More Ideal Deer Cartridges

By Chuck Hawks

Those of you who have read my article Ideal Deer Cartridges already know that it is hard to beat a lever action rifle chambered for the .30-30 Winchester, .300 Savage, .308 Marlin Express or .32 Winchester Special for general purpose deer hunting. These four cartridges offer excellent deer killing power and keep recoil energy at or below 15 ft. lbs. in rifles of typical weight.

However, most hunters today buy bolt action deer rifles, while others dote on autoloaders. Sadly, some of these folks would not be caught dead with a traditional lever action deer rifle. Fortunately, there are cartridges designed for use in bolt actions and autoloaders that offer big game hunting diameter bullets (.26 to .28 caliber) weighing 140 grains (or more) and less than 15 ft. lbs. of recoil energy. Prominent among these are two classic cartridges developed for use with smokeless powder in the late 19th Century, the 6.5x55mm SE and 7x57mm Mauser, and two more recent (but well proven) cartridges based on a necked-down .308 Winchester case. The .260 Remington and 7mm-08 Remington were introduced specifically for use in short action rifles and offer essentially the same ballistics as their famous predecessors.

All four of these cartridges are proven game getters that deliver quick kills if you do your part. They are well suited for hunting all Class 2 game, including feral hogs, deer, caribou and black bear. With appropriate ammunition, they will also suffice for larger animals, such as elk, at short to medium range. As always, bullet placement is the most important factor in killing power. For example, a 140 grain 7mm-08 bullet in the lungs will result in elk steaks for dinner, while a poorly placed 250 grain bullet from a .338 Magnum will probably result in a long and fruitless chase.

These all-around Class 2 game cartridges feature a Maximum Point Blank Range (+/- 3" from the line of sight) of at least 260 yards with typical 139-145 grain factory loads and an optimal killing range for taking a 200 pound deer that well exceeds their MPBR. In addition, they are available in a variety of new and used rifles. For those on very limited budgets, the 6.5x55 and 7x57 can even be had in surplus military rifles that can be "sporterized" for deer hunting at very low cost.

The ballistics of these cartridges are excellent for deer hunting. Here are some muzzle velocity (MV) and muzzle energy (ME) figures for common 139-140 grain factory loads (other bullet weights are available), taken from the Federal, Hornady, Remington and Winchester ammunition catalogs:

  • 6.5x55mm factory loads offer MV's from 2550-2735 fps and ME's of 2021-2325 ft. lbs. with 140 grain bullets.
  • .260 Remington factory loads drive a 140 grain bullet at 2700-2750 fps with 2265-2351 ft. lbs. ME.
  • 7x57mm factory loads offer MV's from 2660-2760 and ME's from 2199-2353 ft. lbs. with 139-140 grain bullets.
  • 7mm-08 factory load numbers for 140 grain bullets are 2800-2860 fps MV and 2435-2542 ft. lbs. ME

There is considerable variation between manufacturers and individual factory loads, so you have choices in each caliber. For reloaders, a very good selection of bullet weights and styles is available in both 6.5mm and 7mm. I handload all four cartridges with 140 grain bullets at about 2700 fps and 2250 ft. lbs. at the muzzle.

The actual recoil energy of these loads varies, depending on the intensity of your chosen ammunition and the weight of your rifle. For rifles weighing 7.5 to 8.0 pounds, a typical weight range for scoped deer rifles, recoil energies range from approximately 11 ft. lbs. to 15 ft. lbs. I used the recoil figures from the Expanded Rifle Recoil Table, so if my figures don't exactly match those you read somewhere else, they were probably using a different source. However, these figures are close enough for general purposes and give an accurate impression of the kick associated with these relatively mild cartridges.

Since the 7mm-08 is factory loaded a bit hotter than the other three cartridges, its recoil figures tend to be highest. However, these recoil numbers are well below the average person's maximum tolerable recoil level of 20 ft. lbs. and most hunters will find them comfortable to shoot.

To further reduce recoil, Remington offers Managed Recoil factory loads in .260 and 7mm-08. These use 140 grain Core-Lokt PSP bullets at about 2360 fps MV and 1730 ft. lbs. ME. The remaining energy of both loads exceeds 1180 fps at 200 yards and the trajectory is adequate for shots out to 200 yards. Recoil energy is reduced to about 9.5 ft. lbs. in an eight pound rifle. It doesn't get better than that for bullets of full deer killing diameter and weight.

Deer are not particularly large, tough or hard to kill. For fast, humane and reliable kills put a medium game bullet of adequate diameter and sectional density into the vitals. Note that tough, controlled expansion bullets designed for deep penetration in large animals usually do not dump energy fast enough for optimum performance on deer size animals. Soft point or tipped bullets designed to expand rapidly against moderate resistance usually work better. The Federal Soft Point, Hornady InterLock, Nosler Ballistic Tip, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra Pro Hunter, Speer Hot-Cor, Swift Scirocco and Winchester Power Point are examples of proven deer bullets.

Most of my fellow gun scribes are not singing the praises of sensible deer cartridges. To read some of the over-the-top articles published in the gun and hunting magazines, you would think nothing less than the latest Super Magnum will put venison in your freezer, but nothing could be farther from the truth. I guess standard cartridges that have been around for a while just aren't sufficiently exciting.

The truth is, articles about new and considerably more expensive deer cartridges (and exotic rifles to shoot them) are required to draw the advertising dollars that keep the print publications afloat. However, it is hard to think of many cartridges that combine all of the virtues of the 6.5x55, .260, 7x57 and 7mm-08 with a proven track record. If you develop a hankering for a new (or previously owned) deer rifle, keep these cartridges in mind. I promise you will not be sorry you did.

Note: Articles that cover all of these deer cartridges in detail can be found on the Rifle Cartridges page.

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Copyright 2013, 2016 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.