choosing a rifle & scope

One of the most debated topics that deer hunters will inevitably pursue around the camp fire is what is the ideal rifle/scope combination for hunting deer? The one fact that you can count on is that all will have their own pet combination and will almost never agree on the same thing.

So, where does that leave the beginner who may be listening to this the discussion and who is in the process of selecting their first deer rifle? Most certainly a little confused.

Firstly, I would like to make it clear that this short article is certainly not intended to be a technical review of what rifle and scope combinations are available on today’s market. In addition it is not intended to argue the merit of one caliber versus another. In short what I hope to convey are some basic, and often overlooked ideas that you should consider before purchasing a rifle scope combination.

Let’s start with the most obvious step, selecting the caliber. Victoria has a minimum legal requirement of .270 Winchester using 130 grain projectile for Sambar, Red, Rusa and Chital deer. 243 Winchester using 85 grain projectile for Fallow and Hog deer. As the focus of this article are Sambar deer I will discount calibers below .270 Winchester, however all things considered this would be a pretty good choice for all our deer species. However, before you choose any caliber you really need to consider the type hunting you are going to do. Even if you are only considering deer hunting you need to think about the different types of terrain and hunting methods that may be required to hunt the different deer species in Australia.

Essentially for most beginners the greatest consideration should be recoil and this will be discussed later, however to begin with the larger the caliber the greater the recoil. Other factors that affect recoil are bullet velocity, bullet weight and rifle weight. Probably the most common caliber that clients bring would have to be 30-06 Springfield closely followed by the .308 Winchester. Both these calibers loaded with 150 - 180 grain projectiles at around 2700 fps are easy to shoot, generate mild recoil and are available in wide range of ammunition brands. Of the two the 30-06 would be my choice if for no other reason then it has a little more punch over .308. Moving onto the bigger 30 calibers (e.g 300 Win Mag, 300 WSM), again with a 180 grain projectile and around 3000 fps you now increase your bullet energy about 20%. These calibers are a little more flat shooting and can be loaded with heavier projectile to about the same velocity as the standard 30-06 load. The next common step up is the 338 Winchester Magnum and 375 Holland & Holland Magnum with 250 - 300 grain projectiles at around 2500 - 2700 fps. Both these calibers are certainly well beyond what is needed for the largest sambar stag. Be aware that as you get into these calibers recoil has almost doubled even with rifle weight increasing by more then 2 lbs above your average 30-06 rifle.

The best advise for the beginner is not get caught up in all the advertising hype that can be associated with calibers. Understand that larger calibers will not compensate for poor bullet placement. And finally, if you really want a large caliber, be prepared to put the time in and learn how to control the recoil which will go a long way towards being able to shoot it accurately.

Selecting the right rifle is an important part of hunting and if done with a little knowledge will ensure that you have a tool that will give you many years of service and enjoyment regardless of what type of hunting you do.

For the purpose keeping things as simple as possible I will assume the rifle will be used primarily for Sambar and perhaps for Fallow deer during the April rut and with a hunt or two after pigs and goats. I will also assume that you don’t have an unlimited budget and therefore one rifle will need to satisfy all your hunting.

To illustrate this lets consider for example a heavy barre led .308 weighing 8-9 lbs fitted with a 3.5 – 16 variable scope. Now this combination is well suited for the hunter who is taking shots regularly at longer ranges in relatively open terrain with a small amount stalking, however if you intended to use this rifle/scope combination for Sambar deer in the Victorian high country then it is less then suitable. At the other end of scale let’s consider 7 – 8 lbs .338 Winchester Magnum fitted with 1-5 – 5 scope. This would be a good combination for Sambar deer where shots are rarely more than 150 meters, however if you are going to attempt shots beyond 250 meters then this combination is less than ideal.

The next thing you need some understanding of is recoil and what effect it has on you and your ability to shoot accurately. Essentially there are two types of recoil: 1. Felt recoil 2.Free Recoil. These two types of energy are directly related to each other to some extent, howeverFelt recoil will be affected by other factorssuch as the stock dimensions and design, the shooters perception of recoil, shooting position, ammunition. Unfortunately felt recoil is something that cannot be calculated as a number, but rather is an interpretation by the individual shooter of how it feels to fire their particular rifle. This interpretation may be different from shooter to shooter even for the same rifle. Free recoil can be calculated for any give load/rifle combination. The figures can usually be found in most reloading manuals. Also the internet has a variety of online recoil calculators available.

