Has the .30 Caliber’s Time Passed for Deer?

By Dave Dolbee published on in Ammunition

One of the most hotly debated topics among hunters centers around the best bullet for deer. Medium-sized game (deer) also referred to as the “CXP2 Class” or “Controlled Expansion Class 2″ by Winchester, includes whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, wild sheep and caribou. These are by far the most popular game animals in North America, making the ammo used to hunt them some of the best selling rounds. However, among this class deer are tops and whitetails reign supreme.

Some hunters believe that deer such as the smaller Texas whitetails, can be humanely harvested using smaller caliber ammunition while larger and heavier game such as mule deer should only be harvested with more powerful ammo capable of penetrating more deeply. From personal experience, I can tell you a .223 neck shot will drop a deer in its tracks. However, this broad performance range places unique demands on ammunition used to bring down animals in this class. Some hunters use more powerful .308 and .30-06 caliber ammunition when hunting deer—and if this is your preference, that works fine. I grew up hunting whitetails in the Allegany region of Pennsylvania. 150-grain offerings were a family favorite, but when brush or golden rods were a possibility, we often upped the ante to a 180. There is actually a unique group of ammo slightly less powerful than these .30 caliber standards that is perfectly suited for the CXP2 class.

Box of .308 Winchester ammo for a Mossberg ATR

The .308 Winchester cartridge is efficient, features modest recoil and good accuracy.

Winchester .30-30

The .30-30 cartridge has probably brought down more deer than any other rifle cartridge. Put into production in 1895 for the Winchester lever-action rifle, the .30-30 soon gained popularity as the smokeless powder it used allowed for faster follow-up shots and significantly reduced fouling in the barrel and action. This soft shooting round has an effective range of only 200 meters but with a 170-grain flat point bullet it hits hard enough to drop all but the largest CXP2 Class animal.

.243 Winchester

The .243 Winchester is a popular round for young shooter and new shooters who dislike the harsh recoil of larger calibers—it isn’t a bad choice for seasoned veterans either. Though it is soft shooting, the .243 is more than capable of taking down any deer-sized game animal, and it isn’t bad for hogs either. A 100-grain bullet is easy to shoot and the shooter can hold on out to 300 yards for whitetails or mulies and the drop will still be in the kill zone. Hornady’s Varmint Express topped off with a 58-grain V-Max on the other hand is an extremely fast and flat shooting cartridge that travels over 3750 feet per second at the muzzle, making it an excellent varmint round out to 200 yards, but is somewhat light for deer with the exception of a neck shot, but I would recommend a heavier bullet. Hornady’s Superformance ammunition is even hotter, throwing a 58-grain projectile down range at over 3925 feet per second, but brings the same restrictions for deer.

.270 Winchester

The .270 Winchester cartridge was released in 1925 for the Model 54 bolt-action rifle. It was praised highly by writer Jack O’Connor who wrote at length about it in Outdoor Life and other publications, but the round never enjoyed great success for nearly 20 years. Then, after World War II, it saw an enormous surge in popularity becoming one of the most widely chambered calibers for hunting rifles across the globe and for good reson. Loaded with a 100-grain cartridge, Remington Core Lokt PSP achieves a muzzle velocity in excess of 3,300 feet per second. This extreme velocity makes the .270 a very flat-shooting round with devastating terminal ballistics. Loaded with the heavier 150-grain Federal with Sierra Game King bullet and the round is effective on larger game animals like moose or elk. The middle weight 130 Grain is a good all-around cartridge for hunting a variety of medium-sized game.

.270 Winchester Cartridge

The .270 Winchester was famously championed by Jack O’Connor and makes an excellent option for deer.

.25-06 Remington

For decades the .25-06 was just a wildcat round created from a necked down .30-06. When Remington began producing the round as a factory load in 1969 however, it experienced a surge in popularity. Topped with a 120-grain Speer Grand Slam bullet the .25-06 cartridge generates a muzzle velocity of 2,898 feet-per-second, and when topped with an 85-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip Federal’s V-Shok load reaches a velocity of over 3,550 feet per second. This zippy little round may be a small caliber, but its flat trajectory and devastating terminal ballistics help it to remain popular among varmint and deer hunters. Despite the small size of the .25-06, it has superior sectional density at higher bullet weights. The 115-grain Winchester Ballistic Silvertip has a ballistic coefficient of 0.446, giving it penetration and performance comparable to larger .30 caliber rounds.

