|January - February 2000
Volume 32, Number
Weatherby's new Mark V Super Varmint Master in .22
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.
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
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
dont see Deer Rifles, East and West much anymore, Id 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.
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
does it take to kill a deer these days? Especially a (drum roll) Really Big Deer?
us first define big deer. Here were 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 Ive 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.
the buck fell on Johns 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.
big, John said.
biggest Ive ever seen.
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.
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.
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.
big do deer grow? According to the latest Lyons Press edition of Leonard Lee Rue IIIs
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.
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 Montanas
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.
then I thought Id taken some big deer. But after getting this deers 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.
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 deers shoulders to stirrup level.
So we slid the buck up a leaning 4-foot stump and led the horse underneath. This pony didnt
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.
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.
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!
the next few years we discovered that deer actually lived in Canada and, yes, even Mexico.
And some grew big - with big numbers!
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 isnt. I like big-antlered deer as well as the next hunter,
especially mule deer. Since that buck near Idaho, Ive 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.
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.
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 didnt 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 dont 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.
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. Lets 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 theres just as much pressure on residents as outastaters, and
maybe more, since many guided hunters hunt more than one state a fall.
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 wed 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.
was about as big bodied as that deer I killed at 24. Pat didnt have a scale, but I
measured the bucks 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 well
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.)
my measuring Ive 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 Ive
ever killed (both in antlers and weight) was typical. A mule deer, I almost didnt
shoot because his antlers didnt 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 Ive measured. He felt just about as heavy as the
two-year-old cow elk my wife killed two weeks later.
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 dont really know.
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.
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 6mms.
While you can certainly kill Really Big Deer of over 200 pounds field-dressed with the
little bullets, it might take longer.
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.
.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.) Ive 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.
hunters who choose magnums seem to think that long-range penetration becomes a problem
with the standard calibers. As long as the bullets 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.
Forbes used the same rifle to take his buck two days later, after the scope on his own
.257 Ackley went berserk. His deers 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 Johns
- is to keep shooting until the deer isnt moving anymore. I once shot a forkhorn
mule deer with the .338 Winchester Magnum that didnt 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.)
most people it simply seems wrong for bullets to penetrate deeper when theyre
traveling slower, but higher velocity opens expanding bullets more quickly, creating more
resistance in deer flesh. The deepest penetration Ive 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 wont drive as deeply. This even applies to
super-penetrators like the Barnes X-Bullet and Winchester Fail Safe, though to a lesser
Ill probably never find out what a .340 Weatherby will do to a 400-pound
Saskatchewan whitetail at 500 yards, since Ill 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.