If you’re lucky enough to draw a tag for a coveted Western hunt, or if you go to the expense of hiring an outfitter, you’re probably just as worried about putting a hole in the bank account as you are a hole in the boiler room of a wall-worthy buck.
I mean, why would you risk any kind of rifle, ammo or optic malfunction after investing that kind of time and money on what could end up being one trigger pull, one bullet, one sight picture…one chance?
I’ve got some good news. Manufacturers are now making budget guns that can save both you and your wallet from nightmares of regret. Some will roll their eyes and murmur: “Obviously.” Others will raise an eyebrow and shout: “Prove it!” I decided to set the record straight, or at least prove to myself that it’s savvy to save my money for the mount.
I planned to test this theory when I secured tags for an Oregon mule deer hunt.
I didn’t take out a second mortgage for a Dakota Arms Model or a custom-built gun. I picked up a Savage Axis II XP, a reliable centerfire in .30-06 that comes with a Weaver Kaspa scope and runs about $400. At the range, I pushed some bargain lead through it, got great groups and decided on the $20 “blue box” of Federal Premium Power-Shok ammo.
I was pleasantly surprised at the Axis’ command of the Xs at 100 yards. After a few shots to get dialed in, I piled up three shots nearly touching. Since I knew I could be stretching a round beyond convenient distances in the wide-open spaces of Oregon, I turned the elevation of the scope 16 clicks counterclockwise to bring the impact to 4 inches above direct center.
At that mark, I could use the traditional Multiplex reticle to be dead on at 300 yards with 150-grain bonded-core bullets shooting 2,910 fps at the muzzle, 2,080 at the target. That way the top of the first post would be on at 400 yards and the shoulder of the post dead on at 450.
With the seemingly constant wind that sweeps the rolling sage grasslands of the Desolation Unit, I really wanted to keep my shots to 300 yards maximum. But it was good to know that my gun would be ready, and that I would be prepared, to reach out to 400 or even 450 yards should I want or need to.
To ensure complete confidence, I practiced on a 6-inch plate 300 yards out until I had sub 2-inch groups. In addition to the rifle, with a pair of $250 8×42 Bushnell Legend Ultra HD binoculars and a $300 Scout DX 1000 ARC laser finder, I was completely outfitted at a grand total of $970.
What was I sacrificing with this budget setup? In terms of confidence, nothing. The Savage rifle is built to operate at the level of a mortgage gun for half the cost.
It’s not going to blow you over with a glass-rod trigger. It won’t draw jealous eyes on an Austrian chamois hunt. It won’t give you stacking groups at extremely long distances and it won’t be the lightest gun on the rack. But you’ll save several thousand dollars, stem to stern, in one gun more than capable of reliable performance.
A true custom-shop rifle is individually made to one’s personal preferences. These works of art reflect a master craftsman’s vision and all of his experience modifying and perfecting firearms. Expect to put down at least $15,000 for one of these coveted, unique creations.
But if you need to choose between a car and a new rifle, a more feasible route is the semi-custom firearm: pre-built to general specs, customers have a lot of options that give it the feel of a custom rifle without the custom price tag.
When talking about personalized deer rifles, South Carolina gun maker Kenny Jarrett comes to mind.
“Every part of a Jarrett custom rifle contributes to the total fit and feel that is the perfect combination for each customer,” said Jarrett, who has been building barrels and rifles for 30 years.
Jarrett’s most famous rifle is his semi-custom Beanfield. You choose the action—Winchester 70, Remington 700, Mauser, Weatherby or any other—and you’ll work with Kenny to find the Jarrett barrel, stock and trigger that works best for you. It will set you back at least $5,380. Tell your whitetail hunting camp buddies you have a Jarrett Beanfield and they’ll make a fuss to the extent that you’re probably going to be in the best stand the next morning.
Can’t afford the artistry of this market? You still have options.
