Adequate Deer Rifles
By Gary Zinn
Several years ago, I read two puzzling articles in a hunting periodical. Each article touted what the writer asserted was the "perfect" deer hunting rifle. The cartridge and rifle nominated for the honor in one article was the .300 Winchester Magnum in a bolt action rifle, while the perfect deer rifle put forward in the other article was the .45-70 in a lever action rifle. These articles appeared in the same issue of the magazine!
The thing that most puzzled me about these articles was the cartridge selections. I have hunted whitetail deer for over half a century and I would never pick the .300 Winchester Magnum or .45-70 as a "perfect" deer cartridges. In fact, I believe there is no one cartridge that can be claimed as perfect for hunting deer under all conditions. Rather, there are typically several cartridges that may be more or less adequate or useful for particular situations. In addition, certain rifle action types may be more or less suited to certain hunting environments or methods.
My purpose here is to address the question of what rifle cartridges are adequate for hunting deer, without getting into the quicksand of claiming that one or another of them is perfect. Along the way, different action types for certain cartridges and hunting situations will be noted, as appropriate.
The quarry and hunting environments
The Whitetail deer (Odocoileus virginianus) is doubtless the most-hunted big game animal in North America. The Mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and the closely related Columbian blacktail deer of the Pacific Northwest are heavily hunted within their range, which is smaller than that of the whitetail. As a generality, mature whitetail and Columbian blacktail bucks will typically weigh 150 pounds, with mule deer bucks usually about 200 pounds live weight. Adult does of each species will generally run about 50 pounds lighter than the bucks.
These deer clearly fall within the Class 2 game category, i.e., animals that weigh 300 pounds or less. Thus, cartridges that fire bullets of sufficient size and weight, with adequate terminal performance to be effective against small to medium size game animals, make good deer cartridges.
The range of whitetail deer extends from southern Canada throughout the continental United States, except for the Southwest U.S. and Alaska. Whitetail deer are generally a woodland species, preferring mostly woods and brush habitat over open country with little wooded vegetation.
An exception is the closely related Coues deer of the Southwest. These little deer inhabit the desert, hill and generally open country of the region.
Mule deer may be found throughout the western half of the contiguous United States, western Canada, southwest Alaska and northern Mexico. The habitat of mule deer is typically (but not always) less densely wooded than that preferred by whitetail deer.
The Columbian blacktail, like the whitetail, is a woodland creature. They live in the rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, from the Pacific coast to the summit of the Cascade/Sierra Mountains. Geographically, from Northern California through British Columbia.
These varying deer habitats have implications for both cartridge and rifle action selection. A cartridge and action type best suited for hunting deer in the heavily wooded Appalachian Mountains may be quite different than that for hunting in the western plains and Rocky Mountains. No single cartridge and action type combination can reasonably be claimed as perfect for all deer hunting.
The .30-30 Winchester: a baseline deer cartridge
A century ago, the .30-30 Winchester, mostly found in lever action repeating rifles, was the premier deer cartridge. Newer cartridges with improved external ballistics (velocity, trajectory and energy) have come along, but the .30-30 is still a very viable and popular deer cartridge, even though it may not have quite the range and power of some newer cartridges.
(The smokeless powder, "high velocity" .30-30 had replaced the much less powerful .44-40, which had been the most used deer cartridge since shortly after its introduction in the Model 1873 Winchester rifle, as our most popular hunting cartridge. Today, the .308 Winchester, a step up from the .30-30, is our most popular deer cartridge; apparently, deer keep getting harder to kill. -Editor)
I believe it is valid to use the .30-30 cartridge as a baseline deer cartridge for today's hunters and to evaluate the adequacy of other cartridges against it. The classic .30-30 loads, with 150-170 grain flat-nosed bullets, have been used to take vast numbers of deer and other critters, from moose to varmints and small predators, since 1895.
