Minimum Deer Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

By "minimum," I mean minimum in recoil and therefore most comfortable for young and recoil sensitive shooters. Of course, these low recoil cartridges must be adequate in killing power to humanely harvest North American whitetail, Columbian blacktail and mule deer bucks with a solid hit in the vital heart/lung area.

Low recoil cartridges are, by their very nature, going to be less powerful than cartridges that kick harder. Generally speaking, these cartridges and loads will not shoot through a deer lengthwise and are not suitable for raking shots on deer running away from the hunter. There is no escaping the laws of physics. However, all of the cartridges discussed below will get the job done if the shooter gets within the sure kill range, exercises good shot selection and does his or her part.

North American deer are thin-skinned, Class 2 animals. Most of the whitetail bucks taken probably average around 125 pounds live weight, while a fully mature ("four point" by Western count) blacktail or mule deer buck might average 200 pounds on the hoof.

Most deer are still killed within 100 yards and many within 50 yards. A laser-flat trajectory and massive bullet energy are not necessary for hunting deer, despite the impression you may have gotten from articles in gun magazines. Precise bullet placement is, by far, the biggest factor in killing power.

The cartridge credited with killing more North American deer than any other is the .30-30 Winchester. With typical 150 grain flat point bullets the .30-30 is about a 225 yard deer cartridge in terms of both maximum point blank range (+/- 3 inches) and energy on target (858 ft. lbs. at 200 yards). For our purposes, the .30-30 is the standard of comparison, the "golden mean" of deer cartridges and its effectiveness cannot be denied. (See Ideal Deer Cartridges for more on this.)

However, the cartridge credited with killing the second greatest number of North American deer is the .44-40 Winchester. This old timer is the cartridge introduced for the famous Model 1873 Winchester rifle and it was used to decimate the deer population in many states in the late 19th Century.

Traditional Winchester-Western and Remington-Peters smokeless powder .44-40 rifle loads launched a 200 grain soft point bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 1310 fps and muzzle energy (ME) of 760 ft. lbs. The 100 yard figures were 1050 fps and 490 ft. lbs. This is considerably less powerful than a modern .357 Magnum carbine. Such loads killed a great number of deer, but also wounded many.

More to the point were high velocity loads developed specifically for the Winchester Model 1892 rifle after its introduction, which elevated the MV of a 200 grain bullet to as much as 1800 fps and the ME to 1439 ft. lbs. The 100 yard figures were 1413 fps and 887 ft. lbs. The high velocity .44-40 load would qualify as a minimum deer cartridge today and it can be duplicated by reloaders with strong rifles.

Another widely accepted minimum for deer cartridges is a bullet diameter of at least .24 inch. This eliminates a half dozen centerfire .22s that have occasionally been used to kill (and often wound) deer. Since there are many more suitable light recoil cartridges, eliminating the centerfire .22s should not cause concern.

To summarize our minimum requirements, we want a minimum bullet diameter of .24 inch, at least 700 ft. lbs. of energy remaining at 100 yards and a cartridge we can zero at 100 yards without the bullet rising more than three inches at 50 yards. Our minimum deer cartridge should be able to take a 150 pound deer at 100 yards. This means it should score at least 12.5 in G&S Online Rifle Cartridge Killing Power Score (KPS) at 100 yards.

We are looking for mild recoil in hunting rifles of moderate weight, which is the whole point of this exercise. Therefore, our minimum cartridges need to keep recoil energy below 10 ft. lbs. and recoil velocity below 10 fps when fired in a 7.5 pound rifle.

Finally, factory loaded ammunition should be available for our minimum deer cartridges. We don't want to get into reloading for a wildcat cartridge.

Following is a list of cartridges that meet our basic specifications for a minimum deer cartridge. (Cartridge/bullet weight grains/MV fps: energy at 100 yards; recoil energy ft. lbs./velocity fps in a 7.5 pound rifle; KPS at 100 yards).