7mm-08 Remington

The 7mm-08 Remington cartridge is versatile, and as devastating on deer in dense forests as it is at longer ranges. Like the other sub-.30 caliber rounds listed above, the 7mm-08 makes up for it’s smaller diameter with greater sectional density. Topped with a 145-grain Speer Grand Slam, the 7mm-08 load has a ballistic coefficient that exceeds 0.32. With a heavier 162-grain Hornady A-Max bullet, the ballistic coefficient tops out at 0.625. This incredible sectional density gives the 7mm-08 excellent penetration and outstanding long-range stability. Despite the heavier bullet and greater energy of the 7mm-08, the recoil is only slightly more than the .243. The long-range performance of the 7mm-08, with an effective range over 600 yards, also makes it popular with target shooters.

Larger Calibers and The Importance of Sectional Density

Except for the .30-30, every cartridge discussed here is smaller than the most .30 caliber hunting rounds. Still, they maintain adequate performance, especially with heavier bullets, due to their sectional density.

3 boxes of Hornaday ammunition, a light tan box with red lettering, with 2 red boxes of ammo with a white label and red lettering.

Hornady’s first class ammunition maximizes the .243- with plenty of velocity.

What is sectional density? The sectional density is the ratio of the diameter of the round and its weight. Computing the sectional density of a bullet is fairly straightforward: simply take the mass of the bullet and divide it by the diameter (caliber) squared. A heavier bullet will have a better (higher) sectional density than a lighter bullet of the same caliber. For this reason, bullets that are lighter tend to have a lower ballistic coefficient than heavier bullets (assuming of course that the bullets have the same aerodynamic shape). Heavier bullets will decelerate less due to the higher inertia their increased weight gives them.

For hunting rounds, this means that bullets with higher sectional densities will penetrate better than bullets with lower sectional densities. Heavy .270 loads and most 7mm-08 loads are capable of performing nearly as well as larger .308 loads of the same weight because of this. Still, though they have similar performance, both the .270 and the 7mm-08 generate around 17% less recoil than a .308 round of the same weight. Because of the more streamlined shape, these cartridges also have flatter trajectories than their .30 caliber cousins.

The popular .308 and .30-06 hunting cartridges are commonly used for hunting deer but cartridges of this size are what we might consider super-adequate. These .30 caliber cartridges are rounds that work equally well on medium- as well as heavy game. With the proper shot placement on deer you can harvest your quarry without damaging the meat, while a solid hit on a larger animal such as an elk or moose will also work just as well.

Can you take a whitetail or mule deer with a .308 or .30-06? Sure you can. But do you need that much gun? Probably not, but that statement may be close to treason and get me disinvited to family property this year, so we will agree the editor added it after I submitted the article. When looking for your next hunting rifle, consider some of the smaller calibers. They are more than enough for deer and you’ll have a chance to round out the your options in the gun safe.

Has the .30 caliber’s time passed or does it still reign king for deer? Weigh in with your thoughts in the comment section.

SLRule

Growing up in Pennsylvania’s game-rich Allegany region, Dave Dolbee was introduced to whitetail hunting at a young age. At age 19 he bought his first bow while serving in the U.S. Navy, and began bowhunting after returning from Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Dave was a sponsored Pro Staff Shooter for several top archery companies during the 1990s and an Olympic hopeful holding up to 16 archery records at one point. During Dave’s writing career, he has written for several smaller publications as well as many major content providers such as Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Outdoor Life, Petersen’s Hunting, Rifle Shooter, Petersen’s Bowhunting, Bowhunter, Game & Fish magazines, Handguns, F.O.P Fraternal Order of Police, Archery Business, SHOT Business, OutdoorRoadmap.com, TheGearExpert.com and others. Dave is currently a staff writer for Cheaper Than Dirt!

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Comments (23)

  • James Hoffman

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    .30 cal been the go to ammo caliber for alot of years in North America. in WV i’ve seen alot of calibers in the .30 used (30-06, 308, 303 British, 7.62x54R (150gr or 203gr for heavy woods, and 7.62X39 soviet). along with the .270’s but most hunters over here would not use a .223/ 5.56 class of ammo for deer (too small bullet weight, poor performance, horrible in brush, Ar’s jammed to easily) , just to small! For years the rule was .25 cal or larger. my favorite for low recoil and flat shooting w/ punch was the old military 6.5mm calibers, 6.5X50 jap was a good round for the job at 150gr Norma or Hornady. and for a jack of all trade hunting 6.5X55mm swede is still one of the most accurate, low recoil, hard hitting rounds, with an excellent ballistic coefficient still out there!

    Reply

    • James Hoffman

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      By the way, why 30-06, .308, and 30-30 been the go to ammo? That is easy to explain, go to your local Walmart or K-mart and that (except for occasionally 7.62X39mm and .223 Rem.) is all that is available short of going to a gun-shop or online. A lot of times the Wildcat rounds are not commercially available, and some calibers like 6.5 jap or .35 rem are no longer available period!

      Reply

    • William Darby

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      I’ll agree with everything you said except for the AR platform and the .223.

      First the AR Platform. While in the early years the AR/M16 platform had many problems in the past now in this day this has been corrected. I used a M16A1 to the current versions now fielded, not to mention just changing the upper, bolt and mag you now can choose from 6.5 Grendel and 6.8 SPC just to name a few. In the AR10 Series you have the .308 or .260 among others.

      Now for the .223. I have used this round to great effect on 2 legged and four legs. Used in it envelope it will kill cleanly. From .55 to .65 grain soft-point to .77 grain it will put a South Eastern (Alabama and Georgia for sure) down with a heart or lung shot, it doesn’t have to be “just a Neck shot”.

      My other weapons are a M1A and Savage 112 both in .308 and a heir loom Savage Model 340 in 30-30.

      Just for information purposes Park Rangers in Africa use 2 weapons to dispatch rouge elephants. A inexperienced Ranger uses a heavy caliber in the .458 range. Once he has proven himself they will often use the .308.

      If the Hunter can’t do his job, it won’t matter about the rifle.

      Reply

    • Dave Dolbee

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      Mr. Darby,
      Good points. When I was in Africa, the weapon of choice at a local property for elephant was the .303. ~ Dave Dolbee

      Reply

  • Marc Mitchell

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    In my humble opinion the 30-06 or its shorter brother the .308 still are best for hunting in the sometimes dense woods of Georgia. The 30-06 is NOT considered “super adequate” for deer because here where the woods are thick you need to knock the deer down quickly and humanely so that it wont run and possibly be unable to find. I have shot numerous deer and wild hogs (up to 500 lbs) here and I can assure you that the 30–06 or 308 are the ticket. The 30-30 works great too but only at close range and only because of frontal area and bullet mass.

    Reply

  • HJ Lamb

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    For the last 45 years I have hunted primarily in the Western part of the USA, mainly in South Dakota and Montana. My opinion is based on the numbers of antelope, white-tailed deer, mule deer, and elk I have successfully harvested during that time. Without question, the .280 Remington (similar in ballistics as the .270 and .30-06, but with better ballistics and reloading component availability than the other 2) has been my go to caliber of choice. My favorite load is a 160 grain bullet with appropriate powder charge (prefer IMR 4350) and CCI BR primers. My chronograph loads get 2800 fps MV and ballistics data shows 2800 ft lbs. of energy. Most of my shots have been under 300 yards with but one exception back in 1985 on an antelope hunt near Valentine MT when I made a one shot kill at just over 405 yards. The gun I use is a Winchester Model 70 featherweight post 64 variety with a Leupold 3.5 – 10 scope. It is still going stronger than I am!

    Reply

    • Mick

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      HJ,

      You are correct, the 280 is an awesome round for anything in North America except possibly brown bear. I was lucky back in the mid 90’s to be at a store grand opening and pick up a Marlin MR7 in 280 on sale. I wish I had known how few of those would be made in that caliber and bought a half dozen of them. They are already a collector’s item. That rifle will shoot thumbnail groups with whatever you feed it.

      Reply

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