Mule Deer Rifles & Cartridges

A Logical Approach

By Richard Mann

Published In The GUNS Magazine 2012 Special Edition

Unlike some who believe selecting a mule deer rifle starts with the cartridge, I think the process should begin with the rifle. Why? Simple; you can’t kill a mule deer if you can’t shoot it and your rifle is the tool you use to do that with. Many cartridges are mule deer capable and we’ll get to that shortly. It’s the interaction between you and your rifle that determines the outcome of your hunt.

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The mule deer epitomizes western big-game hunting and many greenhorn
western hunters believe they need a super long-range rifle to hunt them.

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Experienced hunter and outdoor writer John Haviland took this nice mule deer
buck with a Winchester Model 70 in 7mm-08 using a 120-gr. Barnes Triple Shock.
He used the same rifle and load to take an elk as well.

In the book, “Selecting and Ordering a Custom Hunting Rifle” by Charlie Sisk there’s a chapter entitled, The Perfect Fit by Eileen Clarke. Eileen is a woman and hunter. Most rifles are not made to fit women, so she’s a good source for information about rifle fit. Eileen suggests, The rifle needs to be long enough to keep the scope from whacking you in the forehead and your thumb knuckle from breaking your nose. It needs to be short enough for you to reach the trigger comfortably and securely. You need to be able to see through the scope without bobbing and weaving.

Elementary indeed, but excellent advice. Of course, you don’t need a custom rifle to kill a mule deer, but a rifle that doesn’t fit you — no matter how cool or expensive — is a bad idea. Experienced hunters know the moment of truth often comes when least expected and that’s when rifle fit can really matter.

Make sure your rifle is comfortable to shoot from the standing, sitting and prone positions. Make sure you can comfortably reach the trigger from these positions and make sure a scope can be mounted so it is comfortable to look through in these positions, all while maintaining a good cheek weld on the stock.

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Bolt-action rifles like this Winchester Model 70 Classic seem to
be the rifle by which all mule deer rifles are judged. However,
it is much more important that the rifle fit you and that you can
shoot it well than it is that it conforms to some nostalgic standard.

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Long-range rifles don’t have to be heavy. This Model 28 from New Ultra Light
Arms weighs about 6.5 pounds with a scope and a full magazine and will shoot
consistent 1″ groups with about any load you shove in it.

The Scope

Speaking of riflescopes, I agree with most of professional guides I’ve talked with that many hunters are over-scoped, meaning; too much magnification. Riflescopes aren’t made for looking at animals, that’s what binoculars are for. Riflescopes are a sight. My rule for riflescope selection is simple. With fixed-power scopes, I want a minimum 1X magnification for every 100 yards I intend to shoot. With variable scopes I want a maximum magnification of about twice the longest range I’ll consider shooting. For example, if I plan to shoot 400 yards I want at least 8X magnification.

Military snipers perform successfully out to 1,000 yards with 10X riflescopes. I’ve done a good bit of long-range shooting and 10X is more than sufficient to hit a mule deer at that distance, though I’m not sure anyone has any business shooting at a deer that far away. 400 to 500 yards is about as far as I’d ever try to shoot a big-game animal with optimum conditions and I’ve done that successfully with a 10X riflescope.

If you like fixed-power scopes 6X is a good compromise. My first mule deer was taken at 329 yards using a 6X42 Leupold. Variable scopes are more versatile. The ability to zoom can be a real advantage if you need to pick a deer out of some brush to make the shot, even at close range.

High magnification can be a problem if your scope is set to say 12X when you jump a buck out of a sage thicket at spitting distance. Ballistic reticles can pose a problem too. Most scopes with ballistic reticles only apply the proper correction when set on max power. If you have a 6X-24X scope with a ballistic reticle, you’ll have to shoot on 24X for the corrections to work. Many will find it difficult to shoot accurately in the field with that much magnification.

Big scopes add weight too. A Leupold VX-3, 2.5-8X riflescope would be a fine choice for hunting mule deer in any situation and only weighs 11.4 ounces. A Swarovski Z6i 2.5-12X50 riflescope is an optical marvel but will weigh almost twice as much. Scope weight alone isn’t a big deal but add in the weight of a sling, a magazine full of ammo and maybe a bi-pod and it starts to matter.

A lot of mule deer hunting is done from vehicles where you drive around glassing for deer worth your effort. For this type of hunting a heavy rifle isn’t a terrible inconvenience, depending on how far you are willing to walk to get that worthy deer. Others start and end the hunt on their feet, walking as much as 10 miles a day. Unless you’re a real stud, you won’t want a heavy rifle for that type of hunting.

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John Barsness took this Wyoming mule deer at 360 yards with a lightweight,
New Ultra Light Arms Model 24 in .30-06 and a Trijicon AccuPoint 3-9X scope.

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Richard took his second mule deer at just over 300 yards with this custom
Sisk Rifle in .308 Winchester with a short 20″ barrel and using Nosler factory ammo.

