Caliber Selection for Whitetail Deer

The most popular big game species in the world, whitetail deer, can be hunted with a variety of weapons.  Regardless of your choice, whether it be a bow, muzzleloader or rifle, you need to be sure that you select the ammunition that is best suited for your weapon and the game your after.

Every deer hunter has a caliber of rifle that he or she will swear by as being the best gun for deer, but the truth is many rifles are effective for harvesting whitetails.  This is because whitetail deer are a thin skinned, light boned animal.  Probably the most common calibers are .243, .270, 300 mag., 7mm mag., 30-30, 30-06, and .308.  Each has its advantages and disadvantages and if you are in the market for a new rifle or your first rifle, take the time to consider each one.

The .243 is a popular round particularly for varmints, but is widely used for whitetails.  Legislature has set minimum requirements for muzzle velocity, bullet energy, and diameter of .240 in many states, thereby making the .243 an entry-level weapon for deer.  This caliber is prized for its flat shooting, low recoil, and accuracy capabilities.  Your success with the smaller .243 will depend greatly upon your own skill level and a well placed shot.  You will not have the reliability of punching through bone on say a shoulder shot that you would with a more powerful round.  I have several friends who swore by a .243 and had killed many deer with it until each of them lost a big buck due to insufficient power.

When it comes to whitetail deer I would not recommend a caliber less than a .270.  A .270 offers very manageable recoil, is flat shooting, and has enough power to blow through a deer’s shoulder.  A 150 grain bullet will provide adequate knock down power at extended ranges up to 1,000 yards with speeds exceeding 3,000 ft/sec..

One of today’s most popular weapons for deer is the 300 win. mag. and 300 ultra mag.  This round is capable of delivering a tremendous amount of energy at long range.  This weapon is also well suited for elk, moose, and caribou, making it very versatile among the big game species of North America, but be ready for the increase in felt recoil.

The 7 mm magnum with a 160-175 grain bullet will suit you well for all big game species in North America.  This round offers better ballistics than similar weighted bullets of the 30-06 springfield but it can not achieve the higher weights of 200 grain and more that the springfield can.  At 300 yards, allow for about a 6.5″ bullet drop when sighted in at 200 yards (1.5″ high at 100 yards).

A caliber close to my heart is the 30-30.  I killed my first deer with an iron-sighted 30-30 of my father’s and the followig Christmas my own lever-action rifle was under the tree.  Often referred to as a “brush gun” because of its shorter barrel and limited range (under 200 yards).  Loaded with a 150 gr. round, I have dropped deer weighing over 200 lbs on the hoof in their tracks.  This rifle is a great caliber to introduce young people to the sport of hunting.  It is a softer recoiling weapon and is typically found in a lever-action model.  The rounds are loaded into a tubular magazine parralell to the barrel.  To avoid the nose to primer ignition within the magazine between spare rounds, most ammunition manufacturers produce rounded or flat-nosed rounds.  Hornady has recently come out with a flexible tip round that has reportedly increased the bullet’s performance and accuracy significantly, which I would love to give a try next fall.

I am also partial to the more powerful 30-06.  Although not as flat shooting as some of the other calibers listed, it will still pack a punch at distances over 1,000 yards.  It is available in bullet weights from 110 to 220 grains, but I have found that 180 grains performs the best with my Remington Model 700.  My longest kill shot to date was made in 1999 at 365 yards, with many shots between 250 and 300 yards made before and since with no troubles.  I have my rifle sighted-in to be 3″ high at 100 yards.  This puts me dead on at 200 yards and provides an 8″ hold over at 300 yards.

