Skip to main content

NAW's Deer Rifle Buyer's Guide

NAW's Deer Rifle Buyer's Guide

Buying a new deer rifle is never an easy task. The good news is that you've got hundreds of combinations of styles, brands and calibers to choose from. That's also the bad news. With so many choices, how do you narrow it down to just one?

Start by choosing a rifle that best matches your personality and your hunting opportunities. Some states or localities prohibit certain types of firearms, and some hunters prefer to carry a specific type of rifle. Others want a gun that will perform in a variety of locations and for a variety of game species.

Here's what you should consider:

Bolt Action


Far and away the most popular type of deer gun, bolt-action rifles have been a staple in the deer woods for more than 100 years. For good reason. They are accurate, reliable, versatile and simple to use. Even better, bolt actions are available in dozens upon dozens of calibers, bullet weights and styles.

As their name implies, bolt-action rifles load and unload by lifting the bolt handle, pulling it back and pushing it forward to feed a round into the chamber. Most models have a three-position safety that allows you to work the bolt without taking the safety off.

Choosing the right one, however, can be as perplexing as there are dozens of manufacturers and countless options. Should you play it safe and choose a synthetic stock or do you prefer the natural beauty of an American walnut stock? What about caliber?

If you aren't sure, it's not a bad idea to start with a budget in mind. The good news is that you don't have to drop a two-week paycheck to get a good rifle. Lots of options in the $400 range will do everything you ask and more.

In fact, some, like Ruger's American rifle, are as accurate and tough as rifles two or three times the price. The bottom line? A bolt-action is the best all-purpose deer rifle style. It's just as deadly at 50 yards in the thick Georgia pines as it is on the wide-open Wyoming plains.

Look for a popular caliber between .243 and .30. Ammo will be easy to find when you need it most and they all kill deer stone dead.

Lever Action


The classic look and feel of a lever-action is certainly appealing. There's something about carrying a rifle similar to the ones used by cowboys and other Western adventurers. They are easy to use, quick to handle and deadly out to 200 yards with the right caliber and in the right hands.

Levers aren't necessarily the best all-purpose deer gun, though. They are available in a limited number of cartridges. The most common include 30-.30 Winchester, .35 Remington, .444 Marlin and a handful of handgun cartridges like .44 Magnum. All of them will kill deer, of course, but none of those cartridges are as accurate as many of the options available in bolt-action rifles.

If you spend nearly all your time hunting thick cover where shots are 100 yards or less, then don't hesitate to buy a lever-action. Their shorter length handles easily in thick cover and many models have safeties that allow you to carry the gun with the hammer cocked.

Consider a rifle that is drilled and tapped for a scope mount and choose one of the more popular lever-action calibers like .30-30 or .35. Good rifle options are available for as little as $300.



Few guns have evolved so much in the last 30 years as muzzleloading rifles. What was once a truly primitive weapon that often failed in damp weather has evolved into a reliable, tack-driving tool that is capable of killing any North American game animal.

As their name implies, muzzleloaders are loaded from the end of the barrel. The powder goes in first, followed by a plastic sabot and then a bullet. A primer inserted into the breech ignites the powder when the firing pin strikes it, and that sends the bullet out the barrel and downrange. The only problem? If you need a follow-up shot, you'll have to repeat the loading process. Muzzleloaders are single-shot rifles.

The good news is that many states have special seasons just for muzzleloading rifles. Even better, those seasons often fall during the rut, offering you the best chance at a big buck. That's why a muzzleloader is a great addition to any serious deer hunter's gun safe.

There's an even better reason to buy one for hunters in states, regions or counties that limit deer hunters to shotguns. In many cases, they also allow muzzleloaders during those shotgun seasons.

Although modern shotguns designed to shoot slugs are reasonably accurate out to 100 yards and beyond, they can't beat the accuracy of a modern in-line muzzleloader. The most popular .50 caliber, a great all-purpose caliber with a good variety of bullet sizes and styles available.

Modern Sporting Rifle


Who knew AR-type rifles would become so popular? What started out as a curiosity among hardcore shooters has morphed into one of the most versatile and one of the most popular guns available.

Not only are they fun to shoot, but modern sporting rifles are nearly as accurate as any off-the-shelf bolt-action rifle. Despite their popularity among target shooters and other gun enthusiasts, they still aren't a common sight in the deer woods.

Too bad. MSRs are accurate, dependable and because they are semi-automatic, they offer fast follow-up shot opportunities. They are also available in a number of effective deer calibers like .308, .300 Blackout and even .338.

Even better, they can be customized with new barrels, a variety of sights and countless accessories that turn an off-the-shelf rifle into your own personal gun that does exactly what you want it to do. Most even accept suppressors, which are becoming legal in more states each year.

Drawbacks? There certainly aren't many. They can be a bit cumbersome to carry over your shoulder and they make a fair amount of noise when you load and unload them. The action needs a little more attention than a bolt-action rifle, too. Excessive dirt and powder residue can create cycling issues.

Keep it clean, though, and it might turn into your go-to deer rifle.

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Popular Videos

Deer Dog: Puppy Pitfalls

Deer Dog: Puppy Pitfalls

On this edition of "Deer Dog," Jeremy Moore explores the pitfalls of puppy training.

Dr. Deer: Balancing Expectations for Small Properties

Dr. Deer: Balancing Expectations for Small Properties

James Kroll and Haynes Shelton talk about being realistic when it comes to managing a smaller deer property in this edition of "Dr. Deer."

Balance the Herd with Doe Harvests

Balance the Herd with Doe Harvests

Haynes Shelton and Dr. James Kroll discuss how proper doe harvest is critical to herd balance and health.

See All Videos

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the North American Whitetail App

Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top North American Whitetail stories delivered right to your inbox.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All North American Whitetail subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now