It is not an exaggeration to say that the deer hunting caliber you choose can make or break your hunt. How a caliber can take an enjoyable day hunting and turn it into a mess (literally) slog or exercise in frustration is almost unlimited.
Likewise, if you match the best ammunition for sport shooters and hunters with quarry and your terrain, you can ensure that you bring down a deer cleanly and ethically, with a very good chance of securing a kill shot.
The following are recommendations for the best all-around calibers to use when deer hunting and how to pick the caliber that best suits your hunting goals.
Match Your Cartridge to Terrain
Ideally, your deer hunting cartridges and calibers match the terrain. For example, one caliber rifle will work better in thicker than pea soup underbrush and heavy tree cover. Another caliber will work better in wide-open places with diverse elevations and variable winds ranging from a slight breeze to a gale.
You also want to ensure that your cartridge’s action matches the terrain. Long-distance calibers work with shots over 200 yards and pack enough power to kill at over 300 yards. Shorter distance calibers work best under 300 yards and are better suited for lighter rifles with shorter barrels.
Short-action cartridges pack a lot of power but weigh less than long-action cartridges. Long-range cartridges generally have a lot of recoil, which makes selecting them problematic if you are shorter or sleight-of-build. Sacrificing some distance for a lighter cartridge can mean a lot if you walk a long distance to get to your hunting platform.
If you can order ammunition online or buy it from a large ammunition dealer, the type of rifle you have might not make that much of a difference. The more standard the caliber rifle you use, the easier it is to find the ammunition you need. Less popular calibers, like a 444 Marlin or 257 Roberts +P, are great rifles, but finding ammunition for them can be challenging.
If, however, your ability to buy ammunition is limited to a local outlet, finding the best ammunition for sport shooters might be problematic or limited the next time you need it. Finding less popular cartridges is always easier if you plan and buy wholesale during the “off-season.”
The 30-30 Winchester is ideal for ranges under 200 yards. A lever action, a 30-30’s cartridge is flat tipped, so the bullet does not light the primer while loaded in the magazine. The smaller range is not an issue if you are hunting in a densely forested area or with a lot of underbrush.
Another upside to the 30-30 is that it is very lightweight but has a gentle recoil. Both factors work well for the following people:
- Lighter people
- People of smaller stature
- Shooters who are prone to flinch when squeezing the trigger
Additionally, the 30-30’s recoil and lightweight are ideal if you must work through dense underbrush or over long distances.
Before the 308 Winchester, the 30-06 Springfield was the standard rifle cartridge for the military. The cartridge’s versatility in combat helped it transition to being one of the most popular caliber deer rifles ever.
With a high velocity and a trajectory that is flatter than most other calibers, the 30-06 also will handle heavier bullets more easily. The ability to handle heavier ammunition makes it a powerhouse at longer yardage. Reliability at longer yardage makes this rifle a dependable tool at over 400 yards, which means you can use it on deer that live in more open spaces without worrying.
The downside, if you can call it that, is a harsher recoil. While a bit more abrupt, the recoil is not violent, meaning you can fire it over and over without harming your shot or doing damage to your shoulder. You expect that from a rifle once depended upon by the military to fire all day without fail.
There is a reason many hunters refer to the 243 Winchester as a utility rifle. Its reliability in almost any condition has made it a legend, and its accuracy moved the legend to a mythical status. With a lighter recoil, the 243 is a great option for younger hunters and those who are smaller in stature, although just about anyone that shoots the rifle appreciates it.
Another aspect of the 243 that makes it indispensable for many hunters is that it is smaller in size, making it ideal for maneuvering in tight quarters to get the perfect shot. Combined, these attributes make it the perfect “starter” rifle for those just getting started.
If the 243 is the ideal rifle for younger and smaller hunters, the 270 is the 243 if the 243 went on a strength-building diet. The larger bullet weight makes it ideal for longer, downrange shots that maintain accuracy and velocity beyond 500 yards.
Additionally, the 270’s power (kinetic energy) renders it more capable of bagging big game like elk, moose, and bear. The ability to kill larger animals is due to the 270’s bullet’s girth, which transfers its energy into creating a wider, deeper wound cavity.
The 308 is one of the most popular deer rifles in existence. Why? To start, many hunters cut their teeth on this rifle (or at least bruised a few shoulders until they learned to shoot it). Second, ammunition for the 308, target and otherwise, is easy to find. Add a 150-grain soft point load, and the 308 will still deliver stopping power to 500 yards and in ideal conditions.
That type of range makes it a great choice for the average shot range of most hunters. Since few would feel comfortable trying to hit a target at 500 yards, accurately getting to that range makes it deadly at a closer range. Because it can hit almost anything it is aimed at by almost any experience level of hunter, the 308 is a great starter rifle and one that most will use for years.
The best caliber deer rifle is the one that lets you aim true and hit your target at a stopping velocity but is also easy to transport and will not hurt you with recoil or tire you out lugging around. Any of the rifles on this list exceed those goals with ease.