Reference .30-30/150 grain ballistics (20 inch barrel)
Hornady 150 grain RN bullet (BC .186, SD .226): Muzzle velocity 2350 f.p.s., muzzle energy 1902 ft. lbs; Velocity at 200 yards 1470 f.p.s., energy at 200 yards 719 ft. lbs.; MPBR +/- 3 inches = 207 yards.
Untold tons of venison harvested with this rather benign .30-30 load are hard to ignore. (I did my small part back in the day, taking a double handful of deer with .30-30s.) Also hard to ignore is the great majority of the .30-30 rifles made since its introduction have been lever action repeators, although the .30-30 has also been offered in single shot, pump action and bolt action rifles.
The Winchester Model 94 rifle and the .30-30 cartridge were literally made for each other. Subsequently, other popular lever guns, such as the Marlin Model 336, Savage Model 99, Henry Model H009, etc., have been chambered for the .30-30. The excellent Savage 99 is gone, but the Winchester, Marlin and Henry rifles, plus a few others, are still going strong. (See Compact Lever Action Deer Rifles for more information.) For hunting deer at medium ranges, a .30-30 lever rifle is as suitable and effective as it ever was, and more so with the latest ammunition.
There are at least three recent commercial .30-30 loads that increase the range and power of the cartridge. These include loads with 140 and 160 grain Hornady Flex Tip (FTX) bullets and a new Browning load with a bullet called the BXR. I will do an in-depth analysis of the performance of all commercial .30-30 loads in a future article.
Popular high intensity, small bore deer cartridges
If it can be agreed that the .30-30/150 grain from a 20 inch barrel, represented by the traditional load described above, defines an adequate baseline for deer cartridge performance, then it is not hard to find several modern cartridges that match or exceed the performance of the .30-30. Five cartridges merit particular mention, because of their downrange performance, their availability in multiple makes and models of rifles, and a large selection of commercial ammunition. Here are these cartridges and loads, with brief summary comments about each one.
For consistency in comparison, I chose commercial Hornady loads for all cartridges. In addition, I used loads with a common, gilding metal jacketed/lead core bullet, the Hornady InterLock. All muzzle velocity and energy values for the loads in this section are for SAAMI standard 24 inch barrels. Rifles made for these cartridges more commonly have 22 or 20 inch barrels, but adjusting the 24 inch barrel data for shorter barrels would not make enough difference in the downrange performance data to be worth the trouble. Be aware that MPBR, terminal energy and terminal velocity will be a few percentage points lower with barrels shorter than 24 inches.
.243 Winchester (24 inch barrel)
Hornady 100 grain InterLock BTSP bullet (BC .405, SD .242): Muzzle velocity 2960 f.p.s., muzzle energy 1945 ft. lbs.; Velocity at 275 yards 2352 f.p.s., energy at 275 yards 1228 ft. lbs.; MPBR +/- 3 inches = 288 yards.
The muzzle velocity and downrange ballistics of this typical .243 load might suggest that it is clearly superior to the baseline .30-30 load. However, a closer look at the downrange killing power of this .243 Win. load reveals that it is very close to the baseline .30-30 load in effectiveness on deer and similar game. I will explore the capabilities of the .243 Winchester in detail in a future article.
.270 Winchester (24 inch barrel)
Hornady 130 grain InterLock SP bullet (BC .409, SD .242): Muzzle velocity 3060 f.p.s., muzzle energy 2702 ft. lbs.; Velocity at 300 yards 2392 f.p.s., energy at 300 yards 1652 ft. lbs.; MPBR +/- 3 inches = 297 yards.
Every time I run the numbers on the classic 130 grain .270 Winchester load, I am reminded of why Jack O'Connor loved the cartridge so much. It shoots bullets far and flat, and they arrive downrange with lots of terminal energy. What more could be desired?
