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)

  • Sean

    |

    My 2 cents: 25-06 deserves to be mentioned in these articles and never is… Ballistically superior to the 243 with little more recoil – more stable at distance, less wind drift, lots more power without being overkill. If I’m going out where I might be shooting beyond 150yd at a deer, this is what I take – and I wouldn’t be afraid to take a sensible shot at a black bear with it. Some even say that you can load it for elk, but like the 22s for deer, I’d just pick a more appropriate cartridge.

    Reply

    • Adam

      |

      There are a number of good but somewhat obscure calibers that don’t get mentioned simply because they’re somewhat obscure. There are fewer choices of rifles and ammunition, and it’s less likely a writer will have any personal experience with them.

      Then again, 7mm-08 was discussed – which was rather surprising.

      Reply

  • Scott

    |

    I am thinking of getting into deer hunting in the Pacific NW (California). I don’t have a specific “deer rifle” but I do have an HK-91 in .308. With decent optics, is there any reason I can’t use that to hunt with? When I think of a deer rifle, I think “bolt-action, wooden stock”. Would something like the 91 be out of place?

    Reply

    • Scott

      |

      Apparently my autocorrect understands whitetail, but not blacktail. Must be racist 😉

      Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

      |

      .308 will provide plenty of power. Make sure you can handle the weight hiking up and down the hills though. ~Dave Dolbee

      Reply

    • Scott Harris

      |

      Thanks for the input Mr Dolbee. I’m good with the weight when it’s slung while hiking.

      Reply

    • Jim

      |

      In response to deer hunting in California, be aware of the non-lead ammunition requirements. I and my son are both new to hunting, but we have been shooters for many years. I have a number of battle rifles that would make good deer rifles, but finding non-lead ammo for them is a non-starter. If I ever want to use any of them for hunting I will have to load my own. I ended up buying a couple of Remington 700s in .308 and 30-06. Federal Power-Shok Copper is plentiful [and can be found for] for $24.54 a box. It gets rave reviews or I would have gone for the twice as expensive Barnes. My son took a 150# boar last month.

      Reply

  • Hoak a oconnell

    |

    After missing out some for sure trophy bucks 4-5 times good old thirty thirty i up graded to a 300 win. mag over twenty five years ago now and
    since then nothing has escaped .. i hear camp fire story’s about over kill but the truth is it just puts a 30 caliber hole trough the boiler room ..
    end of stoy

    Reply

    • Pete in Alaska

      |

      I understand completely Hoak. The .300WBM has been my first choice since I got my first one in 1967.
      It’s my favtoite Dall Sheep platform and cartridge. Moose, Caraboo are meat in the freezer.

      Reply

  • Maduece5090

    |

    Thanks for another good article. I am a firm believer that you should hunt with what you are comfortable with. I have a friend here in Missouri that kills a deer every year with a 223 out of a 16 inch barreled AR. The first deer I killed was a doe at less than 20 yards with a 243 with 100 grain Remington Core-Lokts and as Ol’ Dap says, I shot her in the face. It did not kill her and I had to take a close range follow up shot. To me that was not a clean kill and at my younger age it bothered me to see her suffer. So since then I only hunt deer with .30 caliber bullets or larger. Smaller calibers work but shot placement becomes all the more important. So as the saying goes. Practice, Practice, Practice!

    Reply

  • G.D. Vachon

    |

    Do not bring your 223 to Colorado to hunt deer as anything smaller than 25 cal. is illegal for big game. A 243 is allowed, which is a real good deer caliber, as are the ones mentioned.

    Reply

  • KEN

    |

    Everyone believes that their gun is the best at whatever they shoot. My dad shot a turkey with a 246 wm and it looked like it swallowed a grenade, very funny. Some people in discussion take scripts too serious. Always shoot with what one is comfortable with and state allowed. There has been people say “You can’t kill a hog with a 556 { not a 223 } or a deer, well I have killed both 1 shot and it’s not hard too do that. Discrepancies are sometimes debatable, but doesn’t mean that it’s not true. Good hunting and 2A too everyone.

    Reply

    • Adam

      |

      Deer have been successfully taken with 22 LR. That doesn’t make 22 LR a good choice for deer or something you should recommend to others.

      The same goes for 5.56 NATO/223 Rem.

      Reply

    • KEN

      |

      I am not a regular deer or any venison hunter. Quail on the other hand is another story= mmmm mmmm good. 22lr has more energy than a bow or crossbow, by all means none of that was any recommendation, just an observation. Whether it’s over powered or under powered as long as it’s state legal your good too go. .I have 10 sections leased too an outfitter. There is some hunters coming from WV, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee and say that 100 yards is about their limit on range. Here in Texas I have up to 1 mile. if one wants too do any long range kill. So Adam, 30 cal would be a good choice or larger if one wants too do long range hunting for a challenge. 6.5 mm is a good choice. Ethical kill is only as good as your shot placement.

      Reply

  • Randy

    |

    In OHIO, only straight walled cartridges are allowed for deer gun season.
    However, calibers range from .357 to .50 or shot guns 10 gauge or smaller. All are limited to three rounds loaded in chamber and magazine combined. Your choices of .223 or .270 etc, will not fly with the game wardens here.

    Reply

  • Jim

    |

    Alaska trip was insightful
    Cant wait for my story’s

    Reply

    • Pete in Alaska

      |

      Living here, one forgets at times that for many a hunting trip to Alaska May very well be a once in a lifetime adventure. I try and bring new friends And family from the lower 48’up to expierance what Is more often than not a “fill the winter freezer” hunting trip for me and a unique expierance for them. It keeps my head grounded and aware of the fantastic place I get to live an play in.
      Should enjoy hearing of you Alaska expierance!

      Pete sends…

      Reply

  • Charles

    |

    Then there are those of us who live in states (Ohio) that will only allow pistol caliber (straight wall) cartridges.
    Sure, I’d like to use a .44 Magnum or a 45-70 but that would entail spending many more hundreds of dollars on yet another rifle, since I’ve already got both .357 & .45LC lever guns, and would like to think that the Uberti.45LC 1873 with a 20″ barrel (using -tailored for the action- handloaded XTPs?)might be adequate for the under 100 yard shot I’m figuring on luring Mr. Buck into from the tree stand in my back yard.
    Is this realistic, or should I follow the Postman’s advice and use my 12g A5 with the smoothbore slug barrel & it’s rifle sights?

    Reply

    • Adam

      |

      A 12 ga slug is definitely superior to anything pistol caliber for deer.

      Reply

    • Pete in Alaska

      |

      I have rarely used a shotgun for larger game hunting. However, there is a good case to be made for a smooth bore these day given the advances in shotgun munitions in the past several decades. Repeatability within the 125 yard hunting envelope is quite good to extremely good. There are a number of ballistic slugs and sabots that are excellent performers. I’d suggest looking at Federal 12ga offerings and those of DDuplex and their Monolite 32 And Hexolite 32 shells. When salmon fishing here I often carry a 12ga with one or both of these DDuplex shells in the tube. Very accurate, and offer a huge bang for your buck.
      As far as a sights are concerned if they allow you to try a RedDot instead of iron rifle sights or even a fixed long eye relief 4x optic.
      don’t limit your search either! Google “shotgun ammunition for hunting” all kinds of great options out there.

      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: