11 Best Rifle Cartridges for Whitetail Deer


Choosing the best whitetail cartridges is actually pretty easy because there are so many great ones to choose from. Getting another hunter to agree with you is the hard part. Deer hunters debate minute differences in feet per second, pounds of energy, and bullet diameter as hotly as if they were deciding the next presidential election.

However, not many hunters have a lot of experience shooting a lot of deer with a lot of different cartridges. More likely, they shot a deer with a certain cartridge, and the deer might have run more than 100 yards (which they sometimes do no matter what they’re shot with) and just like that, it’s the worst cartridge ever. Or maybe a hunter takes several deer with wonderful results using a single cartridge—which, naturally, becomes the best of all time.

Maybe you favor one over all the others because it’s what your dad used or it’s what you shot your first buck with. Nothing wrong with that. Hunting is an emotional and a personal thing, and cartridge choice is one-way hunters personalize their deer hunting. The good news is that deer are not hard to kill, and a lot of cartridges will work, no matter who likes them, or doesn’t. Truth is, it’s hard to choose the wrong deer cartridge if you consider what matters.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Deer Cartridge

Deer cartridge arguments generally focus on things like caliber, bullet weight, velocity, and energy. More and more, ballistic coefficient and sectional density also come into the the discussion. Here’s what I think matters and what doesn’t.

Caliber

To be clear, caliber and cartridge are not the same thing. Caliber describes the diameter of a cartridge’s unfired bullet. Which caliber is best for deer? All of them. Or none of them. Why? Because it’s not the diameter of the unfired bullet that matters; it’s the diameter of the deformed bullet that makes the hole through the vitals that’s important.

Bullet Weight

It’s long been thought heavy bullets kill better. This is a carry-over from back when bullets were fragile things that could not survive fast impact velocities. Heavy bullets went slower, held together better, and penetrated deeper. How much does a bullet need to weigh to kill a deer? Just enough to penetrate deeply enough to get the job done. Once adequate penetration is achieved, bullet weight—initial or recovered—matters not.

Velocity

Velocity does matter. It’s the difference between a .300 Savage and a .300 Winchester Magnum. But what matters most about velocity is that there’s enough of it to make the bullet fully deform at impact, and then enough remaining velocity to push the bullet as deep as it needs to go. If that happens in the right spot, the deer is dead. What you get with more velocity more reach at long ranges and more meat ruined at close ranges.

Energy

All my life I’ve heard you need 1,000 foot-pounds of energy to kill a deer. I’m not sure what clown come up with this number or how he calculated it. But without consideration for the terminal performance of the bullet, energy means very little. More is better, but only if it is transferred to the deer as opposed to being lost in the dirt on the other side. I’ve cleanly taken deer with handgun cartridges impacting with less than 400 foot-pounds of energy.

What Matters Most?

Shot placement and terminal performance matter most. If you place a bullet so it will pass all the way through the lungs and/or heart of a deer, and if that bullet deforms to about 1.5 times its original diameter (regardless of caliber), you’ll be a happy hunter. Depending on the angle, you’ll need between about 12 to 24 inches of penetration. For a perfectly broadside deer, aim in line with the front leg, a third of the way up the body. Shots from any other angle should intersect the same center point of the body that this broadside shot would.

The 11 Best Whitetail Cartridges

Let’s be clear here: This is not a list of the 11 best all-around deer cartridges. This is a list of 11 of the best deer hunting cartridges, matched to specific hunting conditions, and shot distances. They’ll all work wonderfully well if you use them within their limitations and put the bullet where it is supposed to go. On the other hand, you can’t do one of these stories without picking an overall best, and so I have, at the end. But let’s start up close.

The Best Short-Range and Woods Whitetail Cartridges

photo of whitetail deer
If this is what your deer ground looks like, there’s no need to load up with the latest long-range round. Douglas Sacha / Getty

If you hunt in the timber or where the longest shot you might take will be no more than 200 yards, just about any centerfire rifle cartridge will work. Some believe that large-caliber cartridges will work better through brush, but there’s really no truth to this. Brush-buster cartridges are really just short-range cartridges, and a lot of short-range cartridges use big, heavy bullets. These four cartridges are ideal for deer inside 200 yards.

1. The .223 Remington

photo of deer cartridge
Federal’s Vital-Shok ammo in .223 Remington, loaded with 60-grain Nosler Partition bullets. Richard Mann

Though many hunters believe the .223 Remington is illegal for deer hunting in most states, 36 out of 50 currently allow it. Many also believe that the .223 Remington is not enough for deer. Those folks either don’t understand terminal ballistics or have never shot a deer with a .223 Remington and the right bullet. It is true that most factory .223 loads are not suitable for big-game hunting, but a good handful are, at least out to around 200 yards. Much beyond that distance, the .223 Remington runs out of steam, quickly. Using various .223s I’ve taken whitetails with Power Point, Partition, Triple Shock, and Fusion bullets.

