The Ideal Deer Rifle

By Bob Noonan

When I was in high school back in the 50s I was a big fan of outdoor writer Jack O’Connor. He said the .270 was the ultimate deer cartridge, and that was gospel to me.

When I turned 16 Dad let me buy a used .270 Remington 721 bolt for $75. That November I was walking through a cut when a doe stood up from behind some slash. When I shot the deer charged off out of sight. Heart pounding, I ran along the clear blood trail and found her piled up not far away. There was a big exit hole, and when I opened up the chest cavity it was full of blood and lung tissue. I was mightily impressed.

That was 45 years ago, and I still feel the same way about the .270. In my hands and others it has accounted for over 40 deer, well over a dozen caribou, a black bear, and a moose, almost all one-shot kills. Very good penetration, complete even on quartering shots, giving good exit holes and blood trails. I’ve had several face-on brisket shots on deer penetrate into the hindquarters, and one “Texas heart shot” (at the base of the tail on a deer facing directly away) that penetrated forward into the chest cavity.

I started with a Winchester factory load, the 130-grain Super-X Power Point, a jacketed, pointed soft point, at 3,060 fps. (It’s still available, and still an effective load.) The Model 721 was a heavy, clumsy, homely gun with a 24-inch barrel so I slimmed down the stock and cut the barrel to 21 inches for easier handling, and to improve appearance. With 58.5 grains of 4831 behind a Hornady 130-grain Spire Point (a jacketed soft point) I got a hair over 3,000 fps on my chronograph.

The .270 is fast, flat, and easy to hit with at considerable distances, with very bearable recoil, which is why it’s been so popular. It has long been considered a classic for mid-sized large game.

However most Maine deer are killed under 100 yards, usually 50 yards or less, and it was soon obvious to me that the .270 was more gun than I really needed. Also the .270 cartridge is based on the 30-06 case and requires a long action, thus a heavier rifle. The older I got the less I liked lugging my cannon around, and I began to yearn for a lighter gun. But I loved the caliber. I found myself hoping someone would come out with a .270-caliber cartridge based on the shorter .308 case. The .270/308; I liked the sound of it.

For all practical purposes Remington did exactly than in 1980, when it introduced the 7mm-08. There’s only .007-inch (that’s seven thousandths of an inch!) difference in diameter between the.270 bullet (.277-inch) and the 7mm bullet (.284-inch). That’s an essentially meaningless field difference.

I watched with interest as the 7mm-08 gained a reputation for accuracy among bench rest shooters, and a reputation as a deadly deer cartridge. One technician who helped develop the cartridge told me he’d killed over 100 deer with it, and said it was one of the most lethal deer cartridges he’d ever worked with.

In 1983, when Remington brought out the little Model Seven bolt in 7mm-08, I bought one. It had an 18 ½-inch barrel and weighed about 6 pounds, and with a Redfield Widefield 1.5X to 5X variable scope it was a delight to carry and shoot.

At first I used the factory Winchester Super-X Power Point 140-grain load. Listed at 2,800 fps, it gave about 2,700 in my short barrel. This load produced half a dozen one-shot kills on deer, with complete penetration and good exit holes.

But I still wanted a short-action .270. Using a Hornady 130-grain 7mm Spire Point bullet, almost identical ballistically to the 130-grain .270 Spire Point I’d used for years, I worked up a load (45 grains of 4064) that consistently chronographed a hair above 2,900 fps in the Model Seven.

So I now had a 130-grain 7mm bullet going 2,900 fps, pretty close to the .270’s hallmark 3,060 fps from 24-inch barrels. It’s just as accurate, shooting into 1.5 inches at 100 yards. It also seems to recoil less than a .270. It definitely has less muzzle blast, and blast adds to perceived recoil.

This 7mm-08 130-grain load has made another half dozen one-shot kills on deer. If you wanted to split hairs you could argue that the heavier 140-grain bullet might penetrate better, and the lighter 130-grain bullet shoots slightly flatter over 200 yards. But for all practical purposes there’s no real difference between the two weights, especially at close range. I just like the 130-grain because it makes me feel like I finally got my short-case .270.

Lately some gun writers have taken to calling the 7mm-08 the ideal whitetail cartridge. It’s also available in a lighter-recoiling 120-grain load, making it a good young person’s cartridge.

