31 December 2007

Rifles for the NEW Deer & Elk Hunter

When veteran hunters get together, there will be talk of rifles. And there will be disagreement. To one hunter, a 7.87mm SuperDuper Magnum is just the thing for whitetailed deer at short woods range, whereas another hunter claims that an old blackpowder cartridge with a trajectory like a rainbow is the ticket for elk at long range across open parks...

To a new hunter, it's very confusing. The idea for this blog came from a conversation with a friend, Matt Hamon. He taught with us a few years here at Tech before moving on to Evergreen--a little closer to the ocean he so dearly loves! Matt took to deer hunting with Howard Smith (also a novice hunter) and me, and shot a few deer with my 257 Roberts and Howard's 270 Winchester. He's considering a rifle purchase, and wonders which is "best."

This post is aimed at new hunters like Matt. The advice is straightforward, simple, and sound. You veteran hunters with preferences for obscure cartridges and magnums with man-killing recoil will not agree. But it's just what the new hunter needs to know.

The .243 Winchester
Those who plan to hunt only deer (whitetails or mulies): buy a 243 Winchester bolt action with a 4X scope. The 243 is based on a 308 Winchester cartridge (i.e. the 7.62 NATO round) necked down for a 6 mm or 0.243" bullet. The cartridge is accurate, shoots flat, and has light recoil. The 243 cartridge is also short, so it fits rifles with lightweight actions. [Note: "Winchester" refers only to the cartridge designation, and not to a Winchester-brand rifle.]

"Flat shooting" refers to the trajectory. You can zero or sight-in a 243 at 200 yards and shoot deer from 0 to 250 yards without holding high or low. A 100-grain bullet (the ideal weight for deer in a 243) will leave the muzzle at about 3,000 fps, shoot about 1.5" high at 100 yards, and 3" low at 250 yards.

"Light recoil" means a 243 won't kick much, which means you can practice shooting A LOT. Practice makes perfect. All hunters should shoot a box (20 rounds) or so of ammo as practice each year prior to hunting season. A new hunter should shoot at least 100 rounds as practice.

Shoot from various positions. Start off shooting from a comfortable bench (ideally at target range), then practice from the prone, kneeling, sitting, and offhand positions. If you don't already own one, buy a .22 rimfire rifle or even an airgun (BB or pellet rifle) so that you can practice more often and cheaply. PRACTICE with your 243, and don't be satisfied until you can consistently shoot 5 rounds into a 2" group at 100 yards.

All major riflemakers chamber the 243 in a bolt action rifle. You can buy one new for a few hundred bucks, and good deals are to be had at pawn shops and second hand gun stores. Bring a veteran shooter with you when buying a second hand rifle.

My friend Bill King, of Bradford, Pennsylvania, proved the worth of the .243 Winchester cartridge to me with the fifty or more whitetails he killed with his. Most were bucks, and most were taken with a single shot. Many other hunters have used the 243 with similar success.

The .270 Winchester

Those who plan to hunt both deer and elk: buy a 270 Winchester bolt action with a 4X scope. The 270 is based on a 30/06 Springfield cartridge (the U.S. Army round adopted in 1906) necked down for a .277" bullet.

The 270 rifle will typically be a little longer and heavier than a 243. Most deer hunters will be happy with the 130 grain bullet, which shoots a little flatter than a 243 with a 100 grain bullet, and is considerable more powerful. In theory, a 150 grain bullet should be better than the 130 grain bullet for elk. However, many good elk hunters who use the 270 tell me they find little difference in actual "killing power," and the 130 grain bullet works just fine for elk.

For elk, I would suggest that the hunter use a "premium" bullet. Partition bullets made by Nosler are a good choice, as are the solid copper bullets made by Barnes. Either is rugged enough to drive deep into an elk without blowing apart--even if the bullet strikes a heavy bone, or if the bullet angle is less than ideal.

The recoil or kick of a 270 is slightly more than a 243. In a well designed rifle with a recoil pad, this recoil is still light enough for any man, woman, or child (above the age of 12 or so) to shoot comfortably.

Like the 243, the .270 Winchester is available in a wide range of makes and models.

About Handloading

I strongly advise the new hunter to take up handloading. It is safe and easy. Handloaded ammunition is far cheaper to shoot, it gives you a fantastic choice of bullets and loads, and it will bring the highest potential in accuracy and power from your rifle.

For starters, buy a simple "Lee Loader." Then, as you advance, you can move up to fancier equipment such as an RCBS bench press.

