When it comes to deer hunting, the first rifle to come to mind is usually the venerable .30-30 lever action. Many deer hunters took their first bucks with a Winchester Model 94 or a Marlin 336, or any of a dozen other similarly styled rifles. The .30-30 cartridge has the reputation of having killed more deer than any other cartridge. It’s been around for more than 100 years, so the chances are this is correct. In fact, I’d even wager that it still, to this day, kills more deer than any other cartridge.
Why is the .30-30 such a popular deer cartridge? And what is it about the lever actions chambered in it that make them so potent for taking deer? Initially created by Winchester for their 1894 lever action, the .30 Winchester Center Fire was one of the first modern small-bore centerfire cartridges designed to use smokeless powder. Marlin also developed their own lever action, the 336, but renamed the round the .30-30 so as not to have the name “Winchester” in their cartridge designation. Both rifles are short, lightweight, and easily portable through heavy woods and brush. The light recoil of the round and quick lever action provides the ability for rapid follow up shots if necessary.
When it was first introduced, the .30-30 was known as a very flat shooting cartridge. Of course today we’d consider it a very short range cartridge that fairly arcs in towards the target. But considering that the hunting cartridge of the day was the black powder .45-75, the .30-30 was extremely flat shooting by comparison.
But why does the popularity of the .30-30 persist to this day? Surely modern cartridges such as the .243 or .270 are much better deer rounds. They have a much longer effective range, and shoot much flatter than the .30-30. One answer is that the Marlin 336 and Henry Repeating Rifle are very inexpensive rifles by comparison, making them popular entry level guns. In addition, .30-30 ammunition is significantly less expensive than most modern hunting cartridges. What’s more, most deer are shot in the woods at distances that rarely exceed 75 yards, a range at which the .30-30 excels. Finally, the .30-30 has extremely light recoil, making it popular amongst women and younger inexperienced hunters.
Despite its long and successful history, many still question the effectiveness of the .30-30 round on deer. I think the millions of deer taken with the .30-30 is sufficient evidence of the cartridge’s adequacy at dropping most medium sized game. Heavier 150 – 170 grain .30-30 bullets have more than enough energy to drop a deer out to 200 yards, provided the hunter is capable of making such a shot. While the .30-30 isn’t suitable for heavier game such as elk or grizzlies in this writer’s opinion, more than a few hunters have been successful taking large North American game with the round.
So, if you’re looking for a light, accurate, and effective deer gun that is perfect for use in the woods and thick brush where deer encounters are up close and personal, don’t overlook the good ‘ole .30-30. Whether you use a Winchester Model 94 or Marlin 336, iron sights or a simple 1-4x scope, you’ll find that the .30-30 is a great soft-shooting deer gun that is still able to hold her own against modern hunting cartridges.