What's a "deer" rifle? The answer seems self-evident. But the line separating one of these firearms from all others seems to get blurrier every year.
North American Whitetail associate editor Haynes Shelton and I were discussing this upon our return from last week's annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas. There we saw a lot of new rifles available in "deer" cartridges — from .22 caliber centerfires on up to and including .30 caliber magnums — but not looking all that much like the standard hunting rifles of even a generation ago, much less what I knew as a kid growing up in the 1960s.
Yes, you can still buy beautiful wood-stocked bolt actions with blued metal from a lot of companies, including not just such well-known American brands as Winchester, Kimber, Browning and Remington but also a number from Europe, including Sauer, Merkel and CZ. Of course, every maker now also offers them in at least one fashion of synthetic stock, not to mention assorted metal finishes and coatings.
But they're hardly the only options now available, whether from these companies or others. In 2017 you also can choose from an assortment of "deer" rifles that appear as well suited to neutralizing the active shooter wreaking havoc at a middle school as they are a 9-pointer standing in a food plot.
In mid-December 2016, I hunted my family's Central Texas ranch with a just-announced "modern sporting rifle" from Smith & Wesson's respected Performance Center. It was an M&P 10 in 6.5 Creedmoor, a cartridge that recently has skyrocketed up my list of personal favorites for deer-class game. This hunt would be my first ever with a MSR in hand.
The M&P 10 is a "black gun" through and through. But as has been the case with many military weapons throughout history, it also is a fine hunting machine.
I left the range quite confident the rifle was fully dialed in. But as it turned out, such precision was unnecessary; the only shot I took at a deer was a mere 60 yards. While putting a 143-grain Hornady ELD-X bullet through that doe's heart wasn't exactly a challenging test of rifle or ammo, I took pride in making my first kill with a gun in the MSR category. It was a fun experience, and having fun is the best reason of all to go deer hunting.
Most in the rifle industry attribute the surge in "black gun" sales to the wave of military veterans returning to their former lives as recreational hunters and shooters. To many of these men and women, in the deer woods a rifle need not bear close resemblance to Grandpa's pre-'64 Model 70. Obviously, these shooters' familiarity with the AR platform has been a huge factor in redefining what a deer gun even is. And that image is just as pervasive in the movies, as well as in video games. ARs now are just rifles, though still more so to shooters under the age of 40 than over.
Meanwhile, the handy scout rifle design developed by Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper and Steyr in the early '80s appears to be seeing a resurgence in popularity among hunters. These short, light, general-purpose rifles have never been overly common in Eastern whitetail woods, but I wouldn't be surprised to start seeing more of them there. Their utilitarian design appeals to the "prepper" lurking in many of us.
There's a lot to be said for a compact rifle with a bipod, extra ammo storage capacity and other goodies built in. Steyr and several other companies continue to offer this classic bolt action in several deer-worthy chamberings, with .308 Win. being the most popular of those for whitetail use.
But emergency preparedness is hardly the only driver of today's market for deer rifles. There's also a growing interest in ultra-long-range target shooting and — sometimes unfortunately — ultra-long-range shooting at big game. This has brought about a hunger for rifles fully up to the task, even if that makes them far more capable than the average shooter ever will be.
The reaction to this hunger for what might be termed "sniper/hunting" rifles was on full display last week. Booth after booth contained beefy bolt guns weighing from around nine pounds on up beyond 10. Those lacking muzzle brakes almost universally are being fitted with capped muzzle threads ready to handle the wave of suppressors likely to be coming along any day, week or month now. Some, such as Bergara's B-14 HMR, also feature adjustable stocks, high-capacity magazines and other neat features.
These new rifles are chambered in various classic whitetail cartridges, plus some new ones. (For instance, at SHOT it became clear the 6.5 Creedmoor has officially joined the ranks of "mainstream" cartridges — though the average deer hunter has yet to even touch one, much less shoot one.) So even if one of these rifles end up spending most of its working life moving between the range and a tactical armory, it still qualifies as a "deer" rifle, albeit one you might not want to lug all the way to the top of that fourth ridge.
Of course, these days most whitetail hunting doesn't call for hiking nearly that far before daybreak, or even after. We're setting up way closer to the truck or UTV, and in gun season we're often waiting for a buck to appear in an open wheat field, cutline, powerline or sendero. In such a setting, where weight and bulk aren't such a big deal, a dialed-in "sniper" rig could prove quite handy and reassuring to the person using it. That's especially so if the ambush is from a well-anchored spot on the ground, as opposed to 23 feet up a swaying oak.
The demanding hunter-shooter with some extra cash to spend is the customer to whom these new rifles are being marketed. The price tag is typically north of $1,000 — and sometimes way north of that mark — so the target audience isn't your average guy standing in line the evening before the gun opener to grab his deer tag. But deer hunters with money and motivation certainly are out there. And there seem to be more of them every year.
What the rifle industry obviously hopes is that just such a hunter will conclude one of these new hybrid models is enough better than what he already shoots to be worth the price tag when that deer of a lifetime finally shows up. Will it be? Making a challenging shot with even the finest firearm still takes physical skill and mental discipline. But if the customer downs a trophy buck he feels he couldn't have with any of his other "deer" guns, it will be hard to convince him he paid too much. In truth, I'd argue, he didn't.