Lots Of Walking

New Ultra Light Arms manufactures extremely light rifles; some as light as 4.5 pounds. On the other end of the spectrum are heavy rifles, like Remington’s 700 XCR Tactical Long Range. I have one of these 8.5-pound rifles in .300 Win. Mag. and its scary accurate. I carried another 8.5-pound rifle, a Remington Sendero in .264 Win. Mag., during my first mule-deer hunt. We did a decent amount of walking and I wished I’d selected a lighter rifle. Conversely, on my last mule deer hunt we spent a lot of time riding a utility vehicle and glassing. My primary rifle was a Remington R-15 in .30 Remington AR, but cased, and in the back of the Kawasaki Mule, was the 300 Win. Mag., just in case I needed to take a long poke.

Long shots can be the norm on mule deer hunts but what one man considers long, another will consider a rock throw. For me, a long shot is any shot where the reticle must be held above the animal to compensate for bullet drop. This will vary depending on the cartridge. At any rate, the mule deer guides I’ve talked with say average shot distance is between 200 and 300 yards. My experience agrees with that estimation.

In the book mentioned earlier, there’s also a chapter by outdoors writer John Haviland, offering great insight cartridge selection. I asked John to sum that chapter up, specifically speaking about cartridges for mule deer. Haviland told me:

“Perhaps it’s just the press of age, but when hunting mule deer the hikes seem longer and the mountains steeper than only a few years ago. With that long haul in mind I’ve shifted to lighter rifles. An 8-pound rifle is as much as I’m going to carry and 7-pounds is better. That light rifle works out well because after hunting mule deer for 45 years in the mountains and on the plains, I’ve come to the conclusion there is no need for a rifle chambered in a magnum cartridge. A .25-06, 7mm-08, .270 Winchester or at the most a .30-06 are more than plenty for the longest shots and the biggest bucks.”

John Barsness, another contributor to the same book, lives in Montana, loves to hunt mule deer and knows how to do it. He also holds the distinction — or embarrassment, depending on how you look at it — of mentoring me along as a firearms journalist. I asked him to share some mule deer rifle logic:

“My hunting notes over the past 40 years say that I’ve taken mule deer with cartridges ranging from the .243 Winchester to the .338 Win. Mag. and seen them taken with rounds from the .22 Savage High Power to the .45-70 Springfield. All of these rounds worked, but my biggest bucks have been shot with the .257 Roberts on the low end and the .300 Win. Mag. at the high end. If you average the ballistics, bore diameter and bullet weighs of the .257 and .300 cartridges, the result is something very similar to the .270 Winchester. It would be hard to pick a better round than the .270 for hunting big mule deer, but any small variation on the theme will work as well, even the .270’s direct ancestor, the .30-06. Magnum’s aren’t necessary, but if pointed right will do the job.

“These days I like a pretty light rifle, because mule deer tend to live in steep country. The basic 3-9X scope works as well as any, but I’ve probably taken more mule deer with a fixed 6X scope, and it works just as well. Be prepared to take longer shots, but in a lifetime of hunting mule deer I’ve yet to pull the trigger on a buck more than 400 yards away, because they like broken country, ideal for stalking.”

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The Barnes Triple Shock bullet is noted for deep penetration and its 2X
expansion. These lead-free bullets are perfect for mule deer when impact
velocities are 2,200 fps or faster.

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The Nosler AccuBond is unique because it is more robustly constructed
than conventional bullets but still only needs around 1,800 fps to initialize expansion.

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Conventional, lead-core bullets like these 150- and 180-grain Sierra Pro
Hunters are reliable mule deer bullets too, especially when impact
velocities are between 1,800 and 3,000 fps.

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We all like to see groups this small and they build confidence. In reality,
a rifle that will consistently group even twice this large is sufficient for
mule deer hunting out to 400 yards or so.

The Bullet Matters

Bullet selection is possibly more important than caliber. Bullets that arrive on target and don’t expand or over expand might still mean a lost animal. Impact velocity is the key. Generally, most conventional bullets like Remington CoreLokts and Nosler Ballistic Tips need to impact at 1,800 fps or faster to show worthwhile expansion. More robustly constructed, bullets like the Nosler Partition need around 2,000 fps. Mono-metal bullets like the Barnes Triple Shock and Hornady GMX should hit at about 2,200 fps or more.

This should simplify your cartridge selection. If you think you have the skill and will need to shoot 400 yards, select a cartridge that will impact at that distance with the necessary velocity to induce bullet expansion. But be careful, if you select a conventional bullet and shoot a mule deer at spitting distance with a hyper velocity cartridge, the bullet may impact at such a high velocity it over expands.

With proper bullet performance, caliber isn’t that important. If you’ve nothing better to do with your time than argue bullet diameters (caliber), I wish I had your job. Depending on their construction, good bullets impacting at the right speed expand between one and a half and two and a half times their original diameter. With bullets upsetting this much and with the expansion variance from shot to shot differing as much as a 1/4″ if not twice as much, the caliber of unfired bullets is inconsequential.

In the end, a good mule deer rifle is a reliable rifle that fits you and that you can shoot well. Given a rifle that meets these requirements, the action type and the company or man that built the rifle has more to do with personal preference and vanity than anything else.

