Big Game Rifle Selection from a Female Perspective
Many years ago when I said I would marry Dan, I had no idea that our life together would turn me into the passionate hunter and shooting enthusiast I have become. Hunting, while a central preoccupation to him, was something I had never done before or been exposed to. So he was surprised when I jokingly notified him one fall day I would accompany him and his friends on a deer hunt and required a rifle, gear, and some instruction.
To my surprise, he was thrilled and anxious to help, in fact he was so excited I did not have the heart to tell him I had been joking. Despite the fact I had unwittingly backed into it, the first deer hunt was a life-changing event for me and as time has passed my devotion to this wonderful lifestyle has grown deeper and deeper. I now hunt moose, elk, deer, antelope, and varmints every year, both with my husband and without him. Hunting has enriched my life in ways I could not begin to fathom that first season, and as my interest in hunting and shooting has grown, so has the battery of rifles that now resides in the gun closet. I offer the following choices not just as suggestions for the female hunter, but for all hunters to consider. After all, if these rifles are effective for me, they likely will be effective for others as well.
Elk and Moose:
To say elk are tough is an understatement, but they are not armor plated either. For these remarkable animals I have complete faith in a Browning A-bolt chambered in .30-06. It wears a Leupold Vari X-II 2-7x33, which has good light gathering qualities in thick timber and at dawn and dusk, but plenty of magnification to reach out to 350 yards, and a bit more, if needed. This rifle fires a 180-grain Nosler Partition bullet at an average of 2695 fps and on a good day will group its shots into a 1-inch circle at 100 yards. I know this is not exactly a flashy choice, but with this rifle I have dropped 12 elk and several cow moose. I added a muzzle break to it, as the recoil with 180 bullets was still substantial for me. A friend of mine with more than 30 years experience guiding hunters in the mountains of Wyoming, claims the .30-06 as his favorite elk caliber to see clients, of any gender, walk into camp with. He has seen more than 150 elk killed in his career and strongly feels that bullet construction is far more important than caliber choice when it comes to elk hunting. I can’t argue. The .30-06 has all the killing power and reach needed for ethical shooting in field conditions, delivered in a package that doesn’t kick the shooter into a flinch.
There are other choices out there that would work, but based on what I have seen and the opinions of several guides, I feel this is a very sound choice for any elk hunter. Get a .30 caliber rifle that shoots accurately without excessive recoil, practice with it once or twice a month, load it up with tough controlled expansion bullets, and you won’t go wrong on any elk or moose that walks the earth. For me that describes the old `06 perfectly. If forced to pick a single rifle for all my hunting this would likely be it, and while I have never hunted wild boar or black bear I hope to some day take each of these animals with this rifle.
My choice here is the new .270 Winchester Short Magnum, and this one is in an M70 Winchester Featherweight. To tell the truth, any of the .25 to .30 calibers with flat ballistics and 1000 foot-pounds of energy at the target are adequate mule deer rifles. But a couple years ago I acquired one of these new short magnums as a birthday present and have found it to be a remarkably accurate weapon that feels good in my hands. As mulies tend to be found in more open country, it wears a 3-9x40 Leupold VXII scope. Using the Stoney Point shooting sticks I always carry, I can put 5 out of 5 of the 140-grain Sierra Game Kings, doing an average of 3103 fps, into a paper plate at 375 yards and so that is the maximum distance I allow myself to shoot. We usually kill 2 or 3 deer per year apiece, and the performance of this round has been excellent. The Sierra bullets open reliably and are extremely accurate.
The .243, while possessing a great reputation on deer, has proven a bit small on larger bodied mulie bucks. Some of those mature bucks, particularly those found in the high alpine basins, are almost as big as a yearling cow elk and require more energy than this neat little cartridge can provide. The .30-06 is an excellent cartridge but not quite as flat shooting as the .270, which is handy in most mule deer country. Many other calibers are widely used, and to good effect, but when putting together an ideal mulie set up, the new .270 WSM has proven difficult to beat. Fairly light, flat shooting, accurate, with all the punch necessary for clean kills without excessive recoil or muzzle blast, it also could serve as a back up rifle on an elk hunt someday. The new .270 WSM is a fantastic caliber.
