Deer Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

.30-30 Win.
.30-30 Win. Illustration courtesy of Hornady Mfg. Co.

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:

  1. Short range deer cartridges. These include magnum revolver cartridges adapted to use in rifles as well as traditional woods and brush country cartridges. Most are limited by their killing power or their rainbow trajectory to maximum ranges somewhere between 50 and 150 yards, which is often entirely adequate for hunting Columbian blacktail deer in the heavily forested Pacific Northwest and whitetail deer in the eastern, southern, or northern woods. Examples of such cartridges include the .25-35 (117 gr. FP bullet), .357 Magnum, .35 Remington (200 gr. RN), .38-55, .41 Magnum, .44-40 High Velocity, .44 Magnum, .450 Bushmaster and .45-70.

  2. Varmint / predator / deer combination cartridges. Calibers useful for shooting varmints and/or small predators, as well as deer. These cartridges are generally at the lower end of the killing power scale as modern deer cartridges. They are, however, more powerful than most of the short range cartridges beyond 150 yards and useful woods cartridges at shorter ranges. Their big advantage is that most hunters can shoot them more accurately than the deer cartridges that kick harder. Included in this group are the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington, .25-35 (110 gr. LE-FTX bullet), .250 Savage, .257 Roberts, 6.5mm Grendel, 6.8mm SPC, .300 Blackout, 7.62x39 and similar cartridges.

  3. General purpose Class 2 game cartridges. These are cartridges with a MPBR (+/- 3") of at least 200 yards and the hotter 6.5mm and 7mm numbers have a MPBR in the 270-285 yard range. They are just about ideal for dispatching all species of North American deer within their energy and trajectory limits and their recoil is generally moderate, although noticeably heavier than the cartridges in #2 above. Examples include the 6.5 Creedmoor, .260 Remington, 6.5x55 SE, 7mm-08, 7x57 Mauser, .30-30, .300 Savage, .32 Winchester Special, 8x57 Mauser and .35 Remington (200 gr. LE-FTX).

  4. Long range cartridges. These are cartridges with the power and MPBR to reach out 300 yards, or more, to bring down deer. They are often thought of in the context of hunting western mule deer or the Coues whitetail of the southwestern mountains. However, long range rifles are also used for hunting southern bean fields, midwestern wheat fields and south Texas senderos. The 6.5mm and .270 caliber cartridges in this category also qualify as all-around cartridges. This group includes flat shooting numbers such as the 6x62 Freres, .240 Weatherby Mag., .25-06, .257 Weatherby Mag., 6.5mm-284, 6.5mm Rem. Mag., 6.5x68S, .264 Win. Magnum, .26 Nosler, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM and .270 Weatherby Mag.

  5. All-around cartridges. These are combination Class 2 and Class 3 class game cartridges that are generally more powerful than strictly necessary for shooting deer. As such, they are resonable choices for western combination mule deer and Rocky Mountain elk hunts. Most have a MPBR of at least 250 yards and some have a MPBR in excess of 300 yards. In most cases the lighter weight bullets (120-130 grain in 6.5mm, 130 grain in .270 caliber, 140 grain in 7mm and 150 grain in .30-.32 caliber, for example) are the best choice for deer hunting.

    Many hunters find the muzzle blast and recoil of some of these cartridges intimidating, particularly when shooting the heavier weight bullets generally chosen for mixed bag hunts. This category includes such cartridges as the 6.5mm-284, 6.5mm Rem. Mag., 6.5x68S, .264 Win. Magnum, .26 Nosler, .270 Winchester, .270 WSM, .270 Weatherby Mag., 7x64 Brenneke, .280 Remington, .280 A.I., .30-40 Krag, .308 Marlin Express, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .303 British, 8x57JS Mauser and similar cartridges.

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.

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Copyright 2006, 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.