General Purpose Deer Cartridges for Magazine Rifles

By Chuck Hawks

In an earlier article ("Ideal Deer Cartridges") I focused on the .30-30, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express and .32 Special. These traditional deer cartridges are usually chambered in fast handling, lever action rifles. All offer adequate killing power and a maximum point blank range (MPBR) +/- 3" of at least 200 yards, coupled with moderate recoil (less than 15 ft. lbs. in typical rifles). These medium range, mild kicking cartridges allow most shooters to place their bullets accurately. They are, indeed, ideal North American deer cartridges and they fit my definition of "general purpose" as applied to deer cartridges.

As good as those cartridges are, they will not be included in this survey because this article is about deer cartridges for bolt action (also autoloading and pump action) rifles with box magazines that require rimless cases. For better or worse, these are the most popular deer rifles today. Fortunately, there are some very good deer cartridges designed specifically for use in such rifles.

Any of the popular all-around (CXP2 and CXP3 game) cartridges are adequate for hunting deer and I have previously covered these cartridges in the article "All Around Rifle Cartridges." Unfortunately, most of the popular all-around cartridges are more powerful than strictly necessary for humanely harvesting deer and the muzzle blast and recoil of cartridges on the order of the .270 Win., .30-06, .308 Win. and 7mm Rem. Mag. prevents many hunters from doing their best shooting, so they will not be included here.

In this article, I am going to concentrate on rimless cartridges that are suitable for hunting all species of North American deer and provide adequate power and trajectory for 250+ yard shots. This makes them applicable to woods, mountain and open country deer hunting. Bore diameter must be at least 24 caliber. It is very desirable for the normal person to keep the recoil of his or her deer rifle below 15 ft. lbs. of energy, so that is an additional requirement of our general purpose deer cartridges.

Fortunately, there are a number of cartridges that fit within these general guidelines. At the top of the list are the standard 6.5mm and 7mm calibers. The most common of these in North America are the .260 Remington, 6.5x55 SE, 7x57 Mauser and 7mm-08 Remington. This quartet does it all and they are adaptable to medium weight rifles that are not an excessive burden to carry on a long day in the field.

These cartridges are generally at their best with bullets weighing around 140 grains. While I never recommend intentionally trying to drive a bullet through leaves or twigs, sometimes in brushy or wooded country such obstructions do inadvertently get between the bullet and its intended target. Bullets of this weight and diameter at least have a reasonable chance of striking home in such conditions.

Typical loads drive a 139-140 grain bullet at a muzzle velocity (MV) around 2700 fps, have adequate deer killing power beyond 300 yards and a MPBR of 250-285 yards. Recoil energy is below our 15 ft. lb. ceiling when fired in a rifle weighing 8 pounds, and with most loads when fired in 7.5 pound rifles. Fine deer hunting rifles are available in these calibers from a number of different manufacturers and ammunition (particularly for 6.5x55 and 7x57) is sold worldwide. It just doesn't get any better than that, so unless you have a specific reason for selecting another caliber, I'd recommend that your next deer rifle be chambered for one of these four cartridges.

There are, of course, other possible cartridge choices. One of the newest of these is the 6.8mm Remington SPC. This was designed as a replacement for the 5.56mm NATO military cartridge and it uses the same .277" diameter bullets as the familiar .270 Winchester. Remington offers a 115 grain Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded hunting bullet at a catalog MV of 2625 fps. Recoil is very mild, around 8 ft. lbs. in a 7.5 pound rifle, and the cartridge's killing power and trajectory allow shots out to about 250 yards. The primary drawbacks to the 6.8mm SPC, as I write these words, are the scarcity of factory loaded ammunition and hunting rifles in the caliber. It deserves to be more popular than it has so far become.

Dropping down in bullet diameter brings us to the flat shooting .24 and .25 caliber cartridges. The best known among these are the .243 Winchester, 6mm Remington and .257 Roberts (+P). All can drive a 100 grain bullet hard enough and fast enough (around 3000-3100 fps) to make 300 yard shots on medium size deer possible. Case capacities are similar to the aforementioned 6.5mm and 7mm cartridges, velocity is higher, bullet weight and frontal area are reduced, as is killing power. Their light, fast bullets are poor at getting through leaves and twigs. Because of their lighter bullets, these cartridges kick less than the bigger bores, generally delivering around 10 ft. lbs. of recoil energy when fired in 7.5 to 8 pound rifles.

Among these cartridges, my personal favorite is the .257 Roberts. Unfortunately, not many factory built rifles are offered in .257 Roberts these days (or 6mm Remington either, for that matter), although the .257 remains reasonably popular with custom rifle makers. On the other hand, the .243 Winchester is available in a great many rifles of all descriptions and action types and .243 ammunition is very widely distributed, making it the odds-on choice for most hunters.

Better, in the sense that they drive the same .24-.25 caliber bullets faster (3200-3400 fps) and put more energy on target, are the long range .240 Weatherby Magnum and .25-06 Remington. These offer deer killing power about on a par with the potent 6.5mm and 7mm cartridges discussed earlier and a MPBR in excess of 300 yards. The extra velocity/energy achieved by these cartridges (compared to the smaller cased .24's and .25's) also means more recoil, probably about 12-13 ft. lbs. in an 8 pound rifle with typical loads.

These cartridges require long barrels (24" or 26") to achieve their catalog velocities. They also require rifles with .30-06 length actions. As far as I know, only Weatherby chambers for the .240, while several manufacturers offer rifles in .25-06. That situation is mirrored in ammo availability. Long barreled, long action rifles are less handy for the mountain, woods and tree stand hunter and few shooters have the skill to take advantage of these cartridges' very flat trajectory. The .240 and .25-06 verge on being "specialized," rather than "general purpose," deer calibers, which pretty much brings us to the end of our survey and this article!

Note: Detailed information about all of the cartridges mentioned in this article, as well as cartridge comparisons, can be found on the Rifle Cartridges page.

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Copyright 2008, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.