Whitetail deer hunting is a pastime with deep roots in American tradition and heritage. It’s a very popular sport and hobby with a strong following, taken very seriously by deer hunters and gun enthusiasts from all around the U.S.
However, deer hunters are an infamously stubborn bunch. Have you noticed how deer hunters follow strict, cemented superstitions, always carry a lucky charm, have an unwavering method of hunting, and are strongly opinionated on rifle calibers?
Yep. That’s how deer hunters do.
If you want to cause absolute mayhem at the campfire or ruin a couple of friendships, just mention the .22-250 Remington vs. .243 Winchester debate and get out of there as fast as you can. There are so many heated arguments about deer hunting calibers that I think hunting writers spilled more ink than blood on this issue alone.
In this guide, we’ll dive deep into deer hunting rifles and check out the best calibers, talk about their advantages and disadvantages, and mention some interesting ammo boxes for every caliber.
Let’s jump right into some of the thinnest calibers of popular deer rifles – the .22s, and we’ll work our way to the top with the thirties until we reach shotgun shells (yes, really).
.22 Deer Rifle Calibers
Before I start with the .22 calibers, more specifically the .223 Remington, I’d like to say that it’s really difficult to place the best overall deer rifle caliber in the ‘Our Top Pick’ section like we usually do at Gun Made.
You could say that those heated debates we mentioned are not unfounded, but we’ll give you options that you can’t go wrong with.
Of course, you can land a perfectly placed shot with a .223 and stop the deer in its tracks, and the same goes for those overkill rounds like the .300 magnums, but that’s not the point. Instead, a balanced blend of bullet energy, regular recoil, and knowing the optimal range is far more important.
For more info on where to snag some ammo boxes, here are some of the best places to buy ammo online.
You should keep in mind that these calibers vary, but if you’re planning to take home 100 to 250 pounds of meat to your table, then standard 120- to 140-grain bullets and .243 to .308 calibers with around 2700 to 3000 fps. in the 400-yard range is what you’re looking for, simply put.
But, we’ll surely go beyond that as there are literally a dozen calibers that would work, and I’ll explain those further in the buyer’s guide below. For now, let’s take a look at the .25-06 Remington caliber.
- Solid ballistics and high muzzle velocity
- Efficiency up to a 550-yard range
- Moderate recoil
- Suitable for small game and varmint hunting
- Not good for larger game
Introduced in 1969, necked down to .257 from the almighty .30-06, the .25-06 is a lightweight, high-ballistic caliber with a well-balanced combination of moderate recoil and powerful kinetic energy that can drop game.
With a muzzle velocity of around 3,400 fps, 2,300 ft-lb energy, 6.53mm bullet diameter, and a decent 75- to 120-gr weight, the .25-06 is a very suitable deer hunting bullet that can reach 550 yards. It has a flatter trajectory at the 250-yard range.
To be frank, I wouldn’t use this to drop deer above the 200-yard range in comparison to other calibers, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a good smaller game and varmint shooter.
However, I’ve heard some rumors that the .25-06 115-grain Federal Premium Nosler Partition can drop elk if you’re skilled enough. The 115-grain Nosler Partition offers 3,220 fps, with 2,300 ft-lb of energy, so expect flat bullets around the 200-yard range.
You can also check out the .25-06 110-Remington Federal Premium Vital-Shok with a 3,200 fps muzzle velocity and a 2,300 ft-lb muzzle energy.
- Works best with short-action rifles
- Mild recoil
- Excellent for newbie deer hunters
- Great accuracy between the 200- and 600-yard range
- Not very powerful
- Needs precise a good shot placement (neck, spine, or head)
Moving on up, the .243 Win. was developed by necking down the .308 Winchester cartridge to shoot smaller bullets. It’s a great entry-level deer hunting cartridge that works best on a short-action rifle, but all kinds of folks just seem to like it a lot. It could be because it’s so abundant.
