Published Aug 2, 2022 10:24 AM
For decades, if you were a Midwest or East Coast deer hunter living in a densely populated state, it was likely you never shot a whitetail with a rifle during deer season. Due to safety concerns, hunters in these regions of the country legally had to shoot slug shotguns from smoothbores or sabots from a rifled shotgun barrel (centerfire rifle cartridges can travel much farther than a slug or sabot). But that shotgun-only requirement has started to shift in the last five years with the advent of straight-walled rifles as historic slug-gun states like Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Michigan have begun to allow the platform to be used during deer season. .
Winchester took advantage of these regulations in 2019 with the launch of the .350 Legend, an effective deer killer that produces mild recoil and muzzle jump. Of course, straight-wall cartridges have been around for well over a century, so you can also turn to such classic rounds as the .45/70. There are so many great options, in fact, that it can be tough to choose the ideal straight-wall rifle to fit your needs and budget. Here’s a rundown of some of the best straight-wall rifles available.
Marlin is back in the saddle and under the leadership of new owner Ruger. The company has released two lever-action 1895 rifles chambered in .45/70. The Marlin 1895 SBL which sports a 19.1-inch cold hammer-forged stainless-steel barrel with a threaded muzzle and a six-round tubular magazine (read our full review of the Marlin 1895 SBL here). The adjustable ghost ring rear sight and fiber optic front sight may be all you need, but there’s a full length Picatinny rail for mounting low-power scopes or a reflex sight. The short and handy SBL is compact enough for hunting dense forest or from a blind or tree stand.
If you want maximum maneuverability check out the Marlin Trapper variant with a 16.1-inch barrel. A polished stainless finish on the metalwork and attractive laminate stock makes these guns suitable for hunting in wet, nasty weather, and they’re also an excellent option for hogs, black bears, and even moose and elk. The 1895 is manufactured in Mayodan, North Carolina, and these are not only among the best straight-wall rifles made today, they may well be the best Marlin rifles ever made.
When the budget bolt-action war was raging Winchester’s XPR emerged as one of the standouts. Built from quality components and offered with features such as an MOA trigger—a system that gives shooters a lighter, smoother feel with less creep, overtavel, and takeup— various metal finishes, and stock designs, the XPR is a fine addition to the vaunted Model 70. I’ve shot several of these rifles in the .350 Legend and loved them all, but my hands-down favorite is the new Stealth Suppressor Ready version. The .350 Legend doesn’t require a long barrel to reach maximum velocity, so the XPR Stealth SR’s stubby 16½-inch barrel doesn’t compromise performance, but the shorter barrel also makes this 3-foot, ½-inch rifle easy to handle in tight cover.
I hunted with a suppressed Stealth SR in Maine last year (albeit for bears, not whitetail) and even with a suppressor, the weight and length weren’t burdensome. Accuracy was on point, and the recoil and muzzle blast were so mild that most anyone could be accurate with the platform. The Inflex recoil pad, Pic rail, nickel Teflon bolt, and Permacote metal finish are all nice touches that make this rifle an even more compelling value at just over $700. After testing and evaluating the XPR Stealth SR in the field I came away impressed with the rifle’s reliability, accuracy, and overall fit and finish.
Ruger’s 350 Legend AR is an ideal rifle for any eastern whitetail hunter. With a collapsed length of 33.38-inches, the Ruger is easy to maneuver in the woods and instant length of pull adjustments allow shortening the stock when you’re wearing heavy winter clothing. A hard coat anodized finish on the 7075-T6 forged receiver stands up well against abuse. The bolt carrier and staked gas key are chrome-plated to resist propellant gases, and the pistol-length gas system offers superb reliability from the .350 carbine. As with other ARs, follow-up shots are fast, but with Ruger’s two-stage Elite 452 AR trigger and cold hammer-forged 4140 chrome-moly steel 16.38-inch precision barrel with Ruger radial brake there’s a good chance you won’t need a second shot. The 15-inch M-LOK handguard offers plenty of space for accessories, and at 6.6-pounds this rifle is lighter than many bolt guns on the list.
The Franchi Momentum Elite isn’t the most affordable bolt-action rifle on this list, but it does offer some upgrades that warrant the extra cost. The stock is a step up from those found on most sub-$1,000 rifles and comes with raised panels and texturing, a design Franchi calls Evolved Ergonom-X. The rifle’s TSA recoil pad is borrowed from the brand’s shotgun line and the dense rubber does a suitable job reducing felt recoil. This gun’s Gore Optifade Elevated II stock is paired with a Cobalt Cerakote finish which gives the gun a classy look while offering protection against the elements. Franchi’s adjustable Relia trigger breaks between 2 and 4 pounds, one of the best triggers of any rifle on this list. The 22-inch barrel is threaded, a Picatinny rail comes standard, and the detachable polymer magazine holds three rounds. Take a closer look at the Franchi and you’ll see why it costs a bit more than some rivals: the stock-to-metal fit is superb and the chrome, spiral-fluted bolt runs smoothly through the action. Even the two-position rocker-type safety is easy to operate silently. This gun is heavier than most at 7.9 pounds.
