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

Deer Hunting Background. Hunting rifles, scope, antlers, bullets, and hunting apparel on a rustic wooden background with copy space.

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.

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.

.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.

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.


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Comments (30)

  1. I shot an antelope which was running down a cattle fence toward me at 20 yards with my sporterized 30-40 Krag. I fired from the hip into its chest. The 180 grain silver tip barely caused any damage to its meat. Other than being dead you couldn’t see any other damage and very little blood. I don’t believe it has any more stopping power than my 26″ octagon Canadian Centennial 30-30.

  2. Buddy of mine hunted with me at the end of January and shot a long haired razorback with is 7-30 waters TC Contender super 16. It bottomed out a 400 lb scale. Other than 30 cal works IF the shot is placed properly. I am also unable to post a picture of that hog on here for yall to see.

  3. Well, I’ll put my two cents in on this, I guess. I’ve been hunting deer for around 30 or 35 years. I’ve used rifle calibers ranging from .243 through .358 (35 Whelen), including the 30 calibers ranging from 30-30 up to 300 Winchester Magnum. I’ve also used black powder rifles ranging from .50 to .58 cal. I think the best combination of low recoil and good performance in a rifle is the 257 Roberts, 25-06, 6.5X55 or the 260 Remington (or rounds in this class) if shots are going to be within 200-250 yards. Heavy bullets should be used, because penetration at poor angles relies on density, not energy. The .243 caliber cartridges such as the .243 and 6mm Remington can be included on the light end, but again with heavy bullets.
    Having said this, I still prefer at least a 30-06 for most of my deer hunting. Either that or a .35 Whelen. I’ve found over the years that even with a perfect shot placement, the smaller caliber rounds will not anchor my animal right away. In other words, the deer runs. But with a good heart-lung shot, a 165 or 180 grain .308 round will pretty much drop the biggest deer out to around 300 yards. The Whelen with 225 gr Sierra bullets will absolutely cause a DRT effect from the muzzle out to 400 yards. (that’s dead right there). But the lighter rifle rounds will do the job and they’re a lot easier for the better half or the youngin’ to use.

  4. Proper rifle and cartridge for hunting of U.S. species of deer, bear, Wapitti. moose(ELK), goats and sheep has always been the basis of riflemen to argue over and greatest lies that make fishermen b’s seem like church chair music in comparison.
    Old friend actually killed a WA blackmail buck on back of church lawn immediately after church services while parishioners were still standing around talking lies about how holy they were.
    HIS truck gun was family heirloom a 3w/20 lever gun.1 shot at 50- 60 yards did the job.
    When congregation came running behind church to see who would profane the holy day, the men were impressed by headshot and the women sentencing him to hell.
    He looked directly at one old screen holier than thou bitch spit some snooze and said it was God’s will “.
    ONCE again men laughed and births puffed up at such profanity
    Old timer said “Yes God’s answer to his prayer’.
    He said he seen buck through church window while singing a hymn, and he immediately prayed that the preacher would shut up so he could get outside for his gun before the buck left.
    GOD answered his prayer.”
    No this is not one of those lies such as stories of 400 yard kills with 30/30 or 06 with iron sights that many a HUNTING camp among good friends who each had favorite gun and ammo to proach about.
    This incident happened almost 60 years ago.
    Odd but since that time I have often said that old timers prayer upon many a Hunting season morn at a Sunday church services.
    That incident was over 60 years past and I was fotunate toknow and hunt with men who realy knew game and owned rifles within all their limits.
    Of course back then we took stands distill hunted woods and swamps for close up shots.
    We hunted and did of needweapos that weighed a ton and kicked like mules to sit of as s drinking coffee in sends of r00 yard been fields or 1000 yards to assassinate an animal that had no idea he was being hunted by up to 50 cal rifles.

    1. If you read question the author posed as an invitation to comment, I’d say this post is pretty close to irrelevant to that subject and probably any other subject worth considering. How does this BS ramble disparaging church-going Christians in any way do anything to address a valid topic posted in the Shooters Log? Answer: it doesn’t.

