Deer Cartridges from Bad to Good

By Chuck Hawks

First, let's clarify the subject. The subject of this article is deer hunting cartridges for the modern sportsman, the guy or gal who buys a deer tag and hunts legally during deer season. It is not about poaching, subsistence hunting or survival in the wilderness. Facing starvation, you do what you gotta do. The fact is, with a brain shot from very close range, practically any rifle cartridge can bring down a deer. This includes the .22 Long Rifle, as has been proven countless times. However, the fact that a cartridge can kill a deer under special circumstances does not mean it is adequate, sensible, humane, or even legal for the sport hunter. As used in this article, terms like "adequate," "minimum" and "deer cartridge" pertain to the modern sport of deer hunting.

Here are some realistic minimum deer cartridge guidelines for the contemporary hunter. Let me reiterate, these are minimums. They are not what you are looking for in a good deer cartridge; they are standards you are seeking to surpass. The goal is to exceed the minimums by a comfortable margin. Here are performance levels you should never fall below when choosing a deer cartridge:

  • Minimum caliber .243"/6mm
  • Minimum Sectional Density: .200 for calibers .24-.32 (6mm-8mm)
  • Required bullet type: controlled expansion (NOT a frangible varmint bullet or a non-expanding bullet)
  • Required impact velocity: as per bullet manufacturer; typically at least 1500 fps for conventional soft point rifle bullets and higher for solid copper or bullets designed for large game to insure adequate expansion
  • Minimum remaining kinetic energy at impact: 800 ft. lbs.

If a cartridge fails to meet any of these minimum requirements it should not be considered an adequate deer cartridge. Based on this, the .25-35 (introduced in 1895) would be about the minimum acceptable 100 yard deer cartridge that is still factory loaded today. There is no question that the .25-35 will cleanly harvest deer in the hands of a hunter who gets the bullet into a vital spot. It is most suitable for those who are excellent shots, but extremely recoil sensitive. For most of us, there are better cartridge choices.

Here are the specifications for the .25-35, as factory loaded by Winchester in 2013:

  • Bullet diameter: .257"
  • Bullet: 117 grain soft point RN
  • Sectional Density: .253
  • Muzzle velocity: 2230 fps
  • Velocity at 100 yards: 1866 fps
  • Energy at 100 yards: 904 ft. lbs.

Unbelievable as it may seem, there are actually hunters out there choosing, of their own free will, to hunt deer with cartridges even less capable than the .25-35. (Ever seen a camo-clad wanna-be deer hunter with a .223 AR carbine?)

Here are the specifications for a much better deer and general purpose CXP2 game cartridge, in this case the 6.5x55mm shooting the economical Federal Power-Shok pointed soft point factory load:

  • Bullet diameter: .264"
  • Bullet weight: 140 grains
  • Sectional density: .287
  • Muzzle velocity: 2650 fps
  • Velocity at 100 yards: 2450 fps
  • Energy at 100 yards: 1865 ft. lbs.

Those ballistics are an example of what you should be seeking in a good deer cartridge. More powerful "all-around" cartridges, such as the .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester and .30-06, are certainly capable deer killers, but they kick harder and their extra power is generally not necessary.

The point is, you don't want a minimum deer cartridge unless, due to extreme recoil sensitivity, you simply cannot handle anything better. You certainly do not want a sub-minimum deer cartridge under any circumstances! Looking at factory ammunition loading lists from Federal, Remington and Winchester, here are some examples of cartridges that I would regard as poor to inadequate for deer hunting:

    All centerfire .22's, specifically including, but not limited to, the .223 Rem. and .223 WSSM. Regardless of their legality and anybody's advertising hype, these are varmint cartridges; they are NOT deer cartridges.

    .25-20 Win. - This is a black powder varmint cartridge. It was never intended for deer hunting and should not be used on anything bigger than a coyote.

    .30 Carbine - This is a short range military carbine cartridge. As a hunting cartridge with expanding bullets, it is good for jack rabbits and small predators. It was not intended for deer hunting and is inadequate for the purpose.

    .32-20 Win. - Like the .25-20, this is a black powder varmint cartridge. Its ballistics are inferior to the .30 Carbine.

    .357 Magnum - This is a revolver cartridge adequate for shooting deer to about 50 yards. A great all-around handgun cartridge, but a poor choice for deer rifles, since the much more capable .30-30 can be had in rifles similar to those chambered for the .357 Mag.

    .38-40 Winchester - Another revolver cartridge, in this case a black powder number only half as powerful as the .357 Magnum.

    .44-40 Winchester - Notably underpowered compared to the .357 Magnum. I know, the .44-40 has probably killed more deer than anything except the .30-30. However, there used to be a Hi-Speed hunting load for use in rifles. Today, only very low pressure revolver ammo is factory loaded, in deference to tort lawyers and the many antique .44-40 guns out there. For the modern deer hunter, there are a myriad of better choices.

    .45 Long Colt - The premier revolver cartridge of the black powder era, it remained our most powerful handgun cartridge until the advent of the .357 Magnum. Historically, it was never chambered in rifles. The modern sport of cowboy action shooting has resulted in .45 Colt carbines being offered for the first time. Although it will kill deer at very short range, the .45 LC is a poor choice for deer hunting.

Okay, now you know what cartridges not to choose for deer hunting. If you read the specifications of the 6.5x55mm, you also have an example of the kind of deer cartridge you should choose.

Not to belabor the obvious, but here are some examples of proven deer cartridges that kick less in rifles of normal weight than the .270 Winchester, .308 Winchester or .30-06. With any of these, you are adequately equipped:

    .243 Winchester
    6mm Remington
    6mm Creedmoor
    .240 Weatherby Mag.
    .250 Savage
    .257 Roberts
    .25-06 Remingon
    6.5mm Grendel
    6.5mm Creedmoor
    6.5x55mm SE
    .260 Remington
    6.8mm SPC
    7x57mm Mauser
    7mm-08 Remington
    .30-30 Winchester
    .300 Savage
    .32 Winchester Special
    .38-55 Winchester

Remember that, with any cartridge, good shot placement is the most important factor in killing power. Good luck and good hunting!

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Copyright 2010, 2017 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.