Whitetails are special creatures. They are available, graceful, delicious, and challenging. I really enjoy the history of hunting these deer and so when putting together a rifle for their pursuit I decided on something traditional. A Marlin .30-30 lever gun, shooting 150-grain Barnes XFN bullets, has taken a bunch of whitetails over the years for me. This light-kicking rifle wears a Leupold Vari X-II 2-7x33 scope and points like a dream. It is a joy to carry and, most importantly, easy to maneuver in the cramped quarters of a tree stand. I “borrowed” this rifle from my husband for our first deer hunt together and immediately fell in love with it, so suffice it to say his chances of getting it back are remote. In our experience, whitetails have proven to be more easily dispatched and lightly built than mulies of similar size. Of all the deer this rifle has taken, most have only run a short distance before expiring, and those hit less lethally were slowed enough for a quick follow up shot. The most recent buck was hit at 206 yards quartering away in a meadow. The bullet entered at the second rib, blasted both lungs, broke the opposing shoulder, and lodged in the meat on the other side of the shoulder blade, and that is darn good bullet performance in anyone’s book. This is as far as a hunter should dare push this round, but where we are hunting a longer shot is very unlikely.
I have seen a score of animals taken with calibers ranging from .243 to .30-06 and all with good results. While I would be comfortable with many other rifles and calibers, I just love the handling qualities - and mystique - of the little lever gun and the legendary .30-30 cartridge. If I ever have an opportunity to hunt whitetails in more open country I would likely use my .270 WSM, but for now an old and reliable friend to deer hunters, the .30-30, fills my needs wonderfully.
Antelope and Varmints:
We are fortunate to live in what may be the best public land pronghorn hunting in the nation and have been able to take more of these interesting game animals than we can remember. Since these guys are not tough, but do live in very open country, almost any flat shooting rifle will do the trick. In my experience the only problem with most of the .270 to .30 caliber rifles is that meat damage on such a relatively fragile creature can be terrible. I have seen these calibers totally rip up a good buck even when used with the smallest bullets made for them. This is unacceptable and I strongly feel dishonors a noble game animal. Regardless of the caliber chosen, a tightly constructed bullet really seems to help with this problem while still killing the animal cleanly.
Author (Kristina) after a successful antelope hunt.
My ultimate antelope rifle is a Remington M700 ADL in .243, topped by a Cabela`s Alaskan Guide scope in 4-12x52mm. It consistently shoots 85-grain Barnes XBT XLC bullets at 3240 fps into a ½ inch or smaller group at 100 yards. It is sighted to strike 2.5 inches high at 150 yards and 3 inches low at 350 yards. I could shoot to 400 yards - maybe more - while still holding on the animal, but feel shooting at these ranges in field conditions should be avoided unless the animal has already been hit. Accuracy in an antelope rifle cannot be overstated, as this animal is smaller than many think and easy to miss. I am not sure how many antelope this rifle has claimed, but the number is considerable. The 85-grain Barnes is a strange bullet. It is coated with a blue dry-film lubricant that increases velocity and reduces barrel fouling. It is a very tough bullet that always exits without destroying much meat. Accurate, with plenty of power to cleanly harvest antelope at up to 375 yards, this sweet shooter is an outstanding antelope rifle and would serve well as a back up gun to a whitetail or mule deer hunt. Of all my rifles this is the one I shoot most as it also serves as a prairie dog and coyote rig when I pursue these animals.
For the most part, all the rifles I have described are factory guns with some simple customizing I did myself. The sad fact is that most major firearms manufacturers do not produce a rifle really tailored to women, so some of these modifications were done with a degree of necessity. Many companies do make youth models which are guns cut down for people with smaller frames, but these usually have very limited caliber choices and often sport rather short barrels that reduce bullet velocity. As a woman I wanted the same choices men have, so the best alternative for me was to buy rifles I liked and then change them to fit my specific needs. I suspect as more and more women head into the woods and mountains this situation may improve.
Having said all that, I can assure you factory rifles will shoot with nearly custom gun accuracy if only a few simple changes are made. All my rifles are wood stocked and glass bedded with floated barrels. I like how wood stocks look and feel compared to plastic, which is a bit superfluous perhaps, but a rifle that looks and feels good in your hands is more fun to use. I had the stocks cut down to fit my smaller frame and then attached good soft recoil pads. Stock fit is critical to accurate shooting and most guns are to long for the average woman. I had a gunsmith tune each rifles trigger to precisely 3 pounds, since intimately knowing the trigger pull on a rifle is more important to accurate shooting than almost any other factor. My husband is a reloader and we have tailored each rifle's load with a great deal of experimentation. We tried to balance velocity, accuracy, and bullet construction so that it made for an ideal cartridge that was fast, accurate and deadly. If you do not reload, current premium factory ammunition is excellent stuff, just remember to test several types to find the one that shoots best in your gun and then stick with it.
While a hunter could certainly fill all his or her needs with a single rifle, a good battery of guns, carefully tailored to the needs of the shooter and the game they will pursue is much more interesting. With a few modifications and some careful thought, the female hunter can build a collection of hunting tools that suits her needs, are fun to shoot, and she can feel proud of. The more we use them, the more our rifles become like old friends and my mother always told me to choose my friends wisely. I think I have and hope you do too.
Author (Kristina) with son and mule deer.