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Best Caliber for Deer Hunting

William W (Bill) Gabbard

deer calibers
Left to right 223, 25-06, 7mm08, 270, 280, 308, 7mm Rem Mag, 300 Win Mag


What is the best caliber for deer hunting?

This question has been discussed over campfires, in hunting camps, and during Monday morning quarterbacking sessions for ages! I watched two co-workers nearly ruin a good friendship over the difference in a 243 Winchester and a 6MM Remington. A fellow that I used to work with had a 264 Winchester Magnum named “Big Joe” that in his mind was the only viable caliber for deer hunting.

When I started deer hunting in the 1970s, most of my friends either used a 30-06 or a 30-30. A few folks used a 243 Winchester (the smallest caliber that was legal for deer hunting in Kentucky at that time), a couple of fellows that I knew used a 270 Winchester, and one guy used a 280 Remington. The guy with the 280 handloaded because of the limited availability of ammo. Back then, no one that I knew used a “magnum” anything for deer hunting. Magnums were what those folks that went out west used!

Boy how times have changed! When I began this article, I asked many friends of mine who deer hunt what caliber they used and why they thought it was the best. The variety of calibers used has expanded greatly in the last 40 years. Just from my friends and family, the list now goes from 222 Remington to 300 Remington Ultra Magnum. I personally have killed deer with rifles ranging from 204 Ruger to 300 Win Mag. The reasons for this change are many and could possibly be an article all its own, but let’s look at what hunters are using now and why. Keep in mind that I am not attempting to cover every caliber available, so if I miss your favorite, let us know what it is and why it’s your favorite.

204 Ruger

While this round will kill deer, is exceptionally accurate, and has almost no recoil, I cannot recommend it for deer hunting. The bullets are just a little too light and not constructed heavily enough to hold together for clean consistent kills.

222 Remington

Henley McIntosh, a cousin of mine, loves this round and has killed several deer with it.  But again, due to the light bullets in most factory ammo, /our-obsession/blogs/how-to/choosing-ammunition-factory-loads I would only recommend it in the hands of a competent marksman.

223 Remington

Randy Bryant, Vice President of the local Sportsman’s Club and competitive shooter, is a big fan of the 223 using heavy bullets in an AR style rifle. He is hunting at fairly close ranges and is a great shot. Bullet selection is critical if using the 223 for deer hunting.

243 Winchester

Maddi's deer
Maddi's deer with 243

More than one of the folks surveyed said that this is their number one choice for deer. Ashley Sandlin, local Deputy Sherriff, said that it kills good, doesn’t kick, and that her kids love to borrow it when they go hunting. Henley Mcintosh stated that this was probably the best all-around caliber because of lack of recoil, accuracy, and all the energy is used up in the deer. My brother, my granddaughter (Maddi Mastin) and lots of other folks mentioned 243 in their answer.

caliber grouping
Maddi's 243 on paper

244/6mm Remington

Very similar to the 243 Winchester but limited availability of factory ammo is an issue.

257 Roberts

A wonderful caliber for deer but hardly anyone in my circle of friends even mentioned it. A good friend of mine who passed away a few years ago loved this caliber for its accuracy and lack of recoil. Limited supply of readily available factory ammo is a shortfall.

25-06 Remington

Another old classic that seems to be getting passed by these days has great accuracy, light recoil, and great long-range capabilities. Trish Bishop has tried different calibers but keeps coming back to her 25-06.

6.5 Grendel

Jon Allen of Nighthawk Tactical Solutions uses the Grendel on hogs and is planning to deer hunt with it this year. Jon says accuracy (which I must back him up on), almost no recoil, as well as dramatic kills have him excited about this caliber. My granddaughter Maddi is already eyeing my bolt-action Grendel.   The growing supply of ammunition, and choices of types of bullets and the ability to use AR style rifles as well as bolt guns are all positives for the Grendel.

6.5 Creedmoor

The Creedmoor has taken the hunting world as well as the shooting world by storm. While none of my folks surveyed have taken a deer with this caliber, at least four said that they are planning to use it this year. Most are citing accuracy, long-range capabilities, and light recoil as their reason. Gun-Nut Dustin Cooper has killed deer with 243, 270, 30-06 and 300 Win Mag and said, “I just want to see what it does on a big ol buck.”

260 Remington

Mike Gross, custom gun builder and competitive shooter, uses a Model 7 Remington in 260. Light recoil, incredible accuracy and “drop in their tracks” kills are his reasons.

264 Winchester Magnum

I must mention the 264 out of respect to my friend Dexter Evans, as it is the only caliber he recognizes. As far as I know, the Remington Sendero SF II is the only production rifle currently available, and factory ammo is limited.

