Low-cost deer hunting rifles.
True or false: Deer hunting is an expensive sport for the upper crust.
If you answered "true", perhaps you've been reading too many hunting and firearms magazines. Although those publications do a commendable job when it comes to reporting on hunting techniques, new guns, and other developments, there is a tendency to devote a great deal of space to high-priced custom rifles that the average Joe will never own.
Hunting essays often sound something like this: "After spotting the eight-point buck at 300 yards, I raised the customized McMillan 7mm Magnum (price $1,500 and up) to my shoulder. The crosshairs of my Swarovski scope (price $600) were fixed a few inches below the spine. I fired and the buck fell where it stood."
Who can blame gun writers for trying out expensive gear? Manufacturers eagerly lend their products out for field testing, and outdoor writers can purchase these items for wholesale prices. However, this kind of scenario has little if anything to do with the real world of the average deer hunter.
Most of us don't have influential contacts in the firearms business, so borrowing a rifle that will shoot one inch groups at 150 yards is out of the question. Affordability is often one of the top priorities for the person who just wants to enjoy the hunt and put some venison in the freezer.
It doesn't require a second mortgage to purchase a rifle that will cleanly take deer at typical hunting distances (40 to 150 yards, with occasional shots to 200 yards). If anything, the number of available options provide a wealth of opportunities to the budget minded hunter.
Chevrolet far outsells Mercedes every year and the same economic trend holds true in hunting arms. A number of gun dealers have told me that selling a rifle priced above $400 is a difficult task. When you think about it, doesn't it seem silly to spend big money on something with an expensive black walnut stock that will be exposed to foul weather and the numerous little dings and bangs that occur in the field?
Practical-minded (which includes almost every COUNTRYSIDE reader) hunters tend to seek rifles that are reliable, offer reasonable accuracy (three-inch groups or better at 100 yards) in the field, have tolerable recoil, and are chambered for popular calibers. The mega-hyped .287 Saskatchewan Comet wildcat round may sound great in a magazine review, but just try to find a box or two at a small-town sporting goods store.
Among the top 10 sellers are such proven deer calibers as .30-30, .30-06, .243, .308, and .270. Toss in three popular rounds with overseas beginnings (the 7.62 x 39 Russian, 7mm Mauser, and the .303 British), and that covers the vast majority of lowerpriced deer rifles.
The century-old .30-30 may not have the flashy ballistics of some newer rounds, but a well-placed shot within 150 yards will result in a dead deer. While some hunters enjoy knocking the .30-30, it does have a fair share of positive features.
Recoil is modest, which is important to most hunters. Flinching in anticipation of a heavy blow to the shoulder often happens to owners of rifles chambered for macho calibers. That habit results in poor accuracy, and a hit with a medium-power bullet beats a miss with a howitzer every time.
The .30-30 lever actions produced by Marlin and Winchester are light, slender, and easy to carry. An extra pound or two makes a big difference when hunting involves long hikes. Ammo is available everywhere, and a box of 20 rounds costs less than most other deer calibers.
For those on a budget, buying a .30-30 instead of a higher-priced rifle might mean the difference between eating venison and sitting out the deer season. New lever actions typically sell for $200 to $250, and I have seen decent used .30-30s for as little as $120. Those who prefer single shots can obtain the New England Firearms .30-30 for $175 or less. Bolt-actions, pump guns (just like a shotgun), and single shots were produced in .30-30 by Savage in past decades and they can sometimes be found used.
The Chinese-made SKS carbine is the modern version of the .30-30. This compact rifle is chambered for the 7.62 x 39 cartridge, which delivers comparable ballistics to the .30-30. (Note: The SKS was one of the victims of the latest gun bill, and is no longer available, but these comments are interesting in view of gun control advocates' claims that such weapons are useless for sport or pleasure.)
The wood stocks sometimes appear to be made from reprocessed pallets, and the finish lacks the gloss of an American-made hunting rifle, but the SKS is a reliable shooter. They sold for $250 to $300 a few years ago, but the standard model now goes for $125 or less at any gun shop or weekend gun show. (Actually, after the ban was announced, prices soared.)
As might be expected from a Communist-made product, the SKS is somewhat quirky (crude) in design. Bullets are loaded from the top via a stripper clip. The 10-round magazine in nondetachable, but regular (detachable) magazines can be purchased from a number of firms, and the conversion is relatively simple.