As for riflescopes, those with magnification in the 3X to 9X range are the most popular for a reason; they offer the best balance of low- and high-end magnification. If you think you might want to really reach out to whack a big muley, choose one with a ballistic reticle like the Nikon BDC.

When it comes to selecting a cartridge my suggestion would be to go to the range, set up a deer target and find out how far away you can put five consecutive shots in an area the size of the kill zone. If you find your maximum effective range is 375 yards, select a cartridge that will impact at that distance with enough velocity to make the bullet you want to use, work. Don’t worry so much about caliber, but do factor in recoil. Most shooters will be uncomfortable shooting a rifle generating more than 20 ft-lbs of recoil, especially if it doesn’t fit them.

Regardless the rifle you select, practice shooting that rifle at the distances and in the conditions you might encounter. In the end, that practice will have more bearing on your success than anything else.

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This nice Wyoming mule deer was taken with a Winchester Model 70 in .270
Winchester at about 125 yards. Skill got Joe Arterburn close and good shooting
with a classic mule deer cartridge and rifle ended the hunt.

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A mule deer rifle does not have to be expensive or fancy. This Marlin XL7
in .270 Winchester and the 2-7X Burris Scope with a Ballistic Plex reticle
shot very well. The entire package cost less than $1,000.

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This Ruger Model 77 in .257 Roberts topped off with a Leupold 6X riflescope
would make an excellent mule deer rifle. It is mule deer capable out to the
ranges most hunters have any business shooting.

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This Browning A-Bolt in .270 WSM was capable of consistently shooting 1″
groups with several loads. This is more than adequate for shooting a mule
deer out to 400 yards and even beyond.

For More Info:
Empty Cases
(Richard Mann)
(304) 887-2698

Sisk Rifles
(936) 258-4984

Deep Creek Press

(John Barsness)
(406) 521-0273

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4 thoughts on “Mule Deer Rifles & Cartridges

  1. Allen D.

    Good stuff. Just what I was looking for. I have shot my .270, 5 times in a hunting situation to harvest game and I have been successful all 5 times. Next–muley.

  2. Jeff

    I’d take a 7mm-08 out of all the calibers mentioned in the article. The ammo is a little on the expensive side, but It has the right combo of light recoil, flat trajectory, and power that make it a good choice for deer sized game as well as elk.

  3. bill

    I completely agree with everything you said and found it quite refreshing to hear. There’s something to the old saying though “a .30 may make a .5″ hole but a .45 won’t make smaller than a .45″…however, a flat shooting round makes hitting at all ranges easier.
    People find training more difficult with larger calibers because of both physical and financial pain. Without practice you’re not able to fully utilize the potential of any rifle.
    A magnum like a 300 or 7mm with a 26″ barrel may reach a 1000yds with less drop, more velocity and energy than a 20″ barrel. But if terrain and vegetation restricts you to off hand standing…a long heavy barrel/scope, high magnification that may print cloverleafs at 200 off sandbags is too unwieldy for 100yd. With a 20″ you lose much of your ballistic advantage over a .243/7mm-08/308 in a loud muzzle blast of unburnt powder. The shorter cartridges allow for shorter lighter receivers and bolts, and less bolt travel. This makes either a shorter, lighter, handier overall gun or one with similar handling with a longer barrel, thus narrowing the ballistic advantage more.

    I found this article looking to confirm my thoughts for my neighbor kid. He asked to borrow my rem 700 300win mag for mule deer out to 400. He said he has a win70 in 270, I figured he was better off just getting proficient with what he had. I’ve only hunted up to whitetail so I was seeking confirmation from those with experience.

    My past 2 deer have been with 7.62×39 from 16” ak’s…before those, all were with a 30/30 marlin. Though I’ve 13 calibers ranging up to 300win, I don’t find them necessary for inside 250yds. I liked this article because so often I hear hunters scoff at anything less than a 270 or 30/06 and belittle people at the notion. Yet these individuals often proclaim never shooting past 150yds. I’m not advocating .223 at 500, just that around where I live fast target acquisition is way more important than caliber, because 90% of shots are running. Where longer shots are probable, I feel people are better off with something they are comfortable practicing with enough to obtain muscle memory in all field positions. It takes a lot to get good enough fully utilize the potential range of a 270, 308, or 7mm08, until you’re there, learning range estimation is more useful than a magnum. If YOU can’t hit it at 600yds with a .308 then anything more potent is irrelevant.

    Lastly, your discussion on projectiles is great. Your analysis based on velocity is what many overlook. Often people choose bullet type by game not velocity of cartridge at a given range. I advocate testing prospective rounds in lines of gallon water jugs at likely distances. You can know its penetration and expansion, plus thats about the size of a deers vitals. I use a lightly constructed 125 gr sp in 7.62×39, REM corelok in 30/30 & 30-06…but I’ve seen the corelok explode without exiting on whitetail with a 300win mag. Devastatingly effective, yep…unless you want meat. So selecting bullets by velocity is the best approach…unless you’re good judging distance, then a 45/70 would be gtg with any bullet…


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