I made a post on the One Rifle to Rule Them All, and it got some good reviews, but we all know that guns are like those chips that come in the tube – you can’t have just one.
A few weeks back, I decided that I would expand my Meat-Getter Rifle portfolio. Sure, I had plenty of different options for getting the job done, but I have never owned what I would personally call a “nice” rifle, so I figured that since the basic boxes had been checked that I’d pick up a nice-to-have rifle.
I wanted something with a classic look built through modern manufacturing processes, while maintaining the rugged reliability that the rifles from the middle of the last century are known for. There are really only a few that make this cut that are reasonably priced (I know, “stop being poor”.) I also wanted something compact and relatively lightweight. I have t-rex arms, and when you couple that with multiple layers of clothing, the length-of-pull of standard rifles gets a bit too long for comfortable shooting. Being uncomfortable is a quick way to put yourself into a situation where shots get rushed and/or pulled. Not good when we’re trying to be ethical in our harvest. It being lightweight would mean that I wouldn’t hate lugging it around the woods and that I would be able to keep the rifle more stable for a longer period of time, once on-target. Waiting for an animal to stand at the perfect angle while holding the rifle in an awkward position and trying to not move and be seen for what can seem like several minutes gets pretty taxing. More so with a heavy rifle. Also, I wanted the rifle chambered in a caliber that was perfectly capable of taking down whitetail, and potentially an elk one day, but not something bigger than it needs to be. I’m sorry, but if you’re hunting whitetail with anything that ends in “magnum”, you’re doing it purely for the cool guy points. It’s just not necessary.
I think I found a pretty good rifle to fill this role. My testbed for this project was a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight Compact, chambered in 7mm08.
I was looking for at least a classic look, so the Mauser-type Winchester action and checkered walnut stock checked that box straight away. The rifle came with a Pachmayr Decelerator recoil pad that’s pretty squishy, so the couple of range trips for break-in and zero, where upwards of 30 rounds were fired in a sitting were pain-free. I was kind of shocked at this, given the rifles light weight of just 6.5 pounds. Zero bruises, and no recoil-induced flinching. A good thing. The action used on these particular (and some other, mostly pre-1964) Winchester rifles is what’s called a controlled round feed system where the claw-type extractor grabs the case rim to control the cartridge and feeds it into the chamber. The positive of this is that the round can’t jump out of the action while it’s being cycled, adding to the reliability of feeding. The only negative that I can come up with for the controlled round system is that you can’t just drop a round into the magazine area and close the bolt over it. You have to put the cartridge into the magazine and let the bolt scoop it up. This is not really a big deal at all, just something to be aware of, as you could damage your extractor if not done properly. The ejector is a blade type, which is nice in that you can control the force of the ejection. Cycle the bolt with some force, and the spent case goes flying. Cycle it gently, and you can easily catch it in your hand. The barrel is a 20” thin profile, to keep the weight down. It has a recessed target crown to aid in accuracy and for the protection of the crown itself against the dings that can happen afield. The MOA Trigger on this rifle has a feel that I’m not used to, but I’m a fan of. There is zero uptake, zero creep, and zero overtravel. You make pressure, it makes noise…with no movement. Pretty cool, really. I like the three position safety lever. Moving the selector all the way to the rear locks both the bolt and the trigger. The middle position locks just the trigger, but allows the bolt to be cycled. Moving the selector all the way forward is the off position. The finish of the metal on the rifle is a very deep, almost black, bluing. It is very nicely done.
On my hunting rifles, I like to have a scope with variable magnification with the low end of that magnification range being pretty low. My 2 power (on the low end) scopes have been working out really nicely for some of the more densely wooded areas that I spend my deer time in. My .30-30 wears a fixed 2.5x scope, and my .30-06 has a 2-7x scope. Both have been great, but the beauty of the 7mm08 cartridge is that it is very flat shooting. What that means is that I could make a bit longer shot and not be so worried about how far the bullet will drop at whatever distance my intended target is at, relative to some of the other cartridges that are popular for hunting applications. For this rifle, I went with a Leupold VX6 in 2-12x magnification. It can do both up close and out far really well. When I’m hunting on someone else’s property, and there are rules that have to be followed regarding what can and can’t be harvested, that 12x comes in pretty handy. Getting into the target zone of an animal and being able to make a positive identification aren’t the same thing. It’s become excusable to shoot what’s referred to as a “button buck” because they very closely resemble a young doe, especially moving around through a standard hunting scope. I can pretty easily make the distinction between these two with this scope at typical hunting distances. I went with something outside of the norm for the rings and bases, and ordered rings that are bases from Talley. The theory is that by using a one-piece ring and base, that you cut out a potential point of variability or weakness in the setup. It makes sense, there being one less point of attachment, but whether or not it makes that much of a difference? I don’t know. Properly installed rings and bases typically aren’t a problem area, but it does cut down on one area for troubleshooting should I have consistency problems in the accuracy department. I will say though, that this scope is a little heavier than what I’d prefer, but that’s the trade-off for this level of magnification. My fixed 2.5x scope weighs nearly nothing at 7.5oz, where this beast weighs in at a portly 17oz.
Another selection for this rifle was to hand-load my own ammo. I was told by a competitive long range rifle shooter that anything ending in -08 is going to be very accurate and easy to load for. He’s been right so far. I like the 7mm08, as mentioned earlier, for it’s relatively flat trajectory and decreased felt recoil. It shoots flat because we’re pushing longer, lighter bullets at higher velocities, and there’s less felt recoil because of the lesser mass of the smaller diameter bullets (.284” vs .308”). Less felt recoil means I can actually shoot the rifle for practice and not hate every trigger press. That matters. My choice in projectile was the 120gr Barnes TSX all copper bullet. One, the all copper projectile greatly reduces lead exposure (Who wants to eat leaded-up deer?), and two the bullet stays together much better than most standard cup-and-core copper jacketed bullets once it hits it’s intended target. The cartridge recipe that I followed wound up being far more accurate than I had hoped for. In your average, rack-grade hunting rifle, printing a 2-3” group with off-the-shelf ammo is well within the acceptable range. Most folks might scoff at this, but the reality is, you can’t hold the rifle tighter than that anyway without an amount of support equipment that’s often not conducive to a pleasurable hunting experience. Try it. Set up a target at 100 yards, sit on top of a ladder 15 feet in the air, and shoot a 1” group off-hand (unsupported). Send me video of you pulling that off. I’d love to see it. Hitting a paper plate from this scenario is a challenge in itself, and much more realistic. My personal results from the bench with this load printed a .75” 5-shot group, with the last four rounds nearly going into the same hole. I’ll take that all day long.
Does It Work?
So far I’ve taken two deer with this rifle (including the one that you see through the scope above), and when I hit them, they don’t go far. The first deer, I hit a little further rearward than I wanted to, and he ran about 60 yards. The shot on the second deer went right where I wanted and she made it about 15 yards and fell. Yeah, I said “when I hit them”. I miss sometimes. It’s in an earlier post. I’m 3 for 2, because I made a bad call. It happens.
But hey, maybe you don’t want this exact setup for your deer rifle, and that’s fine. I don’t expect you to. However, maybe there are some points here that you could take into consideration that will help you to enjoy your hunt. We’re supposed to be hunting because we enjoy the experience of the outdoors and playing our part in wildlife conservation. When it’s work, it’s less fun. Unless you’re some kind of masochist, but that’s a different conversation.
Take care of yourself.