With another deer season over, it’s time to reflect on your successes and failures while you enjoy the holidays. Among the things you may want to change before next year is your choice of firearm. Or perhaps there’s another in the family who’ll be heading afield for the first time next year. Whether you’re Christmas shopping for a loved one or merely looking to upgrade your inventory, there’s lots to consider. The options can be daunting, even to an experienced hunter, so here are a few thoughts that might help your decision.

We may as well get caliber out of the way right off. There are few if any more hotly debated topics in deer camp than what is the best caliber for deer. You can argue ballistics all day long, and some folks do. Or you can simply cut to the chase.

A 400-grain arrow traveling at 280 feet per second will produce a little over 50 foot-pounds of kinetic energy. By comparison, a 95-grain .243 Winchester bullet – the low end of deer calibers – traveling at 3,179 fps will impart 1,952 foot-pounds upon its target. Meanwhile, a 40-grain bullet from the lowly .22 Magnum Rimfire, which is legal for deer hunting in Maine, travels at roughly 2,000 fps and produces a meager 240 foot-pounds of kinetic energy at the muzzle, and less at the point of impact. Bottom line: If you can kill a deer with a bow an arrow, you can kill one with any caliber legally permitted for deer hunting. The key is putting the projectile in the right place.

Having said that, there are some extenuating circumstances. One of the principle advantages of a rifle over a bow is effective range. Even in the hands of an extremely proficient bowhunter, 60 yards is pushing the limits, and half that is probably a comfortable range for average bowhunters. Conversely, a rifle shooter is limited far more by ability to aim and hold steady than by the effective range of their weapon. Larger calibers impart more energy and will make up for some, but not all of your marksmanship deficiencies, as well as providing a more lethal shot with less than ideal shot angles or conditions. One should also consider that lighter bullets and/or heavier powder charges produce flatter trajectory over longer ranges.

If you want to go mainstream, the .30-06 Winchester and .270 Winchester are among the most popular calibers for deer. The .308 Winchester, my personal favorite, fits nicely in the middle of these. And because these are the most common, ammunition is easier to find and you typically have a lot more choices in bullet weight and type.

Your next choice is the type of action. I won’t get into the details of why, but bolt-action rifles are inherently more accurate than slide-action and semi-auto guns. They’re also less prone to malfunction and a little simpler to operate. Personally, I believe they offer a psychological advantage as well. Knowing that you’ll have to work the action for a follow-up shot, if needed or even possible, tends to make the shooter concentrate more on the initial shot.

However, other options have their merits. Simpler, and slightly more accurate is a basic break-action, single-shot rifle. The simplicity, and the need to ensure that first shot is a good one make this a viable option for young or novice hunters.

Conversely, many folks who ply the age-old traditions of tracking or walking-up their deer and want the luxury of a quick follow-up shot prefer autoloaders like the Remington 742 and 7400 or the Browning BAR, or slide actions like the Remington 760 or 7600. And despite less favorable ballistics, the venerable lever-action 30-30 is one of the most popular deer rifles. Bottom line: Pick the type with which you are most comfortable and proficient.

As for brand, that largely depends on your preference and budget. Mossberg has long been the leader in price-point smoothbores and more recently has dramatically increased its inventory of quality rifle options for the budget-conscious hunter. Meanwhile, other companies like Remington and Savage, to name a couple, have also developed reliable tack-drivers for under $500 that often include optics. If you can afford more, the sky is the limit. I would suggest talking to friends and gun shop employees. Just be forewarned that you’ll encounter some strong and quite varying opinions on the best deer rifle.

Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at:

[email protected]