About a month or so before deer hunting season opens, a lot of folks tend to start asking what the best deer hunting cartridge is. I’m not sure if the curiosity is driven by folks shopping for a new rifle or if it’s just folks who are about to dip their toes in deer hunting for the first time. Nevertheless, the question comes up and most of the answers tend to be the respondents go to cartridge. While that’s all well intentioned and good to see folks helping each other, I thought it would be good to look at several different cartridges used by folks and consider their limitations. After all, hunting deer across open plains is very different from hunting deer in a densely wooded forest.
Before diving into the details, I want to set a few parameters. First, I’m going to look at rifle cartridges. I’m aware some folks hunt deer with pistol cartridges. Unfortunately, I don’t have any experience in that arena and I’m not sure where to begin with it.
Next up, I’m going to consider the maximum effective distance to be where a cartridge falls below 800 ft-lbs of remaining energy based on commonly available advertised ballistic data. Frankly, I don’t have experience with most of the cartridges I’m going to cover. I also think that is a well accepted limit by the hunting community.
I’m also going to provide the distance at which the cartridge drops more than three inches. This number should be less than the maximum effective distance for a number of the cartridges I’m going to cover. This number should be considered the effective distance of a cartridge when fired from a rifle with a non adjustable sighting system. My reasoning is that this distance is the maximum distance at which the shot doesn’t require a hold over above the back of a deer. Frankly, this is the maximum distance I would be confident taking a shot with that cartridge without having an adjustable sighting system.
The final parameter I am going to apply is an assumption of a 200 yard zero and a 1.5″ sight height. I’m going with the 200 yard zero assumption because it tends to be a fairly common zero around hunters and provides a longer trajectory distance in which the projectile doesn’t deviate more than 3″. It’s worth noting that many hunters rely on a 100 yard zero predominantly because they lack access to a gun range with rifle ranges that extend beyond a 100 yards. If this happens to be your case (as it is mine), then know that the 3″ elevation deviation trajectory range will be shorter than the ranges I list in this post. Perhaps I will compare the difference between 3″ elevation deviation trajectories using a 100 yards zero versus a 200 yard zero at a later date.
With all of that out of the way, let’s explore the data with these parameters for a dozer or so different deer cartridges.
|Cartridge||Bullet Weight||Sectional Density||800 ft-lbs Range||3″ Trajectory Range|
|5.56mm NATO||75 grains||.214||25 yards||50 yards|
|243 Winchester||90 grains||.218||525 yards||250 yards|
|6.5mm Creedmoor||143 grains||.293||875 yards||225 yards|
|270 Winchester||145 grains||.270||925 yards||250 yards|
|7mm Remington Magnum||162 grains||.287||1150 yards||250 yards|
|30-30 Winchester||150 grains||.226||200 yards||150 yards*|
|308 Winchester||178 grains||.268||850 yards||225 yards|
|30-06 Springfield||178 grains||.268||950 yards||225 yards|
|300 Winchester Magnum||178 grains||.268||1075 yards||250 yards|
|7.62x39mm||123 grains||.183||225 yards||150 yards*|
|303 British||150 grains||.220||525 yards||225 yards|
|35 Reminton||200 grains||.223||375 yards||150 yards*|
|45-70 Government||325 grains||.221||400 yards||125 yards*|
Discussion time, starting with the 5.56mm NATO. I opted to look at the 75 grain 5.56mm NATO because it was the only one that exceeded a .2 sectional density. The more common 55 grain and 62 grain variants have a .157 and .177 sectional density respectively which I personally think are too low to consider for medium sized game applications. I’m certain some folks will disagree, but I’m sticking to my guns on this. Sectional density is correlated with penetration and a .2 sectional density is as low as I’m comfortable with when it comes to using small bore cartridges for hunting medium sized game. An interesting thing to note is that with a 200 yard zero, this cartridge deviates more than 3″ somewhere between 50 and 75 yards before reaching the 200 yard zero distance. One could use a 100 yard zero and get a flatter trajectory path out to 150 yards, but either way the remaining energy in the projectile drops below 800 ft-lbs of remaining energy somewhere between 25 and 50 yards regardless of the zero. In my opinion, this cartridge is suitable hunting deer at extremely short distances.
