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Deer Hunting Rifles: How to Choose One and Common Calibers

America’s hunting lands fill up with hunters, young and old, during deer hunting season. What many people find enticing about deer hunting is the high quality and nutritional value of venison, a lean, organic meat that is as natural as anything a person could buy. For others, it’s time with family and friends that beckons them to the field. Whatever your reason for hunting, choosing a deer hunting rifle that fits you is an important first step.

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How to Choose a Deer Hunting Rifle

Choosing your rifle depends on your unique needs, including:

  • What length of pull/size of stock do you need? 
  • How heavy do you want the gun to be?
  • What caliber do you plan to shoot?
  • Are you hunting in fields, mountains, woods? 
  • Do you have to carry your rifle long distances? 
  • Will you be climbing into a stand, shooting from a blind, or still hunting in brush?
  • Do you have regulations that limit your choice of firearm? 

Because we have to consider the laws governing hunting, we generally start the process of choosing a hunting gun with a little research on the zone that we will hunt and what firearms are allowed. Are you limited to a straight wall cartridge? This is often the case closer to towns or areas with more homes than remote areas.

Deer Hunting Rifles
Whatever caliber you choose, make sure the stock and optic fit you.

The best place to figure out your hunting zone and regulations is to search your state DNR web site. Most Department of Natural Resources have access to zone maps, hunting hours, registration for your deer, etc. My state DNR puts out a PDF on their web site that I can reference easily.

What to Consider for Caliber and Distance

Hunting large game like deer means that your choice in a rifle or shotgun needs to have enough stopping power. My family has used everything from shotgun slugs, to a .308 rifle, to a Desert Eagle pistol. The choice should take into consideration what you are hunting (deer or large game) and the distance at which you will likely be shooting. 

Deer Hunting Rifles
A hunting rifle can be a very personal firearm. I refinished this rifle’s stock when I was a teenager, after my dad re-barreled it in .308. 

Close and Populated

If you are hunting deer on the back 40 on grandpa’s farm, a rifled slug barrel, with slugs that you know the hold for, at the distance you expect to shoot, will suffice (to me, anything inside about 75 yards is what I would limit slug hunting to).  A slug gun means that usually the barrel is rifled all the way through, and that shotgun is meant only for hunting with slugs. This is a great option for areas where you must use a straight-walled cartridge, or have homes, roads, and people nearby and don’t want a round that can travel too far. Another option in a straight-walled cartridge hunting zone is Winchester’s 350 Legend. This round is lighter recoiling and suited to smaller hunters. 

Far and Remote

If you are hunting longer distances (100 yards +) across large open areas where wind might be an issue, my choice would be a .308 rifle. You could pick other calibers, but a .308 is going to be the easiest for which to obtain hunting ammo. Hunting with a .308 also gives you the option of using something like a small-frame AR platform rifle, which means that your home-defense gun could double as your hunting rifle, and you would have the easy controls of an AR platform.  

Common Calibers for Deer Hunting
There are many calibers for hunting.  Picking one that does the job can center around the location you hunt, the guns available or your own personal preferences for recoil. Whatever you choose, find ammo designed for hunting.

Everything in Between

I’ve hunted with people using everything from a 30/30 lever action to a .30-06. Calibers like .243 Winchester, 6.5 Creedmoor, and 7mm Mauser or Remington are options as well. Weatherby has built a women’s hunting rifle, their Camilla model, that comes in many of those calibers. My sons have used other calibers: a Mosin Nagant in 7.62x54r, an AK in 7.62×39, and a Desert Eagle pistol (which is really nice for bringing into an elevated stand!). The enjoyment of using your rifle is something that makes a hunting trip special. Enjoy that! Let your family hunt with guns that hold personal meaning for them. The memories are part of what makes hunting such an enjoyable method of putting food on our families’ tables. My own hunting rifle that I built with my dad as a teenager (he’s a gunsmith) has been used by myself, my husband and 3 sons for our first deer. That’s a family history that we enjoy, and I can’t wait to let my grandkids use that same rifle on their first hunt.

Common Calibers for Deer Hunting
Choosing a hunting rifle can be fun with the multitude of options.

Don’t Forget the Ammo

Ammo is another factor that we have to consider when we hunt. To what do we have access? What is the “ideal” round? You will hear a few phrases thrown around like “stopping power,” “terminal velocity,” and “shoot through,” but what is important? To me, I am hunting for meat. I don’t want an animal to run; I want it to drop humanely and quickly. Slugs up close are very powerful for that. A well-placed rifle shot will do the same. Rounds specifically designed for deer or large game, like Deer Season XP, will give you stopping power. If you are hunting deer once a year, factory ammo that you have access to easily is the simplest ammo. Reloading can be another family bonding time, but if you are travelling to hunt, factory ammo that you zero with at home and can obtain at your destination is going to allow you to put your effort into having a good zero, knowing your hold, and enjoying the hunt. 

Deer Hunting Rifles
Allowing your family to have some fun with their choice in hunting calibers is one way for everyone to enjoy their personal preferences in firearms and share them with others. 

Make Memories, Start Traditions

My overall goal with hunting is to put food in the freezer and enjoy time with my family. This means that I prefer a rifle as my hunting gun, because I can shoot close or far game. But I often switch up what gun I take, and that makes it a lot of fun. To get the most from your hunt, make sure that you zero your gun well at the distance you expect to shoot. Know your holds for anything closer or further away. Most of all, make it time you enjoy, playing a role in conservation and stewardship of natural resources. Take your kids into the deer stand and enjoy a sunrise or sunset, and make hunting stories something mom, grandma, aunts and friends are part of for your family.

  • About Becky Yackley

    Becky Yackley primarily competes in 3 Gun, USPSA, Bianchi pistol, but has competed in shooting since 1989 in disciplines from service-rifle, to NCAA Air Rifle and Smallbore, air pistol and a little bit of long range rifle. She shoots guns and cameras at competitions around the country, and writes in her fictional spare time. Her writing can be found here The WON in her column titled "Not a Soccer Mom" and sponsored by Jagemann Sporting Group, as well as Guns America and Gun World.