This is a great gun for those who enjoy plinking, as full metal jacket (military) ammo sells for 9 to 15 cents a round. However, you must use softpoint rounds when hunting. Some states limit hunters with semi-automatic deer rifles to five-round magazines or five rounds in the clip, so check local game laws before you hunt with the SKS.
Millions of surplus bolt-action military rifles have been imported by American gun retailers, and Mauser and Enfield are by far the most common. Paul Mauser invented the bolt action a century ago, and his design is synonymous with accuracy and reliability.
Mausers were produced in plants around the world, and many of the guns available today were used by the armies of Latin American nations. I was able to purchase a 7mm Mauser in nice condition with a Chilean emblem for $85, and $140 or less should be enough to add one to your collection. The 7mm Mauser is a fine deer round, as is the .308. Many Mausers were rechambered to that popular military cartridge in the '50s and '60s.
Used Enfields are even less expensive than Mausers. Although military rifles tend to be somewhat heavy, the extra weight should mean little if you hunt from a tree stand or a ground blind. That extra pound or two does have an important benefit, as the rifle will rest in your hands with more stability than a lightweight gun when setting up for a shot.
If you prefer a traditional hunting rifle, the Savage 110 is one of the better values in firearms. A familiar bolt-action model, the Savage comes in blued, stainless steel, and lefthanded versions in calibers such as .243, .270, .308, .30-06, and 7 mm Magnum. Savages in .270 and .30-06 with 3 x 9 scopes and other accessories are offered as a package by Wal-Mart and other discount stores, and they can also be found at gun shops and weekend gun shows.
Although some hunters still rely on iron sights (especially when hunting in dense timber or brush), a scope can be a major asset and is worth the additional cost. Variables (usually 3 x 9) are popular, and they do offer some flexibility, but don't overlook the basic 4x fixed-power scope.
The 4x does have some advantages. Since it is simpler, it has fewer parts that could break. Prices for fixed-power scopes are lower than for variables and there is no way to have the scope inadvertently set for 8x when you need a low-power setting for a 60 yard shot. Stick with popular brands such a Simmons, Redfield, and Tasco. SKS owners will need a compact scope. Mail-order firms offer SKS scopes in 4x for around $50, and a scope base and rings will cost extra.
Don't use the scope as you would binoculars. Glassing the woods, farm, or wherever you hunt can help you find hidden deer and save a lot of hiking. Decent binoculars can sometimes be found on sale for $50 or less, and you might find a bargain at a garage sale or flea market. I prefer compact binocs, but some hunters want a full-sized version. It's just a matter of personal preference. If money is tight, perhaps you could borrow a pair for the few days of hunting season.
No matter how meager your budget, don't skimp on firearms safety courses and practice. Many states require mandatory hunter education courses before issuing a license. If your state doesn't require hunter safety training, take a class anyway. Local gun clubs and the National Rifle Association (NRA) offer courses throughout America. The fee is usually very modest and you'll gain a wealth of information on safe gun handling, hunting techniques, and outdoor survival skills.
Get familiar with your rifle. Learn instinctively where the safety is, and don't click it off until you are ready to shoot. Keep your finger off the trigger until just before you fire. Run a box or two of ammunition through your gun at targets of 50 to 200 yards, emphasizing accuracy rather than pouring a hail of lead down the barrel. Sight it in again and make the necessary adjustments on your scope (very simple) just before you hunt. Gun clubs and shooting ranges usually have sight-in days prior to deer season, and volunteer staffers are knowledgeable and friendly. Use the same ammo you plan to take hunting during your final sightin session.
Another tip for the low-budget buyer: Buy your rifle well before deer season. You can expect to pay somewhat more for any deer gun in September and October. The Christmas season to early March is an excellent time to go shopping for a used gun, as the deer season is over, and creditcard bills from holiday mall binges have forced many a hunter to sell a rifle too cheaply.
Having grown up in a large city, I didn't go deer hunting until I turned 30. It has become my favorite outdoor activity and even an unsuccessful hunt is an enjoyable and relaxing experience. Deer hunting is a great way to escape life's hassles and bag some tasty, low-fat meat. Just about anyone can enjoy this rural American tradition.
A note from a 23-year reader
COUNTRYSIDE: I began subscribing to COUNTRYSIDE in 1971. There were some lean times when I let my subscription expire. Once I thought I was resubscribing, but I ended up with a slick, flashy piece of trash. I was so disappointed. I thought you guys had folded.
Always continue to remind beginners to read everything they can and start small. They will gain additional knowledge with experience, and they will be less likely to get discouraged and lose hope if they don't kill themselves with more than they can handle.