Because of its light recoil, this cartridge is easy to shoot accurately, for both young and experienced hunters. Introduced in the mid-1960s with a 55-grain bullet and a slow-twist barrel, the .223 was hardly a deer rifle. Today, with modern ammunition loaded with heavier and stouter bullets, and with rifles with fast twist barrels, the complexion of the .223 has utterly changed. It is indeed a deer killer, and one of the best.

Pros:

  • Light recoil
  • AR15 Compatible

Cons:

  • Fast twist barrels for best results

Muzzle Velocity: 3160 fps

Muzzle Energy: 1330 ft.lbs

Summary: This load offers the optimal balance of penetration and bullet upset for deer at .223 Remington velocities.

2. The .30-30 Winchester

30-30

Like a lot of hunters, I used to think of the .30-30 as an antiquated, novice-only rifle; my first lever-gun was a .307 Winchester. But we learn as we go, and I finally realized that when it comes to killing deer, within its limitations, few cartridges are the .30-30’s equal. This is partly due to wonderfully designed bullets optimized for .30-30 velocities, partly due to the .30-30’s light recoil, but maybe mostly because .30-30s come in fast handling and lightweight lever guns. I learned my .30-30 lesson on a West Virginia whitetail buck that must have not gotten the memo about the 30-30 being obsolete.

Because of the .30-30’s moderate velocity, bullets are never overstressed; they generally open wide and retain enough weight for deep penetration. This is the ideal combination for deer. After nearly130 years since the .30-30 debuted, other lever-gun cartridges like the 7×30 Waters, .307 and .356 Winchester, and .308 Marlin Express have come and gone, the .30-30 remains. Not because it’s a classic, not because it has some sort of cowboy connection, but because it kills deer. North, south, east, or west, when the action is up close, you can’t go wrong with a .30-30.

Pros:

  • Light Recoil
  • Lots of ammo to choose from

Cons:

  • Mostly, a lever-gun only option

Muzzle Velocity: 2390 fps

Muzzle Energy: 1902 ft.lbs

Summary: If classic .30-30 Winchester terminal performance is what you’re looking for, this load will deliver.

3. The .35 Remington

photo of .35 Remington cartridge
Buffalo Bore 220-grain Jacketed Flat Nose .35 Remington ammo. Richard Mann

The 35 Remington gained its fame in the Marlin 336 lever gun. However, the cartridge was designed in 1906 for Remington’s Model 8 semi-automatic rifle. Most factory loads push a 200-grain bullet to about 2000 fps. Arguably, this is no better, ballistically, than the .30-30 Winchester, but the debate about which of the two is the best lever-gun cartridge for deer has raged for nearly a century. With Marlin in the process of rebuilding under Ruger, currently the only new .35 Remington available is from Henry.
 
When it comes to being passionate about deer cartridges, I may be more passionate about the .35 Remington than any other. I’ve had several—lever guns and bolt actions—and have put down a lot of deer with them. Is it any better than a .30-30 Winchester? I can’t prove it, but I believe it. And sometimes believing is all that matters. The .35 Remington is an Appalachian and North Country favorite; some hunters trust it more than they do their grandma. Unfortunately, there are only about five factory loads to choose from. But they’re all perfect for deer. Wouldn’t a new semi-auto .35 Remington similar to Ruger’s discontinued Deer Stalker carbine be a wonder whitetail rifle? A deer thicket would never be the same.

Pros:

  • Moderate recoil
  • Fast handling lever guns

Cons:

Muzzle Velocity: 2200 fps

Muzzle Energy: 2364 ft.lbs

Summary: With common factory loads there may be some argument about the .35 Remington being no better than the .30-30, but not with this load.

4. Th .45-70 Government

photo of .45/70 cartridge
Federal 300-grain HammerDown ammo in .45-70 Government. Richard Mann

Introduced in 1873, the same year that Colt released their Single Action Revolver, it seems like the .45-70 has been around forever. As popular as it is today, by the 1970s it was almost extinct. However, with Marlin’s reintroduction of the Model 1895, the .45-70 found new life. More important, it found new ammo. Up until that time, .45-70 loads were weak with rainbow trajectories. With modern ammo, the .45-70 differs from a lot of other cartridges; it has a three-tiered power level. Original patterned loads launch a 405-grain bullet at about 1200 fps. Mid-range loads will push a 300-grain bullet past 1800 fps. And top-tier loads will match that velocity with a 430-grain bullet. As a result, a .45-70 will work for anything walking earth.

