The Ultimate Whitetail Rifle: Tricking Out Your Bolt Action for Fall

The whitetail deer has to be our most popular big game animal in the Continental Forty-Eight, yet the settings in which we hunt them, and the means with which we hunt them has got to be the most diverse ever.  Entire volumes have been written on what makes up the consummate deer gun, and while I’m not going to attempt to define that within this article, I would like to talk about some ideas to optimize your existing deer rifle, or perhaps to choose a different rifle in order to try a different means of deer hunting. You can never have enough deer guns, right? Here’s some ideas that may make things fun.

A new riflescope can give an old rifle a definite facelift.

1. A new rifle scope.

My dad, when it comes to hunting gear, is tighter than two coats of paint. He’s still rocking the same Redfield scope he purchased in ’69, and while I am an aficionado of vintage rifles, and to a much lesser degree vintage optics, our modern sporting gear has seen some very serious advancements in the quality of optics. Lens coatings, precision ground lenses, CNC tooling and the like have shown their benefits in even the most inexpensive optics lines. When it comes to a rifle that I need to make a distant shot, or one of those low-light shots that deer hunting often presents, I like my scope to cost more than my rifle. A change in riflescope can sometimes bring an old rifle back to life, and inspire the hunter in a way that is unlooked for. Modern riflescopes can often have a different level of magnification than was standard just a couple decades ago. 1-8x, 2-12x, 3.5-18x, all are possible and offer a performance level and value that even my father would approve. Go riflescope shopping, and change up the look of your deer rifle.

2. Alternative sighting means.

A spare riflescope is not a difficult prospect, especially considering the quality of today’s detachable mounts.

It’s happened to me, and more than once. I enjoy hunting deer in the more remote parts of my native New York, and I’ve slipped down ice-coated slopes, tripped over roots, and slid in the snow. The resulting tumble and sickening scope bumps are – since the trend of naked barrels – a hunt ender. So, I’ve sat and thought and pondered (with a rifle/scope combination I knew wouldn’t hit the broad side of a barn) about how to avoid this problem in the backcountry. There’s a couple of ways to go, should your initial riflescope take a hit and be rendered useless, or at least receive a vote of no confidence. Immediately obvious, if your rifle has iron sights, they are a means – though crude in comparison to a high-magnification riflescope – of continuing the hunt. Be sure and carry the proper tool to remove a scope if necessary, and spend some time with your iron sights as a backup. If your rifle, like many of mine, are smooth barreled, look into a set of good detachable rings. It’s not hard to keep another scope (I like a light, compact 2.5x or 1.5-5x) in a separate set of detachable rings and pre-zeroed, which won’t take up a ton of room in your pack. It sure beats sitting on a stump trying to affix a hunting knife to the muzzle of your rifle with a shoelace.

Ammunition has changed greatly in recent years. The new Federal Edge TLR gives both excellent accuracy and terminal ballistics, and is just one of many new products.

3. Try some new ammunition.

If you think optics have shown a huge advancement in technology, modern bullets and powders may actually eclipse them. I’ve seen many good deer rifles sitting in the back of a buddy’s cabinet, collecting dust, only to hear “that rifle never shot well, we don’t use it anymore.” Lo and behold, with some modern ammunition, I’ve seen some of those ‘retired’ rifles come leaping back to life faster than Lazarus when fed modern ammunition. You could spend an entire summer experimenting with the number of different brand/bullet/weight combinations available, and I’d be willing to bet that before the wallet started screaming you’d find a combination that worked for you. Barrel harmonics are a funny thing, and once you find ammunition that mates well with your barrel, a dead rifle can show all sorts of life.

Reloading your hunting ammunition provides a new, satisfying hobby, and helps you spend time with your rifle.

4. Learn to handload.

Wanna rekindle the relationship with your deer rifle? Develop a handload for it, something special and unique. By handloading your ammunition, you’ll not only develop a new skill, but you’ll spend a lot more time in the off-season with your rifle in your hands. I have a different level of pride when I take a deer with my own handloaded ammunition, and while that’s a separate passion of mine, I enjoy using my own ammunition as much as I do making a difficult shot.