    2. Keep in mind that this occurred about the late 50’s or early ’60’s. There were a lot of people in rural areas during that time who welcomed the chance to supplement their meat supplies with a legal kill. That prayer was answered, and may have meant the difference between eating lean or eating well for him and his family. That some of the ladies of the church got their noses out of joint and he answered them doesn’t mean he was disparaging.
      As to the application to the article, what he said was pretty simple, and accurate. The best deer rifle is not the wonder magnum or the super speedster. It is the deer-legal rifle that is present with you at the time. The gent who shot that deer used a (presumably) .32-20 Winchester, either a ’92 or a ’94, or even an old ’73. It was fine for the job. Are the .308 or the 30-40 Craig or the 30-06 or any of the other 30’s obsolete because there are smaller caliber cartridges out there? Not hardly. And neither are any of the other rifle/cartridge combinations as long as they are legal and can do the job. That was his point, and while he didn’t articulate it as well as you might have liked, he was right.

  5. I guess we just like reading and talking about this, despite the fact that it is a worn out topic. Let’s say that our 1st priority is a humane (quick kill). Anything from the .243 to the & 7MM Mag fits the bill. Anything smaller will risk multiple shots and you can’t get any additional performance out of a larger caliber. In between it is your preference. I started with a 30-30. I still hunt with guys who use the 30-30 and like carrying it. I’ve seen way too many wounded deer shot with a 30-30. I moved up to the .300 Savage (good), and then .270 (outstanding). I am now a .243 fan. I have an all-weather 7600 pump and a Ruger 77 RSI carbine. Both are very accurate and point fast. If its bad weather or I am in a stand I use the 7600, otherwise I love carrying the the 77. The .243 with 85 to 100 grain expanding bullets is a one shot drop with a hit in a vital area – every time. If I was in a stand with the possibility of a 200+ yard shot I will still use my 700 in .270.

  6. .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!

    1. 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!

    2. 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.

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

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

    1. 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.

  9. I have used a .303 British, 30-30 and 7MM Rem mag. in the past.
    Then talking with my new father-in-law I hear him say he uses a 218 Bee!!! He says: “A head or neck shot is all you need at short range, no meat damage”. We are both excellent marksmen and don’t take a shot unless it is right, no injured animals, just dead ones.
    So I bought a 22 Hornet for just that, doe head-shots at short range.
    For long ranges (more than 100-150 yards is long range, this is a hornet!) and heart/lung shots at bucks, my choice is always my 25-06 or 30-06.

  10. I hunt in Indiana and my deer round is 44mag. 225gr. in a rifle, anything inside of 150yd. goes down with a “boiler room’ hit. The rifle is a T\C with a 20in, very handy in close quarters, has put a lot of meat in the freezer.

  11. Let’s be honest. I’m sure more deer are taken with the .22 than any other round. Though some see issues, if you can’t take down a deer inside 100 yards with a single .22 round you shouldn’t be shooting.

  12. At the tender age of 64 I am of the opinion that whatever works, works.
    If your gun/round has a perfect history of shot placement and quick recovery of the animal, that is hard to argue with. Once a round—of whatever caliber, weight, and design—leaves the muzzle and its on its way to its destiny, it does not matter much what the nomenclature is describing it—it doesn’t really matter as long as the critter is put down and put down fast. I hope I expressed myslef in an understandable manner.

    As one famous gun authority once said: “Only accurate rifles are Interesting.”

  13. I agree with the author, but prefer the lesser known chamberings of the smaller calibers.

    The 6mm Rem is the same bullet as the .243, but the case is larger and the rifles have faster twist rifling. The 6mm Rem shoots flatter than the .243, and has more knock-down power.

    The 7mm/08 is a fine cartridge, but again, the .280 Rem shoots the same bullets but has a larger case and shoots faster. The 280 actually uses an extended 30/06 case necked down to 7mm. Yep, it is a slightly longer 30/06 case. The 280 beats the 7mm/08 in both speed and power.

