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Rifle Magazine
January - February 2000
Volume 32, Number 1
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 187
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When I was in junior high in the mid-1960s, an annual ritual in the hunting magazines was “Deer Rifles, East and West.” This essay described the proper “medicine” for the two kinds of deer hunting in America (nobody wrote about “Deer Rifles, Mexico and Canada”): whitetails in the timbered East, mule deer in the wide-open West.

Even at 13 I sensed something not quite right with these articles. Some distrust rose from the almost universal agreement that eastern whitetails needed a quick-shooting rifle that lobbed blunt bullets, while western deer required a bolt action for some fast, pointy round.

The mule deer I killed in southwestern Montana - beginning the first year I could legally hunt - mostly lived in timber. I turned really cynical after moving to northeastern Montana, where 90 percent of the deer were honest-to-Virginia whitetails living out on the wide-open prairie.

You don’t see “Deer Rifles, East and West” much anymore, I’d guess because traveling hunters have discovered its fallacies. Instead we might read of “Deer Rifles for Every Kind of Deer in Every Micro-Habitat Everywhere” or “Rifles for 400-Pound Bucks in Saskatchewan, Running Directly Away at 500 Yards.”

The consensus is that deer have grown much tougher over the 35 years since I first laid eyes on D.R.E.W. (If you cannot decode the acronym, re-read paragraph one.) The authors of D.R.E.W. claimed a .270 Winchester was perfect for big deer at long range. These days many hunters traveling to Canada for huge whitetails (or mule deer) feel puny when armed with 7mm magnums. A .300 magnum is preferable, and a few hunters even pack .338s of some variety.

What does it take to kill a deer these days? Especially a (drum roll) Really Big Deer?

Let us first define “big deer.” Here we’re talking body size, not Boone & Crockett score. A big deer in Pennsylvania or Texas is different than a big deer elsewhere. Last fall I went mule deer hunting in northwestern Colorado with my friend John Forbes, courtesy of a couple landowner tags arranged by my outfitter friend Tom Tietz (Natural Adventures, 3517 Green Mtn. Circle, Parker CO 80138), who guides for big pronghorn and elk up there. This is really neat country, consisting of sandstone mountains and badlands broken into odd curls by tectonics, rising between vast sage valleys. Some of the country was private, some BLM, and if you worked hard some big mule deer turned up. I found mine on public land on the fourth day, an old 3x3 with the heaviest beams of any mule deer I’ve taken, as John and I eased down either side of an aspen draw. I first saw the buck at maybe 500 yards, then crawled through the snow to shoot at 250 or 300, resting the .30-06 on a sagebrush.

Since the buck fell on John’s side of the draw, he reached it first. I was hiking up toward him when I stopped to suck in some 8,000-foot air and ask what my deer looked like.

“He’s big,” John said.

“How big?”

“The biggest I’ve ever seen.”

At this point we must note that, with the exception of a ranch hunt in northeastern Wyoming, John had hunted deer in his native West Virginia and near his university in the hills of eastern Mississippi, a long way from the big deer along the Mississippi River. I huffed up the hill to find an average-bodied mature buck, which I guessed at 175 to 180 pounds field-dressed. A few days later, back home in Montana, it weighed 170 on the accurate freight scales in my garage. Allow for dehydration and I was probably right, but John was sure the buck dressed over 200 pounds, especially after we dragged him a mile.

The truth is that in most of North America, any buck weighing more than 200 pounds on the hoof is a larger than average deer. Field-dressed, a live-weight 200 pounder will weigh around 160 pounds, but most hunters guess much heavier. I know this (and can accurately estimate the weight of deceased bucks) because I have weighed a bunch. The average hunter will claim his 3-year-old 4x4 has to weigh 200 pounds field-dressed, when in fact it goes 137 with the heart and liver still resting inside the rib cage.

Any deer field-dressing over 200 pounds is    Really Big. The common formula multiplies field-dressed weight by 1.25 to arrive at live weight. A deer weighing 200 pounds dressed thus weighs about 250 pounds alive. For a buck to weigh 300 on the hoof, he must weigh 250 dressed.

How big do deer grow? According to the latest Lyons Press edition of Leonard Lee Rue III’s excellent book The Deer of North America, very few reach 400 pounds live weight. The two biggest confirmed records of whitetails each weighed 402 field-dressed (close to 500 whole) and were both killed in Minnesota in 1926 and 1981. Northern deer tend to grow largest, but given fertile soil even southern deer can get big. While I was duck hunting at the Tara Wildlife lodge in western Mississippi last year, down on the river bottom, a bowhunter brought in a buck that weighed over 350 pounds undressed.

The biggest mule deer ever officially weighed in Montana tipped the scales at 453 pounds whole. Dr. Ian McTaggart Cowan, the well-known game biologist, in a 1975 article in Safari magazine, said the largest he knew of weighed 475 live. He also noted that a weighing of 360 Modoc County, California, bucks resulted in only 2 percent weighing over 250 pounds dressed and one percent over 300 pounds. (Modoc borders Oregon and Nevada and used to be one fine place for big mule deer.)

I have killed a fair number of big bucks myself, both the merely big buck of 200 pounds live weight and a few really most sincerely big ones that field-dressed 200+. I found my first huge mule deer on Montana’s opening day in 1977, in the steep semi-rain forest country near the Idaho Panhandle (once again, in thick timber). I missed him once with my .270, offhand at 75 yards, but at the shot he turned and ran   toward me, and I placed a 150-grain Hornady in his chest. He fell and I put another unneeded bullet into the neck, as big around as my 24-year-old waist.

Before then I thought I’d taken some big deer. But after getting this deer’s insides out, I grabbed an antler and started to drag him down to an old logging road, where we could get a horse, but got only 20 feet before having to stop to rest. Back then I weighed a lean 150 pounds and was pretty tough but soon gave up trying to drag that deer, since the next 75 yards would involve humping him over thigh-high logging slash. So I left the buck belly-up under a spruce, out of sight of ravens, and tied my down vest to his antlers to keep bears and coyotes away.

We brought a horse up there the next morning. I wanted to get some photos of the buck whole on the horse, which took some doing, since my friend Fred Simons (25 pounds heavier and just as young and tough) and I could only lift the deer’s shoulders to stirrup level. So we slid the buck up a leaning 4-foot stump and led the horse underneath. This pony didn’t weigh more than 800 pounds, and grunted when we dropped the deer onto his back. It was seven miles out on old logging trails, and by the time we hit bottom all of us except the deer were lathered up.

After hanging for a week in my garage, that deer weighed 232 pounds, so he probably weighed near 250 when first field-dressed, around 300 pounds as he stood on the mountain. His antlers were not huge, spreading only about 22 inches, though they were fairly heavy and very dark, typical of conifer deer who fight pitchy sap-lings all fall.

About then I noticed a change in deer-rifle articles. Once in awhile we still suffered through D.R.E.W., but more articles talked not just about “getting your buck,” but getting a big buck with antlers that “scored.” This trend has become so pervasive that I recently read a piece that began something like this: “As I peered across the canyon, the sun rising blood-red over the mighty Rockies, my eyes glued to my Zeiss 10x56s and my .30-378 in my lap, I could see several muley bucks with antlers in the 170-inch class, and one 180-pointer. Boy did my heart thump!” Now we describe bucks by the number, just like binoculars and rifles!

Over the next few years we discovered that deer actually lived in Canada and, yes, even Mexico. And some grew big - with big numbers!

Don’t get me wrong. To those conversant in B&C, saying a mule deer is a 185 typical is a more precise description than saying he was “a heavy old 4-point with brow stickers, and when he looked at me his antlers stuck way out past his ears, like a moose!” Then again, maybe it isn’t. I like big-antlered deer as well as the next hunter, especially mule deer. Since that buck near Idaho, I’ve seriously chased large mule deer more than any other big game, with the possible exception of large whitetails. I like big deer antlers, and the big steaks that come with them.

Trophy hunting has much to do with the iron ribs deer have recently grown. The big-bodied bucks of western Canada seem to bring out the worst fantasies. The first time I hunted deer in the prairie provinces my .280 Remington was the smallest caliber among the visiting hunters. It fit right in with the “backup” rifles the native Alberta guides carried: a .25-06, a .30-06 and several .270s.

The wimpiest rifles of the other visitors were three 7mm Remington Magnums, all handloaded with some wonder bullet. (The guides shot the cheapest factory stuff they could find.) The other two hunters carried .300 magnums, one Winchester and one Kenny Jarrett .300 Kong, which amounts to a .30-378. This guy brought along another Jarrett rifle in a .25 wildcat for shooting coyotes. He bragged on the groups each rifle shot but didn’t hit a coyote or deer during the week. As his guide whispered to me, as we were about to “push bush” up a coulee, hoping to drive a buck by this hunter as he stood resting his Kong over the hood of the pickup, “Why don’t he just use the .25? I mean, these are deer, not elephants.” This guide carried the .25-06 and had a lineup of big deer antlers in his garage.

But I might not be fair. As has been pointed out, visiting hunters only have a few days to hunt, while residents have the whole season. Let’s examine this closely. In Alberta the deer season runs the month of November, but in the charming way of much of Canada, we could not hunt on Sundays - or the first three days of the week. This supposedly gives farmers a break. So even resident hunters could only hunt 12 days out of the month, nine falling on weekdays when most had to work. Even here in Montana most working hunters can only hunt weekends of our five-week season, though two holidays fall in there too. Most only get out five or six days, which amounts to the average guided hunt. And most get one chance at a big deer every few seasons, even fewer than most guided hunters. Personally, I think there’s just as much pressure on residents as “outastaters,” and maybe more, since many guided hunters hunt more than one state a fall.

So our “six-day” Alberta hunt actually involved three days of scouting and three days of shooting. This is actually not a bad deal. I was primarily after mule deer, and outfitter Pat Frederick (Ameri-Cana Expeditions Inc., 4607-106A Avenue, Edmonton, Alberta T6A 1J3) and I located a big buck at dusk on the second day at the edge of some badlands. We came back opening morning and found him a half mile from where we’d scouted him. At 300 yards a 150-grain Nosler Partition broke both shoulders, and that was that. His heavy 5x5 antlers (a classic 4x4 with “brow stickers”) spread 27 inches.

He was about as big bodied as that deer I killed at 24. Pat didn’t have a scale, but I measured the buck’s body, an odd ritual I perform with many animals. He taped as big around the chest and just as long as my first big deer. The other five mule deer killed that week were just as big bodied, though mine only ran about fourth in antler size. Did the magnums kill better? They certainly killed just as well when aimed right, though one 7mm did not do so hot when it broke a hind leg on a buck running across a grain field. Maybe the .300 Kong would have killed quicker, if its owner had hit anything, but we’ll never know. As I recall, mine was the longest shot, and the buck went right down but required a finishing shot. (This has been my experience with broadside shoulder shots, which often range forward of the heart and lungs.)

In my measuring I’ve found most Really Big Deer gain more weight from length than girth. Oh, sure, a huge buck will be somewhat bigger around in the chest, but the biggest buck I’ve ever killed (both in antlers and weight) was typical. A mule deer, I almost didn’t shoot because his antlers didn’t look exceptionally big. But I finally did, and walked up to find a huge-bodied buck with high 6x6 antlers, including brow tines and an extra perfectly matched fork on each antler. (For those who speak B&C, he grossed right at 200 points.) His chest measured 19 inches from brisket to back, not much more than many smaller bucks, but his body was a full 4 feet long from chest to rump, several inches longer than any other deer I’ve measured. He felt just about as heavy as the two-year-old cow elk my wife killed two weeks later.

How heavy was that? We had to quarter the buck to horsepack him nine miles back to camp. He fell the first morning of a 10-day hunt, and an eagle got into the hindquarters one day when the wind blew the tarp off the meat, so I don’t really know.

He was just about as long and wide as a huge buck in a photograph in The Deer of North America. In 1962 Dean Coffman shot a whitetail in Iowa that weighed 440 pounds whole and posed standing beside the buck, holding the old pump shotgun he used. The barrel is probably 30 inches long, certainly no more than 32 inches. By comparing the length of the barrel with the deer, I come up with a chest depth of about 18 inches and a rump-to-chest length of 47 to 49 inches.

So how big was my deer? I guessed his dressed weight at close to 300 pounds, but he might have been bigger. He was one really big deer. I killed him with the same .280 I used in Alberta, a custom rifle by Dave Gentry, but on the 6x6 I used the 160-grain Partition, handloaded to a little over 2,900 fps. The buck was disappearing over a ridge by the time I shot, only the top half of his body visible, so I aimed at the top of his shoulder. The bullet broke both shoulder blades and the spine, then ricocheted off the limestone gravel beyond. The paced-off range came to just about 200 yards.

Where a buck of 200 pounds live weight is the biggest you can expect, bullets of 100 grains do the job. After considerable experience with both I think the extra diameter of the .25s has an advantage over the 6mm’s. While you can certainly kill Really Big Deer of over 200 pounds field-dressed with the little bullets, it might take longer.

My friend Jim Gelhaus has an old Ruger 77 in .257 Roberts that I tuned up a couple years back. He wanted to use it on antelope instead of his .30-06, so I loaded some 100-grain Partitions to 3,100 fps. Jim was so impressed he took the .257 deer hunting, dropping the biggest whitetail of his life on one of his ranch pastures. One lung shot at 300 yards absolutely flattened the buck, one of those merely big deer of 200 or so pounds live weight. So Jim took the .257 to Colorado the next year, where he and Tom Tietz found a Really Big non-typical mule deer. This deer took three shots at 200 yards, all well placed, before deciding to lie down.

The .25s are my own minimum for Really Big Deer, though, with 115- to 120-grain bullets. With those bullets the .250 Savage works better than any 6mm, but since only around 2,700 fps is possible in most rifles, this makes hitting tougher past 250 yards. (Which, of course, takes in 99 percent of the deer killed anywhere in North America.) I’ve taken deer weighing at least 200 pounds field-dressed with most standard calibers from the .257 Roberts (120-grain Nosler Partition) to the .30-06, and they all work. The classic, old .270 might still be the best, especially in open country. I have tried to see differences in the way 130-, 140- and 150-grain bullets work, but bullet construction makes far more difference than 10 or 20 grains of weight. Use whichever good bullet shoots in your rifle.

Many hunters who choose magnums seem to think that long-range penetration becomes a problem with the standard calibers. As long as the bullet’s going at least 2,000 fps, penetration increases at longer ranges. Any medium-weight spitzer holds this velocity at 400 yards when started at 2,900 fps, and many do it from a muzzle velocity of 2,800. I killed that Colorado buck with the 165-grain Partition started at about 2,900 fps from my .30-06. He was bedded quartering away and jumped to his feet at the first shot, quartering slightly toward me as I shot again, dropping him. Both bullets sailed on through, disappearing into the semifrozen ground of the hillside beyond.

John Forbes used the same rifle to take his buck two days later, after the scope on his own .257 Ackley went berserk. His deer’s body was almost exactly the same size, but the antlers were 5x5 with a high 26-inch spread. He also shot twice, with almost exactly the same shot placement, at 150 yards. We found the bullets under the skin on the far side. (It might seem the .30-06 needs two shots to kill deer, but my policy - and evidently John’s - is to keep shooting until the deer isn’t moving anymore. I once shot a forkhorn mule deer with the .338 Winchester Magnum that didn’t react at all to a 250-grain Partition through the chest. In fact, he acted just like a Really Big Deer shot with 100-grain bullets, walking off as if unhit until he decided to lie down.)

To most people it simply seems wrong for bullets to penetrate deeper when they’re traveling slower, but higher velocity opens expanding bullets more quickly, creating more resistance in deer flesh. The deepest penetration I’ve seen with Nosler Partitions resulted from loads starting at 2,500 to 2,700 fps, using bullets at least .300 in sectional density, from the 175-grain 7x57mm Mauser to the 300-grain .375 H&H. Push ‘em faster and they won’t drive as deeply. This even applies to super-penetrators like the Barnes X-Bullet and Winchester Fail Safe, though to a lesser degree.

So I’ll probably never find out what a .340 Weatherby will do to a 400-pound Saskatchewan whitetail at 500 yards, since I’ll carry something like a 7x57mm Mauser or .30-06. The 7x57 does fine in thick country like the aspen bush I hunted in Manitoba three years ago, just as a .270 Winchester, .280 Remington or .30-06 does fine at 300 yards. They might be Really Big Deer, but they are still deer.

American Rifle
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