Deer Cartridges – A Trio at the Top

by Wayne Vanzwoll

Name three fine deer cartridges? Easy! Name only three? Oh. That’s really, really hard!

Wayne shot his first deer with a SMLE in .303 British. He still hunts with the round, here in a Ruger. (Wayne Vanzwoll photo)

The deer was loping through Michigan poplars when a bullet from my $30 SMLE broke its neck. My first whitetail. The .303 British, now 130 years old, still works fine for deer. It has surely killed more Canadian moose than any other cartridge. It has downed elephants.

A pointed .303 British bullet outruns flat-points from the .30-30 and .32 Special popular in lever-action rifles for most of the 20th century. So do modern softpoints from the 6.5×55 and 7×57, also infantry rounds pre-dating the Great War. Fine deer cartridges, all.

Dating to 1892, the 7×57 with modern pointed bullets is a fine deer round. It gave Wayne this muley. (Wayne Vanzwoll photo)

But at its debut in 1925 the .270 Winchester started hunters on a different track. Since then, bolt-action deer rifles have chambered ever-friskier rounds, with flatter arcs and more punch.

The .270, introduced by Winchester in 1925, set hunters on a faster-is-better kick. Scopes contributed. (Wayne Vanzwoll)

Now the deer-cartridge bin bulges with options. The 7mm and 30-caliber magnums, while useful for bigger game, strike me as excessive. Like sending Junior to college in a $50,000 pickup. You needn’t have my blessing to hunt with a hotrod cartridge or spring for a new F-250. But I’ll stick with milder deer loads – say, those firing 100- to 140-grain bullets at 2,650 to 3,150 fps from bolt rifles with 6mm to 7mm bores. Specifically: the .243 and 6mm, the .257 Roberts and .25-06, the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5×55 and .260 Remington, the .270, 7mm-08 and 7×57. Add the .300 Savage and .308 with 150-grain missiles to make it an even dozen. How can I include the .270 and not the .280? You’re right; they’re too similar. A baker’s dozen, now, these are easy to shoot, and with proper bullets deadly even on quartering shots to 300 yards.

But what about the .30-06, long America’s darling and arguably its most versatile round? Well, arbitrary lines must fall somewhere. The ’06 is a notch up in power and recoil from the .308, which itself has more punch than plaid-clad riflemen a century ago could have imagined using on deer.

Top trio? Perhaps the three 6.5s, ballistically very close. The .260 and the 6.5 Creedmoor work in short actions, the Swede not so much. The Creedmoor trumps the .260 for efficiency and paired with long bullets. But these are academic differences.

The .260 Remington, a necked-down .308, shoots flat, recoils gently, kills deer past 300 yards. Bravo! (Wayne Vanzwoll photo)

If you like lever rifles, sifting cartridges became harder after Hornady introduced LeverEvolution ammo. It sends spitzer bullets fast from hulls long shackled by flatpoints, almost doubling effective reach. Last fall I shot a buck at 80 yards with a .25-35 rifle predating women’s suffrage. The 110-grain Hornady carried 1,200 ft-lbs at impact – three times the energy of a .25-20 at the muzzle. You’ll recall it was a .25-20 that in 1914 killed the Jordan buck, a gigantic whitetail that topped Boone & Crockett lists until 1993.

The .308 with 150-grain bullets makes Wayne’s list. It creates wound cavities once hard to imagine! (Wayne Vanzwoll photo)

Favorite deer cartridges are like favorite songs, or favorite dogs. Your top picks depend largely on what you expect of them. I prefer to hunt close, increasingly with iron sights. Given a 100-yard limit imposed by cover or irons, a .25-35 makes sense. It’s about as light a cartridge as I’ll use. A humane kill matters to me, and not every buck is a ribcage awaiting a bullet from the side. I had to fire again to kill the deer I hit (obliquely) with the .25-35.

My favorite deer loads? Whatever’s in the chamber when my rifle comes to cheek, and the brass bead or the crosswire finds a forward rib.

Wayne Van Zwoll
Journalist, Gun Writer
The Outdoor Line 
710 ESPN Seattle

EXO Mountain Gear Backcountry Hunting Packs - Boise, Idaho

Making Lightweight Hunting Rifles Behave

By Wayne Van Zwoll

If your bullets wander about the target, and game inexplicably runs off, maybe you lack ounces.

The lure of the lightweight: comfort on the trail, speed for the shot. Note hand well ahead on for end. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

The lighter your burden, the more you enjoy walking, climbing, hunting. Many early bolt-action hunting rifles weighed over 8 pounds. In the 1950s Winchester introduced its Featherweight Model 70 at 6 ¾ pounds. Now 6-pound rifles are common. Kimber’s walnut-stocked 84M weighs 5 ¾ pounds and its Montana 5 ¼ pounds. The Adirondack and Mountain Ascent scale just 4 ¾ pounds. Yes, these last three wear carbon-fiber stocks.