Though the John Browning-designed Winchester 1892 is well over a century old it’s still one of the best moderate-range deer hunting rifles of all time. The 1892 was designed to handle pistol caliber cartridges, and so today’s guns are chambered in .357 Magnum, .44/40, .44 Remington Magnum, and .45 Colt. Of these, I believe the .44 Magnum is the most versatile and useful, a rifle capable of effectively killing deer out to 100 yards or more in competent hands. It’s light (6 pounds) and maneuverable enough to ride in your pickup, on an ATV, or in a short saddle scabbard. The buckhorn sights are rudimentary but functional for most stand and blind hunting, and capacity is an impressive 10 rounds. At 37 ½ inches long, the 1892 is light enough to carry in a pack when you’re headed deep into a public land tract. The 1892 is designed for fast, quick shooting and handles more like a grouse gun than deer rifle. Plus, it’s just fun to shoot, and as a bonus it digests the same rounds as your favorite revolver. Winchester offers ornate versions of the 1892 like the new color case-hardened Deluxe Takedown model, which is stylish and practical, but the basic carbine provides everything you need for eastern whitetail hunting in a functional and relatively affordable package.
The American Rifle has been a best-seller since its release, appealing to hunters with its robust design, quality components, excellent accuracy, and reasonable price tag. There are numerous variants chambered in both .350 Legend and .450 Bushmaster, but the Ranch model with its 16.38-inch threaded barrel, Picatinny rail, and durable polymer stock offers the most appeal to whitetail hunters. It also has an adjustable (3 to 5 pounds) Marksman trigger. To access the trigger, remove the stock by unscrewing the two screws near the floor plate or magazine. There is a small screw in front of the trigger group you can tighten to increase trigger pull or loosen to decrease it. The short, threaded barrel makes it easy to install a suppressor, and with a can in place the .350 Legend produces very mild recoil and minimal muzzle blast. The tang-mounted safety is easy to operate, and Ranch rifles accept AR-style magazines. Though it’s certainly austere, the Ranch does everything a deer hunter needs for under $700
The 1885 was another John Moses Browning design and its falling block remains one of the most robust rifle actions of all time. Uberti builds 1885 rifles similar to Browning’s blueprint, and most of these guns are chambered in .45/70, so quality hunting ammunition is widely available. However, if you want a bit more punch there are Uberti 1885s available in .45/90 and .45/120 as well. With its classic lines, color case-hardened receiver, and octagon barrel the lever gun is a real beauty, but it isn’t light: expect this rifle to weigh in at around 10 pounds. That added mass does an acceptable job of reducing recoil, though, so the Uberti is quite mild for a .45/70. Optional Creedmoor-style flip-up sights are available, and they make a stylish and functional addition to this classic hunting rifle. I carried one while hunting whitetails in Texas and the gun performed admirably out to 150 yards, anchoring both bucks I shot in their tracks.
CMMG was the first company to introduce an AR rifle chambered in .350 Legend, and the company’s Resolute Mk4 carbine is a refined deer hunting AR that’s loaded with quality features. The Resolute kitted out with a long list of CMMG’s zeroed accessories, including the muzzle brake, trigger guard, ambidextrous charging handle, and more. Unlike most ARs that come in basic black you can also select from several Cerakote color options (grey, charcoal green, and bronze). CMMG has deleted a portion of the top rail of this rifle which adds more M-LOK attachment points at the 12 o’clock position (there are also slots at the 3, 6, and 9 o’clock) and reduces weight. The Resolute Mk4 weighs just over six pounds, and with an overall length of 32.5-inches, it handles exceptionally well. Five-, 10-, and 20-round magazines are available, and this rifle’s 16.1-inch 1:16 twist hammer forged barrel is topped with a zeroed 9mm muzzle brake that can be removed and replaced with a suppressor.
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There are currently three Patriot rifles chambered in .350 Legend with MSRPs ranging from $454 to $637. The least expensive, unadorned synthetic version with its plain black injection-molded stock and matte blue finish, will get the job done in the deer woods. It comes with Weaver scope bases so mounting an optic is easy. There’s a Youth Super Bantam scoped combo version, which includes a bore sighted 3-9×40 scope and 1-inch stock spacer for adjusting length of pull. The gun is ready for the field right out of the box and costs less than $500 making it an ideal choice for a new hunter. If you’re a traditionalist you’ll like the walnut stocked version, but regardless of the variant you’ll get a serviceable, durable hunting rifle that’s of good value. The Patriot also comes with a detachable box magazine, fluted bolt and barrel, and a bladed, adjustable LBA trigger.