High-end factory guns are much like their semi-custom brethren, but they’re mass made. A $3,200 Blaser R8 has the tight tolerances and fine fit-and-finish you’d find on a custom gun. You’ll also get innovation for your money: known for its super-fast action, the Blaser uses a straight-pull action rather than a throw bolt. In addition, a Blaser’s wooden stock has truly exquisite feathering and burl. They have 11 different quality grades to choose from. Fit and finish is impeccable.
I recently hunted with another quality factory gun, a Sako 85 Finnlight in 7mm-08 Rem Mag. Like the Blaser, it’s not a custom-shop rifle but the import costs about $1,700. It’s light, solid and extremely accurate.
It was also nice to have that 7mm-08 Rem Mag available, rather than just the 7mm-08, which most factory guns offer. The extra punch of the magnum gave me more confidence when the shot ended up being a long-distance poke. That caliber option is yet another advantage of a gun that’s likely out of most people’s budget.
As you can see, there are various advantages to a custom rifle, semi-custom rifle or high-end factory rifle as compared to a budget gun. Really it comes down to the gun’s intended use coupled with individual preference.
It’s the difference between a Lamborghini Gallardo or a Toyota Camry: both are capable of getting you where you want to go, but one will amaze and delight you while turning lots of heads along the way.
If your bank account is ready for the investment, you can draw profound pleasure from a custom gun. If you aren’t ready for the commitment, you’ll need to focus your joy on the affordability of a hunt. And believe me, there is enough satisfaction to be found when your plan comes together and you move from your first Internet scouting search to wrapping your hands around antlers that you chose from hundreds of yards away.
For my hunt, that was the plan.
Time to Deliver
Early on day 1, outfitter David Morris glassed the rimrock hillsides that swept down into brushy draws of pine and juniper. We spotted herds of does, but couldn’t get our eyes on many bucks. Finally, two bucks emerged.
“There, by the rimrock,” said Morris, who was born and raised in the area and knows the Grant Country landscape better than Grant himself.
The buck’s antlers were well outside the ears.
“He’s a mature four-point,” said Morris without any emotion.
The buck was well out past 400 yards and a right-to-left breeze made me conservative about the shot.
“It’s your call,” said Morris. “You could take him from here, or back out and hike to the top of the rim rock. He won’t see you if you climb the back of the hill. You’d get a better shot from above.”
That game plan seemed right. But with the buck feeding uphill, I had to race to the top of the hill before he got there or I’d be skylined. I’d been given the slip enough times from unpredictable mule deer that I know I’d have to hump it to get the shot I wanted.
I took off up the hill with an eye on an outcropping a couple of hundred yards straight up. As I got closer, I crawled into position, all the while breathing hard with a heart pumping full of excitement. I looked over the edge and saw the buck, now a comfortable 275 yards away at nearly eye level. I put the 4-12x40mm scope at 11 power, found the buck broadside with his head up looking at me. I laid down my pack and slipped the gun onto it.
Confidence was high as I pulled the rangefinder from my face and put my cheek to the stock. But something was different: While practicing, I could hold steady with no problem prone with my pack as a rest or with shooting sticks.
Now, the reticle would not settle. I was making big circles around the animal. There was no way I could make this shot with confidence that I could surgically place the bullet into the lungs of this fine creature.
I realized I was winded from the adrenalin of the stalk. I risked the deer wandering off around the far side of the rimrock, but I had to catch my breath—the reticle had to float consistently on the vitals before I could pull that trigger.
Doubt—the enemy of any big-game hunter—came into my mind. It wasn’t the range, but a cliff with sharp rocks in my gut and a deer that seemed to know something was amiss. In less than a minute, the deer dropped his head to feed. My breathing calmed and the circles got tighter, swirling on the vitals. Morris and friends watched from a distance as I pulled the trigger and saw the big deer drop and roll down the hill to a dead stop.
The gun, ammo, scope and shooter came together to prove that while custom guns might be exhilarating to shoot and impressive at the range, a moderately priced setup is what can truly put an exclamation point on a hunt.
If you’re hunting on a budget, can you skimp on the rifle? Yes. Should you skimp on personal preference? Never.
What’s the real standard at the end of the day? Confidence in your setup and the trophy rack it can put on your wall.
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