Only two things bothered me about the Model Seven. Repeat shots, at least for me, are a bit slow with a bolt. And the gun is tedious to load, since you have to feed shells one by one down through the open bolt into the magazine.

As a trapper I love clip-fed guns because I can pop a loaded clip in when I get out of the truck, and take it out when I get back in. Instant load and unload. And for fast repeat shots, I love a lever.

My recommendation for the ideal Maine deer rifle/cartridge combo?

A Browning BLR Lightweight lever in 7mm-08.

This gun weighs 6.5 pounds, and has a 20-inch barrel. It has a clip magazine. It’s available with a pistol grip stock and a classic straight grip stock (BLR Lightweight ’81). Both are side ejecting, so a scope is easily mounted.

And it’s accurate. I got one on loan from Browning, and put a 3X9 Leupold on it. With factory Winchester 140-grain loads, firing from a bench, I got 1.5-inch 5-shot groups at 100 yards.

Browning is known for their high quality workmanship. For me, a good part of the pleasure of deer hunting is the appearance of the gun. The BLR Lightweight is a classy, traditional looking deer rifle, with a dark walnut stock and clean checkering on the forearm and pistol grip. The blued metal finish is impeccable. The lever works smoothly, and the round rotating bolt locks solidly enough to allow the gun to be chambered in most popular high-power calibers, including the Winchester Short Magnums (WSM).

The clip inserts and drops out smoothly. The wide hammer had a half-cock safety feature. The trigger has a bit of creep, but the letoff isn’t bad. Trigger pull is a bit heavy, not a necessarily a bad thing on a hunting rifle. Handling is very good. The gun feels like it was designed to be shot offhand.

As for scopes, in my opinion low power scopes are ideal for Maine deer hunting. There’s little need for high-power variables as big as thermos bottles.

Back in the early 60s most Maine deer rifles wore iron sights, and the men in my deer-hunting family thought I was nuts to want a scope. But Jack O’Connor said they were essential. He used 4x and higher, but he routinely shot over 100 yards. I finally put a Lyman 3X scope on my .270. It turned out to be a good choice. It was easy to find close-range deer in the wide field of view, yet it had the magnification to let me see openings in the brush and poke a bullet through. When I lived in Alaska, the 3X was plenty of magnification for caribou out to 300 yards or more. I have a Bushnell 2X to 7X variable on my Model Seven, and I’ve never set it above 2X while deer hunting. When the gun wore the Redfield 1.5X to 5X, I always left it on 1.5X.

For me, the main advantage of a scope for deer hunting is that it puts the sight picture on one plane, and the crosshairs don’t obscure any of the target. The second advantage is light gathering ability, especially at dusk. The third is magnification. And 2x is usually plenty. Doubling the size of an animal as large as a deer at ranges out to 100 yards is more than enough.

Offhand shooting is common enough in the Maine woods, and high power settings can make the crosshairs seem to bounce around. That can unnerve you and cause missing. Low power settings don’t show shaking as much, making offhand shooting easier.

I recently got a scope that seems ideal for the BLR, or any other deer rifle. It’s Weaver’s new V3, a variable that goes from 1X to 3X.

Target acquisition at 1X is instantaneous; it would be great for running shots. At 1X the field of view is a substantial 30 yards at 100 yards, and the long eye relief makes it good for getting off quick shots accurately. The 7mm-08 is effective on deer out past 200 yards, and in my opinion 3X is all you really need at that range.

The scope is also designed for use on shotguns, so it’s rugged enough to take considerable recoil.

The Weaver V3 is only 9 inches long and weighs only ounces. It has a straight 1-inch tube with no large objective lens, giving it sleek lines and less up front to catch in brush. It has a dull black matte finish, perfect for hunting. It looks great on my Model Seven, which is where it will stay this fall.

So there it is, my idea of the ideal whitetail gun/cartridge/scope combo. The BLR Lightweight in 7mm-08, wearing a Weaver V3 variable. A fine woods gun that’s also fully capable of killing deer out to 250 yards. Heavier 7mm bullets are available for handloaders, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use this combo on bear or moose, either.

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Bob Noonan has been admiring deer rifles since his father let him shoot a Winchester 64 at age 8.


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