What's the Best Hunting Rifle for Your Type of Hunting?

Choosing the Right Hunting Rifle for Your Hunting Conditions

Deer hunting, Clifton, TX
A & C Wiley/Wales / Photolibrary / Getty Images

Hunters have long been debating, weighing the options, and downright arguing at times over a very simple question: What's the best hunting rifle? What type and/or caliber rifle will best serve a big game hunter? I've found that there is no one answer to this question, and each of us must seek the features we need. Above all, we need to be comfortable and familiar with our chosen firearm.

The options available can be overwhelming. There are bolt-actions, lever-actions, semi-automatics, pump-actions, and more, and they come in a wide-ranging selection of calibers. The first thing you'll need to do is to consider where you'll be hunting, and what game you will be pursuing.

While I'm no expert on ballistics, I do have experience with what I classify as the "two sides of the debate": Heavy, larger-caliber, relatively slow-moving bullets, and light, small-caliber, high-velocity bullets. Both will, and have, killed deer, and both can do it well. Let's look at which choice may be better for your unique hunting situation.

Location, Location, Location

Here in my native state of Florida, most of our hunting woods are thick, so visibility is usually limited. The average distance that I've identified and killed Florida bucks is 30-40 yards. I have taken Florida deer as close as 10 feet from the base of my tree, and as far away as 115 yards, but the average gives you a pretty good idea of what I've come to expect.

We do have areas that offer long views, such as the multi-acre scars known as clearcuts, but by and large, most of our hunting is done close-in. In view of this, I prefer a heavy, slow bullet in a light, agile carbine for hunting around here.

I get the most for my effort - meaning that when I have to act quickly, the short, light carbine that I prefer is easy to handle, and at those close ranges, my 240-grain bullet will deliver a solid, deadly punch. Out of 16 deer and 5 hogs shot with that Ruger.44 semi-auto carbine, none have ever been lost. And as I said, the longest shot ever taken with it was 115 yards. Within those bounds, it's a great choice.

Of course, if I were to spot a buck across a clearcut, 200 yards away, I would be more comfortable with something like a 30-06. The reason for this is that, although the 30 caliber bullet's diameter and weight (usually around 150 grains) are both smaller than my pet 44's, it travels at a much higher speed, or velocity. Since it doesn't carry as much "punch", or energy, as the 44, it will carry what it does have farther.

Small diameter, high-velocity bullets such as the 30-06, 308, 243, 7mm, 300 Win Mag, etc, are also considered to be more efficient for the task of penetration (although in a whitetail deer hunting situation, I have shot a 240-grain 44 slug all the way through a buck - end-to-end! - so I don't hold to this rule).


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Optics vs. Iron Sights

Another factor is the type of sights you will use. For close-in shooting, I prefer a peep, or aperture, sight. This is basically a rear sight that has a small hole instead of a blade/notch affair. The aperture is mounted farther to the rear than other iron sights, to allow a longer sight radius and ease of viewing through the peep.

Coupled with an easy-to-see bead on the front sight, the peep sight is absolutely the fastest and easiest iron sight. There is no worry about your sight picture; your eye will automatically center the front bead, so all you need to do is put that bead on the right spot and whammo! he's yours.

For longer-distance shooting, a scope will probably serve most of us better than any other choice. Like the peep, once it's sighted in, you just find the target in your field of view, aim at the "sweet spot", and squeeze the trigger. Scopes have the added advantage of magnifying your target, as well, which can be helpful in a long-range hunting situation - and especially.useful for identifying antlerless deer (short-antlered buck vs. a nice fat doe).

What's it Gonna Be?

Will you be in a situation that requires quick, close-up action, or one that will allow you to find an appropriate rest to steady your aim, and let you shoot at ranges beyond 100-150 yards? If your main hunting ground is densely packed with underbrush, I recommend a short, fast-handling rifle, preferably a semiautomatic or other fast-action gun, like a lever-action or pump, or perhaps a shotgun loaded with buckshot.

If you have the advantage of being in the great wide open and expect to get shots at long range, go for one of the high-velocity choices, and top your rifle with a good quality scope. A bolt-action may well be sufficiently fast enough for follow-up shots for this type of hunting.

In closing, whatever gun you choose, know your target and what's beyond it, don't rush but don't dally (Dad always said, "Take your time, but hurry up!"), and practice with your chosen firearm. While you're waiting for the deer, put the gun to your shoulder and put the sights on a palmetto frond or stump. Imagine different scenarios, various directions from which the deer may approach, and practice taking those shots (without actually firing, of course). Familiarity with your gun will help you make the kill when the time does come.

- Russ Chastain