For a good part of the season, deer hunting can be as much an obsession as it is enjoyment. Why else would anyone spend so many hours sitting in a tree? But when the rut is over in the North Country; when the first snows fall and bucks quit running all over and become content to feed and rest, deer hunting can be pure fun, if you want it be.
You just leave your treestands and trail cameras back on the farm, drive to the wilderness, and go find a buck track to follow. You know what else you can leave behind? Your 6.5 Creedmoor.
Tracking deer has a charm all its own. There’s the wilderness itself—the desolation of the ridges and the quiet under the cathedral pines. And there are the trappings of the old-timey big-woods hunters—wool and leather and, cliché as it may be, blued steel and walnut. You’re not going to spoil that by carrying a plastic-stocked bolt, are you?
Besides, you don’t need a precision rifle for tracking deer. Anything that can group inside 3 inches at 100 yards is fine. And if you don’t need a modern gun, why not carry a classic? As much as anything, tracking deer is an excuse to pull the coolest rifles from your safe and take one for a walk.
What Makes a Good Deer Tracking Rifle?
A good tracking rifle is pretty much the opposite of what most people are buying these days. The best of them are, by and large, short-range repeaters. Yours should be fairly lightweight and handy, because you’re going to carry it a lot more than you’re going to shoot it, and when you do shoot, you’ll need to bring it to bear in a hurry.
Trackers like big, fat bullets, which is why the bores of their rifle’s measure .30 caliber and up. Why? Well, there’s the dubious but persistent idea that big slugs buck brush, but more important, trackers want their bullets to hit hard and make a big hole, which leaves a heavier blood trail. Quick shots aren’t always perfect shots, but if you have a good blood trail in the snow, the odds of recovering your buck are very good.
Trackers want fast follow-up shots, too, because in the sprawling big woods, where deer densities can be as low as a few animals per square mile, the general rule is this: You see a buck, you shoot at it. Otherwise you don’t get venison. You make the best first shot you can, and then you keep shooting just in case.
Some of the best trackers I know can run a lever gun as fast as you can shoot an auto. They get on target in an instant, and they hit what they are aiming at because they practice endlessly by snap-shooting at milk jugs and at squares of plywood jammed into rolling tires. You should try it. Get a .22 that mimics your tracking rifle and shoot it a bunch. Then switch to your centerfire when the season gets close. It makes for fun plinking, and, later, when a buck jumps up out of its bed at the end of a long track, you’ll be ready.
And now, on to six of the coolest rifles you can hunt deer with.
Winchester Model 94
If you ask my buddy Randy Flannery, who owns Wilderness Escape Outfitters and runs a deer-tracking school in Danforth, Maine, the question of what makes the best tracking rifle is a no-brainah. It’s an open-sighted Winchester Model 94 Trapper model. This makes sense, because while you can put a scope on a 94, it was always meant to go without one, and in the thick, green growth of the Pine Tree State, you don’t need a scope for tracking. Your shots will be close and fast, so iron sights or a ghost-ring peep is the traditional choice. And when it comes to carrying a rifle through a spruce thicket or a cedar swamp, a scopeless 94 is in a class all its own. No other rifle on this list is so trim and handy. The most common chamberings are .30/30 and .32, both of which will do fine, but some trackers want bigger, and there are big-bore 94s to accommodate them. Flannery, for example, carries a .444 Trapper with 16-inch barrel and hoop lever—and when he shoots it, you’d swear it’s on full-auto.
Winchester still offers a whole line of new 94s, and although these are no longer made in the states, they are still very well made indeed. Since 1894, the company has produced about 7 million Model 94s, so there are plenty of used ones out there, too—often at friendly prices. Mine was made in 1945, and I picked it up in a local shop for $450.
I could as easily pick Marlin’s 336 for this entry. It’s actually the better-handling rifle and comes chambered in one of the best big-woods cartridges ever made—the .35 Remington. (I’m especially tempted because, of the two, it’s the one I own and prefer.) Nonetheless, I’m going to give the nod to the great 1895G, as trackers in particular love this big-bore for its thump. All of the guys in one of the Adirondack camps I go to carry some version of it. The G stands for Guide, the idea being that people who hunt for a living need a rifle that works no matter what and will anchor whatever critter needs anchoring. Chambered in .45/70 and built like a tank, the 1895G does both, and right at 7 pounds, with an 18½-inch barrel, it’s handy enough. If you prefer your classics to be modern classics—if you like the idea of having some of the new-fangled conveniences of, say, the last half century—this one is for you. Unlike the Winchester 94 above, Marlin levers take naturally to a scope—even older, used models—and the current-production 1895s are available with all sorts of modern-day options, including stainless-steel metal, laminate or synthetic stocks, a Pic rail, and even a tuned trigger and Cerakote finish on custom models.