A good trigger, such as the Timney shown here, can really make a difference in a rifle’s performance. If you’re not comfortable with a replacement trigger, a competent gunsmith may be able to adjust your existing trigger.

5. Change/adjust that trigger.

A trigger can make or break a rifle, hands down. If you’re not 100 percent happy with the performance of your trigger, it’s not a difficult proposition to change it. There are some fantastic triggers on the market – with Timney being a particular favorite of mine – that aren’t that difficult to have installed in your rifle. In most instances, I feel a competent gunsmith is warranted, as you want your trigger to be operating not only smoothly, but safely, but there are times where you can do it yourself if you’re feeling it. Either way, when you have a good trigger in your rifle, you shoot and hunt more confidently. A good trigger scale – I like the Lyman digital model – will tell you exactly where things are, should you feel you need an adjustment to your existing trigger.

6. Look into something new.

Sometimes you just need to change things up. With no disrespect to an old friend or favorite, a new rifle can put a new perspective on your deer hunting. I strolled into my favorite local gun shop – Coxsackie Gun & Bow – and the proprietor, one Mr. Jeff Koonz, showed me his new personal acquisition: a used Ruger No. 1 RSI in 7×57 Mauser. Short, petite, compact, and well-balanced, we immediately agreed that this would make a fantastic rifle for stalking whitetails in the Catskills and Adirondacks, handling the odd black bear just fine. Likewise, I’ve seen guys who are lever-action devotees gaze longingly at a heavy barreled long-range rifle, wistfully dreaming of making that long shot on a trophy buck. I have four or five different rifles that would suffice, very well I might add, as a deer rifle. I like them all, and love a couple, but I do enjoy changing things up once in a while. It doesn’t need to be expensive, the rifle just needs to be functional and reliable, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to have more than one good deer rifle.

Whitetail deer have become an integral part of each hunting season, no matter how many trips abroad that year may involve. As much as I love hunting different species around the globe, I’ll always be a deer hunter first and foremost. The rifles and traditions involved with our deer hunts will always hold a very special place in my heart. Here’s wishing you a safe and successful deer season!

For more information about Leupold optics, click here.

For more information about Federal Edge TLR hunting loads, click here.

To read a more in-depth review about the Federal Edge TLR, click here.

To purchase a bolt-action rifle on GunsAmerica for whitetail season, click here.

{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Brent Sample January 30, 2020, 10:42 am

    The Phil massaro,article,fix up your hunting rifle,
    Good read, he mentioned finding a ruger rsi in 7\57 caliber,great cartridge
    Great gun I love mine, handload it in 150 grn Barnes X bullets .
    I took a buck in South tx this year,2019 and it worked great with this caliber
    Distributes lots of energy around the bullett, both sides of the body,take down any animal.
    Thanks like halls reports
    Brent sample

  • Pete Bentley September 7, 2019, 11:39 am

    My favorable rifle to hunt deer here on my farm in Virginia is my trusty savage axis 25/06 for long range in my fields,but if I’m going up high and here on the high hills I use my 30. Caliber m1 carbine.with 110 grain sp ppu ammo.its light and easy to carry,I put a nikon scope on it to help my old 60 year old eyes to see my game better a Winchester and I’ve taken over 30 nice bucks with it with only one shot kills.its where you place your shot to take down a nice deer not where you hope you hit it that counts,me it’s one shot and make it count.if it’s not going to be a good shot then let the deer go and regroup and come back another matter what gun or rifle you choose to take or use get to know that gun.and don’t take any stupid chances on getting a shot on a wounded deer,always make your first shot count and make sure that will do the job right the first and only time for you!!!!!

  • Mark Tercsak November 16, 2017, 5:13 pm

    Do not get me wrong I love bolt action rifles, but the Bolt Action and the Ar-15 Just sick and tired of hearing about them.
    How about some articles on the ultimate single shot rile, or the ultimate lever action Rifle for a change or the best semi auto rifle the M1 Garand or the M14 ?

