Rundown Of The Best Cartridges For Hunting Deer
When it comes to choosing the best cartridge for deer hunting, there seems to be quite a lot of debate.
I think the main problem is using the word best, when in reality many cartridges will take down a deer. However, there are many different variables at play, and people will always have their preferences.
In this article, I ran down some of the most popular choices out there and put a little data into the comparison.
While there are some folks out there that deer hunt with pistols or shotgun slugs, I’m constraining this analysis to rifles.
I first want to go over some of the main factors that go into choosing a deer hunting cartridge. People can always think of more, but this list covers the ones that effect most people. Your cartridge is a major choice before you go out to hunt.
If you ask around, most hunters would agree that the majority of deer are shot within 150 yards or less.
There are a variety of reasons on why this is the case. Usually, the average shooter is pretty proficient with their weapon at 100 yards, and many at 200 yards. As you get farther out, a shooter’s accuracy starts to drop off.
Accuracy And Shot Placement
Let’s face it. Shooter accuracy and where they can place a bullet is a huge factor. That is why we always here about people using smaller calibers and taking down deer easily, while others may end up losing their deer.
The advantage of bigger calibers is simply that it allows a little bit more shooter slop, assuming that the bullet is placed within reason.
While the cartridge plays a small role in accuracy, the rifle chosen is a bigger player. With modern rifles, this isn’t near as much of a problem given the size of a deer within 150 yards. Scope setup is also important.
As far as bullet trajectory, it is preferable to have a flatter trajectory over a 150 yard range. Naturally, a hunter will sight in their rifle for their preferred ideal distance, which is usually 100 yards for the average hunter.
Assuming they know how to use their scope properly, and are familiar with their rifle, most trajectory issues shouldn’t be a problem in this range. However, for longer range shots, trajectory will start playing a much bigger factor. Different reticles come in handy here.
Velocity and Energy
A big factor is the velocity of the bullet and the energy that it has when striking the target. The bullet will exit the muzzle at a certain speed, and then due to aerodynamics, will lose speed over range. We usually talk about bullet speed in units of feet per second (fps).
The energy of the bullet is simply related to the mass and velocity of the bullet when it hits the target. The units of measurement here are typically foot pounds (ft-lbs). Obviously, if you increase the mass and/or the velocity, you increase the energy.
A good rule of thumb is that you want around 1,000 foot pounds of energy to cleanly kill a deer. The rule is not perfect, but works well on average. Bullet placement is important here.
Recoil can play a role. For new or smaller frame shooters, taking a shoulder beating can be a problem. Most people can man up enough to take that single shot on a deer, but what about practicing a lot at the range to get proficient at their rifle?
If enough practice isn’t put in, with a knowledge of a lot of kick, flinching usually develops as a side effect. This will effect shooter accuracy.
The average size adult male shouldn’t have too many issues here, unless you have a sensitive shoulder or a prior injury. It’s a matter of personal preference. There are great recoil pad products out there too to help alleviate problems here.
Ammo Price And Availability
Depending on how often you practice shooting and hunt, the price of ammo can really add up here. What many people will do is get into reloading to help reduce the costs.
Availability can be an issue depending on where you live, or if you are on a hunting trip and can’t find more ammo in the cases that you might need it. Another concern is long term hunting during ammo shortages, or if civilization happens to ever end.
The size of your rifle does play a role. It all depends on your hunting grounds and setup. Some people might like getting way out in the woods, which means a nice hike to and from the deer stand.
A couple of pounds difference in your rifle starts adding up. Not to mention that longer rifles are much more unwieldy when navigating through thick woods, over fences, and through creeks.
The size will affect younger and older hunters sooner than a hunter in their prime.
Most Popular Cartridges Used
Here’s what I did. I went out and asked a lot of people what cartridge they used for hunting deer. I also did a lot of research to see what the most popular options are. I wanted to bridge the gap to data, so I found out what the top selling rifle cartridges were in the USA.
The goal here is to try to compare what most people are buying and using, and see how the different factors line up among these choices. I came up with the 7 most popular options.
If your favorite isn’t here, it doesn’t mean it’s not a great choice. I just couldn’t cover everything in a decent sized article. The goal is to cover the biggest swath of hunters out there.
The .308 is the commercial cartridge version of the 7.62×51mm. Naturally, shooters in the USA often quickly adopt military based rounds.
The military has taken the time to really balance out these rounds, plus the ammo industry does a better job of mass producing them, which helps get the cost down.
The .308 is a popular choice because of the AR-10, as well as some very popular rifles like the Remington 700. It usually comes with good accuracy and long barrel life. The cartridge is one of the best all around options and is reloader friendly.