It’s available from 55-gr up to 105-gr bullets, and it’s pretty abundant in every store around the U.S. The .243 Win. offers accurate, flat shooting with mild recoil that can blast with high velocity, so expect hits up to the 600-yard range, but only if you aim for the spine or head.
From ammo boxes, I strongly recommend the Remington PSP Core Lokt 100gr or the new Winchester Ballistic Tip (95gr BST) and Winchester’s new Deer Season XP ammo (95gr XP). They’re all great ammo choices if you plan on taking a .243 out during deer season.
A .243 Winchester 100-grain bullet can travel at approximately 2,960 fps velocity to produce 1,945 ft-lb of energy. If you don’t think that’s enough for a clean headshot kill, you’re terribly mistaken.
- One of the most popular lightweight deer hunting calibers
- Overall well-balanced caliber
- Available for pump, semi-automatic, bolt action, and even lever-action rifles
- Manageable recoil
- None really, unless you’re unskilled at longer ranges
And here it is ladies and gents, the favored champ of the smaller calibers that’s neck and neck (pun intended) with the 6.5 Creedmoor.
The .270 Winchester has withstood the test of time since 1925 and might be one of the most well-balanced cartridges that’s suitable for anyone. It wasn’t an immediate success, but it grew in popularity among hunters.
Built on a careful design from a necked down .30-06 Springfield cartridge, this standard was first popularized by Jack O’Connor, a hunter, writer, and great outdoorsman. He showed the world that this cartridge has no problems with sheep, goat, elk, or deer.
It shoots smaller bullets at a higher velocity and flatter trajectory than the .30-06 Springfield, which is a solid improvement, not to mention the lesser recoil. Of course, it doesn’t carry the energy of a .30-06, but you won’t need all that at regular 400-yard ranges.
The .270 Winchester has a 3,000 fps muzzle velocity for a 130-grain bullet, and it’s available in so many ammo types like the highly popular Remington Core Lokt 130-gr PSP or the Winchester Ballistic Tip 130gr BST.
- Excellent long-range efficiency
- Highly aerodynamic in the 140-grain
- Better wind deflection and cycling speed than the .270
- Low recoil
- Suitable for short-action rifles
- Better wind deflection
- Has less velocity and kinetic energy than the .270
Of all the calibers we’ve mentioned, I feel that the 6.5 Creedmoor has superior accuracy compared to the rest with a 2-inch drop at 800 yards. Come on, now.
The Creedmoor 6.5 was originally designed for long-range shooting competitions and it quickly caught the eye of precision shooters.
Simply put, the 6.5 Creedmoor offers a 1-MOA shooting, and you best believe many rifles can halve that with no problems.
This caliber commonly works in the 140-grain projectile and pushes around 2,700 fps, which—despite being slower than the .270 Winchester—drifts and keeps velocity slightly better. When energy, velocity, and bullet drop are in question, the .270 Winchester is better, but the 6.5 has lesser recoil and deflects wind better. In other words, stick to 120- to 143-grain bullets, and you’ll be fine.
- Unbeatable at the 300-yard range
- Almost always available and fairly cheap
- Available for bolt, lever, pump, single, and semi-auto rifles
- Solid penetration
- Lower recoil than the .30-06
- Has less stopping power than the .30-06
There’s no stopping the .308 Winchester any time soon. It just works, and I’m glad it’s so popular, as many of its advantages and disadvantages are very reasonable when hunting deer, elk, or moose.
The .308 Winchester was supposed to be a successor to the .30-06 Springfield as a primary cartridge for the US Military. However, it quickly became a civilian favorite and took the hunting market by storm.
The .308 is popular because it’s absolutely focused on the 100- to 300-yard range, and that’s all you need as a hunter. Most deer hunters are just happy with this reach, and the accuracy, knockdown power, recoil, and factory ammo are the reasons why it’s so popular.
What I like about the .308 the most is its ability to perfectly penetrate 200 pounds of whitetail deer without damaging the meat.
