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Ruger's All New .44 Deerfield
by Rick Jamison
Shooting Times
Category: Gun Reviews
August, 2000 Subscribe Here

In 1960 Sturm, Ruger & Co. set sail on a maiden voyage into the long gun market when it announced "America's newest game rifle." Some folks are surprised to know that it was the Deerstalker, a compact, lightweight, semiautomatic .44 Magnum carbine that was Ruger's first "rifle" introduction. It was perhaps no coincidence that it was chambered for the most powerful of Ruger's revolver cartridges. The frontiersman's idea of practicality in having one cartridge for both holster gun and long gun was renewed. Gas operated and with a tube magazine, the lightweight, little carbine was loved by hunters who pursued game in the thickets and deep woods. The 1961 issue price of the standard model Deerstalker was $108. The Deerstalker name stamped on the rifle was short-lived because Ithaca had a "Deerslayer" shotgun. After about 3750 of the Deerstalker-designated guns were sold, the name was changed to the Ruger .44 Carbine in 1962.

Ruger's pint-size .44 Carbine came along just before the "short magnum" craze, accompanied by 1960s cartridge introductions that were to become enormously popular, including the .300 Winchester Magnum and 7mm Remington Magnum. The gun press became enamored with long-range, flat-shooting belted cartridges, and if a round wasn't up to taking game at a quarter-mile, it was deemed inadequate. As a result Ruger's .44 Magnum carbine had a following but not enough of a following, and after more than a quarter-million of these little guns were sold, the carbine was discontinued in 1985.

The truth of the matter is that there was never an easier carrying, faster handling, more effective gun for taking game at the ranges where most deer are shot. Surveys have shown that America's most popular big-game quarry (deer) is usually bagged at less than 100 yards. Bucks bed down in thickets, and whether it's a whitetail in New Hampshire hardwoods or a mule deer in Colorado oak brush you cannot be better equipped for this type of hunting than with a short, light semiauto .44 Magnum carbine. As so often happens, after it was discontinued, hunters began lamenting the fact that Ruger's nifty little carbines were no longer available.


Lament no longer. Ruger has introduced an entirely new .44 Magnum semiauto carbine that I think is destined to become even more popular than the company's first one. The new one is called the Deerfield, and at only 367/8 inches overall it's not much longer than a yardstick. Weighing six pounds, six ounces fully loaded, you can carry the Deerfield "at the ready" all day. At the ready with your gun unslung and at port arms is where you need to carry it in a thicket where the time to shoot is only a second or two.

The heavy, slow-moving .44-caliber slugs are just the thing when it comes to brush and twigs that are inevitably in the way when the big bruiser jumps, be it buck, bear, or wild boar. While the bullets are big, the powder charges are small and recoil in the lightweight carbine runs about half that of a .30-06. It's even less than a .243. The bottom line is that you can lay down accurate firepower in a hurry because the muzzle doesn't jump around and you aren't flinching from noise and kick. You're free to focus on sight picture and trigger pull. Repeated trigger pull. The effectiveness of the .44 Magnum semiauto carbine in the deer and bear woods is often underestimated by those who overestimate the big and long (and cumbersome) belted magnums.

Perhaps even more important than the Deerfield's effectiveness is that it's a fun gun. It's fun to carry, and it's fun to shoot. It's even fun to operate. Just try blasting a whole line of tin cans with it and you'll be hooked.

Unlike Ruger's 1960s-era carbine with its solid top receiver, the Deerfield is designed with a lockup system much like the highly respected and practically unstoppable military M1 Garand and M14 series rifles. The Deerfield has a front-locking bolt with two lugs. It doesn't take many degrees of rotation to lock or unlock the lugs that are only about 1/4 inch wide. Bolt rotation and locking/unlocking are enabled by means of a bolt extension that mates with an angled recess in the operating rod housing. As the gas piston drives the operating rod rearward during firing, the bolt is first rotated and then pushed to the rear, extracting and ejecting the spent case. Twin springs on guide rods inside the stock shove the operating rod back forward, which in turn close the bolt and rotate it into locked position. While the lugs are not wide by bolt-action rifle standards, they're deep, at more than a half-inch. The long twin-coil return springs are not too stiff. You can easily cycle the action by hand, and when you do, using the finger projection on the operating rod, the action even has the same familiar rattle and sound of the M14 service rifle.

The rotary magazine is good looking without projecting below the stock line. In all, the combination of the battle-proven basic action and the almost foolproof rotary magazine, the Deerfield is no doubt going to go down as one reliable semiauto.

The Deerfield's safety is a shotgun-style crossbolt located in the forward base of the trigger guard bow. The trigger is two stage, and the entire trigger group is easily removed from the rifle in one unit. Just withdraw the magazine from the carbine, remove a screw at the rear of the trigger guard, and pull out the trigger mechanism for cleaning or repair.

There is a synthetic handguard on the new carbine, and it carries the Ruger name and logo. It has clean lines and is good looking. Thank goodness Ruger saw fit to install quick-detach-type sling swivel studs so that you can quickly attach your favorite sling. The front swivel, which is attached to the barrel band, pivots fore and aft as the pull on your sling dictates.

The stock is hardwood finished to look like walnut, and it's a darn sight more aesthetically pleasing than the various plastics that are currently called "synthetic." I think a good hunting gun deserves wood in the finest American tradition.

The shape of the buttplate on the new Deerfield is a dead ringer for the buttplate on the old carbine. It appears that they will interchange. The difference is that the old ones I have are aluminum alloy, and the new one is plastic. The new one, however, is much better fitted than any one of the three old ones I recently examined.

There is a gold bead front sight topping a band near the muzzle of the 181/2-inch barrel. A folding aperture rear sight completes the iron sight setup. The Deerfield's receiver is also machined for Ruger's now-famous and excellent integral scope mounts. It's a really nice touch that Ruger supplies these good-looking and practical scope mount rings with the firearm (they are the high-size Ruger rings). Almost no other gunmaker does that. If you have good eyes, the receiver aperture is very fast and plenty good for woods hunting ranges and the .44 Magnum cartridge. If your eyes aren't what they used to be, or if it's early or late in the day when the light isn't good, a scope is a welcome addition. There are some small ones that don't add a lot of weight or bulk to the little carbine. The rings are only about 3 5/16 inches apart, center to center, so compact scopes can be nicely mounted on the receiver. I used a Leupold 2-7X Vari-X Compact scope on the Deerfield for test-firing.

An interesting addition included in the box with the new Deerfield carbine that I didn't notice until the test-firing was completed is a riflescope protector. Essentially a leather band that wraps around the scope tube and fastens with Velcro, the scope protector leaves the scope's turret knobs exposed through slits in the leather and protects the underside of a scope from being scratched or marred by ejecting cases. Sure enough, since I hadn't used the scope protector, the new Leupold was dinged on the underside of the turret and windage adjustment knob cap. If you mount a scope on the carbine, use the protector supplied.


It was when I was test-firing the little carbine that I got a new appreciation for the semiauto bolt-locking design. While it was introduced with the much longer, higher pressure, and rimless .30-06 in the Garand, Ruger's adaptation to the diminutive and rimmed .44 Magnum round worked-and worked well. This little carbine didn't miss a lick. It cycled every one of 10 loadings-five handloads and five factory loads. The handloads included Ball and stick powders in four brands and four brands of bullets that cover the weight range of popular possibilities. The bullet weights ran from a 180-grain Sierra to a 300-grain Speer, including the straight-walled, truncated-cone, and sharp-shouldered Speer 225-grain JHP that is designed for a revolver and looks like it's just made to cause a semiauto to jam. I chose it for testing partially because I wanted to cover as many bullet weights as possible and because it was the only 225-grain number on hand. But the primary reason for choosing it was because of its gun-part-grabbing shape; I wanted to see if such a bullet would jam the Ruger Deerfield. It didn't, and that's a testimonial to the excellent design of the little Deerfield.

A Ruger memo indicates that some economy and midrange or defense loads may not produce the volume of gas needed to consistently cycle the Deerfield action. Some such loads are the Winchester 210-grain Silvertip, the CCI Blazer 240-grain loading, and .44 Special loads. The memo also indicates that cartridges with a greater-than-SAAMI overall length of 1.610 inches will not function. These include the Cor-Bon 260-grain JHP, 280-grain JHP, and 305-grain FMJ loadings. You can't fault the gun for that. Lead bullets are also not a good choice for a gas gun. There's too much likelihood of getting lead, bullet lube, and other crud in the gas ports and piston. Just use jacketed ones. Based on the variety of bullets and powders I used in handloads and the selection of factory loads, the carbine works just fine with anything approaching a normal load.

The old carbine's rifling was reported to have 12 grooves with a twist of one turn in 38 inches. Back in the 1960s .44 Magnum bullets weighed 240 grains and there was not a lot of variety. I used the Barnes Ballistics Program and computed the optimum twist for a Nosler 240-grain hollowpoint bullet that is .711 inch long. The twist came up 38.8 inches. That's pretty dad gum close to what Ruger used back then. Today, with the increasing popularity of heavyweight bullets going to 300 grains and more, and with complex bullets that aren't all lead inside, which makes them even longer, a 1:38-inch twist is a little slow. It doesn't hurt to have a twist on the fast side. It's on the slow side where bullet stability becomes an issue. Indeed, Ruger now supplies a twist appropriate for today's bullets at 1:20 with a six-groove barrel for the new Deerfield. That combination shot all the test loads and bullets very well with the exception of the Speer 225-grain JHP. That's the ornery-looking revolver bullet that couldn't make the Deerfield jam. The factory-loaded Hornady 200-grain jacketed hollowpoint XTP shot a 1.9-inch five-shot group at 100 yards. That's good enough to heart shoot any deer at that distance if the shooter is up to it and if the buck holds still. This Hornady ammo was also the most uniform in the test series, turning in an extreme spread of 20 fps and a standard deviation of only seven in 10 shots. It's good ammo. The Winchester 250-grain Partition Gold loading with bullets from Nosler also grouped well at 2.3 inches. You just don't need better accuracy than that in a carbine of this type. I've taken lots of deer at no more than 50 yards in close cover. Move in to that distance and you can cut the 100-yard groups in half. A one-inch group from a .44 Magnum is nothing more than a big ragged hole.

As for velocity and energy, the top velocity was turned in by the 180-grain bullets at 2161 fps for the Sierra Power Jacket JHP handload with 26.0 grains of VihtaVuori N-110 in a PMC case with a Federal 150 primer. In factory ammo the Federal Classic 180-grain Hi-Shok JHP produced 2119 fps. These two 180-grain loadings also produced the highest muzzle energy at 1866 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) for the handload and 1796 ft-lbs for the factory load. Their poor ballistic coefficients put on the brakes right out of the muzzle, and at 100 yards these stubby lightweights were bettered in the energy department by nearly all other loadings. The highest energy at 100 yards was with the Nosler 240-grain hollowpoint ahead of 24.0 grains of W296 with a CCI 350 primer in a Winchester case. This load produced 1006 ft-lbs of energy at 100 yards. The Winchester 250-grain Partition Gold factory load was close behind at 999 ft-lbs. The Speer 300-grain plated heavyweight, backed by 19 grains of slow-burning H4227, produced 1393 fps at the muzzle for 1293 ft-lbs of energy. But by the time it reached the 100-yard mark it was apparently going slower than the speed of sound because the Oehler acoustic target wouldn't pick it up downrange. The microphones in the Oehler target frame rely on a supersonic crack to pick up a passing bullet. For this reason the accompanying chart lacks downrange numbers for this heavy bullet.

One of the things generally not talked about with a .44 Magnum carbine is recoil. You might think that the lightweight guns have the potential to kick, particularly with heavyweight bullets. The nice thing is that the .44 Magnum doesn't take a lot of powder and the bullets aren't moving that fast so that the lightweight carbine doesn't kick much. In fact, with recoil running around 10 ft-lbs (with a scope mounted on my rifle), it's more on the order of most .22- or .24-caliber centerfires.

When you add up all the numbers-1) game in heavy cover, 2) lightweight and quick-pointing carbine, 3) easy to carry at the ready, 4) low recoil for fast aimed follow-up shots, 5) brush-busting bullets with plenty of momentum to plow through, 6) more than enough stopping power-what you have may be the most effective deer hunting rifle ever. And it sure is a lot of fun to shoot!

All these attributes can be applied to the old carbine and new Deerfield alike. One thing that is different is the issue price: $649 for the Deerfield.

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