One of the most popular recreational uses of firearms is for hunting. The guns used in the pursuit of game are as diverse as the types of quarry themselves. When selecting the proper firearm for hunting applications one must consider legalities set forth in the area one wishes to hunt, the amount of power needed to humanely harvest the animal, the distance at which a shot will likely be taken, and the amount of damage to the animal one is willing to accept.
Big game is the grandest of hunting pursuits. It is more about scouting, stalking and matching wits with the animal than the actual feat of marksmanship it will take to close the deal. “Big Game” refers to any wild animal larger than a common dog. Creatures such as deer, elk, bear, moose, sheep, and goats are common examples of big game pursued in North America. With a few exceptions, rifles are the firearm of choice for big game because they are the most accurate and most efficiently deliver a lethal amount of energy to the target. The caliber of choice is usually tailored to the specific animal and the range at which the hunter expects to encounter it. Some common big game hunting calibers include .308Win, 30-06 Spring, .270Win, .300Win Mag, and 338Win Mag. The type of rifle one selects will also depend on the terrain and techniques a hunter will employ. A western elk hunter might be more concerned about light weight and long range accuracy while the north woods whitetail hunter might want compact size and quick handling. There are many rifles that will generally fit all North American hunting applications as well as those that are very uniquely suited to specialized tasks.
The Whitetail Deer is by far the most commonly pursued big game species in our native Minnesota. While Whitetail can be found from the tip of the Arrow Head to the Blue Mound State Park and everywhere in between, the methods of pursuit- and therefore the firearms used- vary greatly. One important aspect of selecting a firearm for deer hunting in Minnesota is the Rifle/Slug boundary. This elaborate east/west boundary roughly bisects the state into a “rifle zone” and what is commonly referred to as the “slug zone”. In the rifle zone, any firearm legal to take big game in Minnesota may be used during the general firearms season. In the “slug zone” muzzle loaders, handguns, and shotguns loaded with slugs are allowed but rifles, as they are defined by the DNR, are not allowed. Contrary to popular belief, this practice was started to give deer more of a sporting chance in areas where they were sparsely populated yet heavily pursued. The fallacy that keeps it alive is the perception that slugs are safer in more open and populated areas because they don’t carry as far. The realities and technology of slugs have evolved beyond the original thinking but, never the less, be sure to choose the proper type of firearm for the specific locality one will be hunting.
“Deer Rifle” is a term in common usage that is assumed to mean something very specific, but actually applies very broadly toward many rifles. It was once a term that pretty much universally applied to the Winchester 94 in 30-30, but in current usage the crown more rightfully belongs to the Remington 742/7400 in 30-06. Still in production as the Remington model 750, over 1.5 million of the variants of this Remington family of auto loaders have been produced essentially unchanged since 1955 and always at an attainable price. It is more commonly encountered among orange woods walkers in the upper Midwest than any other rifle…period.
In terms of current sales of rifles to deer hunters, various makes and models of bolt action rifles are the most prevalent. Bolt action rifles tend to be lighter weight and have more accuracy potential than typical sporter semi-autos. While 30-06, and .270 are still very popular with our customers, our most popular chambering for new rifle sales is .308Win and .243Win. We like these calibers because they are well established, proven, and commonly available deer slaying calibers that fit into lighter short-action rifles and don’t have punishing recoil of some of the other traditional calibers. Let’s be realistic, most Minnesota deer are harvested at distances under 200 yards, and more than likely under 150 yards. The .308Win and .243Win are plenty capable at these distances, and are much easier to practice with to develop sound marksmanship skills.
An emerging class of rifles in the deer hunting segment is the AR family of rifles. Contrary to what the media would have one believe, AR stands for Armalite Rifle which is the company that pioneered the design and submitted it to the US military. Wide spread adoption of the AR by sportsman is really nothing more than a continuation of the same cycle that lead to commercial popularity of the Winchester 94 post-Civil War, bolt actions post-WWI, and semi autos post-WWII. Early adopters tend to get strange looks from party members, but a post-Vietnam adoption of the AR by sportsman was bound to happen and happened it has. Modern variants of the AR are very accurate and reliable in addition to being extremely customizable to the end user and intended application. The large frame AR-10 variants are the most popular for deer hunting. Most often chambered in 308Win, many traditional and wildcat calibers have been adapted to the AR family of rifles for big game hunting. While certainly minimal, the .223/5.56mm chambered AR-15 rifles are adequate and legal for Minnesota deer hunting, but a heavy-for-caliber and controlled expansion bullet (such as the Nosler Partition) is a must. Another interesting option for AR hunting is the .300 Blackout which, in its supersonic loadings, is equivalent to a 30-30’s ballistics in a standard size AR-15.
South of the rifle/shotgun line, the hands down most popular choice for deer hunting is 12 or 20 gauge shotgun slugs. Many folks simply choose to run rifled slugs in their traditional smooth bore shotguns. A rifled slug means that rifling is incorporated into the design of the projectile and thus has the means to spin itself. Serious slug hunters will use a rifled barrel with sabot slugs for increased performance. They do this by either swapping out the barrel on their standard shotguns or buying a dedicated slug shotgun such as the Savage 212/220 or Browning A-bolt. These are essentially deer rifles chambered in 12 gauge. A rifled barrel is not necessarily required equipment for good slug marksmanship, but is a significant improvement over smooth bores.