It holds zero at 300-yards away if properly zeroed, and though it’s less powerful than the .30-06 Springfield, it’s just enough to hunt deer. Seriously, you don’t need that much firepower at these regular yards and ranges. Besides, it has lower recoil.
The .35 Remington significantly outperforms the .30-30 Winchester on paper with its statistics, but it somehow never achieved the popularity like the “dirty thirty” for who knows what reason.
First introduced in 1906, it was also known as the 9x49mm Browning or the 9mm Don Gonzalo.
It’s a pretty hefty bullet that can go up to 200 grains and causes moderate recoil. The bullet is round-nosed and is best used for black bear, elk, moose, brown bear, and of course, deer.
I recommend you stay within the 200-yard range and get yourself some Hornady LEVERevolution .35 Remington 200gr FTX or a box of Remington Core Lokt ammunition 150gr PSP. Both are great for any animal species.
Let’s continue with some expensive high-speed cartridges: the magnums.
Magnum Rifle Calibers
One of the most prominent names in hunting, Roy Weatherby, had gone above and beyond in innovations for the modern magnum cartridge. His exemplary contributions to the caliber greatly popularized high-speed cartridges.
These high-end deer hunting bullets are still relevant on the North American market, and you’ve probably heard about the .300 Weatherby Magnum, the .300 Winchester Magnum, the .300 Remington Magnum, among others, as the most popular deer hunting magnums on the market.
But, we’ll talk about the 7mm Rem. Mag. It’s a really cool one.
- Serious firepower
- High muzzle velocity and flat trajectory up to 300-yards
- Available in many different ammo boxes
- Surprisingly low recoil for a bullet of this size
- Hard to find and may be expensive for some
The aerodynamic 7mm Remington Magnum is undoubtedly made for long-range deer hunting.
This high-end bullet with impeccable ballistic coefficients has a really high muzzle velocity and offers a flat trajectory way past the 250-yard mark. Surprisingly, there’s moderate recoil, and perhaps even less than the .300 Win. Mag. for that matter.
Weirdly enough, even with 150-grain bullets, it doesn’t show much difference over the .30-06 or the .270, which are quite similar on paper. But with crazy grains like the 168-grain Bergers or the 175-grain Nosler Partitions, I’m sure you won’t have any problems.
I’ve seen some old geezers that really despise the 7mm Rem. Mag., but I blame this on the faulty manufacturing in the early years of its production. Somehow, the production line focused on thin-jacketed bullets that were made for the slower 7×57 Mauser cartridge. The result was massive craters in the deer’s body, but very little penetration.
However, today’s formula is greatly improved, and the long bullets can now achieve higher velocities and more power. A 139-grain bullet in this caliber has a muzzle velocity of 3,240 fps, and it’s only 5 inches low at 300 yards, which is impressive, compared to other whitetail cartridges.
I recommend you pick up some ammo boxes like the Hornady Precision Hunter 162-gr ELD-X or a box of Winchester Deer Season XP 140-gr XP. They’re flat, they’re powerful, and they’re a little expensive, but it doesn’t get better than this.
Here are some interesting calibers that are a bit an odd-ball choice for deer hunting. Some aren’t so very popular, but best believe they are still deer caliber bullets.
Here’s the .45-70 Government, a Civil War-era sharpshooting bullet that’s often criticized for being too big of a deer bullet. I believe it’s a solid caliber for larger deer, bear, moose, and elk because of its moderate velocity and bone-crushing stopping power at 300-yards.
With this bullet, expect no ruined meat like you would from 7mm Remington Magnum or the .30-06 Winchester. It’s great for lever-action rifles, doesn’t kick much, carries more energy, and it doesn’t mess around.
I recommend you go for the Hornady LEVERevolution FTX .45-70 Government 325-gr ammo, or the Remington Core Lokt 405gr SP.
Because of the fact that some states do not allow centerfire rifle hunting cartridges, I’ve decided to slip in an old standard of deer hunting: the 12-gauge slug.