I took "Hunter Safety" from Mr. Giddings in 1966. As a part of the course, he taught us to use a Lee Loader. I saved a few dollars and bought my own soon afterward, and it has been one of the great investments of my life.

About Rifle Actions

Buy a bolt action rifle. Most importantly, they are simpler and safer for the novice hunter. They are also generally more accurate and stronger than other actions. And they are more suited to handloads.

About Magnums

You will hear some hunters extoll the virtues of their "magnum" rifles. Let them. Ignore any advice they give you to buy a magnum cartridge, and stick with the 243 or 270. Magnum is a generic term for a large cartridge case that uses more powder and shoots a bullet at a higher velocity.

A magnum rifle cartridge usually recoils more than a standard cartridge. Though many hunters -- especially men -- will not admit it, nearly all human beings are sensitive to pain. Big recoil = pain. For this reason, most hunters that use magnums practice less than they would if they shot a standard cartridge. Also, many develop the habit of flinching when the rifle goes off. Flinching = inaccurate shooting.

About Scopes

The 4X scope is hard to beat. It is lightweight and simple, and has adequate magnification for shooting deer and elk at reasonable range (250 yards or less). Until recently, it was THE common or standard rifle scope.

The 3X-9X variable power scope has become more common in recent years, and might be offered as a "combo" deal when you buy a rifle. This is OK, though be sure to shoot your variable scope with the dial set on different magnifications. Some scopes -- especially cheaper ones -- will change focus and point-of-impact (i.e. where the bullet hits) when you turn the dial. Not good. For this reason, you might want to leave your variable scope set at 4X if you hunt in the woods, or 6X if you hunt on the open prairie.


Editor said...

I shoot a Weatherby .270 and found your article informative and easy to understand. Thanks and keep posting.
PS will write an article about your blog soon.

Lou said...

25 Years ago, when I lived in Dillon, The .243 Winchester was my First hunting rifle.

Nice to know it's still a classic!

MikeMc said...

To all newbie hunters - this article is the most accurate, honest, and simple piece of hunting advice I have come across in years. I have hunted now for 25 years and was raised in a hardcore hunting family. The simple truth is that too many men and too many marketers are giving advice and trying to sell guns of heavy calibers or "hard hittin" magnums. These larger guns will not in any way kill an animal any more dead than the .243 or the .270. Some people will tell you of these calibers ricocheting off of skulls but the thing to remember is that to be hunting ethicly is to go for the kill that safely offers the most cleanly, quickest kill; this will nearly always be in the "boiler room"-the heart-lung area which either the the.243 or the .270 will enter into fantasticly. PLEASE, do not buy into the big bullet, big gun philospohy as big guns are for the guys with no accuarcy so they need the shock value of a bullet with a ton of retained energy to drop the animal OR they are for the guys at the gun store to sell you so that when you have shot it for a season and cannot bring it back but are desperate to stop beating yourself up with recoil you will buy yet another rifle from them. In my life I have owned the following:
.22, .243, .270, .308, .30-.30, a 410 (garden shot gun), a 20 gauge, and a 12 gauge. In addition to this my father at the age of 60 is an avid collector with now over 60 rifle in absolutely all popular calibers. Of all these rifles to choose from I have paired my own collection down to .22 (gophers), .243 (coyotes, antelope and absolutely ANY size deer), .270 (moose and elk), and a 12 gauge (duck and goose). With my collection I feel confident to hunt absolutely anything that North America has to offer. Trust the article on calibers AND ON PRACTICING. If this is done hunting will be cost effective and personally rewarding without having the bruises that your buddy with the big bore will have. Thanks for the great article and good luck to all hunters young and old.

Matt Hamon said...

Thanks so much, Pat! Your advice and mentorship has enriched my experience with Montana's landscape. Butte and the Big Hole river are lucky to have you looking out for them. Eventually, I purchased a rifle in .270 with hopes of hunting elk someday. I've started hand-loading as well. the Ecorover blog is one of my favorite stops on the web.

hesamuels@aol.com said...

Thank you so very much for the most enlightening article I have ever read on this subject. You made the information so clear, concise, and understandable that I could understand it enough to know what I need to look for in a rifle for a true beginner such as myself.I will look no further than right here. The sound realistic and truthful aspect of your article was majestically breathtaking! What a truly grand explanation! I now look forward even more to purchasing my first rifle and becoming a member of the N.R.A.

Anonymous said...

I remember hunting with Howard Smith. He carried that 300 Magnun but was afraid to shoot it or too cheap to buy practice ammo. Couldn't hit a bull in the ass with a snowshovel but he sur made a lot of noise!