3 Top Rifles for Hunting From Treestands

A goshawk doesn’t catch its prey like a fox. So why would you hunt whitetails from a tree with ground artillery?

3 Top Rifles for Hunting From Treestands

Low-recoil treestand rounds (from left to right): 6mm BR, .243 WSSM, 6mm Creedmoor, .243 Win., 6mm Rem. and .240 Wby.

Okay, the analogy is flawed. For many moons hunters have carried aloft rifles designed by people who never perched in a tree. They killed deer.

Grandpa’s rifle sufficed whether he threaded cedar swamps, traipsed over oak ridges, sat on bean field’s hem or probed plum pockets on the prairie. A rifle is a rifle. Or, in places so designated, a shotgun is a shotgun.

If you see firearms as mere tools, if economy and utility trump all, such truisms hold fast. Not so among enthusiasts. Why use one gun when by specializing you can buy more? If you’re in this camp, thank you for your company.

Hunting from treestands has become steadily more popular. Some hunters take up with squirrels because it keeps their scent above deer. Others like the view. A seat of any kind suits hunters of sedentary bent. Development of ever more sophisticated, comfortable treestands has surely favored their use. In the old days, hunters spaced scrap 2x4s up to a crotch-wedge of equally derelict lumber. No roof. In wind, the platform squirmed and squeaked. Ice made it a rink. You held your rifle to insure it against free-fall. The years loosened the 2x4s, which made each descent a test of faith.

Left: In the north woods (Minnesota), treestands deliver your best odds for a shot. It won’t be a long one. Right: This Illinois tower stand commands a peninsula of cropland rimmed by woods. Whitetail Central!
Left: In the north woods (Minnesota), treestands deliver your best odds for a shot. It won’t be a long one. Right: This Illinois tower stand commands a peninsula of cropland rimmed by woods. Whitetail Central!

My intro to metal stands came on a hill raked by arctic wind. Naked trees gyrated helplessly, their tops ragged arcs bowed beneath the angry sky. “Stay there ‘til I get you at noon,” bellowed my host above the roar. I endured 11 hypothermic minutes on an icy grate smaller than my feet, the snowscape below lurching like storm-tossed surf. No deer frolicked by. I slipped, clutched and grappled my way to earth. Noon was behind schedule that day.

Then I visited Texas. There are no trees in Texas stout enough for Texas perches. Nothing had prepared me for such luxury. A box bigger than my bedroom. A ladder wide enough for, as the Brits say, overtaking. Enough bench to seat a major league bull-pen. Insecticide for the wasps; a space heater, should, in a brutal rant, the mercury dip below 40 degrees. Hinged Plexiglas windows afforded grand views all around, plus ventilation. Sandbags for my rifle adorned every sill. I was handed a sack the weight of an elk liver. “Drinks and snacks,” my host explained over the hum of his $15,000 four-wheeler. “We’ll fetch you for the noon barbecue.” He handed me a radio. “Call when you kill.” Not if. “Good luck!”

That condo had space for a Barrett .50 and a pallet of ammunition, with ladder enough to bring both. Struggling up iced pegs to hug bark against the Bering blast years earlier, I’d fought to keep my ’06 on my shoulder. Clearly, guns suited to elevated vigils span a broad range.

Soon after I was left in that Texas blind, a whitetail doe poked her head out of a nearby thicket. Presently, other deer minced through the glade. I let the bucks live. The problem with such a fine platform is that you become too mellow. In Bacchanalian comfort, you extend uncommon charity to the deer. You forget you’re there to kill.

It seems to me a rifle for treestands that don’t meet Texas tower-stand standards should be short, lightweight and chambered for gentle cartridges. Short and light so you can climb with it and maneuver it easily in tight quarters, gentle so a shot doesn’t knock you into space or delay a second poke.

Magnum cartridges, with and without belts, are still the rage. But while in open areas tree- and tower-stands can show you deer out yonder, the typical perch offers short shots to a trail or foraging area. In place well before season, it becomes a fixture of the landscape. Deer get used to it. If you’re quiet and still, and the wind behaves, deer shouldn’t detect you. Why shoot far when the game comes close? Truly, the do-or-die long shot is rare, the magnum imperative an illusion. The biggest whitetail of a century fell to a .25-20, nudging an 86-grain bullet at 1,460 fps. Its exit energy of 405 ft-lbs diminished to 270 at 100 yards. No, it’s not much of a deer cartridge; the .30-30 has four times the muscle! But inside 150 steps, where most deer are shot, oldies like the .25 Rem. and .25-35 (117-grain bullets clocking 2,130 to 2,250 fps) and the .30-30, .30 Rem., .303 Savage, .32 Rem. and .32 Special (170- and 180-grain bullets at 2,150 to 2,280 fps) still excel in lever- and slide-action carbines of their day. Also fine treestand options: the later .250 Savage and .257 Roberts (100- and 117-grain bullets at 2,800 fps). Savage’s .300 hurls 150-grain spitzers at 2,670, but it’s not excessively violent. Where legal, the .22 High Power sending 70-grain bullets at 2,800 would rank among my top choices.

