What is the Best Caliber for Deer Hunting?

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. 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.

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.


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Comments (40)

  1. I hurt got old and it was hard for me to carry a bolt action 30 06 and it seemed with bad sholders it would hurt when i shot .I changed to a light gun with a 7mm 08 and i have never lost a deer .I have had a few run about 30 yards and thats it . I am happy with the short and long shot of the size . After a hunt im not as tired as i would be with 30 06 . To each his own .

  2. I would say .308 Winchester…same terminal performance of an aught-six in a shorter package and less recoil, the drop at 400 yards is only a couple inches more with a 308. Plus it’s probably the best mainstream target rifle round (The 6.5 Creedmoor is coming up quick as well). I dropped a 150 pound Adironack buck in its tracks (through the lungs nonetheless) with a Ruger American in .308 using the Hornady Americab Whitetail interlock bullets. The best description was lung and rib soup.

  3. My choice would be the 308 Winchester. Short action, light recoil, good ballistics, wide choice of ammunition and bullet weights, very accurate, and available in any type rifle you like. Many fail to realize this caliber mirrors the 30/06 ballistics and being a 30 caliber, it’s a reloader’s dream.

  4. All around deer cartridge? Take everything into account including effective range, action size, recoil, availability…..there are several that fit the bill. If someone told me to choose a caliber to hunt deer with and I had no more information to go on, I would have to take the .308 Winchester. Manageable recoil, fairly long range capable, short action, available everywhere, available in any action type, and very accurate.

  5. I have a 44mag , 303, 30cal., 243, 270, 308,and a 30 06 I have had success with all listed. A well placed shot and knowing yards and range of your rifle, and don’t used core lock bullet.

  6. I have been deer hunting for over 40 years and I know I like the 30-06 the best. The ammo is easy to find and not as expensive as other calibers that I have used. I had no trouble knocking down bull elk or an axis buck.
    Always reliable.

  7. This all biased the caliber of the bullet is about 10% important it’s the bullet itself that makes a good round

  8. I started with a Marlin 30-30 in the 60’s.Bought a used Win Model 70 in .243 in the 90’s.Took 16 deer with the 30-30 and more than 50 with the .243.No complaints about either one.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. .308 Win
    .303 br

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

  15. 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 .

  16. 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…

    1. Saying the 30 06 is a joke is a joke in its self ! The 30 06 will not let you down as long as you do your part. And the same goes with several other calibers .

  17. 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.

  18. I know, let’s change the question, eh ? Let’s change the question to “What is your favorite all purpose center-fire caliber ?”..not what is the “Best” ….Most of the responses here will fit.
    Pete Hallock

  19. Spot On ! Yes, true outdoorsmen respect the outdoors and all animals. I went with a hunting party and the kid with the custom Mauser 98 in Win.270 bragged about shooting at “Sound Shots” I did not go hunting with him.
    Now, few calibers can handload 110 grain to 220 grain bullets as the 30-06 can. The ’06 is a hand loaders dream caliber for new off the shelf and used rifles. No, I do not have a 30-06 now, at 84 years old, I do not hunt any longer.

    Pete Hallock

  20. I cringe when I read or hear stories of people who claim to drop deer at amazing distances with small and underpowered ammo. I will not challenge your story. You may well have put a 22 LR through an ear and into his brain. However, I hope everyone’s goal is a clean kill and not some injured animal bleeding out slowly and suffering a slow, painful death in a hidden spot where no one will benefit from the kill. For every kill shot with this stuff, you will have a hundred injury shots, so just stop it!… Get a weapon capable of a clean kill at the distance and under the conditions you are shooting. Otherwise, stay home and let your friends bring you some venison…(Sorry for the soap box)

  21. I too am fortunate enough to own several calibers and have hunted in several states across our country for various big game animals. To me, sticking with the original topic and basing this solely on whitetails, still leaves the door open a tad bit. The whitetail deer on hoof in most of Canada and portions of the upper Midwest and Northeast US are much, much bigger animals than what typically walk around Texas, and the lower 48 states. That alone changes the argument to a degree. Add hunting conditions, elevations, and where your deer is in relation to where you are on stand are all major factors in the argument as well. That said, the best rifle is the rifle you shoot well. When I was in my 20’s I would’ve argued with anyone telling me different when I said the .30-06. 20+ years later, I sport a 7mm-08 that I just truly enjoy shooting. Accurate as all get-out to 250 yds., with good glass…it is just the prefect fit for me at this stage and where I hunt. If we were talking long range shots out further West or down hunting a lane in TX…probably not the case. We can talk ballistic coefficients until we’re blue in the face, but if that 300 Win Mag has you packing ice on your shoulder after a few rounds at the range…probably not the right round either.

    My 14 year old son totes a .243 and with the luck he’s had with it his first few years, he may just stick with it…and I wouldn’t try changing his mind. I’m sure he will on his own at some point. Maybe not. He is literally 3 times the marksman I was at his age.

    There are simply way too many variables to pick ONE and satisfy all readers, and that’s exactly why you see this question come up every hunting season. Good stuff, either way.

  22. I completely agree with the “red car” comment. I have a good old 06. but if I could get my hands ahold of a left handed 7-08 I would be a very happy camper lol. but you can’t beat a good 30-30 either. their all good rounds. It all depends on a lot of variables so yeah Red car ?!

  23. I have had the fortune to shoot a lot of different calibers, and own a decent assortment myself.
    There are two that I shoot more than any of the others for no specific reason except I like the guns they are chambered in.
    The first is a Tikka T3 lite stainless in .300 WSM. Dead on out to 350+ with lits of ooomph left over.
    The other is a Weatherby Vanguard in .243.
    The gun just shoots awesome, is light, and doesn’t produce much recoil.

    I also like and agree with the “Red Car” comment.

  24. In Alaska, the .223 is the native Alaskan Big Bore. But they are daily hunters. “Reduced recoil” loads are factory made in several calibers, including the 30-06.That said, the 30-06 is still the best choice for most ( MOST ) north American game. We all have our favorites including me. But this is not what the question was about..

  25. One gun….forget about it! I vote for the “Red Car” comment. The real discussion here should be about availability. Even the days of finding ammo at “gas stations, local diners and grocery stores” as the author suggested is coming to an end. I know my gun closet is boring, but I can always find ammo. Weird ones and wildcats are nice if you reload, but I have given it up. If the military and/or the police have not used it in the last 100+ years, I don’t want it. I hope I will always be able to buy 223, 30’06, 7.62 X 39, 7.92×57, 45/70 Govt and 303 Brit. The 357 mag is not a great deer round, but if we can’t find ammo for that and our 30-30’s, we are in very deep doodoo. And don’t forget cost. A 270 Weatherby Magnum is the cat’s meow in my book, but at $60-100 a box for 20, who needs it? Besides, the deer are pretty puny in my neck of the woods. A well place shot in a 223 will kill them all. Why carry a cannon around all day when a Mini-14 will knock em down!?!?

  26. I have heard the 30-30 story more than the others & it is hard to argue against it for brush country. I have used my lever action Winchester in 308 more than any other rifle, as it is a good compromise.


  27. Yes, on the Winchester 94 forum, pictures of Zebra and larger game are shown taken with the Win.30/30..but that is not the point. This is not a game. Number one, the rifle action has to fit the territory. Like in PA, the Remington 740 and 760 auto-loader and pump action are very popular in many different caliber..number one being 30-06. Also, the Marlin 336 and Win.94 are vvery common. This is not a game. Number one is the shooter’s experience with the rifle and number two is real riflemen go for a humane one shot kill.
    As I previously posted, I would go for a 6.5/.284 Dream rifle, but would be very happy with a Ruger American Rifle is 30-06, 7-08, etc.

    I have dropped deer with a Marlin 36 in 30/30 in a running shot and Win.243 (Win.70 pre-64).

    Recall, the comments here are on the best ALL-AROUND caliber, and that is still the 30-06…NOT what you and I use..

    Pete Hallock

  28. I think the 12 gauge slug gun 18″ barrel with open sites is the best where I hunt when shots under 50 are the rule. I own a .30-06 and love it, but think its a tad much for deer hunting, even with 150 grainers, unless it’s a reduced velocity load.

  29. come on people asking a group of hunters and shooter what the best cartridge is for deer is like asking “HOW MUCH IS A RED CAR” there are to many variables ! ! ! ! ! ! !

  30. The best all around choice is the 30-06. That is for American game and I read the best plains caliber in Africa where it is considered a light caliber. Like here the 22-250 is our light caliber. If I were really intersted in going all out for a caliber, it would be the 6.5/.284 in a Winchester pre-64 custom light weight rifle.
    Pete Hallock

  31. Out to 200 yards, a bit further if you are experienced and with little wind, the Bushmaster 450 would be my choice. Of course, that is the only “larger” caliber rifle that I own, but in addition to being able to take down a deer, it has also been used on hogs, elk, and bear, so it is very versatile.

  32. The first deer I took as a 15 year old was with a .257 Roberts. But my all time favorite for whitetail, mule deer and elk is 7×57. I’ve never shot a 7mm-08, but I think it probably has about the same potential knockdown power. The fact is that the .284 cal bullet has just about the most perfect ballistic coefficient of any caliber, and with premium bullets and powder charge matched to your barrel, the 7×57 is capable of taking any large game in North America at ranges up to 400+ yards

  33. I’ve used 300 Savage and 270 but my go to gun for the Texas Hill Country is my Glenfield 30A lever action 30-30. I’ve taken most of my deer and all of my hogs, some over 200 pounds, with it.

  34. My personal favorites are the .30-.30 w/ 170 grain bullet and .308 w/ 180 grain bullet. Why? because I have both of them. When in a state that doesn’t allow rifles I use a 12 Ga. Why, again because I have a few of them. My favorite 12 Ga is my Ithaca Deer Slayer because it works well and ejects the shell straight down so I know where I was when I took the shot. That feature helps in finding the deer after the shot by knowing where I shot from. I also like my old side loader black powder .54 cal shooting a 430 grain maxi ball loaded with 120 grains of powder. I have never had to chase a deer more than 50 yards using any of the above guns with a will placed shot, most drop where they were shot. Every one has their favorite girl friend.

  35. The best caliber /rifle for deer is going to vary as much as the factors of circumstances vary. I have dropped big mule deer with a .22, was it the right choice of rifle, probably not, but it did the job. Distance, elevation, temperature, light, humidity, open field or thick brush and many other factors go into the decision. The best choice should take all of the factors into consideration, and not wounding the animal, should be first in that consideration. Whatever rifle that will put the animal down with one shot is the choice that should be used.

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