Choosing the Right Caliber for Deer

By Bob Campbell published on in Ammunition, Firearms, Hunting

If there is one way to get folks talking off the cuff, it is to broach the subject of deer rifles and calibers. Everyone has a favorite their dad, granddad, or aunt used to tame the Wild West and deplete the Elk herds in downtown Burbank. The problem is what works for one doesn’t work for the other, at least it doesn’t work as well.

Upset Federal 62-grain JSP .223 Rem bullet

Federal’s 62-grain JSP .223 is a very desirable loading with excellent characteristics.

We don’t talk about the stove as much at the shop, but we set the wire ablaze with opinion. The facts are difficult to discern by the beginner. Those with experience know the deal and often learn from a well-written opinion. The emotional imperatives must be divorced from the subject, so instead, let’s climb the logic ladder.

A rifle is an interesting and useful instrument. Handloaders and recreational shooters may have a different idea of what is best—compared to the average shooter who fires a box of ammunition a season to get sighted in before hunting. (Some of those guys get their deer every year—the rifle is just a tool.)

It’s not just the rifle; it is the weight of the rifle, the scope, and the type of game. I cannot cover it all. However, I can get you started. Meet me halfway, and do your study and research.

First, consider who will be using the rifle. If you are going to find a rifle for the other half there are low recoil deer killers aplenty. The 6.5x55mm Mauser enjoys an excellent reputation for accuracy, penetration, killing power on thin-skinned game, and low recoil. A rifle that may be a light kicker to a seasoned shooter will batter a slightly-built female or a youngster. The first shots may be the last they wish to take, and even if they grit their teeth and manage to fire the rifle, they will not shoot to the rifle’s potential.

Female hunter scaling a mountain side carrying a rifle

Consider the terrain and the likely range before investing in a rifle.

Another good choice is the .243 Winchester. This caliber is not only a decent deer rifle—given good shot placement—it is a great varmint caliber. The .223 is popular for many uses but still seems a bit light for deer, but at least there are good bullet choices that allow good penetration.

As one example of recoil and its different perceptions, a shooter could not get his wife to fire the AR-15 .223. She did not like the blast and noise. Recoil isn’t there to most, but then most of us have become used to the .223’s blast. Well, on the same outing, the shooter brought along a .30 carbine. The lady took the rifle and fired 100 rounds through the carbine. She would have fired more had the ammunition supply not gave out.

Yet, most of us would reckon the .223 and the .30 carbine are pretty much in the same light-recoil category. The .30 carbine—accuracy and power, wise—isn’t a deer caliber. But this is a good example of the differing perception of recoil. Too much recoil results in a missed target, flinching, and an overall negative experience. By the way, did this shooter work her way up to the .223? Yes, she did.

Over the shoulder of a hunter aiming at a wild boar

At close range, a short rifle and low magnification scope are ideal.

While the .30 carbine wasn’t an ideal deer caliber, after some acclimation to centerfire shooting, this lady was able to get up to speed with the .223. The Federal bonded 62-grain load would be an acceptable deer load in .223 if the shooter has the opportunity this season.

Men tend to choose a heavier caliber than they really need. If you are an experienced shooter, and feel limited by the .30-06 Springfield, then by all means consider a 7mm Magnum or .300 Magnum. But only if you have the experience to handle these cartridges.

Range is increased and so is short-range killing power. As for myself, if I need more than the .308 Winchester, the .30-06 Springfield is my rifle. With careful handloading and the Hornady 168-grain A Max, I feel that I can do just about anything that may be done with the .300 Magnum— with less overbore and recoil. But that is a very personal decision.

Bob Campbell shooting a rifle with a sling

The author practices getting into action and taking an offhand shot, making him ready for the longer shot.

A caliber I respect a great deal is the .270 Winchester. Often called the rifleman’s caliber, the .270 is accurate and flat shooting. I simply began with the .30-06 as a teen and never looked back. Had my first rifle been a .270, I would have been well served. There are other very good calibers such as the 7x57mm Mauser, a wonder cartridge that hits hard with modest recoil, and the 7mm-08.

For most shooters, most of the time, the .308 Winchester is a good choice. There are more highly developed loads for the .308 Winchester than any other caliber—save perhaps the .223 Remington—and each load offers good performance. As an example, my personal Remington 700 SPS Tactical loves the Fiocchi 155-grain SST and delivers excellent accuracy.

The next step is to look at the lay of the land. Will you be hunting in thick brush or heavily wooded areas? If the shot is likely to be 25 to 100 yards, the .30-30 Winchester may be what you need, or the hard-hitting .35 Remington.

Man shooting a rifle from a bench rest

Bench time is important to ensure your rifle is sighted in and you are familiar with the action.

