A good deer rifle

A big surprise to me this year was that Indiana (where I live and hunt) just allowed, with little notice, the hunting of Whitetail deer using 30 caliber or 6mm rifles on private land. This is surprising because for decades Indiana has restricted the firearm hunting of deer to shotguns using slugs or to handguns or rifles using handgun cartridges (.357 caliber or greater and under 1.8 in. case length). This principle, of restricting hunting in “flat-landed” states to weapons with inefficient external ballistics for safety reasons, is dubious. A 427 grain (1-oz) 12 gauge slug exiting the muzzle at 1800 FPS (exactly what my Ithaca 37 Featherlight with Deerslayer barrel does) will travel a great distance and still be quite deadly. The truth is that an ethical hunter should only take a shot with reasonable assurance of hitting a vital area of the animal AND certainty of what lies beyond the quarry. I have not taken shots on deer presenting on hilltops or ridgelines because I was uncertain of what lied beyond, or couldn’t see well enough at those distances to tell if there was any hunter orange bobbing around. I think the upshot of such policies is simply reduction in the effective range and results in more wounded, escaped deer as hunters inevitably push the limits.

 

Well…the rules are the rules. For years, I hunted with a Marlin 1894 in 44 magnum in Indiana, which is a far better deer hunting set-up than any shotgun in my opinion. It is at least a pound lighter, far more accurate and has better effective range, and does not kick or destroy the meat as badly compared to a 12 gauge slug.

 

I’ve had some unfortunate experiences with the 44, however. Despite the impression some people get of Indiana when passing through (our motto is the “Crossroads of America”) on the major interstates of 65, 70, or 80, Indiana is not 100% see-to-the-horizon corn and bean fields. If one were to take the Southeast portion of I-74 or spend time generally in the Southern quarter of the state, they might mistake Indiana for Kentucky or West Virginia. There are several ski slopes in Southern Indiana. Often this means very hilly and rugged terrain where shots on deer come at relatively close ranges. Our forests also tend to be dense growths of hardwoods, and are being invaded by Japanese Honeysuckle. Consequently, they are dark, too. 44 Mag is suited to these woods, but occasionally one gets an opportunity when deer are passing through a hayfield or stubble and these can be longish shots. I took one at about 225 yards with my 44, loaded with 265 grain bullets (heavy for caliber). At this range I held over about 18 in. I saw through the scope the impact of the bullet–exactly in the kill zone. I saw this big doe’s fur ripple like a pond when a stone is dropped into it, giving you an idea of the velocity of the bullet. She went down almost instantly, and I thought I’d see her up there. When I got to the place where she dropped, I didn’t even find a bloodtrail, just some disturbed grass for about 15 feet. After well over an hour of searching, not trace of her was found. My conclusion is that she shook off that 44. Hopefully she fully recovered from it. I didn’t even get another opportunity that bitterly cold November. It really drove home the limitations of 44 mag to me, even out of a rifle.

 

I decided pretty quickly once I learned of the changes, that I should get a 30-30 rifle, despite having a few high-powered 30 caliber rifles in my safe. It is almost a cliché, but I think 30-30, that supposedly obsolescent relic of the 19th century, is popular for a reason. To begin with, it has always been chambered in affordable, quick handling, and decent rifles, and it has always enjoyed good market support. This sort of feeds back on itself in a positive way. Why are barns red? Because red barn paint is cheap. And why is red barn paint cheap? Because barns are red. But I also think it is because 30-30 is about perfectly balanced for whitetail deer hunting, which is undoubtedly the most important game species in the Eastern US. What do I mean by balance? Specifically that 30-30 has adequate practical range and power without any excess. Unlike 44 Mag, or a 12 gauge slug, a 200 yard shot with 30-30 will not require a foot and a half holdover, and it will still penetrate at that range owing to far better sectional density with the standard 150-170 grain bullets, but unlike 30-’06 it isn’t excessive at short range. My friend shot a deer at about 65 yards with a 168 grain hunting bullet in a 30-’06. It literally blew one shoulder (the exit side) completely off the animal (it was in two pieces), completely ruining the meat. The other shoulder (entrance) was all blood-shot. What a waste. 30-30 uses about 3/5s of the amount of powder that a 30-’06 does, too. And being able to shoot 600 yards is not practical or safe, so having a super sleek pointy bullet is hardly an advantage. The rifles that are strong enough to handle 30-’06, .243, .308 (other Indiana deer legal cartridges) are going to be heavier. My experience with hunting is that a given rifle may start off at 8 lbs. at dawn, but it weighs about 20 lbs. at dusk, and it weighs about 40 lbs. if you are dragging a deer behind you. In short, for practically all the situations encountered in Eastern woods Whitetail hunting, the 30-30 is nearly perfect, while 12 gauge slugs and handgun cartridges are limited and high-powered rifles are excessively destructive at short ranges, use excessive amounts of powder, and are chambered in excessively heavy rifles.

 

So, what rifle? My choice, the Mossberg 464, came with considerable hesitation. Every Mossberg product I’ve had experience with or knowledge of (Mossberg 44US 22 rifle and the ubiquitous Mossberg 500 shotgun) I’ve felt was junk. Plastic trigger guards, baseball bat stocks, cheap “hardwood” instead of walnut, pressed in “checkering,” aluminum receivers, and in the case of the 500 a faulty safety. But that opinion has been changed by the 464. It is better made, out of as good or better material, than any Marlin, Winchester, or Brazilian/Italian-made lever gun I’ve come across. Only the new Henry rifles or Browning BLRs are made as well. And the 464 costs about half as much as those. I also think it has the best overall safety system. Unlike the other tube-mag fed leverguns (TMLGs), it features an ambidextrous tang safety and a drop-safe lever design. When you let go of a shooting grip on the rifle the lever springs out, which blocks the trigger. I would never rely on this, but I think it is an excellent fail-safe feature. Being outwardly symmetrical and having the ambidextrous tang safety means it is perfectly useable for left-handed shooters like myself, too. The trigger, while on the heavy side, is creep-free, broad, and long. It can be mastered. A hair-trigger should never be used on a deer-hunting rifle where adrenalin effects happen to the best of us.

 

Upon disassembly, this rifle showed its colors. Unlike all the other TMLGs (except Henrys) every part was well made, evenly bead blasted, deburred, and finished. With a little lubrication, this action is very smooth, smoother than everything but the Henrys. Like the Winchester 94 (which the 464 it is based off), it is a stronger action than Marlins (Henrys are based off Marlins) because the locking piece moves all the way up and behind the bolt, but it has the round bolt of the Marlin, which is easier to manufacture and operates more smoothly. It samples the best design features from all the TMLGs, instead of slavishly copying one design, as the Henrys, Brazilians, and Italians do (except the Henrys omit the loading gate and instead rely on the slow, clumsy, and heavy tube-inside-tube loading system, made obsolete back in 1873 by Winchester—it is the only distinct feature of the original 1860 Henry rifle the new Henry rifles maintain). I’ve read that Mossberg subjected the Win 94 action to a strength analysis and made it lighter were it was too heavy and stronger where it wasn’t heavy enough. I don’t doubt this after examining the disassembled rifle action. It is trim and has no excess steel. It also has a feature I don’t think is found in other TMLGs—it has a long bolt running longitudinally through the butt-stock to the receiver instead of the usual bolt going vertically through the tang. This design is not only stronger, proving itself on rifles like the venerable SMLE—a real bludgeon, but also prevents the vertical splitting of the stock when the tang screw is over-tightened (Marlins and Winnies and their clones all have this problem). It has a solid receiver bridge in the rear, a considerable improvement vs. the Winchester 94. The scope mounts for this rifle–Warne M827s–are steel, compact, and very strong with locking slots in both front and rear. Any weaver-style rings will attach to them, but I went with Weaver’s grand slam mediums (Matte 49303). The front base of a Win 94 Angle eject is the same as the front and rear on a Mossberg 464 for reference. Brass ejection has not been a problem. It doesn’t strike even the low-mounted scope I’m using (Leupold VX-I 1-4×20).

 

TMLGs are somewhat troublesome to mount scopes on. To being with, their rear sights interfere with large optical bells and scope turrets are normally put in a position that is for bolt-action rifles. Getting the scope low enough to achieve a good cheek weld is difficult. The position of the bases is fixed with the 464 (unless somebody makes a 1 piece base for them someday). I found that Leupold’s VX-I 2-7x doesn’t fit. However the FX-II 2.5x and the VX-I 1-4×20 both fit well. The VX-I 1-4×20 is about the perfect scope for a 30-30, too, despite being intended for a shotgun. 1x for close-in dark woods, and 4x for the occasional long shot, or you could leave it a 3x all the time. These scopes are affordable, being around $200. Generally, I think a scope should cost half what the rifle does, and a 464 with pistol grip and checkered walnut stock is around $400. The heavy duplex reticle is easier to see in dark dawn and dusk hunting, too. There are improved sights available from Williams and Skinner, too, but really, everyone should do themselves (and the deer) a favor and use a scope. One focal plane allows for more rapid and easy target acquisition, and the magnification, even at 2x, can be the difference between telling if the deer has antlers or not.

 

As far as that ever important “handiness” goes, the 464 (unloaded) with scope and rings and bases weighs in at merely 6.7 lbs.–the same weight as my CZ527 micro-Mauser with scope in .223! It is a pound lighter than any full powered rifle with a 20 in. barrel I have come across. It is a pound and a half lighter than my portly Marlin 336 in 30-30, too. It is as short as any other repeating rifle of the same barrel length and cartridge. It points well, isn’t muzzle heavy or butt heavy, and I am able to achieve an decent cheek weld with the low mounted scope.

 

Some little tips and tricks about it. To begin with, it definitely has sticky action cycling, but this is avoidable, unlike the infamous “Marlin-jam” which is pretty much just a design flaw. First, don’t short stroke it. Second, use ammo at max overall length (OAL). Mossberg, for good reason I suspect, designed the rifle to work with MAX OAL for 30-30, which is 2.550 in. In fact, I’ve hand loaded out to 2.655 with no trouble chambering. When you put undersized ammo in it, like the typical “jelly roll” bullets in 150 grain weights from the likes of Remington, Hornady, etc. the elevator doesn’t quite manage to point the bullet straight into the chamber hole (it points it a little too low) before the bolt brings it forward and it requires considerable force to push it up and then in (it also deforms the bullet slightly). With the longer OAL, this is not an issue. Speer 170 grain Hot-Cores work beautifully. I have not tried it yet, but I think Mossberg was thinking of the new Hornady 160 grain FTX bullets for this rifle. These feature a soft elastomer ballistic tip that makes the bullet safe for use in a tube type magazine (normally pointy bullets could cause primer ignition in a tube magazine under recoil). These are a bit longer than normal. So keep this little caveat in mind when selecting or making ammunition.

 

Also, a note about the Warne M827s. The torx-head cap screws mine came with are too short. They only engage about 1/3rd of the treads in the receiver. I told Warne about this. The informed me about a recall on these bases because a lot had gone out packed with the too short of screws. They mailed me four proper length screws.