But you don’t need magnum-like .45-70 loads to kill deer. The mid-level stuff is ideal, and the recoil is perfectly manageable. The .45-70 makes a big hole going in, a bigger hole through the middle, and leaves a gaping exit. It’s a straightwall-legal cartridge, and there’s a host of really cool rifles to choose from. All the deer I’ve shot with the .45-70 acted like the Lord had just called them home.

Pros:

  • Variable powered ammunition
  • Straight-wall legal

Cons:

  • Best deer loads have a punch on both ends

Muzzle Velocity: 1850 fps

Muzzle Energy: 2280 ft.lbs

Summary: This is a second-tier .45-70 load that’s suitable for all big-game animals. It will not have a problem with any deer.

The Best Moderate-Range Whitetail Cartridges

What is moderate range? Well, 50 years ago it was between 150 and 300 or so yards. With today’s ammunition, excellent factory rifles, and marvelous optics, it’s a bit farther. Exactly how much farther I’m not sure, but it’s probably at least double “short range,” so we’ll just call it between 200 and 400 yards. What you need here is a reasonably flat-shooting cartridge with enough retained velocity to ensure bullet upset. Here are three great options, and they’ll work for shorter ranges as well.

5. The .243 Winchester

photo of .243 cartridge
Barnes VorTX 80-grain TTSX BT .243 Winchester ammo. Richard Mann

The first deer rifle my father owned was a .243 Winchester. Other hunters in camp armed with .30/06s told him it was not enough gun. Dad proved them wrong. The best shot I ever made on a deer, I made with a .243, on the best deer I’ve ever taken in West Virginia. The .243 Winchester is not my favorite deer cartridge, but it is one I trust completely.

The .243 achieved its early popularity by being suitable for both deer and varmints, and it’s still a great choice for that dual-purpose pursuit. Much like how the 6.5 Creedmoor with its faster twist killed the .260 Remington, the .243, with its ability to handle heavier bullets, ended its Remington 6mm counterpart. But that was back in the day. Modern mono-metal bullets thrive on velocity, and an 80-grain all-copper bullet will scream out of a .243 Winchester and seemingly electrocute deer. For those who still believe the .243 is not enough gun for deer, I’ll note that my wife took one to Africa and killed a gemsbok, a wildebeest, and an impala, with one shot each. She’s whacked a few deer with that same rifle, and none of them have attempted to crawl out of the freezer.

Pros:

  • Light Recoil
  • Lots of loads to choose from

Cons:

  • Needs a 22-inch barrel to take advantage of velocity potential

Muzzle Velocity: 3350 fps

Muzzle Energy: 1994 ft.lbs

Summary: Light bullets like this 80-grainer exploit the velocity the .243 can deliver, and this TTSX will open wide and penetrate deep, creating massive tissue damage.

6. The .257 Roberts

photo of .257 Robert cartridge
Nosler Trophy Grade .257 Roberts ammo loaded with 110-grain AccuBond +P bullets. Richard Mann

The .257 Roberts was designed about 100 years ago by gun writer Ned Roberts for varmint shooting at long range. Remington legitimized it in 1934, but with an overall length that would work in short-action rifles. That’s why. 257 Roberts ammo looks stubby; bullets are loaded deeply in the long 7X57 Mauser case the Roberts was based on. Remington saw the Roberts for the great deer cartridge it could be and offered it with a 117-grain bullet. But because so many custom Roberts rifles were built on imported military actions of questionable strength, pressures were kept low. Today’s modern +P 257 Roberts ammo, however, is loaded to 58,000 psi.

Though ballistically inferior to the .25-06, the Roberts has hung around, and still is. The “Bob,” as it’s sometimes called, has also been tagged as the perfect deer cartridge, and that might not be far from the truth. I’ve used the Bob to take a lot of deer with a lot of different loads, +P and standard pressure. All of those critters died just like they’d been shot with the longer and faster .25-06—but I felt less recoil. The Roberts simply refuses to die. It might just live on forever.

Pros:

  • Light Recoil
  • Handloaders dream cartridge

Cons:

  • Very few factory loads and rifles

Muzzle Velocity: 3050 fps

Muzzle Energy: 2272 ft.lbs

Summary: You don’t need a bonded bullet for the .257 Roberts, but this load is laser accurate and performs well at .257 Roberts’ velocities.