I find a short fast handling .308 works better for me, but the lever-action rifle is practical, fast handling, and affordable. For those preferring a modern self-loader, the list is short. The Browning Automatic Rifle is available in several calibers. The Browning Stalker in .308 is my favorite. Fast handling, accurate, and reliable, I find it a fine choice for most uses.

These rifles, the BAR, and the lever-action rifles such as the Marlin, are light enough, fast into action, and hit hard. One of my personal favorites is a much used Remington 1903A3 .30-06 Springfield. The rifle handles fast enough, and the aperture sights are excellent for short-range deer and boar. It hits hard.

For longer shots, and stretching the average in open terrain, the popular combination rifle purchased with a bore-sighted scope isn’t a bad choice. Available in a number of popular calibers, the Savage Axis and Mossberg Patriot offer good performance for the price. I suppose the reader may have detected a preference for the .308 Winchester. Well, the .308 just works for me, and I have plenty of brass and a number of good loading combinations.

Bob Campbell shooting a lever-action rifle.

The lever-action rifle may not be ideal for all circumstances, but it puts a smile on your face!

The .308 requires only a short action while the .270 and the .30-06 demand a long action rifle. The .308 is about all of the recoil the occasional shooter will like and the .308 is accurate and powerful enough for deer and even elk to 200 yards. The old adage of 200 pounds of game at 200 yards may be stretched with the .308 and good shot placement.

Another consideration is the material the rifle will be built of. Steel actions sometimes have modern cast bolt handles. Decide just how much of this type of material you will be able to tolerate. It is better to bite the bullet now and purchase a Remington 700 over the Remington 770, as an example, if the utilitarian rifle will lose its shine. On the other hand, consider this, the Remington 738 isn’t expensive but is often a first class shooter with excellent accuracy.

The Savage Axis rifle also delivers good performance. Are you happy with a 2 MOA rifle at 100 yards with average hunting loads? The Remington 738 may actually turn out to be a 1 MOA rifle, but the glass you choose to mount and the shooter, mean much.

Bean field rifle

This is a bean field rifle. It is heavy and accurate.

As for synthetic stocks, the rifle is less subject to corrosion and warping of the stock. My two favorite rifles wear the exceptional Hogue Overmold stock, so you see where I stand. A big consideration is weight. A 6.5-pound rifle kicks more than an 8.0-pound rifle in the same caliber using the same load. If you are going to trek across a mountain, the lighter rifle is better, given good accuracy. Just be sure to practice recoil control.

Sometimes the walk is short and the range long. That is when we need a bean field rifle. The bean field rifle is designed for firing at longer range. It may have a 26-inch barrel, good optics, and weigh 10 pounds. It will be very accurate. As an example, my personal Remington 700 SPS Varmint rifle will group the Hornady .308 Winchester ELD load into less than an inch every time at 100 yards, and often enough, it will break .7 inch when I do my part.

As you can see there are many choices. The best rifle for you is the rifle you have, and the one you have mastered. Be aware of the choices and make a choice that suits your needs.

What is your favorite caliber for deer hunting? What is your favorite model deer rifle? Share your answers, and a hunting story or two, in the comment section.

SLRule

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Trackback from your site.

The mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, "The Shooter's Log," is to provide information-not opinions-to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (49)

  • Pete in Alaska

    |

    Was reading thru the comments and just wanted to make the observation that on average 95% of the majority of hunters in the US make their shots within the 150 yard engagement envelope. For most that’s a long shot for the once a year hunting trip guy or gal.
    The discussion about Long Distance hunting is an entirely different subject. Calibers, platforms, bullets, … everything is a different conversation.
    We’re talking about deer and Elk rifles and calibers here and primarily hunting in the lower 48 states I think.
    I think most hunters with a .308 who knows his skill set and ability will not chance a 1000 yard, or longer, shot at a Mule Tail or Elk let alone a White Tail. Not even sure that most would take one at 500 yards for that matter. I know there have been those claims and in as sure that even a few of them are true but that’s just not the normal hunting envelope most hunters preform in.
    I don’t hunt with a .300 WinMag because I always take long shots. I hunt with a .300 because it performs well on the animals I hunt and am challenged by here in Alaska. It works as well on Sitka Black tail (head or neck shots) as Moose, Caraboo, or Muskox. It’s also got the power for Southeast Brown Bear, Grizzley, Kodiak or large Black Bears if needed.
    I’m just thinking that it may be a good idea to stay on point with what Bobs writing about. Not Magnum platforms but the bread an butter of rifles in the deer hunting world. 6mm thru 30.06 maybe 7mm. Just think it’s important to remember were many of our hunting brother and sisters actually find themselves as the skill level, ability, and the best options in platform and caliber for their type of hunt and area.
    I like to hear good hunting stories as much as the next hunter. The ones I like to hear most are those of first time hunters and what a thrill it was an the good time they had. Let’s not spoil it for them by handing the a .300WM for their first time out is all I’m saying. Been at this hunting for 57 years now, mostly as a subsistence hunter. It’s been my pleasure to bring along another generation or two of hunters as well. Want to see that continue.
    So, tell me more stories and facts an information on these bread an butter platforms and calibers! Ones never to old to learn, information is power, and I like to empower those who I can.

