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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.