I’ve attended a lot of different outdoor deer tracking seminars, and one question that universally gets asked at almost every deer hunting class is what rifle does the speaker use or recommend as an adequate deer tracking rifle. If you do a search on this topic on Google you will be inundated with search results; everything from a ball and patch Hawken muzzleloader to an AR10 gets the nod. The answers are as varied as people’s opinions, and that’s as it should be. But is there a universal recipe that works better than others?
Not long ago I asked an incredibly successful Montanan elk tracker (probably the best in the West) a similar question. Now mind you, Andrew tracks in both the wide open expanses of the semi-arid Montana scrubland as well as the thick pines that cover the mountaintops of some of the best elk country in the land. So his rifle needs to be flat shooting, a heavy caliber, with a variable scope…or so I thought. He answered, “Well Mark, I shoot a small bolt action in 270wsm with a Leupold straight 6 power with a heavy duplex reticle. I know it’s not what the experts say is the “best” especially when I’m in the thick, but I’ve hunted with this set up for years, and it’s slain a lot of elk for me! So I guess it’s best for me.” He has a barn literally filled with record book antlers from elk he’s shot from all over the west, so yeah, I’d say it works for him. When I asked him what he recommended I should use on our hunt, he said, “Don’t worry too much about it. If it can kill a deer, it’ll kill an elk. Just make sure it’s powerful enough to have juice out to 300 (yds). But we’ll be close to him, so just bring what you’re comfortable with.” That was it, no more advice.
To be fair, Andrew knows I’m a tracker, and I’m a competent hunter and a decent shot. He also knows I shoot either a 30’06 or 35 Whelen from previous conversations so he wasn’t concerned. If I told him I was bringing my 30/30, it would not have met his 300 yard “juice” criteria and he would have made a different suggestion to be sure. He’s just not one to spend time talking about things that aren’t necessary. It’s a Montana thing.
The point is, his rifle by all accounts of today’s gun writers is generally considered somewhat anemic for elk, and his choice in optics would be generally discounted as a bad choice for up close woods work. But it’s been a very successful combination for him even though it bucks conventional “expert” analysis. And to further muddy the waters on what constitutes the perfect tracking rifle is the vast amount of rifles and ballistic combinations available to the outdoorsman on the market today. If you spend any time on the internet the confusion gets even worse; I’ve actually read supposed professionals who will state that a 30’06 is underpowered for deer! That’s how far we’ve slipped into delusional thinking. But for the beginner tracker, all this info tends to confuse and overwhelm the senses.
So, let me take a moment and discuss what my process was for selecting a rifle that I personally have found works for me.
To begin selecting the correct firearm to effectively hunt the whitetail deer you need to think logically and sensibly. Match your rifle to your skills, analyze your ability to place a shot well, know the animal you desire to kill (in this case deer), and set the standard for the maximum range you are willing to accurately shoot that animal.
A Personal Lesson on the Basics
Last season I was traversing a hardwood mountainside deep in the Adirondacks. I had my trusty Marlin 30/30 with peep sights. Honestly it’s a superb tracking rifle by nearly all accounts, but it’s not perfect as you shall see.
Way off down in the valley about 220 yards downhill I saw a group of deer. One was a decent buck (I looked through my binoculars), the rest were does. I pulled my rifle up, and covered the entire buck with the front fibre optic bead. I literally could not see any part of him. Andrew’s “juice” comment came back to mind. Here I was with the quintessential Adirondack weapon – the American lever action – and for all intents and purposes it was useless to me. I had a gun that without a scope was really a 150 yard weapon in a place that is now climax forest – in other words, there are areas where you can see under the canopy for a few football fields. By all the expert accounts, I had the “best” Adirondack gun known to exist, yet I couldn’t shoot that buck no matter how badly I wanted to. I stalked closer, but with so many eyes they saw me and ran for safer places; no buck that day.
In every search for the perfect gun is a trade off somewhere. In my case above, I chose lightweight and carryability as the more important characteristics than range, optics and ballistics. To be honest I gave no thought whatsoever to the “maximum range criteria” in my choice of weapon for that day, because I rarely see deer that far away. I have since mounted a trijicon 1x4 on that rifle extending the range out to a solid 200 yards. The wonderful balance that all Marlin’s are known for is still there, and the shootability and pointability all remain with high marks, but I added a pound. And a pound for a tracker is many pounds by a long tracking day’s end. That’s the compromise of course, but at least in this case it was a small one. That gun sits in my safe as my tracking back-up rifle now and is a solid gun by any measure for the east coast mountains I frequent. But no matter how hard I try to make it stretch its legs it can never make the really long shots accurately no matter how big the glass is that sits atop it. So there it will stay as my back up.