Weights bump up for longer actions and barrels. But Kimbers aren’t skeletonized or stubby. They look good and balance well. In my experience, they shoot well too, if shot properly. But any rifle becomes less manageable as you pare ounces. That’s because mass reduces the bounce of your pulse and twitching muscles as you aim, the nudge of your hand and shoulder and trigger finger as you fire. Trigger resistance compounds the problem. The heavier the trigger, the more muscle you must tap, and the more movement you’ll see in the sight. Recently I fired a 6-pound rifle whose trigger broke at 6 ½ pounds. The muscle required to loose a shot was sure to move the rifle off target first! Such imbalance is woefully common in handguns.

Stiff triggers handicap lightweight rifles. Adjust so break weight is a small percentage of rifle weight. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

I’m not in the camp that insists lightweight rifles require special shooting technique. Still, from the bench some rifles perform best when left to recoil freely, while others excel with hand pressure on the forend or even down on the scope. These “preferences” seem to depend as much on bedding as on rifle weight or barrel diameter. By the way, barrel stiffness, has greater effect on group size than does its mass. A short, relatively slim barrel can be stiffer than a long heavy one. A Remington XP-100 pistol was one of the most inherently accurate guns I’ve yet fired. Very little flex in its .17 barrel!

Of course, accuracy is most closely tied to the quality of the bore.

At the bench with a lightweight rifle, I make sure the front rest contacts the forend adequately. On a hard rest, a slim, rounded forend has essentially single-point contact. I prefer a soft rest that better limits bounce. A bit of side support helps steady the rifle. Often I pull the front of the forend down into the rest while aiming. I also use a toe rest. My trigger hand grasps the rifle firmly, tugging it into my shoulder and against my cheek. Without firm support front, rear and center, a lightweight rifle will almost surely move as you press the trigger. To deliver tight groups, all rifles must be held the same way each shot, no matter your shooting style. A lightweight rifle is more sensitive to slight changes in technique.

On the bench or prone, use a toe bag. Or as here, grasp the toe to steady it. Note supporting cheek pad. Photo by Wayne Van Zwoll

Do lightweight barrels heat faster? Well, their reaction to heat is often quicker and more evident than that of heavier barrels. A given bullet at a given speed imposes on a given bore a measure of friction. Thick barrel walls act as heat sinks, and their stiffness resists the bending and lengthening that can change the impact points of subsequent bullets. Still, the value of a lightweight hunting rifle has little to do with the size of warm-barrel groups.

Wayne Van Zwoll
Journalist, Gun Writer
The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle

EXO Mountain Gear Backcountry Hunting Packs - Boise, Idaho

My 2011 Washington Blacktail

I spent five days hunting whitetails and mule deer in Eastern Washington last week in what can only be described as sun bathing weather. Not exactly the type of conditions that produce great deer hunting. I saw plenty of deer, including 9 bucks, but there were no shooters in the bunch. Lots of marching, climbing, hiking, sweating, hobbling, and scratching my head with nothing to show for it except a stubborn sinus infection and sore feet.

Before I headed back to the wet side of the Cascades my final words to the guys in camp were, “No worries. I’ll be able to hunt blacktails for the rest of the season.”

Sure, I could hunt blacktails for the rest of the season and even the late season for that matter, but the “no worries” part wasn’t exactly true. Getting a quality blacktail in the Amazon-like under-scrub jungle in Western Washington isn’t easy duty. I knew exactly what I was up against.

There aren’t too very many people that know exactly where I hunt blacktails and I plan on keeping it that way. Heck, one of my very best friends and partner in the Outdoor Line doesn’t even know where I hunt deer in Eastern Washington after 20 years of asking. I can tell you what types of habitat to look for to find a blacktail, however, as there are plenty of blacktails in Western Washington and knowing what habitat to look for is a huge leg up in successfully hunting them.

Finding blacktails requires an understanding of what type of habitat they call home. The good thing is that there’s a lot of that type of habitat here in Western Washington. The down side is that not all of it is festooned with these elusive deer. Finding a good spot requires putting boots on the ground and doing some scouting.

Look for clear cuts that are anywhere from 2 to 10 years old and locate as many of these types of clear cuts as you can, so you have a few to bounce around to throughout the season. Blacktails are browse feeders and they love to munch on all the underbrush that sprouts up in these age-class of clear cuts and the cover is not yet thick enough to totally conceal deer when they’re out and about.

Are blacktails using the cut? Look for tracks on the roads that surround the clear cut from blacktails leaving the timber to feed at night. This is an obvious sign that critters are in the neighborhood. A second clue is the prescense of rubs around or in the clear cut from rutting bucks or bucks removing their summer felt.