The crowded field of post-war champs includes the .243 and 6mm Rem. with 100-grain bullets at 2,950 and 3,100 fps — also the 6.8 SPC clocking 2,460 with 120-grain softpoints. Now there’s the 6mm and 6.5 Creedmoor (103- and 125-grain bullets at 3,050 and 2,850 fps), plus the 6.5 Grendel and its parent the 7.62x39 (123-grain missiles at 2,580 and 2,360 fps). There are others — you get the idea. If you can deliver an arbitrary 700 ft-lbs to 200 yards from a barrel of modest length, you’ve got more than enough oomph to drop whitetails cleanly at that range. Why launch more and endure the ensuing recoil?

Shotgun slugs and the barrels to send them now yield accuracy and power for first-round kills to 150 yards. I’ve got a favorite 20-bore whose Ruger No. 1 action (smithed by NECG) takes inches off overall length. Under a low-power variable scope from Schmidt & Bender, it prints rifle-like groups.

A short, lightweight rifle is ill served by the king-size optics now peddled as all-around scopes. If you’d fire at a deer 75 yards off with iron sights, 4X glass should suffice at 300. Lenses brighten images; the reticle obscures less than does a front bead. Leupold’s 4X FX II scales 9.3 ounces. Want more power? Leupold, Swarovski and other houses offer 2.5X to 8X and 3X to 9X scopes that weigh 12 ounces and less. Why bring more up the ladder? Besides, lightweight scopes mounted low keep center of balance between your hands. In my view, a scope should account for no more than 15 percent of total rifle weight.

Of course, you can kill a deer from a tree with any firearm you can haul aloft, and any sight. But you don’t need as much weight, length, power or magnification as now burden many earth-bound hunters.

My Top 3 Picks

The market is awash with nimble, lightweight rifles that tap you gently while sending lethal sting. Here are some that caught my attention. Chamberings are my picks; others may be available. “Compact” models typically have shorter stocks.

Bringing a firearm into a treestand is best done with a rope secured to the gun-case protecting it. You’ll want the case oriented vertically, for an easy grab when it comes up outside the railing, or when you must pull it up through a floor opening. If you tie onto the loop at the muzzle end of the case, give the rope a “safety turn” around the case or its handles.

Kimber’s trim Hunter costs less than the 84M but has most of its features; weighs just 5.6 pounds.
Kimber’s trim Hunter costs less than the 84M but has most of its features; weighs just 5.6 pounds.

Kimber Hunter

At the 2016 SHOT Show, Kimber engineer George Hawthorne handed me a new bolt rifle with an adjustable trigger and the Mauser-style extractor and three-position safety of the company’s flagship 84M, plus Kimber’s first detachable box magazine. The Hunter still seems to me a bargain in lightweight rifles, with trim, fetching lines, high-quality components and excellent finish. Intelligent no-fluff design keeps a lid on price. A molded polymer stock incorporates the trigger guard. The pillar-bedded receiver and 22-inch barrel are satin-finished stainless steel. The Hunter takes the same scope bases as the 84M (including 8-40 screws). The three-shot magazine, a steel box with a thick polymer base, fits flush and doesn’t rattle. The front latch is well recessed, but generous and quick to access. Designing a magazine can be devilishly difficult. George Hawthorne got this one right! It is, however, not a box to top-load in the rifle. And I found no slack getting that top round stacked and chambered.

The Hunter has Kimber’s first detachable box. Chamberings include .257 Roberts, 6.5 Creedmoor.
The Hunter has Kimber’s first detachable box. Chamberings include .257 Roberts, 6.5 Creedmoor.
The author killed this Montana buck at iron-sight range with a Kimber 84M. No need for magnums here.
The author killed this Montana buck at iron-sight range with a Kimber 84M. No need for magnums here.

Lively in hand, the Hunter is very well balanced. The stock’s long grip and slim forend are nicely (not aggressively) textured. The comb brings my eye naturally to the optical axis of a low-mounted scope. The black 1-inch recoil pad on a borrowed rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor was well fitted and properly compliant. Trigger pull came in at a clean, consistent 3.7 pounds. My first groups averaged 1.2 inches with several loads. Accuracy to tap the reach of any deer cartridge! A high-quality lightweight at a mid-level MSRP, this Kimber has joined few rifles available in .257 Roberts, a sweetheart of a deer cartridge.

