Put a whitetail deer hunter in a gun store and it’s similar to placing a debutant in a jewelry shop, the proverbial kid in a candy store. All those rows of deer hunting rifles, stacks of scopes and assorted accessories, where’s a whitetail freak supposed to start?
So imagine how an inexperienced or new hunter feels. Which caliber is best? Semi-automatic, lever action or bolt action? Long barrel or short? And what’s the difference in all those scopes? They all look the same.Luckily for today’s new hunters, the quality and craftsmanship provided by today’s gun makers is pretty much top notch across the industry.
Louis Janski is the general manager of Fort Thompson Sporting Goods in Sherwood, Ark., one of the region’s most respected and successful dealers in guns and hunting products. Janski says even hunters restricted by a budget can get quality equipment to take into the deer woods.
“Now days, you can spend 300 bucks on a gun and 300 on a scope and have a good setup,” he said. “The first thing I ask people is what their budget is and what they can spend. Then you try to get them in there with their budget with as good of stuff as you can. You don’t have to have a $1,000 gun and a $1,000 scope to go kill a deer.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It depends on what they want to shoot. I don’t really try to steer them away from anything. I just try to see what their select caliber is and try to put them on the right gun, the right ammunition and a good scope.”
Here are four things for a new hunter – or any hunter, for that matter – to consider when purchasing a new deer rifle.
It all starts with the caliber
Everyone has their favorite caliber, and that is usually dictated by surroundings and terrain. What works great in a Mississippi pine thicket is useless on a Montana prairie and vice versa.
“First I ask them what kind of area they’re going to be hunting, if they’re hunting open stuff or hunting timber,” Janski said. “I ask them what kind of caliber they’ve shot or what they’re interested in.”
Some hunters, he added, are just ready to try something different, whether they need to or not.
“You’ve got a lot of guys who come in and say, ‘I’ve got a buddy who shots a 7 Mag.’ They come in and that’s what they’re wanting,” Janski said. “I always try to ask them if they’ve ever shot a magnum gun or anything.
“If it’s an older guy, I always ask them if they’ve ever had any kind of shoulder surgery or heart surgery or anything like that, just to see if they can handle a particular caliber. I just want to make sure they know what they’re getting.”
Some hunters like the smaller calibers that fling bullets at breakneck speeds. Still others are drawn to the larger calibers, which have heavier bullets and create larger wounds.
“Someone will come who’s been shooting a .270 for years and they want to switch to something that’s a little flatter and faster,” Janski said. “You can turn them onto a 7 Mag or a .270 WSM or even a .300 WSM, which are good, flat-shooting calibers.”
Deer rifles, it seems, tend to be a lot like breakfast cereals or beer: everyone has their favorite flavor.
The myth in the brush
One of the most discussed subjects among deer hunters is heavy cover and which rifle performs best within it. Everyone has their tried and true calibers that they swear by.
But, according to Janski, the discussion is a pretty simple one, actually.
“As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as a brush buster,” he said. “If you hit a twig with something, I don’t care what it is, it’s going to deflect your bullet.”
In cover, Janski said he typically hunts with a .308, but he also recommends a .30-06. Still, he said, even those are limited and no special ammunition will help.
“A lot of people think a round-nosed bullet will shoot through anything, but that just don’t happen,” he said. “You have to tell people that, even though that’s what they’ve heard for years. That’s just one of the things you have to school them on a little bit. Once it hits brush, nothing is going to fly like it’s supposed to.”
On the subject of barrel length
Each hunter has his or her comfort zone when it comes to barrel length, but here are a couple thoughts.
A shorter barrel is more maneuverable, allowing for a quicker shot at a streaking deer in heavy cover. A short barrel is also lighter, which helps in rugged and steep country.
However, there is a loss of stability and bullet velocity with the short barrel. A lighter rifle can be more difficult to hold steady, and velocity lost can be more than 50 feet per second for each inch of barrel removed. Lack of velocity is not a problem with a 26-inch barrel, but a snap aim could be a problem.
For most, a 22-inch barrel is a more than adequate compromise.
Scoping out scopes
As important as picking out the correct rifle is, scope selection is even more key.
“I tell guys if you’ve got a budget, get a cheap rifle – they all shoot good – just get good glass on it,” Janski said.
“Nobody shoots open sights anymore. Any gun on the market now days will shoot accurate, it’s just getting the right glass on top of it.”
And, Janski said, finding quality scopes is not as difficult as it once was.
“Now days, the $100 scopes out there are better than what the $250-$300 scopes were 20 years ago,” he said. “When I started 23-24 years ago, the guys who had the money bought the Leupolds and the Redfields. But there are some Bushnells now that have as good of optics as what those old scopes did.
“I’m not much on cheap scopes, but the cheap ones are a whole lot better than they used to be.”
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