Remington 760/7600 Carbine
This is the most famous deer-tracking rifle because it was carried by the most famous deer tracker: the late Larry Benoit. In 1970, Sports Afield Magazine featured the Vermont hunter on its September cover with the headline “Larry Benoit—Is He the Best Deer Hunter in America?” The irony is that the rifle whose barrel Larry The Legend is peering down on that cover image is a peep-sighted Remington 742 autoloader. But the one that he became best known for, the one that he made ubiquitous in North Country deer camps to this day, the one that Remington modeled its limited-run Larry Benoit Commemorative rifle after was his pump-action .30/06 Model 760/7600 Carbine. Why the slash? Because the 760 was renamed the 7600 in 1981, and Benoit used both. And because most big-woods hunters think of them as slight variations of the same gun. If you look hard, you can find used carbine models chambered for a variety of popular big-woods rounds, including the .30/06, .308, .35 Rem, and .35 Whelen. They’ve become somewhat rare and pricey. Expect to pay better than a grand and rationalize it with the thought that every time you carry the gun into the snowy hinterlands, you’ll be paying homage to the original master tracker.
(Also keep in mind that you don’t have to pay that much. Used non-carbine versions abound for much less, and it doesn’t cost a whole lot to have a gunsmith lop off a few inches.)
Winchester Model 100 Carbine
I own just about every gun mentioned in this article, and yet when I find myself staring into the gun safe, mulling over which one to take tracking, I usually wind up pulling this one. With its full-length, one-piece stock, it’s probably the handsomest factory auto ever made, and when you’re doing the sort of hunting where you might walk 10 miles before you get even a glimpse of a deer, it’s nice to walk with a good-looking gun. At 6½ pounds, with a 19-inch barrel, the carbine model is just light enough to hold on your hip with one hand and push away brush with the other when needed. Mine wears a trim 1-6x scope that I turn all the way down in the thick stuff and may turn up to 4x (or even to 6x on rare occasions) when I’m on the open ridges. You can find non-carbine 100s in .308 for between $600 and $800 online and in shops. (The .243 and .284 are pricier.) The carbine will run a little over a grand. But there are bargains. I got my .308 carbine on gunbroker.com for around $600.
A few points of caution about the Model 100. You should know that they have a reputation for poor accuracy, although that’s typically not a huge concern with a tracking rife. I apparently got very lucky because mine groups just over in inch at 100. Also, you need to keep this gun clean to keep in running. Finally, Winchester recalled the 100 in 1990, due to a potentially dangerous firing-pin malfunction. Before you buy a used 100, make sure to ask if it has the new pin. If it doesn’t, you can have a gunsmith switch it out (which is what I did). Winchester still honors the recall.
Remington Model 8
Here again, I could go with the Remington 740 (which became the 742 and then 7400) for this slot. But as we’ve already mentioned that rifle, and as it is basically the autoloading twin of the 760/7600 above, let’s do something more interesting. Namely, its predecessor. Originally offered as the Remington Automatic Rifle in 1906 and soon renamed the Model 8, this John Browning design was something entirely new in its time. Available in.35 Rem, the Model 8 was the first autoloading centerfire rifle capable of dealing with big game, from deer to bears to Bonnie and Clyde. (According to the lore, it was legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer’s deputy, Prentiss Oakley, whose Model 8 delivered the fatal shot to Clyde Barrow’s temple in the 1934 ambush.) As with the Winchester 94, it is possible to put a scope on this gun, just as you can find used models already wearing one, but the rifle was intended to go without, and as such, it’s the handiest little autoloader you’d want to carry into the tracking woods. It’s a pleasure to shoot, too; with its long-recoil design, the Model 8 doesn’t kick so much as it gives you a friendly shove to remind you that it’s time to pull the trigger again. To my eye, it’s one of the coolest-looking deer rifles out there. If you’re the sort who doesn’t want to show up at the dance with the same gun as anyone else, the Model 8′s sheathed barrel, fixed box magazine, and receiver-mounted safety lever are about guaranteed to set you apart. As a bonus, this autoloader is more accurate than it needs to or has any right to be.
The great Savage 99 has often been called the best all-around deer rifle ever made. Today’s long-range shooters might argue the point. But they might also forget that any deer gun that claims to do it all has to be capable on a buck track. And the 99 is, in spades. When the rifle debuted, it was first lever gun that could safely fire high-power cartridges loaded with spitzer bullets, a feature so far ahead of its time that no similarly capable lever appeared until some 56 years later, when Winchester introduced the Model 88. What this means for trackers is that the 99 comes chambered in two of the very best big-woods rounds—the .308 and .300 Savage. Although not the lightest rifle on this list, it carries light because the gun was designed to balance perfectly when held in one hand, palm wrapped under the round-bottomed receiver. How easy it is to put a scope on a 99 depends on when it was made, but the rifle is a lot handier without one, and an older 99 with a ghost-ring peep (which is more accurate than iron sights and doesn’t get clogged with snow like standard peeps can) makes for a damn fine tracking gun. From 1899 to 1999, Savage made over a million of these rifles, so there are plenty of used ones out there. Old specimens in good condition and in rare calibers can fetch $3,000 or more. But good working guns in .308 and .300 Savage can be had for around $1,000. Look for guns with the rotary magazine. When you find one, grab your wallet.