    • Nashoba Losa October 3, 2018, 11:51 am

      Hey Mark. I agree with you on the single shot issue. My favorite deer rifles have been my 7X30 Waters Thompson Contender with the 14 inch barrel and the youth stock for heavy brush hunting; my .30-30 New England Handi Rifle; and finally my 7MM Rem Mag Browning 1885 Highwall. All three are single shot with fine scopes on them from fixed 4X to a 3-12 40 big dog on the Browning. Never needed a second shot with any of them. When you know you have only one shot at a nice buck, you take your time, read the wind, check the background for potential danger and for places the buck mich lie up to bleed out, make very good decisions, and then take the shot. It was a source of pride for me to hunt with a single shot. It always seemed to even things out between me and the deer.

  • Patrick LeDoux October 24, 2017, 6:03 pm


    Please let me know who makes that hunting knife with the horned handle and the “PPM 09” on the blade. I want to get one and I didn’t see the knife’s name in the article.

    Thank you,


    • Phil Massaro December 4, 2018, 11:56 pm

      The knife is from Silver Stag, and it’s one of my favorites.

  • scott paridee October 24, 2017, 3:28 pm

    I agree shot placement is the most important thing cal.not so much I took my son out and shot a doe with a 22 cal.rifle and drop it in its tracks shot it in the ear down it went.

  • Andy Foster October 24, 2017, 1:45 am

    This is no trick needed. All you need is a straight shooting gun and the ability to reasonably shoot it. I have a very old 30-06 Remington 700 BDL that I would put up against many other guns. That early 70’s era rifle is still capable of shooting better groups than I’m capable of.

  • JoshO October 23, 2017, 11:11 am

    “The whitetail deer has to be our most popular big game animal in the Continental Forty-Eight”

    We’re calling whitetails ‘big game’ now? Snorts of derision coming your way from up here in wapiti country.

    • Texar October 25, 2017, 10:52 am

      No snorts of derision here but the whitetail deer comes in at number one on most North American ‘Big Game” lists, including the Grand Slam and Super Slam lists that you may seek if you have the time and money. Here’s “A” list….
      North American Big Game
      1. whitetail deer
      2. mule deer
      3. coues deer
      4. columbia blacktail deer
      5. rocky mountain elk
      6. tule elk
      7. alaska-yukon moose
      8. shiras moose
      9. bison
      10. pronghorn
      11. cougar
      12. black bear
      13. grizzly bear
      14. polar bear
      15. mountain goat
      16. dall sheep
      17. stone sheep
      18. bighorn sheep
      19. desert bighorn sheep
      20. brown bear
      21. barren ground caribou
      22. quebec-labrador caribou
      23. mountain caribou
      24. woodland caribou
      25. musk ox
      26. sikta blacktail deer
      27. roosevelt elk
      This list varies, some add different species of moose, muskox, caribou. Some even include the walrus or turkey.

  • a b turner October 23, 2017, 9:45 am

    All that is great but my old 700adl in 243 winchester with a weaver 4x scope and hand load 90 grain silvertips never failed me. No matter how much you trick out the gun it still has to hit the target and I never took more than one shot at a white tail and properly placed shot does the trick every time. It is all about accuracy or as the liberals say “gun control”

    • Dave October 23, 2017, 3:55 pm

      100% agree. The author has another article here talking about the “best” cartridges and he states that practice and accuracy are foremost. Where I hunt in northern MN there are a lot of “closet” deer hunters. These are hunters that never take their rifle out of the closet except on opening morning, then go out and blast away at a running deer at 200 yards. Then they blame the gun for missing or wounding, but not recovering the animal! I do agree with the author on upgrading. Last year my buddy and I were bucks only hunting out of his tree stand in the early, misty but legal dawn. When a nice deer came out and stood in the shooting lane, my buddy with his 80s era cheap scope said “crap, I can’t tell if it’s a buck!! I handed him my rifle with a new Leupold VXIII and clear as afternoon he could see it was a Doe. She then walked into the woods and was gone. If it would have been a Buck he wouldn’t have been able to take the shot. I agree with your .243 and well placed within range shots, but what if you only had a 300 yd shot at a big trophy Buck that your not going to be able to get closer to? Wouldn’t that nice .270, 7mm mag or 30-06 with a good 3×9 or 4×10 Quality scope you saw on sale or on the used gun rack for a great price, make you a little more comfortable taking that shot?

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