You have your deer hunting socks. You have your deer hunting boots. Sounds to us like you’re all ready to do yourself some deer hunting! But wait just a minute – do you also have your deer hunting rifle? That is a crucial piece of equipment for the sport, and not just because the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service frowns on the practice of beating deer to death with large tree branches. There is no one-size fits all best deer hunting caliber. Sure, a good cartridge will (A) hit the deer and (B) kill it quickly, but many rounds boast that kind of ballistic and terminal performance. What you want is the best round for the kind of terrain you’ll be hunting in – as well as one you’ll be able to easily shop for.
Our Picks for Best Deer Hunting Caliber:
- 30-30 Winchester
- 308 Winchester
- 30-06 Springfield
- 243 Winchester
- 270 Winchester
- 350 Legend
- 45-70 GOVT
- 6.5 Creedmoor
Read on to get an idea of what considerations you should think about and why each caliber could be a great choice for your next hunt.
Pick the Right Cartridge for the Terrain
There are better deer cartridges for certain kinds of terrain. If you’re hunting where there are a lot of dense underbrush and closely packed trees, then you may prefer a less powerful round. You won’t need long-distance accuracy when you can’t fire much farther than 200–300 yards, and a lighter rifle with a shorter barrel is easier to carry through the brush. But if you’re hunting in a wide open area, like the desert or the mountains – i.e. where long-distance opportunities will present themselves – then a scoped rifle chambered for something more powerful should serve you better.
Pick a Caliber You’ll Have an Easy Time Finding
When selecting a deer cartridge, it’s helpful to keep it mainstream. Rifles chambered for 444 Marlin and 257 Roberts +P both excel at taking medium game. Unfortunately, less popular rounds like those also make it more difficult to source the steady supply of ammo you’ll need for target practice. You do want to thoroughly familiarize yourself with your rifle’s performance before you stake the outcome of a hunt on it, after all! Before committing to a new deer caliber, check to see how easily you can buy it at local gun shops and online. If you turn up a big fat goose egg during your initial search, then it’s reasonable to expect similar frustration in the future. That all said, we’re going to limit our recommendations to very popular cartridges.
Once you’re sold on a caliber, then it’s time to pick the best deer hunting rifle for your hunt.
Deer Caliber Strengths & Weaknesses
30-30 Win: Champion of the Woods
The 30-30 doesn’t offer a lot of range. Because it is a lever-action cartridge, its bullet must be flat tipped by design (otherwise it could ignite the primer it touches while loaded in a tubular magazine). That alongside the 30-30’s relatively lower power means its range is limited to around 150–200 yards (or potentially 250 yards if you’re hunting with Hornady LEVERevolution ammo). Thing is, the 30-30’s limited range isn’t a huge setback when you’re in the woods where you probably can’t see game beyond 150–200 yards anyway. A 30-30 rifle is also typically lighter by design, and its gentler recoil is a welcome bonus to hunters who are younger, smaller in stature, or given to flinching before squeezing the trigger.
308 Win: A Military Classic
Why is the 308 one of America’s most popular deer rounds? Several reasons, in fact, although its military heritage is not the least among them. A lot of guys learned how to shoot with this cartridge, and they weren’t keen on abandoning it after they were discharged. And because our military’s virtually identical 7.62×51 is so abundant, finding good .308 target ammo is always a cakewalk. The 308’s effective range for deer hunting usually ends at around 300 yards (a skilled shooter can extend that range by quite a bit, of course). A 150 grain soft point load reliably delivers over 1,000 ft lbs of kinetic energy to a 500-yard target (i.e. the minimum impact energy threshold typically recommended for ethical whitetail harvesting). And since most hunters aren’t going to attempt 500-yard shots anyway, the 308 is more than capable of reaching the distances they want.
30-06 Springfield: Another Military Classic
The 30-06 preceded the 308 as America’s standard combat rifle cartridge. Though it may be over 100 years old, it’s still widely embraced by hunters across the nation. The 30-06 does not perform dramatically unlike the 308. Its larger case does pose a slight velocity advantage – faster moving bullet, flatter trajectory – and it also tends to handle heavier bullets more capably. For this reason the 30-06 can easily do the job at 400 yards. And while its recoil is certainly there, the 30-06 was designed to be fired all day long by hard-working soldiers and accordingly doesn’t jolt the shoulder too violently.
243 Win: The Whitetail All-Rounder
The 243 is one of the safest bets there is. Its flat trajectory produces stellar accuracy within 200–300 yards – and it just so happens to excel at bagging whitetails throughout that range as well. Its lighter recoil makes the 243 a natural choice for younger hunters, although anyone is bound to appreciate just how gently it kicks. And because the 243 cartridge is relatively small, you won’t be burdened by too much rifle during your adventures.
270 Win: The Option to Hunt Larger game
The 270’s performance is best viewed in comparison to the 243. Its muzzle velocity may be a little lower, but its bullet’s greater weight gives it more downrange momentum and resultant great accuracy at 500 yards and beyond. The 270 bullet’s superior kinetic energy also makes it a far better pick for bagging bigger critters like bear and elk. And because it is significantly wider, the 270 bullet can apply its greater energy toward producing a wider wound cavity in the quarry.
350 Legend: A Straight-Walled Dynamo
Winchester recently introduced 350 Legend ammo in order to better serve hunters whose states prohibit bottlenecked cartridges. In these states, you must used a straight-walled cartridge. But legal compliance isn’t the 350 Legend’s sole advantage! Its effective range of 250 yards is accessible to hunters with only intermediate marksmanship skills, and its surprisingly forgiving recoil is quite the welcome feature during target practice. It’s an agreeably priced cartridge at that, and its effect on medium-size game is fairly comparable to that of significantly larger cartridges.
45-70 Government: The Granddaddy of Military Hunting Rounds
Still open to another straight-walled round? It’s bigger, more expensive and a little bit harder to source than the 350 Legend, and its effective range for deer hunting is about 50–100 yards shorter as well. But despite all of that, 45-70 ammunition remains one of the best shorter-range deer loads at hunters’ disposal. We should note that the 45-70 is perfectly able to strike a human-size target at 1,000 yards. The old round’s steep bullet drop does make long-range shooting a little harder than a heavier-powered modern load, but that’s nothing a little training can’t fix.
6.5 Creedmoor: A Target Round Turned Deer Load
The 6.5 Creedmoor was originally developed as a long-distance target shooting cartridge – but the performance which suited it so well to that application just so happened to carry over ideally to deer hunting. The 6.5 CM’s recoil is remarkably light considering its enormous 800-yard effective range. It’s also incredibly versatile, with ideal cartridges available whether you’re keeping it within 100 yards or testing the extent of your skills beyond the 500-yard line.
Honorable Mention for Best Deer Hunting Caliber
These cartridges are also amazing deer slayers, although their relative unpopularity makes them a somewhat less surefire choice when it comes to ammo selection. You won’t get skunked at the store altogether – you’ll just have fewer options to choose from.
- 25-06 Rem
- 260 Rem
- 7mm-08 Rem
- 7mm Rem Mag
At the end of the day, the best deer cartridge is the one you most prefer using. Whether that’s a 308 or a 243 boils down to your unassailable personal preference. In other words, if you didn’t see your favorite deer hunting cartridge on our list, that’s only because it’s not one of our favorite deer loads. The beauty of this is that we are both right!