    Reply

  • Pete in Alaska

    |

    Great write up Bob! Always a pleasure to read your thoughts and considerations.
    My first was a 1903A3 Springfield in 30.06 for my 11th birthday. It took a year or so to fully grow into it but it took its share of moose an caraboo in the early years. Was my trapping rifle till I was 14 when I was gifted a Ruger .44 carbine. Perhaps one of the most under rated bush/brush rifles made. I still have both, along with the other nine Springfields in consecutive serial numbers that Dad bought in 1960! Mine is the only one been used the others are in their original packaging and wooden crate.
    Hunt mostly now with a .300 WinMag in a Tikka T3 ultra lite Stainless / Composite. If I’m backing up another hunter or guiding I prefer the .338 WinMag in either my T3 or 4×4 Mossberg. Neither are common calibers for hunting in the lower 48 but here in the north the serve quite well. Weight is a huge consideration here as many hunts are long distances on foot. Also shots present at greater distances here to with the exception being in Southeast Alaska. I wouldnt be comfortable with a caliber much smaller than .308, 30.06. or 7mm mag , here but that’s just me.
    Thanks for the good read!

    Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

      |

      Glad to see you back Pete. It has been a while! ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

    • Pete in Alaska

      |

      Hey Dave! Thanks for the shout out!
      Good to hear from you too! I will try and not be do out of the loop as I’ve been this past year. Not been commenting a lot of late but still read it all. Look forward to your next write up. Pete sends…

      Reply

  • Richard Endress

    |

    I am surprised Bob Campbell did not talk about a Scout type rifle available from Ruger, Savage, Styer or Savage. They are light, short, chambered in .308 and have the forward mounted scope for quick target acquisition. My choice.

    Reply

    • Bob

      |

      Richard
      Thanks for reading.

      I am working up just that type of feature, on the new short Ruger American in 7.62 x 39mm

      Still shooting, sighting in and selecting glass that is reasonable

      Might be a couple of months or so before it is posted.

      Best,

      Bob Campbell

      Reply

  • EnzoFromNM

    |

    30-30, 45-70, and 44 magnum are great for heavily wooded areas. For open fields I would go with 243, 7mm-08, 308, 7×57 and 8×57 Mauser, 270, 30-06, 25-06, and 6.5 Creedmoor are all good rounds for open areas. For long distance shots I would use a magnum caliber and the most I would use is 270 win mag and 7mm rem mag. 5.56×45 is a good round, but some states won’t allow it. There’s so many options on good calibers. Cost is also a factor for ammo. I personally like .308, 8×57 Mauser, 6.5 Creedmoor, and 7.62x54R for my hunting uses. Those work good for deer and elk.

    Reply

  • Dark Angel

    |

    Never thought of the .223 as a deer round, barely adequate for varmits, 4 legged, or 2 legged. Plus, my go-to round id the .308/7.62×51. Have made 1500 meter, one shot kills, with this round, hunting deer as a civilian and 2 legged varmits in the military. Now, as for the .30 cal., used this round; .30 carbine, in a Ruger Super Blackhawk, 7in. barrel (?) to take down whitetails(deer, that is,) at 25/30 meters. As in all things, shooting, it’s always about shot placement.

    Reply

    • RKC

      |

      1500 meters? With a .308?
      Come on lets keep it real. That is more like .50 BMG range from a tripop, maz.

      Reply

    • Pete in Alaska

      |

      1500 meters and/or yards is a far stretch for a .308. I’m going to guess the DA hit the “0” key one to many times and didn’t catch the error! That’s hsppened to all of us at one time or another I’m sure.
      1500 is more within the .408 CheyTac or a TRG42 in .348 Lapua like I have. The .50 Barret and certenly the Barret .416.
      Let’s not be to hard on a typing error!

      Reply

    • Pete in Alaska

      |

      See????
      Even me !
      Didn’t catch my fat finger typing! LOL
      That should read …
      “…. in 338 Lapua….” not .348!!!

      Reply

    • Willard Walker

      |

      I call BS to your 1500 meter kills with a .308.
      Sgt. Gilliland is credited with the longest confirmed kill with a 7.62 NATO at 1250 meters. This is a fact not a wantabe dream. A very skilled shooter might be able to hit a target at 1500 m in ideal condititions but I doubt very much your that person or your name is Gilliland. Even if it was your still 250 m short. Stop with the Bs and go troll in a place that you can get away with your lying ways.