You’ll see rubs when you’re walking around the edge of the cut and also watch for them on small trees in the middle of the clear cuts when you’re glassing. A few rubs is a good sign and a lot of fresh rubs is money in the bank.

Once you find a clear cut that’s being used by blacktails you can either sit and wait for them to move or slowly still hunt your way around the area. I like a combination of both techniques.

I’ll usually find a perch that offers a good view, which is usually a very uncomfortable splinter-filled stump, and glass for a while watching for movement in the cut. If nothing happens within an hour, or so, I’ll begin still hunting my way either around or thru the cut.

If you’re going to still hunt for blacktails you need to be uber-conscious of the wind and use scent control if you can just to be safe. Hunting blacktails in the brush usually means close quarters hunting and most shots are less than 100 yards. I’ve taken two quality Washington blacktails in the past three years and as luck would have it I had the wind at my back for both of them. If I wasn’t wearing Tek-4 clothing and persistently washing my hunting duds in Scent-A-Way I guarantee that I wouldn’t have had a chance at either of those bucks.

Image of a Washington blacktail deer taken with a Browning 30.06

For a better handle on scent control check out this blog that I wrote back in September aptly named “Ten Tips for Better Scent Control”.

Having more than one clear cut to hunt came into play yesterday. I usually mountain bike in behind locked gates and when I found a truck parked at my first spot yesterday morning I didn’t waste any time heading for another area.

I worked my way into a productive area at my second stop, glassed from an uncharacteristically comfortable stump for around 30 minutes and then began still hunting my way thru the cut. From past experience I knew there was a small trail that sliced thru the cut and I slowly worked my way down it. There were fresh deer tracks literally everywhere!

It didn’t take long to run into them feeding in a small draw in the cut. Three does and a really small 2 point were 50 yards off the trail and I watched them feed for a while before slinking off.

There were no rubs and I didn’t see one set of tracks that jumped out as being a good buck so I moved on to the next clear cut.

This clear cut was about ten years old, with reprod growing eight to 12 feet high. It was tight cover, but offered some openings and was a perfect place to do some rattling . I still hunted my way to the center of the cut and then rattled for a couple minutes to see what might pop up. After 30 minutes of waiting I moved on, only to jump two blacktail does just fourty feet from my rattling position. Still, there were no rubs in the entire cut and I felt I needed to make another move.

I drove back to the gate that I had intended on parking at in the morning and now there were two trucks parked there. Ugh!

Off to yet another cut and by now it was lunch time. I had talked to a land owner the previous evening who had a deer “problem” and my plan was to head for his place later in the day for an evening hunt. Offers like that just don’t present themselves every day and I was already imagining a pasture full of blacktails. His problem…my delight!

So, the plan was to quickly hunt this heavily-trafficked clear cut to kill some time before heading to the private land.

I left the bike in the truck and basically stomped my way into the cut figuring I would slow down and get the wind in my face towards the back of the huge cut furthest from the busy road where the deer might be hanging out. Less than a quarter mile in there were fresh tracks all over the place. Does, bucks, yearlings…tracks everywhere!

This clear cut was shaped like a big “J” and my plan was to cross the largest part of the cut and thoroughly hunt the small part of it where I’d seen deer last year. In doing so I’d lay down a phat RUN AWAY scent trail for any deer in the largest area of the cut. I’d have to put some faith in the scent control measures I’ve been pestering about.

Without knowing it I crossed the clear cut just 50 yards up-wind of this blacktail buck and he had no clue I was there. I took a hard left at the timber and worked my way to a low rise that would give me a view of a small draw in the long part of the cut and there he was. 50 yards away and looking at me. He was trying to figure out what I was.

I only had a head and neck shot and the buck even gave me time to turn my scope up to 9 power before I sent the 150 grain 30.06 Winchester XP3 where it needed to go. It was a nice clean kill and he hit the dirt immediately.

Since I was hunting solo I would now have the joy of packing this animal that weighed in excess of 190 pounds over a mile back to the truck by myself. Should I quarter it up and make two trips with the frame pack or just drag it back to the truck cave-man style? I opted for the latter.

An hour and fifteen minutes later I was whooped, but my worn-out self and this heavy-bodied blacktail were in the truck and we were headed for the butcher. It helps to be in shape for this sort of thing.

If you think it’s too late in the season to get a blacktail that’s hardly the case. Blacktails are just now coming into the rut and the latter part of the general season and the late season in November can be the best times to hunt these elusive deer. Even if you aren’t successul in finding a good blacktail this week the time you spend in the woods right now can pay off when the late hunt comes around in a few weeks. Deploy some of the tips I’ve given you here and start building up your blacktail knowledge base!

Best of luck to you this hunting season and don’t forget to post your hunting photos and questions in the Outdoor Line Hunting Forum. Thanks for stopping by!

Rob Endsley
The Outdoor Line
710 ESPN Seattle