Pistols are also an option for hunting deer statewide. Typically this pertains to large frame revolvers chambered in magnum calibers like 44 Mag, .45 Long Colt, .454 Casull, .460 S&W, and .500 S&W. The Smith and Wesson 629 and Ruger Redhawk are quintessential examples of hunting revolvers. .357 Mag is also a viable option, but would probably be the advisable minimum for revolver calibers. With the exception of 10mm Auto, most rimless semi-auto pistol cartridges have inadequate power to humanely kill a deer. In its magnum loadings, however, 10mm is a very interesting hunting cartridge in its magnum loadings. The Glock 20 as well as various 1911’s from Dan Wesson and Kimber are very popular hunting handguns with our customers.
As with AR style rifles, AR style pistols are emerging in popularity for slug zone hunting. Basically an AR pistol is one that is outfitted with a buffer tube that has no provision for attachment of a shoulder stock regardless of barrel length. It raises a lot of eye browns, but it is a legal option as the laws are currently written. The advantages of AR pistols are many. Primarily, they have much more accuracy potential because they can be fitted with much higher quality free floating barrels than are available for shotguns. They also shoot conventional rifle projectiles at rifle velocities which have far superior external and terminal ballistics than shotgun slugs or conventional pistol rounds. AR pistols also can be fitted much higher quality triggers than anything currently available for shotguns. There are a host of easily installed premium optics options available to attach to a flat-top AR pistol without gunsmithing as well. Is it a technicality? Sure, but is an AR pistol any less of a rifle than a bolt action, rifled barrel, “slug gun” fitted with a 3-9x scope? No. Offerings from APF Armory, Sig Sauer, and Adams Arms are certainly options worthy of consideration.
It doesn’t take much to knock down an upland game bird, but one must cover a lot of ground to find them. This is why many purpose built upland hunting guns put an emphasis on light weight because they will be carried far more than they will be shot. This element is what has kept some of the smaller gauges viable over the years while 12ga has dominated the shotgun market. Other important features of upland guns are quick shouldering and rapid swinging characteristics. North woods grouse hunting also puts the unique requirement of compact size into the equation because of the thick and dense cover those thunder chickens prefer. Late season pheasant hunters may opt for slightly heavier loads and larger shot sizes, but generally handling heavy firing schedules of magnum loads is not part of the equation for upland shotguns. Some of our favorite upland guns are the Browning Citori, Franchi Instinct, Benelli Montefeltro, Remington 870,
Waterfowl hunting demands a lot from a shotgun. Ducks and geese are generally flying higher, faster, and are harder to kill than upland birds. Waterfowl hunting also mandates the use of nontoxic (i.e. not lead) shot. For these reasons, waterfowl guns are often fed a steady diet of magnum shells loaded with huge pellets. Due to their proximity to swamps and the miserable weather ducks and geese like to fly in, waterfowl shotguns also take a fair amount of abuse and get exposed to somewhat extreme weather. On top of all this, camouflage is an important element of waterfowl hunting so most guns built for this purpose will at least have some sort of non-reflective finish if not have some sort of camouflage pattern applied to them. Some of our favorite waterfowl guns include the Benelli Super Black Eagle II, Beretta A400, Franchi Affinity, Benelli Supernova, and Remington 870 Super Mag.
Small game is generally any animal from a chipmunk to a coyote, it includes squirrels, rabbits, beavers, and fox. Varmint hunting by definition is the pursuit of animals that are a nuisance, or are over populated in a damaging way. Most small game and varmints are shot with 22’s in close proximity to homes, gardens or other property, though .410 shotguns are also a fine choice. For sporting purposes, varminting breaks down into two categories which are prairie dogs and predators. There are few restrictions on how varmints are taken as long as people and property aren’t damaged in the process, however they are usually taken at intermediate to long ranges with rifles chambered with high velocity cartridges. The best thing about hunting varmints, is there is no season and they can be hunted year round.
Prairie dog hunting is usually done be setting up on a prairie dog “town” and ambushing them as the stick their heads out of the ground. This is usually done at long ranges to allow multiple engagements without the rodents catching on. Rifles for this purpose are generally simplified bench rest target rifles. They have heavy contour barrels to maintain precision under heavy firing schedules. Prairie dogging rifles are also usually chambered in small bore high velocity calibers like 22-250 Rem with very flat trajectories so that they are more effective at extended ranges. Excellent examples of prairie dog rifles are heavy barrel variants of the Savage model 12, Weatherby Vanguard or Remington 700
Predator hunting rifles are generally set up for intermediate ranges of a few hundred yards. They are often a bit more wieldable than prairie dog rifles because they are often carried into position or used to take running shots on coyote or fox. Though it is not a requirement, small caliber rifles are usually preferred to minimize pelt damage. Predator rifles also tend to wear non-reflective or camouflage finishes if they are used for stalking or calling. AR-15’s are probably the most popular rifle in this segment. Offerings from APF Armory, Armalite, and JP Enterprises offer the best blend of accuracy and ability for follow-up shots.