I’m just guessing, mind you, but I believe the first American deer rifle was the Model 94 Winchester. To be sure, a lot of deer fell to Model 73s, Marlins, Trapdoor Springfields and flintlocks, but the first sporting deer rifle was the 94. Since that iconic rifle there have been a whole lot more.
In the east and south Remington 141s and Marlin lever actions largely ruled the deer camps of the early 20th century. A few intrepid souls came to camp with Model 8 Remingtons believing the adage of “where there’s lead in the air, there’s danger.” When the Doughboys returned from Europe, they began shooting deer with 1903 Springfield and 1917 Enfield rifles. Out west the bolt action held court as the premier deer slayer. Winchester brought out the Model 54 in 1925 and improved it greatly by evolving it into the Model 70 11 years later. Remington simplified the 1917 Enfield into the Model 30 which later spawned the Model 721 and eventually the Model 700. Remington also kept the notion of pump and semi-autos alive with its 760 and 740 series of rifles. Browning weighed in with its renditions of bolt, slide-action, lever-action and semi-auto rifles often combining American ingenuity with European class. Today the AR platform of semi-autos is making inroads to deer hunting camps across the nation.
The deer rifle is an eclectic combination of tradition, lore, effectiveness and heirloom. I’ve seen—and occasionally shot—a pretty wide spectrum of deer rifles. One old sheepherder had a pre-’64 Model 70 Featherweight in .30-06 that had a stock that reminded me of driftwood. Devoid of all finish, it literally had slivers of walnut standing proud on the comb waiting to imbed themselves into the cheek of the shooter. Another guy I met in Maine shot his deer with a commemorative gold-plated and engraved Model 94. Still another was in love with his Garand deer thumper. Point is, a deer rifle is a very personal choice. What’s perfect for one hunter is an anathema to another.
For the most part I’ve stayed with bolt actions, primarily Model 70 Winchesters. However, I’ve also dabbled a fair amount in lever actions, single shots and even the Model 141 Remington—just for grins. If a lot of walking is to be done, I often opt for a Model 70 Featherweight in .270 Winchester or another one in .30-06. On the other hand, if on horseback or in a ground blind on the back of my property, I can be found with anything from a standard weight M70 in .270 to a Kimber M8400 in .300 Win. Mag. I may take my replica Sharps 1874 in .45-90 out later this week, again, just for grins. And just to do something different, I have a couple of whitetail doe tags to fill for sausage meat, and I’m leaning toward my T/C G2 Contender pistol with a .30-30 Win. barrel on it.
I’d be interested in hearing what readers have to say about this. Is your deer rifle nothing more than a tool to harvest some table fare? Or is it a valued family heirloom, treasured because if its history and connections to your family? Maybe you are a tekkie and adore the most modern, efficient and weatherproof bullet spitter. This isn’t an argument as to which is best. That will never be answered. Let’s just wax about our favorite deer rifles.