A look at the most popular cartridges for deer hunting
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Whitetail deer are by far the most popular species of big game pursued by North American hunters. When their blacktail and mule deer cousins are factored in, millions of American hunters go afield after deer each fall and winter. Archery hunters make up a significant chunk of that number, but the remainder hunt with an incredible array of different shotguns, handguns, centerfire rifles, and muzzleloaders.
While those hunters carry a wide assortment of different firearms afield, most hunters tend to use one of a handful of different cartridges for hunting. Here are a few of the most popular.
The .30-30 Winchester first came on the scene in the late 1800s, but it’s still an incredibly popular hunting cartridge, especially for those who like using lever-action rifles. The old .30-30 doesn’t have eye popping ballistics, but it’s still more than powerful enough for most deer hunters, especially those hunting in thicker conditions where short to medium range encounters with game are the norm.
Add in the fact that the .30-30 is most commonly available in easy to carry and fast pointing lever-action rifles like the Marlin 336 and the Winchester 1894, and it’s no surprise why the .30-30 Winchester is still so popular with deer hunters to this day.
.30-06 Springfield (308)
Adopted by the U.S. military in the early years of the 20th century, the .30-06 Springfield was also a big hit among American hunters. Indeed, hunters all over the world have developed a strong affinity for the .30-06 and it has seen widespread use in Africa, Alaska, Australia, Canada, Europe, and New Zealand (among many other places) as well.
The .30-06 Springfield was one of the most powerful and flat shooting cartridges in common use at the beginning of the 20th century, but there are many other options available to hunters these days who are looking for something that hits a little harder or shoots a little flatter. That said, there’s not a darn thing wrong with the .30-06. It’s still an excellent all-around hunting cartridge and it remains a big favorite among American deer hunters to this day.
Closely related to the .30-06 Springfield, the .270 Winchester was introduced in the 1920s and shoots a smaller diameter and lighter bullet at a significantly faster velocity. As a result, the .270 has a very flat trajectory and less recoil than the .30-06, but it’s also still extremely effective on thin-skinned game like deer, pronghorn, and sheep.
Those characteristics helped make the .270 an ideal choice for hunters like Jack O’Connor, who did a lot of hunting out west and needed a little more reach than most eastern whitetail hunters. However, the .270 was such an outstanding performer on deer-sized game that it’s still regarded as one of the best cartridges for deer hunters all over the country to this day.
Developed by necking a .308 Winchester cartridge down to shoot .243” (6mm) bullets, the .243 Winchester has a similar relationship to the .308 as the .270 does to the .30-06. The little .243 Winchester cartridge has a very mild recoil that makes it great for smaller framed or new hunters but is still more than powerful enough to ethically take even the biggest whitetail, mule, or blacktail deer.
That said, .243 is not just limited to children or inexperienced hunters either. It’s a sweet shooting cartridge that’s well suited for deer hunters of all ages, sizes, and experience levels.
It’s not legal for deer hunting in every state, but the .223 Remington is an underrated choice for hunters where it’s legal to hunt with. This is especially true for hunters who want to use an AR platform.
Some people still consider the diminutive .223/5.56 NATO cartridge too light for hunting big game, but advances in bullet technology in recent years have dramatically improved the efficacy of the cartridge on small to medium sized game. At ranges inside 100 yards and when using a robustly constructed hunting bullet, the .223 Remington is absolutely deadly on deer.
.300 Winchester Magnum
On the other end of the spectrum from the .223 Remington we have the .300 Winchester Magnum. Also known as the .300 Win Mag, this cartridge is flat shooting and delivers heavy hitting performance at long range. With that in mind, the .300 Win Mag is well suited for hunters who need a rifle cartridge with a lot of reach as well as those who want a single rifle for hunting game ranging in size from pronghorn and deer all the way up to elk and moose.
The .300 Winchester Magnum will certainly get the job done on a wide range of game, but the impressive ballistics of the cartridge come at the expense of recoil. Many hunters use rifles with a muzzle brake to help tame recoil, but muzzle brakes also enhance muzzle blast. If you elect to go down that route, make sure you wear appropriate ear protection while hunting as well as at the range.
Originally developed for competition shooters, the 6.5 Creedmoor is a relative newcomer to the hunting community. However, many hunters have discovered just how effective the sweet shooting and mild recoiling cartridge on game like deer and pronghorn. Not surprisingly, the 6.5 Creedmoor is now one of the most popular deer hunting cartridges in use in North America.
Hunters in many Midwestern states were restricted to using either archery equipment or muzzleloaders and shotguns loaded with buckshot or slugs for many years. Fortunately, some of those states are starting to loosen their regulations and many now permit the use of straight walled cartridges like the .450 Bushmaster during rifle season.
While the .450 Bushmaster (and similar cartridges) will undoubtedly work in that role, the folks at Winchester worked to fill that gap with a purpose designed cartridge. The result was the .350 Legend: a .357” straight walled cartridge designed to comply with the regulations in those Midwestern states and still provide adequate performance on deer. They were largely successful in accomplishing those goals, and the .350 Legend is rapidly gaining in popularity among hunters restricted to using straight walled cartridges.
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