What is the Best Caliber for Deer Hunting?

By Ace Luciano published on in Ammunition

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.Ace Luciano

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.

Ace Luciano

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. 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!

What do you think the best caliber for deer is? Tell us in the comment section.

SLRule

Ace Luciano is first a seasoned hunter, an accomplished angler and experienced outdoorsman. He is also a published outdoor author, seminar speaker, consultant and entrepreneur. Ace is involved in numerous conservation and youth-oriented projects. He spends much of his time pursuing his passion of introducing youths to the outdoors through the United Sportsman’s Youth Foundation. Over the years, Ace has traveled the globe in pursuit of both game and fish, from North America to Africa, from Europe to Australia. Ace’s highly successful booking agency, World Game Hunts, Ltd., specializes in affordable, unbelievable hunting and fishing trips. You can contact or learn more about Ace at www.AceLuciano.com.

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Comments (29)

  • John

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    My self I like the 270 cal. I use 140 Grain A frames. I’ve taken Caribou and White tail,in fact have seen White tail flip up side down when I’ve lung shot them. My friend use’s an 30.06 I seen him drop them and then I’ve seen the run 100 yards before they go down.I think It just boils down to what your comfortable with and shoot well.

    Reply

  • Ace Luciano

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    Yes, Mt. Right, but try that smooth bore on the “deer of a lifetime” standing out in a picked cornfield at 250 yards, and I’ll bet your opinion changes!
    Remember, it’s best for deer hunting, not home defense or other hunting.

    Having shot almost all calibers and configuations that have been mentioned, I would also say with a great degree of confidence that a smooth bore shotgun with a rifled slug is the absolute least accurate of all of the options.

    Reply

  • Mr. Right

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    Have yet to fail to recover a deer after shooting it with my Mossberg 12ga smoothbore with a slug. High powered rifle may do it in open range, but in the woods, I’ll take my shotgun over anything else. And after deer season, I can use the same gun for turkey, squirrel, rabbit, waterfowl, and home defense. I win.

    Reply

  • Ace Luciano

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    Johnny, I grew up in Illinois and hunted deer every year with slugs. When the sabot came out 25 years ago and was put through a rifled barrel, it changed that style of hunting forever. Prior to that, my range was also 75 yards.
    After, it was 100+, with a rare miss.
    Most recently, I’ve taken deer with a well-calibrated load/gun/scope combo (Savage bolt action/Hornady SST/Leupold Ultimateslam) out past-dare I say it?… 200 YARDS!!!
    Slug guns and high-speed slugs are so efficient now that my home state of Wisconsin eliminated the “shotgun-only” zones and allowed rifles in all areas.

    Reply

  • Johnny Hoss

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    Going to swim upstream here. I have taken far more deer with .44 Magnum, with both revolver and rifle/carbine, than any other caliber.

    When I deer hunt with a shotgun slug (pumpkin ball or sabot), I don’t take shots beyond 75 yards, and miss about 1/4 of the shots inside that distance.

    When I deer hunt with a .30-30, .308, .243, or .223, I will take the longer shots but ALWAYS have to track the deer a considerable distance after the hit.

    When I shoot a deer with a .44 Magnum, from a “rifle” (I own 3 lever actions, a Ruger 77/44, two Ruger 44 carbines, and an H&R Single shot Handi-rifle)… I am comfortable taking shots up to 150-200 yards because I know my firearms and spend time at the range with them enough to know their limits. And *Every* deer I have ever hit with a .44 magnum (about 35 to 40 if memory serves), will go *DOWN* and not move one step from where I hit them.

    Same is true of using .44 in a revolver, although obviously I don’t attempt shots nearly as long.

    I’m an opportunity hunter, and yes it’s legal where I live to shoot deer from the seat of a tractor or from the saddle.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Reply

  • Louis Kriel

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    .308 Win
    30-06
    .303 br
    7×57
    6.5×55

    Basically most of the “standard calibers will do. In my opinion the 30’s are ideal.

    Reply

  • Tom Martini

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    First off as we all know hunting in all states is a great wonderful experience for al of us. I was taught were all a family that hunts we all help each other out. As for a hunting rifle that comes to each other taste and what we were brought up on and taught to shoot by our dad and his dad and it goes down the line of time.
    As for me I was taught to shoot a ruger 423 rifle , 25-06 ruger, and I bought my own 270 after what I kept up asking my dad about since he shot one for many years. We all learned from our father what to shoot that’s what the great part of hunting is out about what we all have learned from our father and passed it down to our kids, not what the best rifle to shoot. It is what we pass down to our kids and the time in the field we spend with them that’s what the best time. Someday you will look back on it when you can not go in to the field and hunt with them and were all stuck to our chairs with old age. That’s the best caliber the time we spent in the field with our kids and there first deer, birds, duck or geese. And there big smiles on there face …. And what our fathers has passed on down to us and what we have passed down to them and you know what they will pass down to there kids. That’s the caliber we leave behind for our future the right of hunting .

    Reply

  • Muff Potter

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    Definitely the 257 Roberts: passe or not, mostly unknown to Hip-Hop nubes. I speak of Texas Hill Country White tail hunting. Google it yerelf.

    30-06 is a joke! Unless you’re shoot’n deer at 600 yards. I don’t care if you can buy ammo for it in a gas station. Who cares? If you have to hunt up ammo on a hunting trip… WHAT?? Go HOME! I’ve tried all the mentioned. Many of them leave more of yer deer splattered in the trees and cactus than you can pick up for a sausage link…

    For “deer hunting” Less is more, as long as yer an able shot. If yer a city slicker… Just get a LAWS Rocket. You aint going to eat any of it anyway. Maybe you’ll find an antler to impress yo Home Boys wid…

    Reply

  • Merle

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    Regarding “sound shots”; a few years ago I encountered such an individual. He made half a dozen trips up & down the trail I was watching from about 75 yards away, without seeing me. I hailed him, thinking perhaps he was lost. He wasn’t lost, just an idiot with about 100 ft of quarter inch nylon rope coiled around his waist. After he told me THAT story I told him to be damn quiet when he left, or I’d take a sound shot. He left & I didn’t see him again.

    Reply

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