To give you some idea of what this means consider the following recoil figures for the 30-06 Springfield cartridge:

1.   180grain projectile at 2700 fps using a rifle that weighs 6.5 lbs will generate 24.8 ft-lbs of recoil.

2.   As above but increasing the weight of the rifle to 7.5 lbs will generate 21.5 ft-lbs of recoil.

3.   As above but increasing the weight of the rifle to 8.5 lbs will generate 19.0 ft-lbs of recoil.

As you can see by increasing the weight of the rifle by 2 lbs the free recoil was reduced by 23 percent.  What will each different rifle feel like when fired? This can only be answered by firing each rifle.

For the beginner who has not fired a center fire rifle in calibers suitable for deer hunting,  it is difficult to put recoil figures into perspective and the only real solution is to try as many different caliber and rifle combinations as you can. The real benefit is that you will very quickly find your level of recoil tolerance. Contrary to popular belief physical stature of a person is not an indicator of what level of recoil that person can tolerate and also one of the most common causes of poor shooting. One of the most common results of someone who is shooting a rifle with more recoil than they can handle is flinching. This is a reaction to the anticipated kick from the rifle that causes the shooter to jerk the trigger. This in turn causes the aim of the rifle to be altered, and usually results in a miss. Flinching is one of the hardest bad shooting habits to get rid off. In the end the most suitable caliber will be the one that you can shoot accurately and without discomfort, and from experience this tends to fall into the .270 to .30 cal range for most beginners. The amount of choice the hunter has in terms of rifle brands and models is relatively good and as long as you apply some common sense in terms rifle weight, its primary use, caliber and do not underestimate the effect recoil can have on you, it’s truly hard to make a really bad choice.

Aside from the caliber the next major point to look at when choosing your rifle is stock type and design. As a general rule synthetic stocks will absorb more recoil than wooden stocks. Also synthetic stock are far more stable in different weather conditions, thus far less likely to alter the point of aim to which the rifle is sighted in. The next thing to look at is the stock shape.

Synthetic rifle with straight stock
Monte Carlo Stock

As you can see from the two above images the stock design on these two identical rifles is vastly different. The top image is obviously synthetic, however it is also a straight stock with very little drop in the heel. (This is the distance the rear top of the butt is below the center line of the bore). The second example is what is termed a Monte Carlo stock. These tend to have greater drop in the heel and a raised cheek piece. The idea is that when you put this gun to the shoulder your eyes will be at the correct level to use the open sights. The down side is that when a scope is mounted even with relatively low scope mounts you need to raise your head from the stock to align your eyes with the scope. In a majority of cases stocks that are of the straight design tend recoil in a more horizontal plane and therefore are much more comfortable and easier to control under recoil. In addition they also tend to have less muzzle jump then the Monte Carlo stocked rifles. This means time saved recovering from recoil should you need to take a follow up shot. The one thing to keep in mind with some synthetic stocks is that they tend get a little slippery when they get wet, and I would give serious consideration to synthetic stocks that have rubber or similar grips or are rubber over molded, especially if this rifle will be used for hunting Sambar in winter.

Regardless of which type of stock design you select the more important consideration is how well this stock fits your stature. Unfortunately it is not always good to rely on the person in the gun shop to help you with this, as often they do not know what to look for and will be more likely wanting to sell you something they have had in the gun rack for too long. I would advise that you do a little research on exactly what to look for. Essentially, what you should be looking for is a rifle that when you put to your shoulder feels natural, well balanced and your shooting eye tends to align naturally with the sights (if fitted) or centrally down the barrel. In addition, balance the rifle vertically in the crook of your elbow with your hand on the pistol grip. What you are looking for is when you place your finger on the trigger that you are not trying to reach for the trigger or that your finger does not extend to far beyond the trigger. This method is what is termed correct “length of pull” of the stock. Some manufacturers will give this dimension in their specifications for a given rifle. Keep in mind that all mass produced stocks are designed to accommodate the average person, so short of getting a custom stock made you will need to compromise in some way. Other features to consider are, shape and size of the pistol grip, shape and width of the forend, quality of any recoil pad that may be fitted and quality of checkering. All of these features affect on how well you may be able to shoot your rifle, so take the time and make sure that you have considered how well the stock fits.