Years ago I had a Ruger RSI in 30’06. It was a controlled round feed bolt action with a mannlicher stock that ran the full length of the 18 ½” carbine barrel. It balanced beautifully, pointed better than any gun to date, was highly accurate, had a great trigger, had a redfield 2x7 scope, was as reliable as an anvil, and the classic round had the range I needed. So why isn’t this my tracking gun? It didn’t carry nearly as well as my lever action Marlins or Remington pump actions. It was fat in the hand at the balance point and just does not balance as well with a scope on it. So I eventually sold it. For me, a tracking gun needs to cradle in the hand without a thought. That particular Ruger didn’t. That was a compromise I wasn’t willing to make.
I’ve had Browning BARs too. Lots of Adirondackers love them: reliable, smooth, classy, accurate – but heavy. For me extreme weight is not a compromise I’m willing to make either, especially tracking. The BARs are also quite nose heavy; ill balanced. The only heavy gun I’d ever own is a dangerous game rifle in a dangerous game round. And even then, I’d still lean towards the lighter of the bunch. As far as I’m concerned weight should only be acceptable when it is absolutely necessary to tame violent recoil (save of course target rifles and stationary-post varmint guns which tend to have heavy barrels for accuracy enhancing stability). No deer rifle need be in that heavyweight category. So I’ll pass on the semi auto’s, and that includes the Remingtons and the Winchesters as well. Reliability can be a serious issue with semi’s as well, with the Browning being the most reliable of the bunch (but not without its own issues from time to time). Reliability fades as the weather turns from bad to worse and you’ve slogged through beaver pond mud and ice and rain and a mile of snow covered Christmas spruce. Semi auto’s simply don’t do well in these circumstances, so I’ve learned to let mine go down the gunbroker trail.
There are countless other rifle designs that have produced many tons of venison that while fantastic for those who love them, would not be my favorite pick. I could write a book about their virtues and also where they exhibit their black eye to me. But I’d like to tell you of the gun that I’ve grown to love. Not because it is perfect, but because it is perfect for me.
Enter the Remington 7600
There is one gun in my experience that has no one inherent glaring weak spot. Where most guns excel in many ways but fail miserably in one or two areas, the Remington pump action 7600 retains competence in all areas while also having small compromises throughout. Put another way, it does everything really well, but nothing perfect. I can live with the small stuff if its spread out enough, because small stuff like that fades when you’re focused on the track – it’s the big deficits that make me want to throw a rifle in the river and start over.
Let us start with how it carries, because as they say, “you do a lot more carrying than shooting.” It carries and balances well, but not quite as well as a Marlin or Winchester lever action. That’s because it has a magazine the slightly protrudes where said lever actions are smooth, solid and squared off at the receiver bottom. But the pump is oh so close to those lever classics in carryability and balance. Put a scope on it, and like its lever action counterparts, it also continues to retain its natural balance point in the hand. This really matters if you are a hardcore tracker. Their gun has to be comfortable, all day long.
It’s lightweight. It matches a marlin 336 in weight at 7 pounds 2 ounces sans scope (7 lbs even in the carbine version). But when compared to my Ruger RSI or my Winchester 94, it’s almost a half-pound heavier. Not a huge compromise; still light and acceptable for a day’s tracking.
What about firepower – that “juice” thing? You can get a 7600 in calibers that range from .223 all the way to my favorite; the bear-stopping 35 Whelen. Range? Yup it’s got it. No compromises there. Most of the calibers are good up to 400 yards for deer sized game, much farther than 99% of the shots available to a tracker on the east coast.
How about accuracy? Yes, it’s there, but it tends to get a bad rap here sometimes. That reputation for “not being as accurate as a bolt gun” is not made because of the guns inherent accuracy. The 7600 has a free floated barrel with a bolt action style lock-up so in this respect it is designed to be quite accurate (the older 760 model is not free floated). But, the functional design of a pump action makes range days on sand bags more difficult than with a bolt action for example. Unlike a bolt gun that stays stationary on the bags between rounds, a pump action is in a state of constantly being picked up when ejecting spent shells and feeding a new live round in between each shot made at the target. This does not help the eventual outcome of the measured groups. In a perfect world, the least amount of motion the rifle goes through between shots, the better. With all that said, my experience with several pumps is that with patience given to each round fired from a cold barrel it is an 1” moa gun at 100 yards from the factory with factory ammunition. That’s great accuracy and no deer will ever know the difference between those results and those from the best target bolt actions!