7mm-08 Remington (24 inch barrel)
Hornady 139 grain InterLock SP bullet (BC .392, SD .246): Muzzle velocity 2840 f.p.s., muzzle energy 2489 ft. lbs.; Velocity at 275 yards 2229 f.p.s., energy at 275 yards 1533 ft. lbs.; MPBR +/- 3 inches = 275 yards.
This 7mm-08 Remington load yields virtually the same range and terminal performance as the 150-grain .308 Winchester load, below. Either is a very capable tool for hunting all Class 2 game at extended ranges.
The 7mm-08 was commercialized in 1980, without the hype that attends many new cartridge introductions. The cartridge pretty much flew under the radar for years, with a few rifles and loads offered and only an occasional mention in the shooting and hunting media. Meanwhile, shooters must have caught onto a good thing, because now the 7mm-08 has risen to honorable mention on The 10 Best Selling Centerfire Rifle Cartridges in the USA list.
.308 Winchester (24 inch barrel)
Hornady 150 grain InterLock SP bullet (BC .338, SD .226): Muzzle velocity 2820 f.p.s., muzzle energy 2649 ft. lbs.; Velocity at 275 yards 2121 f.p.s., energy at 275 yards 1499 ft. lbs.; MPBR +/- 3 inches = 269 yards.
Over half of the deer I have taken in a lifetime of hunting have fallen to commercial or hand loads like this one. Loaded with 150 grain bullets, the .308 Winchester is a very potent killer of all Class 2 animals.
.30-06 Springfield (24 inch barrel)
Hornady 165 grain InterLock BTSP bullet (BC .435, SD .248): Muzzle velocity 2800 f.p.s., muzzle energy 2872 ft. lbs.; Velocity at 275 yards 2250 f.p.s., energy at 275 yards 1855 ft. lbs., MPBR +/- 3 inches = 275 yards.
I consider a 165 grain bullet to be a medium load for the .30-06 (the 180 grain bullet is the money load), but there is nothing light about the downrange energy it generates. It can be argued that the .30-06 verges on overkill for deer and other Class 2 game, but that has not kept hunters from taking a great many such animals. Standard .30-06/150 grain factory loads have about a 90 fps MV advantage over the .308/150 load and are also highly capable for all Class 2 game.
Notes about these cartridges and rifles
Perhaps I have stated the obvious. All of the cartridges mentioned rank on the top 10 list (cited above), except for the 7mm-08, which garners an honorable mention. The lasting popularity of these cartridges, including the venerable .30-30, speaks volumes about their capability and versatility.
Note that my list does not include any small bore magnums, nor any cartridges larger than .308 bore. Magnum and medium bore cartridges are simply unnecessary for deer hunting.
My only potential exception to these exclusions would be if a rifle, such as the Browning BLR or the new Henry Long Ranger lever rifle, were offered in .338 Federal. The .338 Federal, loaded with 200 - 225 grain bullets at the medium velocity suggested in A Modern Jack O'Connor Woods Rifle, would make an excellent medium bore rifle for Class 2 and most Class 3 game.
Except for the .30-30 Winchester, the cartridges listed above are most commonly chambered in bolt action rifles, although they are also offered in a few lever action, autoloading and pump action rifles. The most popular current choices are the Browning BLR (lever) and BAR (autoloading) rifles. Both are offered in all of the high intensity cartridges on this list. The new Henry Long Ranger lever rifle is currently offered in .243 and .308 Winchester, with promise of more caliber choices to come.
Beyond the BLR, BAR and Long Ranger, the only other action options are the Remington 7600 pump, Remington 750 and Benelli R1 autoloading rifles. The Remington 7600 is currently made in .270, .308 and .30-06; it has been offered in .243 Winchester in the past. Currently, the Remington 750 is not in production; it has previously been offered in .243, .270, .308, .30-06 and .35 Whelen. The Benelli R1 is offered only in .30-06, .300 Winchester Magnum and .338 Winchester Magnum.
Lest anyone think I am overlooking AR type rifles, see The Modern Sporting Rifle Fallacy for my take on the suitability of AR15 and AR10 rifles and cartridges for big game hunting.
I would be remiss if I did not mention a few additional cartridges that are often overlooked when deer rifles are discussed. However, they are quite capable cartridges.
.257 Roberts: The .257 Roberts +P equals (or exceeds) the capability of the .243 Winchester and shoots same-weight bullets some 100 to 200 f.p.s. slower than the .25-06. This is still very respectable and, like the .243 Winchester, the Roberts is quite agreeable to shooters who are recoil sensitive. Unfortunately, few rifles are chambered for the cartridge today and commercial ammo availability is sparse.
.25-06 Remington: The .25-06, throwing 117-120 grain bullets, easily exceeds the downrange performance of the .243 Winchester. The .25-06 is very suitable for Class 2 game and is highly accessible, in terms of both makes and models of rifles available and commercial ammo selection.
6.5x55mm SE, .260 Remington, 6.5mm Creedmoor: Here are three ballistically similar cartridges in the often neglected 6.5mm bore size. All are fully capable of harvesting all Class 2 game and can (with heavier and sturdier bullets) be used on many Class 3 animals. Rifle choices are generally adequate, while factory ammo selection is sparse to adequate. Long popular in Europe, 6.5mm cartridges seem to finally be catching on in North America.
.280 Remington: The .280 Remington is nowhere near as popular as the .270 Winchester, even though the two cartridges are almost ballistic twins. The .270 overshadows the .280 to the point where both rifle and ammo choices for the latter are quite limited.
7x57mm Mauser: Sadly, this fine old cartridge has been largely forgotten in North America, although it remains popular in Europe and Africa. However, if loaded to the same pressure, the 7x57 equals or exceeds the ballistics of the 7mm-08 Remington, so the 7x57 is quite potent for Class 2 and most Class 3 game. Both 7x57 rifles and factory ammo can be difficult to find today, but anyone who has a good 7x57mm rifle can have complete confidence in its effectiveness. (See The Case for the 7x57mm Mauser Cartridge for more information.) Incidentally, it is noteworthy that expert hunters from W.D.M. "Karamojo" Bell to Jack O'Connor have regarded the 7x57 highly.
Choosing a "practically perfect" deer rifle
Coming full circle, I repeat what I stated early in this article:
"I believe there is no one cartridge that can be claimed as perfect for hunting deer under all conditions. Rather, there are typically several cartridges that may be more or less adequate or useful for particular situations. In addition, certain rifle action types may be more or less suited to certain hunting environments or methods."
Here are some thoughts on the issue of selecting a "practically perfect" deer rifle/cartridge combination for distinct situations. Anyone who wishes can effectively hunt deer with a .30-30 rifle, but please use a low to medium power riflescope, rather than the supplied iron sights.
The traditional .30-30 lever rifle is at its best for short to medium range hunting in prototypical whitetail and blacktail deer habitat--woodlands and brush country. Limit shots to about 200 yards if using loads with 150-170 grain FP bullets. Use the latest Hornady LEVERevolution or Browning BXR loads in rifles with 24 inch barrels (Marlin 336XLR, Winchester 94AE Sporter, etc.) to extend the MPBR to 225+ yards.
Bolt, lever and autoloading rifles are available in high intensity cartridges for those who prefer a cartridge with somewhat more power and range than the .30-30. A well designed, short action bolt rifle with a 20 inch barrel may carry almost as comfortably and handle almost as nimbly as a traditional .30-30 lever rifle. (See Compact Bolt Action Deer Rifles for more information.) Therefore, modern bolt, lever and autoloading rifles can be alternatives to the .30-30 lever gun for typical whitetail and blacktail deer hunting situations. The .308 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington, .260 Remington and 6.5 Creedmoor are all capable cartridges that are good choices in this context.