The rifled slug is a lead behemoth that weighs an ounce, and that’s 437.5 grains that can effortlessly plow through a whitetail.
If you’re a skilled hunter who can get within the close proximity of a deer at 100 yards, the 12-gauge slug can do wonders if you aim properly. That being said, buckshot is also ideal for close ranges with deer or elk.
Buckshot is effective at the 50-yard range, and I wouldn’t recommend it at longer ranges, but with the use of hounds, while you’re hunting in a thick forest, I think you won’t have any problems here. Just grab yourself some Remington Express Magnum 12-Gauge Buckshot shotshells and call it a day.
Deer Rifle Caliber Buyer’s Guide
Let’s cover the important details in this buyer’s guide.
Like I said before, balance is key when browsing a suitable deer hunting caliber. You should consider bullet energy, velocity, recoil, and accuracy (keeping in mind bullet drop and windage) if you’re planning to drop a 100- or 250-pound whitetail.
Just remember that a high-quality bullet within the .24- to .284 caliber range, with 75- to 140-grain should work like a charm and offer you smooth shots that can reach 3000 fps with no problems. That’s solid efficiency in a 400-yard range.
There Is No Greatest Deer Rifle Caliber of All Time
Let’s get one thing straight – there is no ‘best deer rifle caliber’.
I’m not here to settle debates about which is the ultimate, unbeatable, most versatile rifle caliber that will forever stay a champion of game hunting.
This article is just a carefully written buyer’s guide that’s supposed to help you figure out which legal deer hunting caliber suits you best, and maybe convince you to try out new calibers.
You’ve seen the popular calibers; the .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .270 Winchester, the 6.5 Creedmoor, or the .243 Winchester that simply get the job done, and it all depends on multiple factors and circumstances that we’ll be talking about in detail.
There are serious physics at work here, but you should keep these few important points in mind.
Your Caliber of Choice Must Fit Your Deer Hunting Rifle of Choice
When going for deer hunting cartridges, one of the most important things to consider is your rifle’s caliber.
The cartridge needs to fit the rifle’s caliber, and it’s critical that you use the exact same ammo that’s engraved on your rifle’s barrel or receiver.
If it’s a .300 Win. Mag., you must use the .300 Winchester Magnum, and not the .300 Weatherby Magnums or the .300 Remington Ultra Magnums. Just follow the instructions and pay close attention to the names of the cartridges. Using anything else may result in serious injury.
For more info, check out our best deer rifle buyer’s guide of 2021.
Velocity, Energy, and Recoil
Pay close attention to the velocity, and energy of your chosen caliber because a good caliber has strong windage, a flat trajectory, and the ability for the bullet to reach the target quickly.
An aerodynamic bullet only needs a few inches of arc, so you won’t need to aim high, or worry about the range.
Additionally, the bullet energy from, let’s say, round-nose or flat-point bullets is being wasted on fighting wind and aerodynamics, and don’t have enough stopping power like aerodynamic bullets like the .243 Winchesters, or the almighty 6.5 Creedmoor.
Pointed bullets hit harder, like the .308 Winchester cartridges, and retain energy well, so keep in mind that ‘fatter’ bullets don’t always mean clean kills, not to mention shot placement.
I recommend always aiming for the head instead of the lung and torso when using pointed bullets like the .30-06 Springfield or the .308 Winchester cartridges. It’s not much of a big deal around the 200-300 yard range, but it’s very important to keep factors like wind, energy, velocity, bullet weight, and grain when shooting at the 800- to 1000-yard range.
As for recoil, just remember that hard-kicking magnums or larger bullets make up for your poor shooting. It’s better for you to go for a smooth Hornady 75-grain V-Max .243 Winchester and aim for the heart, than facing the punishing kick of a Hornady 285-grain Eld Match .338 Caliber bullets that can cause you to miss and brutally ravage the deer’s body.
The range (yards) that your bullet can reach is often a more important factor to worry about than energy retention and stopping power.
