.
- Marlin is making a bunch of affordable, quality rifles right now. Like the X7 and 336W. But they seem to have a bewildering variety.
- The Tikka T3 Lite looks awesome, but is not commonly available chambered in 30-06. Maybe .243? That’s supposed to be light
Care to provide any guidance for a fellow car Jew who doesn’t want to spend much over $500 and wants to put meat in the freezer? I am–forgive me–prepared to pull the trigger on buying one after the new year.
So what you’re looking for is an accurate firearm for under $500? I think you’ve come to the right place.
Let me stick a caveat in here real quick: I’ve been hunting a grand total of once in my life. I am by no means an expert on hunting, but I understand the issues and mechanics involved with firearms in that environment and based off that assessment I offer the following opinions on the matter. I’m always open to suggestions and alternate firearms, so please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section.
First and foremost your firearm needs to conform to the legal requirements set forth by your state. In Texas you can use anything you darn well please to hunt deer, but other states like Pennsylvania and Illinois restrict the firearms by requiring a “manual” action instead of semi-auto capability or restricting hunting to shotguns only. I’d make sure to take a peek at your local gun laws and check with your friendly neighborhood taxidermist to see what people in the area are using.
When you’re looking for a deer rifle (once you’ve determined a rifle is your firearm of choice) there are four criteria you need to consider when selecting the model and caliber.
- “Stopping Power“
- Rate of Fire
Accuracy is the most important feature of a hunting rifle or any rifle in general. A rifle that can’t hit where you’re aiming is of no use whatsoever, and especially with live and moving targets the ability to accurately place your shots is the key to ethical harvesting. While you don’t necessarily need to run out and get a 1/2 MoA rifle you should preferably make sure that whatever you get will give you no more than a 2 MoA spread at the distances you’re intending to shoot (2 inches at 100 yards). Anything more and you start risking shots veering off target and maiming instead of killing or rupturing the digestive organs and ruining the meat.
Stopping power is another word for muzzle energy, which is a factor of muzzle velocity and bullet weight. The muzzle energy of a firearm will tell you how much force you’re exerting on a target downrange, and generally more is good. The more energy that impacts the target the greater the hydrostatic shock will be and the greater the internal injuries for the animal. In an ideal world the animal should drop instantly after being hit but more often than not they like to run into the woods, and the greater the internal injuries the sooner they will stop running. Something over 2,000 ft/lbs of force is highly recommended.
Weight is another major concern. For my Texas hunting trip I had both my Weatherby Vanguard Carbine and the Weatherby Sub-MoA TRR available to me, and while the TRR would technically be more accurate I chose the carbine instead because it was much lighter. You’re looking for one or two precision shots from a cold barrel, and as long as you’ve sighted your rifle for that cold barrel it doesn’t matter as much how heavy a barrel you have. And your body will thank you for choosing not to lug around the extra steel that you never really use or need.
Rate of fire is the final consideration. What if you miss that first shot but you still have a deer staring you in the face? What if a pack of wild hogs comes out of nowhere and you get the opportunity to take a shot at them? Break action single shot firearms are great for accuracy (and sometimes the only option available to hunters for legal reasons) but being able to put more rounds on target is never a bad thing as long as its done accurately.
For me, that narrows the field to bolt action and lever action firearms that fulfill all four requirements while still staying in the “under $500” range. If you want to consider something a little above your price range you might want to look into a Remington 7600, one of the more historically popular pump action deer rifles.
Let me give you some recommendations for bolt and lever guns which meet your (and my) criteria for a good deer rifle. These firearms have either been fired by me or someone I trust and I’ve linked to their reviews for quick reference:
- Weatherby Vanguard Carbine (~$400) — Have I mentioned the Weatherby? Because I like the Weatherby. Especially with the new Series 2 coming out in 2012 the price on these older models will be dropping pretty rapidly in the coming weeks and months.
- Mossberg 100 ATR (~$350) — The 100 ATR is an “okay” rifle that can’t be improved much. The Weatherby has some room to grow if you make adjustments, but the 100 ATR isn’t going to get much better than factory condition. Nevertheless it’s $50 cheaper and comes with weaver mounts on the top as well as iron sights and a free floated barrel.
- Marlin 336W Lever Action (~$380) — Marlin has a bit of a spotty track record here at TTAG, what with their guns having a propensity for being broken or otherwise crappy looking when coming straight from the factory. Nevertheless I do like their 336W lever action rifles, and so does Ryan Finn.
If you’re looking for the “perfect” lever action firearm, the Marlin 1895 XLR is in my mind the perfect gun. It’s beautiful, takes the straight walled .45/70 Government cartridge and packs quite a punch. Not really something that meets your criteria for “cheap and low recoil” but I thought I’d throw it out there for consideration.
As for ammunition, I would highly recommend you reconsider your choice. The Springfield .30-06 cartridge would require a long action instead of a short action, and ballistic performance at greater distances isn’t nearly as good as the smaller and more efficient .308 Winchester cartridge. .308 is generally more widely available, cheaper, easier to reload, and “reduced recoil” or “managed recoil” hunting ammunition for .308 is widely available from Remington and other manufacturers and according to the local gun stores quickly sells out the weekend before hunting season every year.
In short, depending on local laws you can definitely have a high quality hunting rifle complete for under $500. Any of the above firearms with an okay scope (like this one) and a sling will still be below the $500 mark yet give you accurate shots and comfortable hunting. My recommendation is to stick with a bolt action rifle in .308 Winchester, lever action and pump action firearms are also available and accurate.
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