By Chuck Hawks
Deer are the most commonly hunted big game species in North America. The common native deer are the Whitetail, Columbian Blacktail and Mule deer and there are many sub-types. The state in which I reside, Oregon, contains all three major types.
Deer are thin-skinned (Class 2) game. They average about 100-200 pounds on the hoof, depending on species, location and the size of the individual animal. Even a very large mule deer rarely exceeds 300 pounds. North American deer are not particularly hard to kill with a well placed bullet, but can be a problem to bring to bag if only wounded.
Naturally, for so popular a game animal there are a plethora of rifle calibers available. Everything from the .223 Remington to the .458 Magnum and beyond have been legally used to bag deer in one place or another. However, some calibers are clearly more appropriate for the purpose than others. The .223 and .458 are both good examples of inappropriate deer cartridges.
Let's accept as a given that reasonable deer calibers run from .24 (6mm) on up. The .22 calibers need not apply. While the powerful medium and large bore calibers intended for outsize, tough and dangerous game will also kill deer, they are totally unnecessary. No such cartridges will be included here.
A deer cartridge needs to deliver about 800 ft. lbs. of kinetic energy at whatever range the bullet impacts. The cross-sectional area of the bullet should be at least .0464 square inch. The sectional density of a good small bore (less than .33 caliber) bullet should be at least .200 for adequate penetration. Soft point or plastic tipped bullets that expand well against light resistance, such as the Hornady Interlock and FTX, Nosler Ballistic Tip, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra Pro-Hunter and GameKing, Speer Hot-Cor, Swift Scirocco and Winchester Power-Point, are examples of good deer bullets. These are not absolutes, but they are sensible guidelines.
Please bear in mind that when recommending deer cartridges 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, by far, the most important factor in killing power.
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 hard 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 given good bullet placement these variables are hard to account for in any list.
It would be too cumbersome to list every possible deer cartridge and I would inadvertently leave out someone's favorite, in any case. The cartridges mentioned below are examples of satisfactory deer 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.
For clarity and convenience, I think it might be wise to divide deer cartridges into five categories as follows:
Note that there is, unavoidably, considerable overlap between the various categories. The famous .270 Winchester, for example, is both an excellent long range deer cartridge and an all-around caliber. I have eschewed the 7mm, .300 and 8mm Magnums as simply unnecessarily powerful for any sort of deer hunting, although they will certainly dispatch deer with ease.
In closing, let me reiterate that 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 deer hunter than a man shooting a .300 Magnum that causes him to flinch. Choose a reasonably adequate caliber that you can shoot well. Use an appropriate bullet within its energy and trajectory limits. Most of all, get that bullet into a vital spot if you want to bring home the venison.
Copyright 2006, 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.