There are a handful of age-old debates that will never die among deer hunters. One of them is the caliber conundrum. What caliber rifle is best for hunting deer? The reality is there is no single best rifle caliber for deer hunting, but there are a lot of great ones. Below are five popular deer hunting calibers, along with basic explanations of why they continually earn top rankings among deer hunters. If one of these calibers sounds right for you, consider some of the accompanying rifle and ammo recommendations when you get loaded for deer season.
This “small” caliber often gets a bad rap from macho magnum shooters, but thanks to modern rifle bullets and loads you can get more than enough bang for your buck out of a .223. Barnes VOR-TX ammo is a great pairing with its TSX copper bullet, offering 3,240 fps velocity from the muzzle with quick expansion and almost complete weight retention when it hits a deer.
While the .223 Rem. might seem light on foot-pounds of energy (another debate altogether), two real benefits of shooting this caliber are almost no felt recoil and affordability of ammo for target practice. Shot placement trumps all. Less kick, less flinching, more time on the range—all factors that will make you a more accurate deer shooter. The .223 Rem. is a great introductory round for new shooters, especially small-framed folks such as children or petite women.
Another major draw to the .223 Rem. is its compatibility with “America’s rifle”—the AR-15. Almost every AR manufacturer offers a model chambered for .223 Rem./.556 NATO, and the AR platform has more than proven itself in the deer woods.
Legendary outdoor writer Jack O’Connor is credited with making the .270 Winchester one of the most popular big-game hunting cartridges of all time. He cemented its merit far and wide by using it to stack up big-game animals around the globe—including untold numbers of North American deer. For hunters who exclusively pursue deer, the .270 Winchester is tough to beat.
Winchester designed and released the .270 Win. in the 1920s. It’s simply a .30-06 case with a tighter neck to accommodate a smaller bullet diameter (.277 inches vs. the .308-diameter bullet of the .30-06). What was the point? Higher velocity. At the time of its birth, the .270 Win. was praised for being one of the first hunting cartridges to exceed a muzzle velocity of 3,000 fps. It broke this speed barrier with a 130-grain bullet, which arguably still remains the best bullet weight if you’re using a .270 Win. for deer hunting.
With a 200-yard zero, Winchester’s Deer Season XP 130-grain ammo drops only 18 inches at 400 yards, carrying more than enough killing power with its reliable Extreme Point bullet. I killed a dandy rutting mule deer buck with this combination in Nebraska. All that in a round that won’t beat the snot out of your shoulder? It’s easy to see why the .270 Win. is a favorite among deer hunters.
You’d be hard pressed to walk into any deer camp where there isn’t at least one hunter toting a .30-06. It’s the most popular deer hunting cartridge of all time. While part of its success as a deer hunting caliber is rooted by chance in history, no doubt the .30-06 has blossomed for more than 100 years because of downright sensible performance.
The 30 “ought” six is a .30-caliber round (actual bullet diameter is .308 inch) that became the standard-issue rifle of the U.S. military in 1906. Unlike its pumpkin-lobbing .30-03 military predecessor—which fired a heavy 220-grain bullet—the new .30-06 cartridge was capable of shooting longer distances with a lighter, more streamlined 150-grain bullet. For the first half of the 1900s, as servicemen returned home from overseas, they adopted the .30-06 Springfield as their go-to rifle for hunting big game (much like the path to popularity we’ve witnessed with the AR-15 in recent history).
The .30-06 cartridge accommodates bullet weights ranging from a surprisingly low end around 100 grains up to a beefy 220 grains. This means awesome versatility. Load your .30-06 with a 165-grain controlled-expansion bullet, such as Federal’s Trophy Bonded Tip, and you can hunt East to West—deer woods to elk mountains—under just about any conditions and do it with confidence. Oh … and if you run out of .30-06 ammo on the road, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding a box (beg, borrow or buy).
.300 Winchester Magnum
Remember the “macho magnum shooters” I mentioned near the beginning of this article? I was half kidding. There’s nothing wrong with shooting a rifle that fires a big cartridge … so long as it’s in your comfort zone. The bang and bump of a round like the .300 Win. Mag. is too overwhelming for some shooters—especially those who haven’t spent much time behind a rifle. Recoil management starts with the shooter, followed closely by the rifle weight and design. That said, the .300 Win. Mag. is a lights-out caliber for deer hunting if you know how to handle it.
A .300 Win. Mag. cartridge holds just enough powder to push heavy bullets at venerable velocities, yet not so much that recoil is obnoxious. It’s a solid choice for hunting deer in open country where long shot opportunities (300-400 yards) are common. While a longer barrel might not be as fun to carry, remember there’s always a tradeoff between weight and recoil.
Zeroed at 250 yards, Browning’s 155-grain BXR hits approx. 2 inches high at 100 yards and 13 inches low at 400 yards—aim at center vitals out to 300 yards, or hold at the top of a deer’s back at 400 yards. Quick, efficient, practical and deadly. And of course, there’s plenty of room to step up to a bigger bullet if you decide to go after bigger game.
Bouncing from the .300 Win. Mag.—a long-standing magnum champion—we come full circle to a “little” cartridge that has earned its laurels in short order. The 6.5 Creedmoor was conceived on the long-range competition shooting circuit and revealed by Hornady in 2007; its full story is worth a read from John Snow at Outdoor Life. For many tangible reasons, mixed with a necessary stroke of good luck, this new cartridge has taken off with great success during the past decade. Today, you’ll find a lot of companies building a steady supply of ammo and rifles (including some ARs) for the 6.5 Creedmoor.
In a nutshell, the 6.5 Creedmoor is a flat-shooting cartridge with minimal recoil and it excels at long range (beyond 500 yards). Despite its petite stature, it’s commercially loaded with bullets up to 140 grains. Despite reasoning, a “big enough” bullet is important to many deer hunters, so the allure of the 6.5 Creedmoor is greater than, say, the veteran .243 Win., which only supports bullets up to 100 grains.
I used a 140-grain Nosler AccuBond in 6.5 Creedmoor to anchor an old mule deer and a massive bull elk during a late-season hunt in Montana—admittedly, not a fair assessment of its intended long-range performance, as both animals were shot at distances within 150 yards. However, under perfect conditions, I shot a cow elk at 500 yards in Oregon with a 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge from Federal. None of these animals went more than 50 yards after bullet impact.
The 6.5 Creedmoor is certainly a worthy deer round, but it should be noted the average hunter/shooter has no business taking shots far enough to take full advantage of its impressive long-range ballistics.