Ideal Deer Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

What we need is a good, effective, North American deer hunting cartridge and rifle combination. We need a rifle that is reliable, accurate, easy to operate and easy to carry. We need a cartridge that can be chambered in reasonably light rifles and still not kick the shooter out from under his or her hat. A cartridge with a maximum point blank range (+/- 3" from the line of sight) of at least 200 yards and an optimal killing range for taking a 200 pound deer of at least 200 yards. This ideal deer rifle/cartridge combination must shoot bullets of big game hunting diameter and weight that have at least some chance of getting through leaves and twigs that they might accidentally encounter on their way to the target, say .30 caliber and 150 grains, or larger.

Three older, established cartridges and one new cartridge immediately come to mind. These are the .30-30 Winchester, .300 Savage, .32 Winchester Special and .308 Marlin Express. When zeroed to hit three inches high at 100 yards, all four shoot a 150-180 grain bullet fast enough so that it won't fall more than three inches until it is out past 200 yards. A 200 yard trajectory of plus or minus 3" will take over 90% of the deer killed in North America, east or west. These cartridges are available from online retailers or in stores all across North America and they are chambered in fast handling lever action "deer rifles" like the Winchester Model 94, Marlin 336, Savage 99 and the new Henry .30-30. Because these rifles (except for the new Henry) have been made for over a century, there are many good used rifles available to the bargain conscious hunter.

These traditional deer rifles became traditional deer rifles by being very efficient and popular. The lever action is much more convenient to operate from the shoulder than a bolt action, as well as faster for repeat shots and, unlike a bolt action, it is ambidextrous. It is also flat and easier to carry in the hand, or a saddle scabbard, than a bolt action. Its only real competitor today is the autoloading rifle. But the autoloader is generally heavier and not as reliable as a lever action, particularly in very cold or dusty climates, and it may not be legal in all jurisdictions. For all of these reasons, a good lever action makes a very fine deer rifle for most shooters and most conditions.

Lever action rifles are capable of good accuracy. I have owned a number of them and all of them have been accurate. They certainly deserve to be fitted with a good quality scope. For deer hunting, that should be a scope somewhere between 1.5 and 4 power whether of fixed or variable magnification. After Winchester changed the M-94 to angle ejection, scope mounting ceased to be a problem. Of course, it never was a problem for the Marlin, Savage and Henry lever actions, since they eject to the side.

The ballistics of our chosen deer cartridges are perfect for the job. Factory loads give the 150 grain .30-30 bullet a muzzle velocity (MV) of 2,390 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 1,902 ft. lbs. The 160 grain Hornady LEVERevolution 160 grain boat-tail spitzer bullet (BC .330) has a MV of 2400 fps and ME of 2046 ft. lbs. The 170 grain .30-30 bullet has a MV of 2,200 fps and ME of 1,827 ft. lbs.

.300 Savage factory loads launch a 150 grain bullet at 2,630 fps with 2,303 ft. lbs. of ME. The 180 grain bullet in .300 Savage factory loads has a MV of 2,350 fps and ME of 2,207 ft. lbs.

The Hornady LEVERevolution factory load for the .308 Marlin uses a 160 grain Evolution bullet at a MV of 2660 fps and ME of 2513 ft. lbs. This is a new Evolution boat-tail spitzer bullet specifically designed for the .308 Marlin and it has a ballistic coefficient (BC) of .400.

The .32 Spec. Hornady LEVERevolution 165 grain spitzer bullet is factory loaded to a MV of 2410 fps and ME of 2128 ft. lbs. Standard flat point factory loads for the .32 Special give a 170 grain bullet a MV of 2,250 fps and ME of 1,911 ft. lbs.

Reloaders can duplicate all of these loads except the Hornady LEVERevolution loads. LEVERevoultion bullets are not yet available to reloaders.