Finally there is the .308.  This round is fully capable of taking not only whitetail but any other big game animal in North America and most around the world.  This cartridge tends to have a lower muzzle velocity which translates into greater bullet drop at longer ranges, but retains tremendous accuracy and is often referred to as “the thousand yard gun.” I personally feel that this weapon is a little overkill when it comes to its use for whitetails as in my experience it causes too much damage to the meat of the animal.  I once saw a whitetail nearly blown in half by two poorly placed shots from a .308 and even perfectly placed shots behind the shoulder can cause significant damage to the shoulder meat that I prize for stew, burger, and roasts.  This weapon produces great knock-down power and is popular in the military as a sniper rifle and with civilians in shooting competitions for its accuracy.

Remember, choose a weapon based upon your intended use and future uses as these are versatile weapons well-suited for varmints to the largest game on the continent.  Think of your comfort level with recoil.  If you choose a heavier recoil rifle such as a 30-06, and you are not comfortable with the weapon, you will struggle with confidence and your accuracy will suffer.  Are you shooting at long ranges, beyond 300 yards?  If so, you may want to consider muzzle velocities.  However, with any weapon you should experiment with ammunition to determine which manufactures, bullet weights, and powder loads produce the best performance.  You may find that muzzle velocities can be manipulated depending upon your set up.  I hope this helps in your decision making for your next deer rifle.

– Randy

photo (top) courtesy of Snowjackal via wikipedia

photo (bottom) courtesy of Wikipedia via public domain


5 thoughts on “Caliber Selection for Whitetail Deer”

  1. How in the world can you say a 308 is overkill after you just said how good a 30-06 is? They fire the same bullets but the 30-06 has more powder behind it. So to say that a 308 is overpowered but not point out that the 30-06 is more powerful could give a new hunter a false impression. 223 is legal for deer in many states but most don’t have fast enough rifling for the bullet weights needed for deer.

    1. I have personally seen the damage from a .308 vs a 30-06 side by side and I was able salvage more meat from the deer killed with a 30-06 at close to the same distance with similar shot placements. I do not want to give a false impression that a 30-06 has less power or can not damage the meat. Poorly placed shots or shoulder shots will do that for sure recoil must be a consideration as with all rifles when being matched to a hunter/shooter of any skill level. These two calibers head to head has been a debate that started almost as soon as the .308 came on the scene decades ago. Comparing their performance differences is like splitting hairs when your talking about the average shooter taking to the deer woods each fall. My remark about “overkill” is based soley on first hand accounts when it comes to processing deer harvested with a .308.
      Which states allow usage of a .223? I was not aware of that as most that I had seen were at .240 min. and I would like to amend my article.
      Thank you for the comment and info.

    2. Dude, you say todays most popular “weapons” for deer is the 300 win mag and 300 ultra mag, but somehow the 308 is “overkill.” Huh? You also dont recommend anything less than a 270. What’s wrong with a 25-06, 257 Roberts, 257 weatherby mag and 260 remington? They are more than adequate.

      1. The 300’s are increasing in popularity for whitetails although, like the .308 I believe they are serious overkill. I am personally running into more and more people who purchased one for a western state elk hunt (just an example), came home started using it for whitetails, and now that is their “go to” rifle. I have personally seen deer hit with a .308 in the heart that destroyed the front shoulders resulting in wasted meat. One poorly placed shot in the spine by a friend had me worried that we would literally pull the deer apart during skinning. The 25-06 is a good rifle. This caliber is just off my short list and I debated on whether or not to include it. My decision came down to another story of a friend who hit what would have been his biggest buck to date in the shoulder with a 25-06 at 70-80 yards. The buck was knocked off his feet, then quickly got up and ran 350 yards down off the mountain and on to a neighboring property whos owner refused access to recover the deer. As for the other weapons you mention, I have no personal experience with those calibers. I have never claimed to be an encyclopedia of firearms nor an “expert” in anything that you find upon our site. I am simply offering up my opinion based upon 20 yrs of deer hunting experience and my list of calibers is not necessarily exhaustive, just those that I have personally used, seen used, or dealt with their aftermaths.

        We appreciate your comment and as a perpetual student, feel free to provide your own opinions on this and any topic you find here as I often find other’s experiences and insight very educational.

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