      Reply

  • Jim in Conroe

    |

    Now we need a discussion of bullet selection. Maybe we can resolve the issue of penetration vs. expansion – NOT.

    I shoot the .30-06 due to the variety of bullet weights available from 150 gr for deer to 180 gr for elk or other large beasts. Yes, you can take a deer with a lighter bullet, but if you only can carry one gun . . .

    Reply

    • Allan

      |

      I shoot my first Elk with a 130 gr 762×39 sp round. The AK round. Truly does depend on shot placement. Drop Deer with the round every year as well. Great accuracy for my shots under <200 yards.

      Reply

    • Pete in Alaska

      |

      Penetration vs. Expansion? I wasn’t aware there was an issue. I always thought that these two conditions had to work hand in hand for an optimal shot?
      I was always under the impression that this formula was about what worked best in the platform and caliber of ones choice against the type of game being hunted. Also maybe, where one hunts, time of year, weather and at what distances one normally found that their shots most often fall into. Also one might also consider post impact weight retention, terminal impact energy at distance, the basic BC and the ballistic shape of the projectile. Most wont need to but it’s goid information to know do one can understand the dynamics of how this all comes togather in one shot.
      I have come to using Barns ammunition and their bullets for reloading. Solid copper, match grade in weight, shape, finish, cross section, and preformance bullit to bullit, box to box,
      I still like and use an “A” frame bullits in the 30.30 and 45/70. Although my 45/90 Sharps seems to preform better at distance with the Barns offerings. I digress, sorry.
      Penetration, is determined by the terminal energy that a projectile retains on its arrivil at its point of impact, and the ballistic shape of the projectile being used.
      Expansion is about the projectile design and how it uses that energy it arrived at point of impact with to change its configuration so that it might expend, at its optimal best, 100% of that terminal energy into and within the target mass while maintaining as high of a bullet retention weight as may be possible.
      Example: .308, 168gr TSX @ 100 meters will expend 100% if it’s terminal energy into an Elk and with proper placement drop the animal in a single shot.
      The same shot using a FMJ of the same weight will go thru an Elk having not expended 100% if it’s rnergy into the animal, creating a narrow wound track and possibly wound in the animal that it may still escape and die where one can’t find it.
      From my point of view, It’s not about one verses the but how one can make them work more efficiently togather.,
      Just my opinion,of course, but perhaps good for thought.

      Reply

  • Griz44Mag

    |

    As of late, the last couple of years, as I push closer to 66 and the walks need to be shorter, I have settled into the 6.5 Creedmoor group. A decent 6.5 like the Ruger Precision Bolt Action has been a good choice. It’s a tack driver and I would not hesitate to down a Texas whitetail at 500 yards with it. I can hold a group with it at 500 yards of 4″ or less. The ammunition of choice is the Hornady 143 grain ELD-X in a handload running 2715 FPS. At 500 yards it will remain well above the Taylor index for killing a whitetail quickly and ethically. The Hornady bullet is an excellent and accurrate bullet with good expansion and killing power. I still keep the trusted R700 .308 ready to go for a potential heavy game trip, but those don’t come as frequently as they used to.

    Reply

  • JA

    |

    I would like to have seen more discussions about deer hunting with modern sporting rifles.

    For example, the 6.5 Grendel does very well on deer in rifles with barrels as short as sixteen inches and regularly from the muzzle out to ranges exceeding 500 yards.

    Other cartridges in these rifles including the .223 Remington, the 6.8 SPC, and the big bore 450 SOCM and 50 Beowulf are also very useful. The .223 is well suited for lighter deer within a couple of hundred yards, the SPC is good out to about three hundred yards.

    The 450 and 50 are shorter range but pack a serious wallop for large animals.

    Reply

    • Adam

      |

      The overwhelming majority of MSRs are in two calibers – 5.56/.223 and .308. Both were discussed.

      Given the space limits for this sort of article, it’s inevitable that a number of obscure calibers will be left out.

      Reply

  • MacII

    |

    When I was young, I thought no rifle other than the 30-06 existed. Some time after passing 65 I found that I liked the 7mm-08 in the Browning Lever Action. Rifle weighs about 5 or 6 pounds — don’t know exactly, but it is far lighter than any 06 I ever toted. Now, with old knees and an unrepairable torn rotator cuff, the 7mm-08 is just fine. Fast, handy and seems to leave deer dead in their tracks.

    Reply

  • Cmac

    |

    Just my opinion. Before other things are considered I believe the 30 caliber rifle is the best deer rifle. That would be the 30-30, 308, and 30-06.

    Reply

Leave a comment

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.

%d bloggers like this: