Choosing the Right Caliber for Deer

Female hunter scaling a mountain side carrying a rifle

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.


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 decicions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (50)

  1. This is a dangerous article and should not be published. The reason is that young people could read this and act upon many of the suggestions you stated. I am a personal example of how articles like this can harm people, basically damaging not only their personal finances, retirement savings, and even causing damage to relationships with spouses. It happened to me After killing my first 3 deer with a $20 British 303, I read that the 243 was a great caliber, so I bought one. A half dozen deer later I read that the 243 was inferior to the 308 so I bought one. Then I learned my mistake in that the 30-06 can give you about 150 fps more, which is like 35 yards more range. And, it gets much, much worse. You cannot keep doing this without needing to go to the Rockies and hunt, then there is the huge expense for tags and travel. And the problem with hunting in the rockies is meeting all those idiots from California and New York who finally teach you that only the Weatherby calibers are adequate for truly long ranges, buy a couple Weatherbys and try and explain that to the wife when the kids need shoes and food. Please do not write things like this, somebody will believe it. Be well.

    1. I agree. I’ve found that articles like this create urges. Like having to buy the perfect varmint rifle, and having two or three in different calibers or the perfect elk rifle, which has resulted in the need for several 30-06s , a couple of 300 winmags, and two .35 Whelens. Then, of course, there are the (necessary) companion side-arms; .44 magnums with various barrel lengths, .45 ACP’s and .357 magnums, and at least one .44 magnum camp rifle for camp security. For a while, that wasn’t a problem, but then my wife found out that they don’t really breek in the closet or the gun safe…..

  2. I have been hunting for about 13 years and I used 2 calibers that I feel are a good deer round. The first is a Weatherby Vanguard 308 win. I have taken over 15 deer and a black bear with it and have no complaints. I have shot many 1″ groups at 100 yds.The second is a 303 British Enfield( it has been sporterized so I am not sure of the exact model). I have taken about 10 deer and a Russian Boar, all I can say is it is a hard hitting round that puts a bigger hole in the deer than the 308 and is accurate. I have shot many 1″ groups at 100 yds.

  3. I grew up with a marlin 30-30. I like them, but I’ve drifted to bolts with more versatile calibers. However the author mentioned levers being cheap. I’m not sure of that anymore. Best sale I can find around me for a Marlin 30-30 is plus $400. My sons bought Thompson Center Ventures in 300WM. Once they each shot well under an inch, caliper measured, my F-I-L bought on sin 270. Just as accurate, and $335 on sale. The 30-30 has it’s place and that’s 100-125 yards with most of them.

    1. The T/C Venture is an excellent shooter, but also sells at a noticeably higher price point than the Savage Axis, Remington 783, or Ruger American.

      Hence the relatively new Compass from T/C at a lower price point than the Venture.

  4. The Thuty-Thuty, a.,k.a. 30-30. Talking deer only, this caliber rules the stats on numbers killed! I don’t use it, but that don’t change the stats;) Someone once noted that all the deer killed with the thuty-thuty would require more than several LARGE warehouses to hold’em! There are caveats with this OLD boy. At 2300 fps w/150 grain bullet, it is more than adequate, at ‘nearly’ any range deer are taken. Zeroed @100 yds (2300fps), you only start exceeding that 8″ kill zone just past 220 yards! In my state, if you can “see” a deer out to anything like 200 yds, you are looking across some valley into a “clear cut!” Truth be known, you can kill a deer with about anything, slingshot to .22 short, or one of the largest Grizzlys ever recorded w/.22 Long! As well as watch one of those ‘weak’ deer, lock it down, and run off as if NOT shot, after getting blasted with some belted magnum. There is a reason the .556 or .223 are NOT acceptable “deer” rounds, but the 30-30 is no .22….

  5. As a teen and my early 20’s, I used my dad’s 303 mk4 Enfield(cut down “hunters” stock) as an all-around deer/bear/moose rifle. That mentality has stuck with me and i’ve been using 308’s for the last 20 years. Not faulting anyone for changing calibers often, but I like having one gun do many things for me.
    Great article!

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