Uh oh, here we go again. You’re probably already either rolling your eyes in exhaustion or tensing up as you feel your blood pressure spike over yet another “best deer cartridge” discussion.
Let’s see if we can avoid the anxiety of every “best cartridge” debate ever, and cut right to the chase: in my opinion, you can reasonably hunt deer with almost anything between a .243 and a .300 Winchester magnum. Chances are, if you already own a centerfire rifle, you can take a deer with it. There, it’s settled. We don’t need to defend any particular caliber or cartridge selection.
Now for the fun part. We’re not looking for the technical ethical and ballistic limit when it comes to deer cartridges. Instead, let’s see if we can narrow down what constitutes the “perfect” cartridge for deer.
Our first consideration should be ethics. It’s our privilege to be able to hunt these incredible animals, and we want to be absolutely sure we’ve done everything we can to minimize their suffering and offer them fair chase.
Right out the gate, I will say that deer can absolutely be taken ethically (under the right circumstances and with proper bullet selection) with cartridges smaller than the .243. Hunters have been shooting at deer with .22s since before I was born, and the .223 is a fine cartridge, given that you pick the right ammunition for hunting. On the high end, I think if you use anything beyond a .300 win mag, you’re probably shooting too much gun at your deer.
However, we can circumvent most of the ethical quandaries these cartridges might raise, simply because we’re looking for the “best” cartridge, not the technical limit of what we can reasonably hunt with.
There is one caveat I have to mention regarding the ethics of hunting cartridge selection, however. Though “long-range” hunting is growing in popularity along with the growth of interest in long-range shooting, if you’re choosing your cartridge based on its accuracy past 400 yards, you’ve lost me in the debate.
Maybe you’re a great shooter, and maybe you can make that 700-yard quartering shot on a deer. As far as I’m concerned, however, once you’ve made your bullet’s ballistic coefficient a relevant point of discussion in a debate about hunting calibers, you’re taking too many chances to be on the ethical side of the debate.
It’s also about fair chase. If you’re so far from your target that it would need a spotting scope or woodland telegram service to be notified of your presence, I think you’re doing a disservice to the animal and not giving your game a chance to detect you. In my opinion, we should choose our “best” cartridge with this in mind.
We want a cartridge that can reliably reach our target with enough energy left over for appropriate expansion after impact to get the job done.
Luckily, ammunition manufacturers have made tremendous strides even in the last 10 years, and bullet technology is such that questionable cartridges of yesteryear are much more reasonable in terms of ballistics for deer hunting. Yes, I’m including the .223 in that statement.
In terms of bullet choice, my two favorites are the Nosler AccuBond and Hornady GMX, but there are excellent bullets and factory ammunition from a number of other manufacturers to choose from.
Now, shot placement is the most important part of killing game. An accurate shot with a less powerful cartridge is absolutely preferable to using something with more power but less accuracy. But accuracy rests on far more than just cartridge selection, and at our distances, the cartridges we’ll cover are more than adequate.
Aim for the heart or double-lung shots!
If I had to boil everything down to one number, I’d say the most important factor for an effective deer cartridge is its potential energy delivery upon impact. This is measured in foot-pounds, or ft. lbs., and for our purposes, I’m looking for around between 1,000 and 1,200 ft. lbs. as a minimum acceptable measure from a deer cartridge.
Rather than discuss all the specific variables of cartridge ballistics, let’s just look at a few excellent performers to narrow our search for a favorite:
.270 Winchester and .308 Winchester
I’ve grouped these together because, at our hunting ranges, they perform very similarly. Ballistically speaking, both are wonderful cartridges for deer.
With let’s say a 130 grain bullet in the .270 and a 150 grain bullet in the .308, you’ll deliver in the ballpark of around 3,000 ft. lbs. and 1,500 ft. lbs. of energy from the muzzle out to around 400 yards, respectively. Both are accurate, moderately recoiling cartridges that will get the job done with more than enough energy for proper expansion, as long as you pick the right bullet.
This extremely popular bench cartridge is gaining traction as a general hunting cartridge because of its exceptional accuracy and low recoil. With a 140 grain bullet, the Creedmoor starts with less energy at the muzzle, around 2,200 to 2,500 ft. lbs., but will deliver right around 1,500 to 1,400 ft. lbs. at 400 yards.
This is more than enough for deer. However, it’s important to keep in mind that you need to pick ammunition specifically designed for hunting. Popular target loads for the Creedmoor may not get the job done on deer.
There is a lot more that can be said for 6.5 Creedmoor, Pew Pew Tactical’s 6.5 Creedmoor Ultimate Guide covers nearly all of it!
Maybe you didn’t see this one coming. This cartridge has been in decline for a while, and it doesn’t attract the interest of the long-range community because of its less desirable ballistic coefficient, but overall, this is a fantastic deer cartridge, especially at closer ranges.
Couple that with its very light recoil, and you’ve got an excellent performer, especially for recoil-sensitive hunters. With a 115 grain bullet, it will leave the barrel sporting around 2,300 ft. lbs., dropping to approximately 1,300 ft. lbs. at 400 yards. It isn’t as heavy a hitter, but it’s an accurate, flat-shooting cartridge that’s much easier on the shoulder, especially for younger or lighter shooters. The only caveat here is, you’ll likely have a harder time finding ammunition for this cartridge.
Wrap Up Time
We could debate this topic endlessly, and a lot of your choice will come down to personal preference. Now, however, for my overall selection: I have to give the top spot for “best deer cartridge” to the .270 Winchester. It’s slightly more accurate than the .308 in my experience and has very similar recoil, shoots flat like the .25-06, and has punching power close to a .30-06. The .270 isn’t known as the “King of the West” for nothing. Stay tuned, however, because the 6.5 Creedmoor is increasingly impressive, and it may take my top spot in the future.
If you’re looking for more great information on hunting and the firearms to do it with, check out PewPewTactical.com