The 243 Winchester is a staple among many deer hunters. Loads for this cartridge will vary from 80 to 100 grains. The lighter 80 grain projectiles fall just short of the .2 sectional density limit I would use for medium sized game with a .193 sectional density. Every hunter using this round will have to make up their own mind as to whether or not to use the lighter projectiles. With that in mind this cartridge packs enough energy to be effective to just beyond 525 yards and remains relatively flat out to about 250 yards. These characteristics make it suitable for short and medium range deer hunting scenarios with the right rifle and scope combination.
My primary choice for medium game hunting, the 6.5mm Creedmoor can commonly be found loaded with projectiles weighing as little as 120 grains up to 143 grains all of which have a larger than the ideal .225 sectional density for medium game hunting. While it’s not as flat shooting as the 243 Winchester it does remain relatively flat out to 225 yards and retains enough energy for medium sized game all the way out 875 yards. These characteristics make just about any hunting load suitable for hunting deer out to relatively long distances.
It’s near impossible to have a conversation about deer hunting cartridges without somebody bringing up the tried and true 270 Winchester. Projectile weights for this cartridge are very similar to the 6.5mm Creedmoor projectile weights. However, the slightly longer diameter means a slightly lower sectional density that 6.5mm projectiles. Even so the sectional density on all of the projectiles commonly found on the 270 Winchester cartridge remain well above the ideal .225 sectional density. The 270 remains relatively flat to 250 yards and retains enough energy for deer to 925 yards making this cartridge amongst the flattest and longest reaching for medium sized game I’ve explored so far.
The first magnum cartridge of the batch explored is the 7mm Remington Magnum. The projectiles commonly found loaded in this cartridge leave no room for doubt as far as sectional density is concerned. Additionally, this cartridge remains flat out to about 250 yards and retains enough energy for taking medium sized game out to 1150 yards. While this is the effectiveness of this cartridge dwarfs the others explored so far, it also offers more recoil than the others. This is something those considering getting in the magnum cartridge game should keep in mind.
Quite a few folks use the 30-30 Winchester for deer hunting. Looking at the ballistic data of this cartridge with a 200 yard zero, I quickly realized that using this zero on this cartridge results in an elevation deviation greater than 3″ at just 25 yards. That leads me to believe that a 100 yard zero is a much better match for this cartridge that I have zero experience with (hence the asterisk and italics on the entry for this cartridge on the table). Using a hundred yard zero, this cartridge provides a relatively flat trajectory out to about 150 yards and retains enough energy for medium sized game out to about 200 yards. These characteristics make this cartridge suitable for short range deer hunting.
In my opinion, the 308 Winchester is the most commonly used cartridge by deer hunters. It also seems to have the widest selection of projectiles loaded in it which are marketed for medium sized game hunting. I’m a leery of the loads with projectiles lighter than 150 grains as they fall below the .2 sectional density limit I place on small bore cartridges. Even so, there are plenty of loads with projectile weights ranging from 150 grains to 180 grains which are suitable for deer hunting. Ballistically, this cartridge is extremely similar to the 6.5mm Creedmoor I’ve already explored. As such, it is essentially suitable for deer hunting at essentially the same distances.
In a lot of ways, I think the 30-06 Springfield is to the 308 Winchester as the 270 Winchester is to the 6.5mm Creedmoor. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it feels pretty close to me. Loads for the 30-06 use essentially the same projectiles used in 308 Winchester loads. As such, I remain leery of loads lighter than 150 grains due to the lower sectional density. This cartridge tends to remain relatively flat out to 225 yards and carries enough energy to take deer out to 950 yards.
