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.
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?
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.
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.
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Ron Spomer has been photographing and writing about the outdoors for nearly four decades. He’s written seven books, hunted on six continents and been published in more than 120 magazines. He’s currently rifles’ editor at “Sporting Classics,” Travel columnist at “Sports Afield,” Field Editor at “American Hunter” and “Guns & Ammo” — Optics Columnist at “North American Hunter,” Contributing Editor at “Successful Hunter,” Senior Writer at “Gun Hunter,” and TV host of “Winchester World of Whitetail.” He will write on Shooting Tips weekly for sportsmansguide.com. You can read his blogs and catch some of his YouTube videos at www.Ronspomeroutdoors.com.