270 Winchester

This long-time favorite was mentioned by several folks. The 270 has been available as a factory round since 1925 and is showing no signs of letting up. Extremely accurate, incredible kills, long-range capabilities, manageable recoil, incredible variety, and ready availability of factory ammunition are on its long list of attributes. It is available in bolt action, pump, semi-auto and even lever action rifles. 

7mm-08 Remington

The cross between a 243 and a 308 the 7mm-08, offers an incredible array of possibilities. This caliber has a tremendous following and for good reason. Paul Johnson mentioned the amount of versatility in tailoring loads, lack of recoil, incredible accuracy and great knock-down power. Carl Cooper laid down his 300 Win Mag for the 7mm-08 because of the lighter recoil and plans to never look back because of the killing power of the little round. Phyllis Cornett likes it because of the accuracy and lack of recoil. Mossy Oak’s Walt Gabbard said, “It is still hard to beat the 7mm-08.”

280 Remington

While the 280 has never seen the commercial success that the 270 Win has, most gun writers agree that it is ballistically superior to the 270. Factory ammo is available with bullets ranging from Norma’s 125 gr to Remington’s 165 gr. The availability of ammo from online and big box outdoor stores are just a few of the reasons that this great caliber is staying alive.

7mm Remington Magnum

7mm-08 grouping
3-shot group with 7mm Rem Mag from a Browning BBR

This is the caliber that a many choose when they first get a case of “Magnum Fever.” The choices in factory ammo are staggering as are the options in building a suitable handload. The 7mm, as most folks call it, is accurate and hard hitting making it a favorite. When Walt Gabbard was 14, he got his first case of “Magnum Fever” when he killed an 8-point buck. Its only drawback is that with a poorly designed or ill-fitting rifle stock, the 7mm Rem Mag can be a little bit uncomfortable to shoot.

30-30 Winchester

The 30-30 was one of the most popular calibers around years ago and it is still hanging in there.  However, based on my small sample of local hunters, not nearly as many folks use it now. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Brad Turner is still a fan though. Col. Turner stated that where he hunts 100 yards is a long shot and the 30-30 still drops them in their tracks!

308 Winchester

The 308 is one of the most popular calibers around, and there are plenty of reasons. Accuracy, long-range capabilities, good knock-down, manageable recoil, an incredible array of choice for factory loaded ammo as well as an almost endless list of components for the hand loader are just a few. The 308 is available in bolt, pump, lever, and single shot as well semi-auto rifles. Sheriff Kelly Shouse quickly replied 308 when asked what his favorite deer caliber was, an answer that was echoed by his son Hunter, as well as Benny Gabbard and his son Ben. Several others mentioned it as their second choice.

30-06

The old 30-06 has been around since 1906 and is still extremely popular. Several people mentioned it as their all time favorite or as their second choice. Availability of ammo, knockdown power, and just about any style of rifle being available are among the first attributes listed for the 06. Its only drawback can be recoil if it is in an ill-fitting stock.

300 Winchester Magnum

You might be surprised by the number of hunters that use the 300 as their primary deer rifle. An exceptional round for long range, it gives no quarter in performance on whitetail. When paired with the proper rifle and proper bullet weight the 300’s main drawbacks would be recoil and that a fairly long barrel is required to maximize its performance. Gary Deaton, Mike Gabbard and Hank Patton, all accomplished deer hunters, can usually be seen carrying well-worn 300 Win Mags that they are very comfortable with. Patton said, “I just love watching them smack the ground at the drop of the hammer, no tracking involved.”
 
300 Remington Ultra Magnum

Only one of my friends uses this caliber. Jamie Thomas said that hands down this is his favorite.  “It flat kills - no tracking, no chasing. I pull the trigger and the game is over!” Limited selection of factory ammo and recoil are the only two downsides to this caliber.

This article is not a scientifically researched article quoting feet per second and foot pounds of energy retained at specific distances. It is a collection of observations calling on the knowledge of experienced and successful deer hunters. Each of the hunters that I have discussed here fits this description. Some of them have been deer hunting for more than 50 years, while some are new to the sport.
 
So my conclusion to the best caliber of deer hunting is the caliber your centerfire rifle with properly constructed bullets will shoot comfortably. It is every hunter’s responsibility to be familiar with and know the capabilities and limitations of their rifle in order to become proficient with it.

Oh, and to the guy in the back there asking, “Hey Bill what do you use,” I always put a lot of thought into what I am going to hunt with, accuracy, energy, my comfort level with the rifle and for the past 12 years here in Kentucky, I reach in the vault and pull out the same rifle. An old Remington 700 chambered in 7mm Weatherby Magnum. Nobody else I know hunts with one, but it shoots 0.3 in groups with my handloads, just fits me, recoil is not an issue and results on the other end are incredible!

Bill Gabbard deer

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