 

So, does it shoot? Well, the 464 doesn’t shoot as well as my .223 bolt action (a CZ527), but she shoots better than what is necessary for deer hunting or general around the farm/ranch dispatching of coyotes, skunks, coons, etc. (and does that with more authority and a 22 by a long margin). Here is a four shot group, off a rest, at a measured 50 yards. It opened up to about 2.5 inches at 100 yards, but I messed up that target. This is far better than what is needed, and the zero is not wandering around anymore with the longer screws in the bases. The truth is that almost nobody can shoot this well offhand, or even kneeling or sitting. These are the positions one assumes when hunting mostly (though I assumed a prone position for that 225 long shot on that deer). Too many people agonize over achieving 1 MOA accuracy, when they should really agonize (or rather simply apply some effort) about shooting well. It’s far more the Indian than the arrow.

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Those are 1 inch squares, folks. And this is a “theoretically inaccurate” TMLG with a non-free floating tapered barrel, round muzzle crown, and two barrel bands chambered in a rimmed cartridge using factory loads.

 

I should touch upon a couple of shooting issues I encountered. In over one hundred rounds, I had one light primer strike that resulted in a no-fire. The primer was lightly struck. I manually rechambered it, hammered back, and it worked. When I took it home, I noticed I had neglected to remove the packing grease from inside the bolt. I did this, and lightly lubricated the surfaces of the firing pin which ride down the hole inside the bolt, and have not had a problem since. I also mind the transfer pin in the locking piece. Heavy grease may retard the motion of the transfer pin and reduce the force transmitted to the firing pin, so if you lubricate it at all, make sure to use a sparing amount of very light lube. Also, the rifle seems to have a bit more headspace that I would like. I’ve noticed that some of the primers back out a little bit, particularly on starting loads. I am confident it is in SAMMI spec, but I think Mossberg opted for max spec chamber figuring the typical purchaser of low-cost firearms will probably not clean it, ever. In such a case the generosity provides a certain margin of safety I suppose, but I’d prefer a tighter chamber for less case stretching and theoretically better accuracy. I am going to try neck sizing only in the future. I had to length trim a bit after just one firing, which also indicates near max headspace.

 

Also, the 464 doesn’t have any factory equipped means for attaching a sling. If I don’t use a sling when I am hunting, I always use it if I succeed during ‘da drag. A set of Grovetecs (GTSW-44) for .630-.675” diameter mag-tube solved this problem (please, do yourself another favor and spend the three bucks more to avoid Uncle Mike’s). Follow the instructions, and don’t over tighten the screw in the butt-stock. My 464’s mag tube measures .640-.650 depending on where you measure it.

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Here’s a picture of her all set up looking purdy.

 

464s, like Winchesters,  Brazilian and Italian TMLGs, don’t allow for particularly easy removal of the bolt. It requires the removal of two differently sized screws and pins and requires a small hammer or mallet, driver with two proper bits, and two differently sized pin punches (brass is best). Henrys and Marlins have an advantage in this respect because their bolts are easily removed with one flat bit and driver. Therefore, for a 464 (or Win 92/94s and clones), I strongly recommend the OTIS pull-through type cleaning cables. These are 13 bucks with a good brush and a little tube of crumby cleaner/lube/protectant and a few very clever patches (buy it and find out). When you run out, you can make your own OTIS-style patches with scissors and an old, clean cotton t-shirt and use Hoppe’s #9 or other good cleaning solvent (multi-purpose Cleaner, Lubricant, Protectants don’t do any of those three jobs well). The OTIS system allows breech-end cleaning that is much easier than with a rigid rod anyway, obviating this small advantage the Henrys and Marlins have.

 

The barrel is 6 narrow lands and grooves. After break-in and thorough cleaning, it has proven to be plenty accurate with cuprous-jacketed bullets, but it should be great with cast bullets, another significant advantage to the 30-30 vs most other rifle cartridges. More on that later.

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3 Responses to A good deer rifle

  1. Pingback: Marlin 39A – And How to Secure It | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  2. Pingback: Still Can’t Beat the Venerable 30-30 WCF | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

  3. Pingback: Deer Hunting Accoutrements | A Contrarian's Guide to Grass and Guns

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