Tell me if you’ve heard this one: “More deer have been killed with a lever-action .30-30 than any other caliber. It is a great caliber for deer hunting.”
Or this one: “The .30-06 is the best caliber for deer because it balances a large bullet with higher velocity.”
Or even this one: “The 7mm Remington Magnum is the best caliber for deer hunting, as it has a flat trajectory over long distance and, as the venerable hunting writer Jack O’Connor, considered by many to be the “ultimate” authority on shooting in his day and Outdoor Life’s Shooting Editor for over 30 years and major proponent of the .270 cartridge said, ‘The 7mm Mag. does everything the .270 does, and does it better.’”
So, which one is the best all-around deer cartridge—The .270? .25-06? What about the .243 Winchester, .257 Roberts, .300 Winchester, 12 gauge or .50-caliber in-line muzzleloader? The funny thing is, they all are. I’m sure there will be passionate supporters of each and every one. I know there will be discussions, arguments, and cases made for these and many other calibers. Oddly enough, I’ve been fortunate to kill deer with each of the calibers mentioned.
Now, I make a hard case for the .30-06 because it is an extremely versatile North American hunting caliber that performs well over a large spectrum of game. Sure, the 7mm and .270 shoot flatter. Yes, the .243 has less recoil for a smaller framed shooter, but there is one thing that the other calibers don’t, and will most likely never have, the same availability as the .30-06. I’ve traveled the country extensively and seen .30-06 ammo in the darndest places including gas stations, local diners and grocery stores. Yes, there is a clear advantage to the .30-06 when it comes to hunting deer, but that advantage is not in trajectory, “stopping power” or anything but mass availability. Grandpa’s .30-30 has killed hundreds of deer in the north woods as well as the south pines. Thanks to better ammo and new, soft-tipped bullets, the .30-30 is a great option out to 150 or 200 yards, but if you are hunting mule deer on the prairies of Montana or Wyoming, there is a very realistic chance that you will have shots available at 300, 350 or even past 400 yards.
The .30-30 is not designed for that. Remember “can” and “does” are two different things. In Illinois and Iowa, your choices are limited even further. The only calibers available are .45 and .50 and it had better be from a gun that loads from the front. Today’s muzzleloaders are light years beyond where they were even 20 years ago and they are still limited to less than 200 yards and have a very long follow-up time.
The only other choice would be gauges, which realistically means a 12 or 20 gauge. I could go on and on as to how much slugs have improved over the years, and how there are numerous slug guns that are 200-yard performers, but due to their less-than-ideal consistency they still wouldn’t be my optimal choice for a Colorado mountain excursion where shots may be from ridge to ridge at double that distance. A 4-inch group at 200 yards is eight inches at 400, plus the added mathematics to calculate drop that measures in feet instead of inches.
I have been fortunate to hunt in a lot of different places, for a lot of different things across a large variety of terrains. I’ve seen many deer and members of the deer family killed with calibers across the spectrum, from .223 to .375. I saw a 12-year-old boy drop a raghorn bull elk in its tracks at 275 yards with a .243. Later, on the same hunt, I watched as a center-punched 5×6 ran 200-plus yards after it had been shot with a .338. One would assume that the results can be similar. Elk (being a much larger-bodied animal than a deer), Personally, I’ve had many deer drop in their tracks with several different calibers. I have also had a doe heart/lung-shot with a .300 run 150 yards.
The answer to the question, “What is the best caliber for deer?” is widely varied. The best answer to the question is the caliber that you have available; in a gun that you have access to that you shoot well so that you can place a bullet exactly where it will perform the best.
Now, let the melee’ begin!