7. The 7mm-08 Remington

photo of 7mm/08 cartridge
Hornady Precision Hunter 150-grain ELD-X in 7mm-08 Remington. Hornady

The 7mm-08 is a .308 Winchester case necked down to fit a 0.284-caliber/7.2mm bullet. Though the name suggests it’s a 7mm (7mm = 0.275-inch), unlike most American cartridges, it gets its name from its bore—land to land diameter—as opposed to its bullet diameter. Ballistically, it competes favorably with the .270 and .308, though it never achieved the popularity of either. Because of that, ammo options are not extensive.

I’ve witnessed deer and hogs and even elk taken with the 7mm-08, but I’ve never shot a deer with it. The cartridge seems to shoot flatter and hit harder than its recoil impulse would suggest, and, with the right bullets, you can stretch the distance a bit beyond moderate range. With the introduction of the 6.5 Creedmoor, interest in the 7mm-08 has waned. Still, many deer hunters swear by it, and Jeff Cooper considered it the best alternate cartridge to the .308 Winchester for his Scout Rifle. If you’re a fan of heavier bullets than the Creed can launch, but still want flat trajectory with comparable recoil, the 7mm-08 might be just right for you.

Pros:

  • Ballistically balanced
  • Moderate Recoil

Cons:

  • Limited ammunition options

Muzzle Velocity: 2770 fps

Muzzle Energy: 2556 ft.lbs

Summary: With this high-BC bullet, you can stretch the effective range of the 7mm-08 beyond moderate range. It’s accurate and deadly, near and far.

The Best Long-Range and Open-Country Whitetail Cartridges

photo of whitetail buck
In wide-open country, you may get shots to 400 yards or more. John Hafner Photography

I believe there are very few excuses for shooting a deer at long range, and I much prefer to hunt with my feet as opposed to feet-per-second. However, in this modern world, I might be in the minority. Anything beyond where you must hold off the animal to get the hit is for-sure long range. That distance, of course, varies with the cartridge and your zero, so we’ll just call it anything past 400 yards, which by the way, is a damned long way. For this, you need high-BC bullets, high velocity, or both. Here are three cartridges that will get it done at any distance from the muzzle out past what’s too far to be shooting at deer.

8. The 6.5 Creedmoor

photo of 6.5 Creedmoor cartridge
Federal 130-grain Terminal Ascent in 6.5 Creedmoor. Federal Premium

There’s no other cartridge as hated or loved as the 6.5 Creedmoor. Modern shooters adore it because it shoots flat and does not cross your eyes every time the trigger is pulled. Old timers despise it for the same reason; they think that kind of performance only comes with matching recoil. The Creed recoils about 40 percent less than the .30/06, which makes it easy to shoot with precision. And because of its immense popularity, there are lots of rifles and loads to choose from.

My son became a Creedmoor fan in Africa and has since gone five-for-five with it on deer. I’ve used it in Africa, Mexico, and Canada, on game as small as Coues deer and as large as moose. I think it works best on critters weighing less than 500 pounds, which is about twice the weight of even the biggest deer. Inside 400 yards, bullet choice is not that critical and at those distances the Creed is no better than its .260 Remington rival. Beyond that distance, you’ll need a bullet with a BC of more than 0.500 to get the most of what the Creed can offer. Fortunately, 6.5 Creedmoor rifles have the correct twist rate to stabilize those long and slender 6.5mm bullets.

Pros:

  • Great recoil-to-performance balance
  • Lots of loads and rifles to choose from

Cons:

  • Not as magical as everyone thinks

Muzzle Velocity: 2825 fps

Muzzle Energy: 2303 ft.lbs

Summary: If a high-BC bullet is not used in the 6.5 Creedmoor, it offers no advantage over similar cartridges. This bullet has a BC of 0.532 to help the Creed go the distance.

9. The .270 Winchester

270

The very first deer rifle I called my own was a .270 Winchester. I wanted a .264 Winchester Mangum but could not find one, so settled for what I thought was the next best thing. I killed my first—and a lot more—deer with that .270, using a lot of common bullets like Core-Lokts and Power Points. I never lost one, and they never ran far. Jack O’Connor was tremendously fond of the .270 and is thought to be largely responsible for its popularity.

The truth is, the .270 didn’t need O’Connor. Its claim to fame at introduction, which was almost 100 years ago, was that it shot flatter than the .30-06. It still does. Because you don’t need a lot of gunpowder to kill deer, the .270 is one of only two long-action cartridges on this list. It’s typically loaded with 100- to 150-grain bullets, but the mid-range bullet weights are optimum, and there’s lots of loads with those to choose from. The .270 Winchester will always be a favorite, but I’ve left it for shorter cartridges that work in more compact actions with less recoil and never looked back. Still, though O’Connor was not right about everything, he was right about the .270 Winchester.