  • .243 Win./100 gr./2960 fps: 1615 ft. lbs.; recoil 9.9 ft. lbs./9.2 fps; 18.1 KPS
  • .25-35 Win./117 gr./2230 fps: 904 ft. lbs.; recoil 5.0 ft. lbs./6.6 fps; 13.3 KPS
  • .250 Savage/100 gr./2820 fps: 1392 ft. lbs.; recoil 7.6 ft. lbs./8.1 fps; 15.1 KPS
  • 6.5mm Grendel/120 gr./2600 fps: 1600 ft. lbs.; recoil 8.9 ft. lbs./8.8 fps; 21.5 KPS
  • 6.8mm SPC/115 gr./2625 fps: 1389 ft. lbs.; recoil 8.0 ft. lbs./8.3 fps; 17.9 KPS
  • .300 Blackout/125 gr./2175 fps: 1036 ft. lbs.; recoil 4.9 ft. lbs./6.5 fps; 14.5 KPS
  • .30-30 Win./125 gr./2175 fps*: 919 ft. lbs; recoil 6.6 ft. lbs./7.5 fps; 12.9 KPS
  • 7.62x39mm/123 gr./2350 fps: 1155 ft. lbs.; recoil 7.4 ft. lbs./8.0 fps; 15.7 KPS
  • .357 Mag./158 gr./1830 fps: 715 ft. lbs.; recoil 5.3 ft. lbs./6.7 fps; 12.7 KPS
  • .38-55 Win./255 gr./1320 fps: 802 ft. lbs.; recoil 7.8 ft. lbs./8.2 fps; 22.7 KPS

    * Remington Managed Recoil load

(See the Expanded Rifle Ballistics Table, G&S Online Rifle Cartridge Killing Power Formula and List, G&S Online 100 Yard Rifle Cartridge Killing Power Comparison, Rifle Recoil Table and Rifle Trajectory Table for further details. All can be found on the Tables, Charts and Lists index page.)

Comments and Conclusion

The .243 Winchester is the most powerful deer cartridge/load on this list and it offers the flattest trajectory, most energy, best ballistic coefficient and superior sectional density for deep penetration. It is a good deer and pronghorn cartridge out to 300 yards with 95-105 grain bullets. It is among the five best selling cartridges and the selection of ammunition and rifles is unsurpassed. A .243 rifle is the obvious choice if its recoil (the highest on this list) is acceptable.

The .250 Savage is not too far behind the .243 in power and trajectory. It is a good choice, particularly in a classic Savage Model 99 rifle.

A most interesting choice is the .30-30 with the Remington Managed Recoil load (or equivalent reloads). This offers light recoil and 100 yard killing power to young or inexperienced shooters with the possibility of eventually working-up to full power loads. The latter greatly expand the usefulness of any .30-30 rifle. A top five best selling cartridge, the supply of .30-30 rifles is plentiful.

The 6.5mm Grendel, 6.8mm SPC and .300 Blackout are all viable choices for AR fans. Of these, the 6.8mm SPC is probably the most available, factory hunting loads being offered by both Remington and Hornady. (Federal also offers 6.8mm SPC in their American Eagle line, but only with a FMJ bullet inappropriate for hunting.) Only Hornady, alone of the "Big 4," offers 6.5mm Grendel and .300 Blackout hunting loads at this time.

AK and Ruger Mini-Thirty fans will be gratified to see the 7.62x39 Soviet cartridge on this list. Its performance with full power loads is similar to the .30-30 with Managed Recoil loads. It is a 100 yard deer cartridge.

The .357 Magnum revolver cartridge, as applied to use in rifles, is the least powerful cartridge on this list. Shooting a deer at 100 yards is stretching the killing power of a .357 rifle to the maximum. Although I have hunted the Western Oregon woods quite a bit with lever action .357 carbines, I consider the .357 Magnum about a 75 yard deer cartridge. Its advantages are very light recoil, an excellent selection of factory loaded ammunition and a plentiful selection of new or used rifles.

The .38-55 Winchester is again available in new rifles, although only Winchester among the "Big 4" US ammo manufacturers catalogs .38-55 factory loads. A 255 grain .377 inch bullet rolling along at 1320 fps is much deadlier than its paper ballistics suggest and I can personally attest to this old timer's mild recoil.

Buffalo Bore Ammunition offers high pressure (38,000 cup) .38-55 factory loads and reloaders can "soup-up" the .38-55 to a MV around 1800 fps within the SAAMI pressure limit (less than 30,000 cup). Such loads make the .38-55 a horse of an entirely different color and should be avoided by those seeking to minimize recoil. Shoot these hot loads only in modern rifles.

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Copyright 2016, 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.