As you brows gun catalog’s or look at the various guns at your local gun shop you will notice that for most part rifles today tend not to have open sights. This brings us to probably the most important part of setting up your rifle, scope and scope mounts.

Leupold single piece scope base
Leupold dual piece scope base

Leupold single piece scope base.                                                     Leupold dual piece scope base.

Let’s start with scope mounts first. Essentially there are two types. One piece or two piece mounts to which the scope rings are fitted. On some rifles you may not have the choice as to which type can be fitted, however if the choice is available I would always prefer one piece mounts. The theory is that they should be more rigid and the scope rings when fitted will be more accurately aligned since they are fitted to a common base. Another aspect that is important is the material from which they are made. The general rule for centerfire calibers is steel mounts only. Be wary of guns that are offered with scope and mounts as package deal, as the mounts may be aluminium; these are not suitable nor strong enough to handle recoil. They have a tendency to flex, and often the securing screws cannot be tensioned enough, as there is the risk of damaging the threads or breaking screws. As a result this may cause poor grouping. In addition you may come across rifles that have scope mounts included from the factory, as far as I have seen, these tend to be of pretty good quality and I would be happy to use them.

The last and most important item is the scope. No matter how potentially accurate the rifle may be, it will only be as accurate as the scope you select. Bigger is not always better.

There are basically two types of scopes, those that have a fixed magnification and those that have a variable magnification. The choice comes down to what sort of shooting you are going to do. Again relating this back to deer hunting I would choose a scope that has variable magnification. They tend to be more flexible in their application, for example if the terrain is thicker you can turn them down and increase field of view and if the terrain opens up then you can turn up the magnification and be able to place an accurate shot at longer distance.

3-9 x 40 Variable scope

3-9 x 40 Variable Scope

6 x 40 Fixed Power Scope

Selecting the most suitable variable scope is a compromise between scope size, maximum magnification and minimum magnification. The one thing to be aware of is that the higher the magnification the lower the field of view and the more difficult it is to hold steady on target without a solid rest and also the less eye relief there may be. For most deer hunting applications something in the range of 2.5 to 8, 3 to 9 or 3.5 to 10 would be ideal.

The next aspect to consider is the size (diameter) of the objective lens. Again this is somewhat of a compromise. In theory, the bigger the objective lens, the better the light gathering ability. However, this is true only to a point. The other aspects that determines light gathering ability is the quality of scope tube (body), magnification, lens quality and lens coatings. Generally the size of the objective lens will be somewhat matched to the magnification of the scope e.g. 3-9 x 40 (40mm objective lens), 3-9x50 (50mm objective lens) 3.5-10x44 (44mm objective lens). These are some common examples of typical scope ranges that are used.  There is one more other consideration regarding objective lens size. The bigger the diameter, the higher the scope mounts need to be to give clearance between the barrel and scope. This may affect how easy it is for you to get your sight picture through the scope.

The last thing to look at is scope eye relief. This is the distance from the scope lens to your eye. As a general rule I consider 75 mm (3 inches) the absolute minimum for rifles in the .270 to 30-06 range. As the caliber get bigger so does the eye relief need to be greater. There is nothing more certain to effect how well you shoot, then using a rifle that has short eye relief and has in the past recoiled into your eye brow.

To sum up, select the best scope you can afford and do not be tempted by package deals unless you are familiar with the scope included. Stay away from really bargain based products as they are generally of poor quality and will probably not last too long. Try and keep the scope simple in operation and realistic in what magnification you choose. For deer sized animals 3-9x40 will be adequate out to 300 yards or more. If you stick with well known brands then you will have something that should give you many years of reliable service. As general rule with scopes, you get what you pay for.

Written by Ken Leatham