Is it reliable? Yes, without a doubt one of the most reliable guns ever mass produced. Jams are almost nonexistent. But sometimes, like anything mechanical, you get an issue, and the 7600 is not immune. My 35 Whelen, when I bought it used was a jamming fool. In that I bought it used, I sent it to Hillbilly Rifles to have some customization performed, and when Nathan Chesney fixed the feed lips on the magazines, the jamming issue disappeared. It has since been flawless like all the other pumps I’ve owned.
One complaint that is common with the 7600 (and its predecessor the 760) is that the forend rattles. This rattle almost always exists only when there is an empty magazine in the gun, or the magazine is completely removed. By installing a loaded magazine into the receiver the slack that exists in the slide rails is taken away by the magazine spring pressure pushing a live round against the bottom of the bolt (it’s a push feed action) and therefore putting pressure on the slide rails as well, thusly eliminating the noise that might emanate from the slack in the slide rails. So in reality this is a nonissue – no one is going to hunt without a loaded magazine in the rifle. The slide rails have this tiny amount of slack engineered into them to provide for a smooth action. But again, with a loaded magazine there is no slack, nor any rattle.
Lastly, the pump has been shown to be the quickest manually operated action, just barely surpassed in speed by the semi-automatic action. The lever action is next in line, followed by the bolt and then single shot actions. For the tracker, who many times will be shooting through brush at running bucks, the follow up shot is important, and the 7600 shines in this capacity.
So What’s the Perfect Rifle?
Who knows? For each person it’s different. For me it’s the Remington 7600 in 35 Whelen with a Leupold shotgun scope with a Turkey Plex reticle. I have two of them. One with a 1x4 scope and a 20” barrel and another older model with a 2x7 scope and a 22” barrel. They fit me like a glove; they come to the shoulder like my 870 shotgun and the optics are perfect for short and long range work.
But this might not work for you. I’m also partial to Marlin lever actions, but they come in second to the pump in my estimation. Looking on the blogosphere we see that for Tom in Missouri, it’s his browning x bolt in 270 Winchester with a variable 3x9 scope. Jesse in the High Peaks of NY loves his Winchester with an original Lyman peep sight. For the late, famed hunter/outdoor writer Elmer Keith it was any rifle that shot slow, powerful big bore slugs in any variety of actions, barrel lengths, etc. For Andrew from Montana it’s his bolt action 270wsm with his fixed 6 power Leupold. In other words, it comes down to you.
Just look at old photos of deer hunters in the Adirondacks, Vermont and Maine. There are a tremendous amount of these old photos, and they show highly successful hunters with old Krag and Mauser bolt action war rifles with 26”+ barrels! Those long heavy barrels and horribly ill balanced behemoths didn’t seem to affect their success one bit. That’s because they simply used what they had and then built confidence around it. They hunted first, and then they thought about the “other stuff.” But today we aren’t stuck with whatever rifle was passed on to us; we have nearly limitless wonderful options. But with multiple options comes the process of eliminating those guns that don’t work as well as finding that one that does. This of course, is a great problem to have. So in your analysis of finding that perfect gun, don’t lose sight of the basics as your starting point. Here they are again…
1. Match you rifle to your skills.
2. Analyze your ability to place a shot well.
3. Know the animal you desire to kill.
4. And set the standard for the maximum range you are willing to accurately shoot that animal.
Now pick one rifle that fits those four criteria and get on a track and try it out for a season. You will either enjoy that rifle or you won’t. It doesn’t take long to get a feel for a rifle in these kinds of demanding circumstances. Once you’ve put a gun to the 4 point logic test as well as spend a season in the field with it, you will find it either works for you or it doesn’t. If it does work, that gun will naturally become a trusted friend – an extension of your physical being.
For me, I started my tracking career with a Remington 7600 carbine in 30’06 that I shot the barrel out of (I shot that rifle so much that I burned the barrel throat and caused other issues to the action – I loved that thing!). Then, after trading it in for a little cash, I spent some seasons trying out other different types of guns just to see if there was something better, some of which I described in this article. In my case I discovered that there was not a better option than the pump. With that said, the sampling of the other guns has made me a better shot, a more knowledgeable person on weaponry, and frankly it was a fun experience. In the end, I went full circle back to the 7600, but this time in 35 Whelen. It’s a wonderful piece, ready to tackle my beloved Adirondacks and the big bucks that lurk there. I look forward to writing the article this fall when a beautiful Adirondack buck drops from a 200 grain core lokt bullet out of that 20” barrel. I equally look forward to hearing your stories of success with your favorite rifle!
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