Trying my hand at another imperfect analogy, the 300 Winchester Magnum is to the 30-06 Springfield as the 7mm Remington Magnum is to the 270 Winchester. Basically, 300 Win Mag (as it is commonly referred to as) loads use essentially the same projectiles as the 308 Winchester and the 30-06 Springfield. However, I can’t recall seeing a projectile lighter than 150 grains. Some loads use even heavier 200 grain projectiles. Like the 7mm Rem Mag, the 300 Win Mag stays relatively flat out to 250 yards. It doesn’t quite retain energy as far as the 7mm Rem Mag, but it does retain enough for medium sized game to 1075 yards. Also like the 7mm Rem Mag, the 300 Win Mag is going to pack quite a bit or recoil.
A cartridge that comes up from time to time is the 7.62x39mm. I’ll be honest, I might be more hesitant about this cartridge that I am about any other on this list. The primary reason for this is the low .183 sectional density of the typical 123 grain projectile loaded in this cartridge. While the sectional density leaves a lot to be desired, it does remain flat enough (using 100 yard zero) out to 150 yards and carries more than 800 ft-lbs of energy just beyond 225 yards. From a trajectory and energy point of view, this cartridge is pretty similar to the 30-30 Winchester.
The 303 British isn’t a cartridge I hear about very often. Not only do I not have any experience with it, but I’ve also never really looked into it before. Nevertheless, it’s a rare outlier that has come up in conversations. The .22 sectional density of a 150 grain projectile loaded in the 303 British is good enough for medium sized game applications. In terms of trajectory and energy retention, the 303 British shares a lot in common with the 243 Winchester. It’s relatively flat out to 225 yards and retains enough energy for deer out to 525 yards. Like the 243 Winchesters, this is a good candidate for short to medium range deer hunting with the right rifle and scope combination.
The first and only medium bore cartridge we are exploring is the 35 Remington which is an outlier in conversations like the 303 British. This is also the third cartridge we have explored that I think is better suited to a 100 yard zero as it would deviate more than 3″ at around 75 yards on its trajectory path to a 200 yard zero. With a 100 yard zero, this round is relatively flat out to 150 yards and carries more than 800 ft-lbs of energy out to about 375 yards. These characteristics lead me to believe this cartridge is very well suited to hunting deer at short distances and could push into medium range with the right equipment. I somewhat see this cartridge as a beefed up 30-30 Winchester.
Last, but not least, in this exploration is the good ole 45-70 Government (known in some circles as the 1895 Marlin). Like the 35 Remington, this is the first and only big bore cartridge we are looking at. Some of the lighter projectiles found in loads for this cartridge dip below the .185 sectional density limit suggested for hunting medium sized game with large bore cartridge. However, there are a good number of projectiles around 325 grains or larger that push the sectional density into a comfortable range. Like some of the other cartridges explored in this post, the 45-70 is probably better suited to a 100 yard zero as it’s trajectory can deviate much more than 3″ before approaching a 200 yard zero. With a 100 yard zero, the cartridge remains relatively flat out to 125 yards and retains enough energy to bag deer out to 400 yards. As such, it seems to be an excellent choice for hunting medium sized game at short distances and can push into medium distances with the right rifle and scope combination.
We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of deer hunting cartridges. There are plenty more suitable for this application. I hope readers don’t take this exploration as a comparison to determine what cartridge is best. Rather, I hope readers see there are differences between cartridges making them more suitable for some hunting situations than others. The other key takeaway is that regardless of cartridge selection, hunters may be limited to engaging suitable game at short distances by the sighting system on the rifle rather than the cartridge. In some cases, cartridge selection may also influence the zero distance.
There are plenty of more experienced hunters than me. As such, please remember that everything in this post is simply my opinion based on my experiences with a small subset of the cartridges explored. Take everything I’ve written with a grain of salt while I hope it’s sparked the curiosity to learn more.