Kimber Hunter Specs:

  • Calibers: .243, .257, 6.5 Creedmoor or 7mm-08
  • Barrel: 22 inches
  • Weight: 5.6 pounds
  • MSRP: $891
  • More Information: www.kimberamerica.com
The Savage Lightweight Hunter is a 5.5-pound rifle featuring a checkered walnut stock.
The Savage Lightweight Hunter is a 5.5-pound rifle featuring a checkered walnut stock.

Savage 11 Lightweight Hunter

At its 1958 debut, the Savage 110 listed for $110. It trailed the less expensive 721/722 Remington by a decade, Winchester’s more costly 70 by two. The 110’s barrel nut made headspacing easy. The bolt-face extractor and ejector, with judicious use of alloys and stampings, kept the rifle affordable. Eventually the 110 became a series of sub-models. The recent Lightweight Hunter is a 5.5-pound rifle with checkered walnut. Savage trimmed and lightened the action with machined flats on the tubular receiver, and recess cuts on bridge and left wall. Spiral blackened flutes on the bolt nixed more metal, as did a slender 20-inch barrel. I bought the first Lightweight Hunter I shouldered.

As on other 110-based rifles, a floating bolt head helps align the cartridge. A lug-mounted claw is paired with a plunger ejector. While I prefer the original right-side bolt release lever to the current front-of-guard button, Savage’s larger, aggressively serrated three-position safety is better than the earlier two-detent switch. It’s still on the tang and southpaw-friendly. Safe at all pull weights, the AccuTrigger adjusts to a pound. My rifle’s was set at 2.5. Perfect.

Detailing and finish on this .243 are above par for a mid-priced sporter. The pillar-bedded walnut has a slender grip, generous comb flutes and well executed checkering. A seamlessly fit Decelerator pad brings pull to standard length. A shortened fore-stock, with bottom cut-outs, wears its swivel stud just a half-inch aft of the usual place, so you can use a shooting sling. That slim barrel is pistol-quick – but the rifle doesn’t feel muzzle-light. And my first group with 85-grain Hornady Interbonds miked .7-inch!

Savage 11 Lightweight Hunter Specs:

  • Calibers: .243 or 6.5 Creedmoor
  • Barrel: 20 inches
  • Weight: 5.5 pounds
  • MSRP: $1,009
  • More Information: www.savagearms.com
Winchester’s XPR is an economical but well-designed alternative to the M70. New in .350 Legend.
Winchester’s XPR is an economical but well-designed alternative to the M70. New in .350 Legend.

Winchester 70 Featherweight

“The Rifleman’s Rifle.” Since its 1937 debut, Winchester’s Model 70 has earned that sobriquet honestly. In 1953, soon after a Featherweight appeared, Outdoor Life shooting editor Jack O’Connor had Al Biesen trim and shorten, then restock a standard-weight M70. That rifle, with a 4X Stith Kollmorgen scope, became a favorite, serving him on hunts world-wide. In 1959 he had Biesen make up another — this one a Model 70 Featherweight metal. Fitted with a Leupold 4X Mountaineer, it would become one of Jack’s go-to rifles.

Winchester’s ill-conceived 1963 overhaul of the Model 70 enraged the faithful. But subsequent changes have restored most of its dignity, and even improved on it. Walnut Featherweight stocks are better in many respects than the original. The shape is more appealing to most shooters, and more in keeping with 22-inch barrels. Checkering is cleanly machine-cut in pleasing patterns fore and aft. Mauser’s controlled-feed, non-rotating extractor is back. The magazine is still an internal box with a hinged floorplate. I prefer it to detachable boxes. Bolt-handle sweep and barrel profile are true to originals. The MOA trigger, not as simple as the pre-64’s, is easier to adjust and delivers a crisp, consistent pull. Winchester’s 70 was the first commercial rifle stateside to feature a three-position side-swing safety. It’s still the best, and widely copied. Fit and finish on today’s 70s get high marks. Ditto to accuracy.

Cross-members keep the XPR’s forend stiff, without adding weight. Note recoil lug, inset in stock.
Cross-members keep the XPR’s forend stiff, without adding weight. Note recoil lug, inset in stock.

The Featherweight points quickly but has a “gunny” feel – heft enough for a steady hold. It’s also available in Compact form. On the high side of mid-priced, it no longer lists for $61. Hey, you can’t have everything.

Bringing a firearm into a treestand is best done with a rope secured to the gun-case protecting it. You’ll want the case oriented vertically, for an easy grab when it comes up outside the railing, or when you must pull it up through a floor opening. If you tie onto the loop at the muzzle end of the case, give the rope a “safety turn” around the case or its handles.   

Winchester 70 Featherweight Specs:

  • Calibers: .243, 6.5 Creedmoor or 7mm-08
  • Barrel: 22 inches
  • Weight: 6.8 pounds
  • MSRP: $1,010
  • More Information: www.winchesterguns.com
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