    Both cartridges are available in factory loads, but the reloader will have a broader range of options. New rifles chambered for 6mm Rem and 280 Rem are still being made, but they really should be more popular than they are.

  14. I have taken deer with 243’s and up through .338 win. Obviously the 338 is over kill but doesn’t ruin meat with lung shots (my favorite target) and sometimes run a ways with the .243 Win 80gr pspcl. If nice weather I use a beautiful wood stock custom shilen barreled 7×57 130 gr Speer boat tail and if not too nice outside I use a plastic stocked Weatherly Vanguard 30-06 with Remington 150 BRs

  15. So how about the .32 Winchester Special? I read several times that it was a more accurate cartridge than the .30. I wonder if this still true, and I also wonder if it’s powerful enough to take down bear.

    1. The 32 Winchester Special is a great cartridge. The problem is finding ammunition. If you reload there’s no issues but there are not enough manufacturers of this cartridge anymore. Remington and Hornady have offerings but not many options. I would love to have a 32 in my collection. Just not in the cards right now.

    2. Yes, a problem but manageable at least for right now if you don’t reload. But there seems to be plenty of Hornady ammo in .32 WS if you do Web searches. The price range is $19 – $30. Most online stores that carry .32 WS in other brands are mostly sold out, especially Federal. Remington seems to be the 2nd most available brand and Winchester the least. For now I have a big box full of .32 WS, mostly Hornady followed by Remington. I only have one Federal box. The good thing about this is that from what I’ve read, the Hornady cartridge is preferred over the the other brands. Apparently, Hornady’s 165 grain cartridge seems to perform better than its competitor’s 170 grain cartridges. I was stocking up on .32 WS ammo at the nearest Bass Pro but they stopped carrying that cartridge a few months ago. There aren’t hunting stores anywhere around me that carry .32 WS. I think there’s only two Bass Pro stores that have a limited amount but they’re far away from where I live.

  16. A 30-30 is fine out East, however, in the West and Midwest where shots can be 200-500 yards, a smaller caliber ie; 30-30 or smaller, just does not cut it!

  17. Bring enough gun! Deer don’t run very far without lungs. Can you take deer or hogs with smaller caliber rifles? Yes. Rule of thumb. Use what you can handle. It might wind up being more than is needed but to much is better than not enough. 30 caliber rounds rule supreme in the land of deer and hogs. 45-70’s aren’t bad either.

    1. Amen Vance ! My 30-06 with 150 gr Barnes X bullets, 59 grs of IMR 4350 is a tick over 3000 fps and shoots flat as a laser. I NEVER notice the recoil when there’s deer in my scope and when I hit them; they don’t travel more than a few feet. Shoot as much gun as you can shoot well and place your shot well. Nice thing, I don’t have to hold off unless the shot is over 400 meters.

    2. Nice choice. You can’t go wrong with a 30-06. Very effective cartridge. I carry.308 Winchester loaded with 168 grain Sierra HPBT. Not as flat or fast as yours but very reliable and consistent. I hunt primarily in heavy brush. Most of the time I take my 45-70 Gov’t loaded with 350 grain Buffalo Bore ammunition. Never have anything take a step after that.

    3. Slow down and don’t damage the meat. Wait for the right shot bigger is not better.i have used them all and the headshot is worth waiting for, haste makes waiste and we have plenty of that.

    4. No one is talking about rushing a shot. Bring enough gun simply means bring something capable of any situation you may enter. I have taken plenty of CNS shots throughout the years. I am not a trophy hunter. I hunt for meat and will not rush a shot. I hunt primarily with my 45-70 loaded with 350 grain Buffalo Bore ammunition. If I am going to be in an area where a longer shot might present itself then I carry my .308 Winchester loaded with 168 grain Sierra HPBT. I’m sure I will catch plenty of flak for my choices but these two chamberings have never let me down. Smaller cartridges have. I don’t take shots over 250-300 yards unless I am shooting at paper. In that situation I may break out the 25-06.

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