The maximum point blank range (MPBR) of a scoped .30-30 shooting a 150 grain flat point factory load is about 225 yards; with a 170 grain factory load it is 211 yards. The 160 grain Hornady Evo bullet extends that to 232 yards. For the .300 Savage shooting a 150 grain factory load the MPBR is about 259 yards; with a 180 grain factory load it is 236 yards. The MPBR of the 160 grain Evolution bullet from the .308 Marlin is 261 yards. The MPBR of the .32 Win. Spec. shooting a 170 grain flat point factory load is about 215 yards and the 165 grain Evo bullet extends that to about 230 yards.

As you can see, the .308 Marlin and .300 Savage give an average increase of over 200 fps with consequently flatter trajectory and also increased recoil. Those very sensitive to recoil will find the .30-30 with the 150 grain bullet the most comfortable cartridge to shoot, particularly in a lightweight rifle. The .30-30 with this load is especially suitable for young or beginning hunters. It kicks only a little more than a .243 or .257, but delivers a full size bullet to anchor a deer. Of course, it is also used by many experienced shooters.

Deer are not particularly large or tough animals and what you want to do is put a quick opening bullet into the heart/lung area. A tough, controlled expansion bullet designed for deep penetration usually does not dump energy fast enough for quick kills on deer. This is another reason I favor the 150 and 160 grain bullets in the .30-30 for deer hunting.

There is also a difference in bullet construction within a single weight class. In the Winchester ammo line, for example, the Power Point is a quick opening soft point bullet, while the Silvertip is designed for delayed expansion and deeper penetration.

The recoil picture is as follows, all computed for a rifles weighing 7.5 to 8 pounds (about the weight of a scoped deer rifle). A .30-30 shooting a 150 grain bullet at 2,390 fps generates about 10.6 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. A .30-30 or .32 Spec. shooting a 170 grain bullet at 2,200 fps recoils with about 11-12 ft. lbs. of energy. The .308 Marlin shooting the 160 grain LEVERevolution load kicks the shoote with about 13.4 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. The .300 Savage shooting a 150 grain bullet at 2,630 fps it hits back with about 14 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. With the 180 grain bullet at 2,350 fps, a .300 Sav. has approximately 15.2 ft. lbs. of recoil energy.

These figures are for typical factory loads. I computed recoil energy using the formula given in the 43rd Edition of the Lyman Reloading Handbook, so if my figures don't exactly match those you read somewhere else, they were probably using a different source. But these figures are close enough for general purposes. All of these numbers are far enough below the average person's maximum tolerable recoil level of 20 ft. lbs. to be considered reasonably comfortable to shoot. Compared to a .30-06 or a 7mm Magnum, these cartridges are a pleasure to shoot.

All four of these cartridges are proven game getters and with good bullet placement they will provide quick kills. They are perfect for feral hogs, deer, black bear and will also do for larger animals such as caribou and elk at short to medium range. The .308 Marlin and .300 Savage with 160-180 grain bullets are particularly effective for larger animals like elk. As always, bullet placement is by far the most important factor in killing power. A .300 Savage bullet in the lungs will result in elk steaks for dinner, while a poorly placed bullet from a powerful medium bore like a .338 Magnum will probably result in a long and fruitless chase. In addition to the famous Savage Model 99, the 2003 version of Remington's Model 700 Classic rifle was chambered for the .300 Savage cartridge.

Despite the popularity of these deer rifles and cartridges, my fellow gun writers don't seem to be singing their praises very energetically. I guess reliable meat-and-potatoes type cartridges just aren't exciting to jaded gun scribes. However, never forget that they bring home the venison.

There are fancier, faster and certainly more expensive cartridges available. A few of them may have some of the advantages of adequate bullet size, trajectory and moderate recoil mentioned earlier. However, it is hard to think of many that combine all of these virtues. The next time you are thinking about a new (or previously owned) deer rifle, remember that even if you have not read much about the .30-30 Winchester, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express or .32 Winchester Special recently, they are very hard, if not impossible, deer cartridges to beat.

Note: Articles that cover many deer cartridges in detail can be found on the Rifle Cartridge Page.

Back to Rifle Information

Copyright 1999, 2013 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.