Hunting within the 100- to 200-yard range is easy and quite literally any old cartridge can reach it. However, by the time you get close to the deer within this range, you have a much higher of spooking the game.
This is where the long-range deer hunting calibers come in. If you need to reach 300 or 800 yards, a .270 Win. or a 7mm Rem Mag. (remember that it has a higher recoil) is a more successful cartridge with solid velocity, lesser bullet drop, and flatter shooting.
Show Some Respect for the Game
Obviously, some calibers with certain grains perform better than others in different areas.
The most important thing to keep in mind is to go for clean, ethical kills that save you time instead of failing to perform an instant kill and dealing with the hassle of following trails of blood.
Throughout history, whitetail deer hunting has been regulated since 1869 in Pennsylvania, and the deer hunting tradition has strengthened before Nebraska and Oklahoma even became legitimate states. So, it’s no surprise that there are so many different opinions on deer hunting calibers.
There had been a massive decline in deer population during the frontier days of the 1850s and the 1900s and they almost saw total extinction.
However, thanks to serious conservation policies of the U.S., the whitetail deer, mule deer, elk, and other deers miraculously returned to the plains and fields and today there are around 30 million whitetail deers that roam freely.
Keep in mind that deer size varies significantly across the states, and using suitable cartridges for optimum performance is key if you want to land clean, ethical well-placed shots without damaging the meat.
Being “overgunned” is just as bad as being “undergunned.”
Cost and Ammo Availability
While we’re too busy crunching numbers here, the world keeps turning, and the prices keep rising. It’s crucial that you include this factor when choosing a deer rifle caliber for you.
You don’t have to pay for premium, superior cartridges that will burn a $100 hole in your pocket when you can purchase a suitable ammo box with a common caliber.
As for ammo availability, well, there’s not much to say about that other than my recommendation of subscribing to your local gun shops and keeping track of in-stock ammo. Try to assess whether or not a caliber is popular and in high demand so you can go for another caliber ammo box. That’s why it’s a good idea to have rifles with different calibers.
Now that we’ve covered the important aspects of this buyer’s guide, let’s sum up some stuff.
Comparing the Best of the Best Deer Rifle Calibers
Based on popularity, the most used deer rifle calibers today are the .243 Win., .270 Win., the .308 Win., and maybe the 6.5 Creedmoor for the win.
These calibers are definitely the most common deer hunting calibers that have proven their worth time and time again.
The reason why I didn’t put the .30-06 Springfield and the .30-30 Winchester calibers is that they’re already too popular, and the sole purpose of this guide is to show you better alternatives and comparisons.
Additionally, I feel that the .30-06 and .30-30, or the ‘dirty thirties’ are somewhat of an overkill, and all that energy and velocity feels kinda wasteful, which further strengthens the argument that these calibers are becoming slightly dated in comparison to the newer ones which focus on clean kills.
Every caliber fares differently when faced with different challenges like distance, wind, deer size, and you also need to consider the recoil, price, and availability if you’re going to decide which caliber to use for a long time.
I’ll say it again, there is no best deer hunting caliber ever.
The ones grandpappy used might have pushed deer to near extinction, but they’re dated, and they don’t trade efficiently in comparison to today’s interesting handful of calibers we have on-demand.
When in doubt, you can go for a new rifle with different calibers like the Remington Model Seven, which is available in almost all the popular calibers, or maybe the Weatherby Vanguard, which covers all the smaller calibers like .240 Weatherby Magnum or the 25-06 Remington caliber.
At the end of the day, the choice is all up to you if you want to stick to tradition and shoot your .30-06 Springfield all day.
There’s always the opportunity to get yourself some nice gear for customizing your rifle and making things easier on yourself. It doesn’t just boil down to caliber, and choosing a proper scope might solve your long-range problem.
No caliber will ever replace a good target practice and cementing your habit and muscle memory on how you operate and how well you know your hunting tricks, as well as knowing the limits of your rifle.