Columbian Blacktail Deer Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

6.5x55 SE. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

According to the results of recent genetic analysis, the Columbian blacktail deer is the root stock of all mule deer species. The blacktail is the predominant deer species of the coastal Pacific Northwest. Its range extends north and south from central California into British Columbia and east and west from the summit of the Cascade/Sierra Mountain range to the Pacific Ocean. The Sitka deer of coastal Alaska is a subspecies of the Columbian blacktail.

Blacktail deer are thin-skinned (CXP2 class) game. Bucks probably average about 125-150 pounds on the hoof, depending on location and the size of the individual animal. They are smaller in California and gradually grow in size to the north, being largest in British Columbia and Washington. A 200 pound blacktail would be a very large one.

Like all North American deer, Columbian blacktail are not particularly hard to kill with a well placed bullet. However, because they inhabit the often incredibly dense rain forrest west of the Cascade/Sierra summit, they can be very difficult to recover if wounded. A wounded deer is likely to escape in this nearly impenetrable (to humans) forrest.

As a generalization, blacktail can be thought of as mule deer that act like whitetail deer. They are denizens of the deep woods, but thrive near civilization. They have adapted extremely well to the presence of man and the suburbs of major metropolitan areas in the Pacific Northwest, such as Portland, Oregon, are full of blacktail deer. Some blacktail forage the beaches and coastal towns of the Pacific Northwest and dip their hoofs in the Pacific Ocean. Other blacktail are mountain deer, residing at tree line on the high western slopes of the Cascade Mountains.

Naturally, for hunting a species inhabiting so diverse a range, there are many suitable rifle calibers. The best choices take into consideration the environment and terrain where the deer will be hunted. Everything from .22 centerfires on up is legal for hunting blacktail in my home state of Oregon. However, some calibers are clearly more appropriate for the purpose than others. The .223, although it is one of the great varmint and small predator cartridges, is a very inferior deer cartridge. Let's accept as a basic premise that reasonable blacktail calibers run from .24 (6mm) on up. None of the .22 calibers need apply.

It is desirable for a blacktail deer cartridge to be able to deliver about 800 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy at whatever range the bullet impacts. The frontal area of the bullet should be at least .0464 square inch. The sectional density of the bullet should be at least .200 for adequate penetration. Recommended bullet weights include 90-100 grains in 6mm, 100-120 grains in .25 caliber, 120-140 grains in 6.5mm, 130-150 grains in .270 caliber, 140-150 grains in 7mm, 150-180 grains in the .30 to 8mm calibers, 180-200 grains in the .33 to .35 calibers, 200-220 grains in .375 Win., 240-265 grains in .444 and 300 grains in .45-70. Soft point, hollow point and plastic tipped bullets that will expand against light resistance, such as the Hornady Interlock, Nosler Ballistic Tip, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra Pro-Hunter and GameKing, Speer Hot-Cor and Winchester Power-Point, are usually the most effective types. These are not absolutes, but they are sensible guidelines.

Please bear in mind that I am assuming that the hunter uses a bullet of adequate weight, sectional density, expansion characteristics and gets it into a vital spot (usually the heart/lung area of the deer). It doesn't have to be a perfect shot that slips between two ribs and blows up the heart, but I am assuming a good shot with an adequate bullet. Bullet placement is the most important factor in the killing power of any hunting cartridge.

One of the real problems with recommending hunting cartridges is that the vitality and state of mind of the individual animal has a lot to do with how difficult it is to bring down. Most hunters have noticed how relatively easy it is to kill a relaxed animal and how difficult it can be to stop an animal fleeing for its life. Even such seemingly minor (and uncontrollable) details as whether the animal inhaled or exhaled just prior to the bullet's impact can make a big difference in how far it travels before expiring, even with a perfect double lung shot.

It would be too cumbersome to list every possible blacktail deer cartridge in this type of article, so I won't even try. The cartridges mentioned below are examples of satisfactory blacktail cartridges. If a cartridge is not listed, it does not mean that it is no good. Look for a cartridge with similar ballistics. If you find one, the cartridge in question is also probably adequate.

Over most of the blacktails' range they seek shelter in the forrest, although they like to forage the fringe of clear-cuts, orchards and other open areas where succulent vegetation is most likely to be found. Thus, both short range woods cartridges and medium to long range cartridges have a place in blacktail hunting, depending on where and how you plan to hunt. Accordingly, I will divide the cartridges listed below into two groups based on their useful range and application.

  • Short range blacktail cartridges. These include magnum revolver cartridges adapted for use in rifles as well as traditional woods cartridges. Most are limited by their killing power or their rainbow trajectory to maximum ranges somewhere between 50 and 175 yards, which is about all that you need when hunting Columbian blacktail deer in the coastal rain forests of the Pacific Northwest. Examples of short range blacktail cartridges include the .25-35, .357 Magnum, .35 Remington, .375 Winchester, .38-55, .41 Magnum, .44-40 High Velocity, .44 Magnum, .444 Marlin and .45-70.

    The big .375 Winchester, .444 Marlin and .45-70 are more gun than required, but their fans argue that with well placed bullets they minimize the distance a deer can travel as it expires, simplifying recovery. Having had a fair amount of experience with the .45-70 and some with the .444 Marlin, I would have to agree, as long as the shooter doesn't mind the recoil.

  • General Purpose (medium to long range) blacktail cartridges. These are cartridges with a MPBR (+/- 3") of over 200 yards and the hotter numbers have a MPBR of around 300 yards. They are superior to the short range woods cartridges when hunting the verge of clear-cuts or for shooting from one hillside to another. Examples include the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, 6x62 Freres, .240 Weatherby, .25 WSSM, .25-06, .257 Weatherby, .260 Remington, 6.5x55 SE, 6.5mm-284, 6.5mm Rem. Mag., 6.5x68S, 6.8mm SPC, .270 Winchester, 7-30 Waters, 7mm-08, 7x57, 7x64 Brenneke, .280 Remington, .30-30, .300 Savage, .30-40, .307 Winchester, .308 Marlin Express, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .303 British, .32 Winchester Special, 8x57JS Mauser, .338 Federal, .356 Winchester and .358 Winchester.

Living in western Oregon as I do, I have used many of the cartridges listed above for hunting blacktail deer. If I may inject a personal note here, my all-time favorite cartridges and loads are the .30-30 in lever action rifles and the .260, 6.5x55, 7mm-08 and 7x57 (all with 139-140 grain spitzer bullets) in bolt action rifles. For me, those are the "perfect" blacktail cartridges, suitable for a wide variety of conditions. Note that I have not included the powerful .270, 7mm, .300 and 8mm Magnums on the lists above. That is because they are clearly unnecessary for any sort of blacktail deer hunting and their recoil degrades most shooters' ability to accurately place that crucial first shot.

Finally, let me reiterate that blacktail deer are not particularly hard to kill and bullet placement is the most significant factor in killing power. A good shot with a .243 is a far deadlier hunter than a man shooting a 7mm Magnum that causes him to flinch. Choose a reasonably adequate caliber that you can shoot well and use an appropriate bullet within its energy and trajectory limits. Most of all, get that bullet into the animal's vitals with the first shot.

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Copyright 2006, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.