The .30-06 has been around for quite a long time. It has been used in well known weapons, and has been a go to cartridge for many hunters. If you are looking for a more thorough rundown, there is a great comparison of the .308 versus the .30-06.
The .30-06 is going to be very similar to the .308, but has a little more recoil. It is also extremely reloader friendly, and offers a bigger array of bullet sizes over the .308.
The .30-30 is a classic, and has its origins back to 1895 for the Winchester Model 1894. Because of this, it is often associated with lever action rifles. However, it’s not exclusive to them.
The .270 is a necked down .30-03, which is the same parent case as the .30-06. There is another detailed comparison between the .270 versus .308 if you are interested in more info.
While the .243 is more popular as a varmint round, it is also found in some deer hunter’s arsenals. The .243 is based on a necked down .308 case. It’s a popular target round for its accuracy and lower recoil.
Given the ballistics, the 7mm-08 Rem has been gaining in popularity for deer hunting. It is a .308 Win case necked down to accept a 7mm bullet. A 7mm bullet is equivalent to .284 for reference.
Actually, the .223 is the top seller in the USA since people are buying it for their AR-15s.
While the .223 is not the first choice for deer hunting, people have successfully used it to kill a deer. Given the popularity of the AR-15, I thought it was useful to include it on the list for comparison.
Because of the ballistics, the shooter needs to be pretty good with their shots. Otherwise they end up just wounding a deer.
The AR-15 is a popular platform, and for the really good shooters out there, might be a viable option. It’s not the best choice for the average shooter. The AR-10 is also popular, and with the .308 cartridge, is a much better choice for deer. If you want a comparison between .223 and .308, there is a nice delta here.
In order to get a valid ballistics number comparison, I chose the Federal premium ammo ballistics calculator.
I also chose to go with the Fusion ammo line since it’s available in all of the cartridges in this study for consistency. It’s a product that has been around since around 2005 and is designed specifically for deer hunting. The Fusion ammo gets some great reviews from hunters.
Some other assumptions for the calculator include: factory loads, sight height of 1.5 inches, zero range of 100 yards, temperature of 59 degrees Fahrenheit, wind speed of 10 mph, and altitude of 0 feet. These are the calculator defaults.
I also chose to focus on three ranges of 50, 150, and 300 yards to give a nice comparison of different shot distances.
Remember that we are assuming that most deer are shot under 150 yards and that our rule of thumb of 1,000 foot pounds (ft-lb) is the ideal energy to cleanly kill a deer. I colored the energy numbers in red that fall below this goal.
Here we can see that all of the cartridges perform well as expected. The only thing to point out is that the .223 is barely under the 1,000 ft-lb mark at 934 ft-lbs. This would indicate that using the Fusion ammo at 62 gr for shots under 50 yards should do just fine.
At 150 yards, we see that all of the cartridges are still doing fine, except the .223 has fallen quite a bit below our desired energy, with 745 foot pounds delivered on target. The .30-30 has a bigger drop and wind drift here than the rest.
For 300 yards, if folks want to take those longer and riskier shots, we see that now the .30-30 and .223 are below our desired energy goal. Also, the drop and wind drift for the .30-30 is substantially greater.
To wrap up our analysis, we covered many factors that you want to consider in choosing a cartridge for deer hunting. For example, rifle size, recoil, accuracy, price, availability, and many more play a role in each hunter’s decision.
It’s hard to quantify all of these factors because usually they can be very subjective from person to person. If recoil is a major factor, look into getting something like a LimbSaver recoil pad.
One objective factor that we can compare realistically is ballistics. We looked at the paper numbers by comparing the same manufacturer Federal, and the same product line Fusion of ammo across the cartridges.
What we found here is that only the .223 starts to fall behind up to 150 yards. The others perform very well. The .30-30 shows double the drop and wind drift though, which can be critical. At 300 yards, the .223 and .30-30 start dipping below our desired energy for a clean deer kill.
The final verdict is that depending on your preferences, all of these cartridges perform well for hunting deer under 150 yards. If you do insist on using a .223, you will need to make sure that you have great accuracy on bullet placement.
If you plan on hunting beyond 150 yards, you will need to be more selective on your cartridge choice.
Also, remember that we chose the Fusion ammo line from Federal, which is designed for deer hunting. If you go for more generic ammo, make sure and check the ballistics to ensure that it’s a great choice for deer.
Update Note (May 15, 2017): The original charts had the .270 145 grain from the Federal ballistics calculator which gives wrong data. Mark updated the charts for the .270 150 grain data, which is correct.
About the Author
Mark Wright is a longtime hunter and shooting enthusiast. He spends a lot of time at the range. Between hunting and shooting, he often shares his expertise over at Trek Warrior.