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Best Deer Cartridge

Deer hunters are always wondering what the best caliber is. What they really mean is “what’s the best cartridge?”

Caliber refers to the diameter of the bullet. Cartridge means the shape AND caliber.

Ron Spomer

A .30-30 Winchester, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield and .300 Weatherby Magnum are all the same caliber, but vastly different cartridges. They can and often do shoot the same bullets, but at different speeds. The .30-30 can drive a 150-grain flat nose about 2,400 feet per second (fps). A .308 Win. will push a 150-grain spire point 3,000 fps, a .30-06 will move it 3,100 fps and the .300 Weatherby will send it screaming at 3,400 fps.

They’ll all kill deer.

So which is best?

There are a lot of cartridges that fire the 7mm (.284-inch) bullets, but the third from the left, the 7mm-08 Rem., is considered by many to be the perfect one for whitetails.

 

None. But this doesn’t mean there isn’t an ideal deer cartridge out there.

The thing is, one man’s ideal is another man’s garbage. For argument, let’s outline what a good, all-round whitetail cartridge should have/be:

1. Accurate. Of course, but how accurate? Despite everyone’s preoccupation with sub-MOA (Minute of Angle), target-grade performance, any rifle that clusters three shots inside of a 2-inch circle is going to hit every broadside deer out to 300 yards. But most factory rifles shoot closer to MOA right out of the box, so no worries.

2. Minimal recoil. Experienced shooters can teach themselves to endure the kick of .375 H&H magnums, but the average deer hunter doesn’t shoot enough to resist flinching when he fires a .30-06. Accuracy (hitting what you shoot at) is way more important than a few hundred more fps or foot pounds.


Headstamp on bottom of a 7mm-08 cartridge. This could be the gravestone epitaph for many a whitetail — maybe one in your future?

 

3. Reasonably flat trajectory. The sleeker and more aerodynamically efficient a bullet, the farther it flies before being pulled to the ground. The faster it leaves the rifle, the farther and flatter it flies. But too much velocity means increased recoil, so there’s a limit here. A good rule of thumb: the bullet should strike the deer somewhere in the chest if aimed center chest. Any cartridge/bullet combination that can do that out to 300 yards is more than ready for prime time.

4. Good striking energy. Terminal bullet energy is often stated as 1,000 foot pounds to cleanly kill deer. This doesn’t mean that one landing with 500 f.p. is going to bounce off. Energy alone doesn’t kill, but 1,000 f.p. is a reasonable standard.

5. Common and available ammunition. You don’t want to have to buy ammo from a specialty shop at $80 a box. Ammo for a deer rifle should be widely available.

6. Comfortable rifle size, weight. Who wants to drag a 10-pound rifle where a 7-pounder will suffice? Who wants to fight a 24-inch barrel through the brush when 22- or even 20-inches will suffice?

Just a few cartridges that fulfill most of these demands include: .243 Win., .25-06 Rem., 6.5 Creedmoor, .270 Win., .280 Rem., 7mm Rem. Mag., and .308 Win. But the one I’m going to recommend is 7mm-08 Remington. This is the .308 Winchester case necked down to take a .284-inch bullet.

Compared to the 7mm Rem. Mag. beside it, the 7mm-08 Rem. (right) doesn’t look too strong, but nearly anyone can shoot it without flinching.

 

The ultimate bullet in a 7mm-08 is the 140-grain spitzer boattail. Driven 2,900 fps, it will carry more than 1,260 f.p. energy at 500 yards! Zero it 2.5 inches high at 100 yards and it will be dead-on at 230 yards and just 5 inches low at 300 yards. Aim at the center of a deer’s 16-inch vital chest and you score a killing blow to the heart/lungs every time. A 10 mph right-angle wind will deflect that bullet just 3 inches at 200 yards, 6 inches at 300 yards. You’re still in the chest with a center hold. What could be easier?

In a 7-pound rifle, felt recoil will be 15 f.p. A 150-grain load in a .30-06 of the same weight will be 21 f.p. Virtually every bolt-action repeater comes in 7mm-08 Rem. Look for one. You won’t be sorry.

Shop Sportsman’s Guide for a great selection of Rifle Ammunition!

 

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5 Responses to “Best Deer Cartridge”

  1. DONALD bOUSCHOR

    I live in MI whitetail country. Am 82 years old – Korean War vet and have fired everything the Army had from take cannons to all the weapons that were hand carried.

    I own about 14 deer and bird guns – my favorite is the Ruger single shot in 375 Winchester for deer. Great ballistics. Had the stock redone by a master wood man. A beautiful gun that should be published in Gun Digest. Only problem is the high cost of ammo. Going to solve that by reloading.

    Reply
  2. Larry Pohovich

    I use a .308, but for very obvious reasons. Very common and lots of options. Especially when reloading. I can nearly duplicate the same performance of the 7mm08 or get close to the 30-06. I shoot a Tikka T3 Light that is easy to carry and handle. Very accurate rifle. I’m sure I would like a 7mm08 but never saw the advantage sense I reload and have all the options available for the .308 cartridge. Last winter I decided to go with a lighter rifle and lighten up on the loads. It did not affect the accuracy once I got the scope sighted in. After using a .308 for years, I can’t see why it isn’t much more popular. I guess it doesn’t have the magnum glamour or the hype associated with the 30-06. When it comes to reloading, it uses less powder and the barrel isn’t as likely to burn out. Shelf ammo is very common and less expensive too.

    Reply
  3. James L Storey

    what is the lowest cartridge with a kick that i can use for a 243,308,30-30 and for a m1a1 Gerand 308. Brand &Caliber. for Deer.What about a 223 cal,for deer hunting?

    Reply
    • Tom Kacheroski

      Tom Kacheroski

      James: If I understand your question correctly, I think you’re asking “what is the lightest recoiling centerfire cartridge I can use for deer hunting?” Each state regulates this, so check local regulations. The 223 Rem. will take deer if you hit them in the boiler room or neck/brain, but a better option is the 243 Winchester. It will shoot flat enough for a dead-on hold out to 300 yards with a 95 grain Winchester Ballistic Sivertip bullet. Recoil is less than 14 foot pounds energy. A 30-06 Springfield has more like 25 foot pounds recoil energy.

      To my knowledge the Garand autoloading service rifle shoots a 30-06 Springfield, which shoots a .308-inch diameter bullet. The 308 Winchester cartridge is a shortened version of the 30-06 that can only be fired in a rifle chambered for 308 Winchester. It also shoots a .308-inch diameter bullet.

      Hope this helps.

      Ron

      Reply
  4. David Morris

    Excellent article that I will forward to the net person that asks me this common question. I use a 30-06 simply because that was my first rifle as a teenager and it has never failed me. However, I agree with the author. If I were to go out and buy a new bolt gun for deer I would get it in 7mm-08 for all the reasons stated above.

    Reply