Hunters who pursue deer in more open country may choose different cartridge and rifle options. Cartridge preference may shift to those that have the flattest trajectories and longest effective ranges. The .270 Winchester, .25-06 Remington and .280 Remington are prime prospects, but anyone considering an extended range deer cartridge should not overlook cartridges on the order of the .243 Winchester and .260 Remington. Choosing a rifle with a 24 inch barrel will take full advantage of the ballistic potential of these cartridges. Bolt actions are the most available and popular actions in such rifles. Use high BC bullets to maximize the effective range and terminal performance of these cartridges.
Suppose a hunter wants a rifle that will work for all North American deer species, plus do extra duty on Class 3 game up to elk size. I will approach this scenario by first stating what rifle caliber (among those covered here) I would most recommend, which is the .30-06. Use 150 or 165 grain soft point or tipped lead core bullets for deer and 180 grain controlled expansion bullets (bonded core, partitioned or homogenous) for the Class 3 stuff.
Going downward in power from the .30-06, Class 3 game up to elk size can be taken with the .308 Win., .270 Win. and .280 Rem. calibers. Within about 200 yards and with proper bullets, the 7mm-08, 7x57 and the 6.5mm cartridges I have mentioned can be used on elk and such. However, I would take the .24 and .25 bore cartridges out of play. Elk loads in these cartridges should use bonded core or partitioned bullets weighing 140-160 grains in 6.5mm, 140-150 grains in .270, or 150-175 grains in 7mm. Heavy for caliber bullets are usually the most effective choice for large animals.
Finally, choosing a practically perfect deer rifle for a young, small-statured, or recoil adverse hunter merits some discussion. The two key issues here are a stock that properly fits the shooter and the amount of recoil generated by the cartridge.
There are a handful of rifle makes and models that are made with shortened butt stocks, generally with lengths of pull about an inch shorter than their full size counterparts. Shortened stocks make for more accurate shooting and less recoil discomfort for young or small shooters. Some of these youth model rifles come with spacers that can be added to the stock, increasing length of pull by about an inch. Start a young shooter without the spacer, then add it when he/she grows to the point that the original length of pull is too short.
Choosing a rifle caliber that generates mild recoil is a key consideration for young, small, or recoil sensitive shooters. Actually, anyone can shoot more accurately with a rifle that kicks less. Among the cartridges featured in this article, the .243 Winchester, .257 Roberts and .30-30 Winchester are, inherently, the mildest recoiling cartridges. All three generate recoil levels of 12 ft. lbs. or less in typical "field ready" hunting rifles. (Meaning the weight of the rifle itself, plus a compact riflescope, sling and magazine of cartridges).
A relatively recent innovation in factory loaded ammunition is reduced recoil loads. The Remington Managed Recoil, Federal Fusion Lite and Hornady Custom Lite ammo lines use lighter bullets and reduced powder charges to reduce the recoil of standard high intensity cartridges by 1/3 to 1/2, while remaining fully effective for shooting Class 2 game out to at least 100 yards. One or more of these ammo lines includes reduced recoil loads in .243, .260, .270, 7mm-08, .30-30, .308 and .30-06.
The Guns and Shooting Online staff has done some experimentation with reduced recoil factory loads and found that they perform as advertised. They are definitely much more comfortable to shoot than full power loads and have proven effective at harvesting Class 2 game at moderate ranges. Reduced recoil ammunition is a real boon for young deer hunters and anyone else who is recoil sensitive.
See Compared: Remington Managed-Recoil and Federal Fusion Lite Ammunition for a fuller discussion of reduced recoil loads. In addition, see Compact Bolt Action "Youth" Deer Rifles for additional information about rifles and cartridges for young, small and recoil intolerant hunters.
The single, universally perfect deer rifle does not exist. Hunters need not despair, though, because the range of cartridges, loads and rifle action types available are sufficient that anyone should be able to find a rifle/cartridge package that is perfect for his or her situation, needs and preferences.
Copyright 2016 by Gary Zinn and/or chuckhawks.com. All rights reserved.