Pros:

  • Moderate Recoil
  • Lots of ammo and rifles to choose from

Cons:

  • Long-action cartridge that performs best with a 22-inch or longer barrel

Muzzle Velocity: 2970

Muzzle Energy: 2840

Summary: For distance kills, you need a high-BC bullet to get there quickly, but also a bullet that will deform at long range impact velocities. This load does both.

10. The 7mm Remington Magnum

photo of 7mm Rem Mag cartridge
Remington 150-grain Scirocco Bonded 7mm Remington Magnum ammo. Remington Ammunition

With its ability to shoot flat and handle heavier bullets, the 7mm Magnum is the cartridge that killed the .264 Winchester Magnum. I’ll never forgive it for that. Even with the bullets of the ’60s and ’70s, it became a very popular deer and big-game cartridge. With the best bullets offered today, the Seven-Mag is one of flattest shooting centerfire rifle cartridges available, especially if you don’t want to think a mule has kicked you every time you pull the trigger.

I grew up watching my cousin slay deer with his Seven-Mag. I’ve used it to kill steel at stupid-long distances and to take a big-bodied Saskatchewan whitetail. There are lots of great long-range deer cartridges, but if you want to hit them hard without having your noggin rattled, few can do it as well. Warren Page was a staunch supporter of the Seven Mag. I don’t love it quite so much, but if I wanted to reach into the next county or the next week to smack the rut out of a big whitetail or muley buck, it’s probably what I’d use.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Lots of noise and muzzle blast

Muzzle Velocity: 3110 fps

Muzzle Energy: 3222 ft.lbs

Summary: This load gives you a high-BC bullet to go the distance and a bonded bullet to withstand 7mm Magnum impact velocities up close.

The No. 1 Best All-Round Whitetail Cartridge

There isn’t one best cartridge for all of deer hunting. That’s why I categorized this roundup the way I did. However, if forced, I can name the one cartridge that will work very well in the most varied conditions and for the most varied types of shooters. It’s a cartridge that works very well up close and far away. It’s ammo is easy to find in lots of styles. And boatloads of deer rifles are still chambered for it. So, what is this No. 1 do-everything deer medicine….

11. The .308 Winchester

photo of .308 cartridge
Nosler Trophy Grade 150-grain AccuBond .308 Winchester ammo. Richard Mann

There’s nothing sexy or exciting about the .308 Winchester. It’s doesn’t deliver sizzling velocities or hit extremely hard, and it’s as common as bad breath. But what the .308 Winchester does a really good job of is killing deer. It offers a wonderful balance of velocity, energy, trajectory, and recoil, and the selection of factory loads is diverse in bullet weight, type, and ballistic coefficient. There are even several low-recoil options for youths or new hunters, and it has a reputation for extreme precision.

There are lots of .308 rifles to choose from, too. Ammunition selection is not critical either; soft-point, round-nose, bonded, mono-metal, or light or heavy bullets, it really does not matter with the .308 Winchester for most applications. Pick a load you and your rifle like, and go kill deer. I took one of my best West Virginia whitetails at about 60 yards with the .308 using a 180-grain Remington round-nose Core-Lokt. In the 50s, the .308 unseated the .30/06 as America’s military cartridge. Now, more than a half-century later, it’s mostly done the same with America’s deer hunters. I’ve used it extensively but have zero emotional attachment to it; it’s austerity offers little charm. The damned thing just works.

Pros:

  • Moderate recoil
  • Best and most diverse ammo selection

Cons:

Muzzle Velocity: 2875 fps

Muzzle Energy: 2752 ft.lbs

Summary: This load exceeds original .30-06 velocities and offers what is likely the best balance of external and terminal performance the .308 Winchester can offer.

What? No .30/06?!

That’s right. Get out your pitchforks. I left out the .30/06 and a lot of other good cartridges because they don’t do anything better than the cartridges already on the list. Why not the .25-06? Because, the .270 Winchester is better. What about the .260 Remington? It’s a fantastic deer killer, but with more loads in 6.5 Creedmoor, why bother? Why not the .280 and .30/06? Neither will kill a deer any deader, reach any farther, hit any harder, or shoot any flatter than the 7mm Remington Magnum, and well, there’s the .270 again. As far as the .300 Winchester Magnum, if you’re that mad at the deer, get a Weatherby 338-378. It’ll pulverize deer and rattle forgotten lessons free from your brain, like the lesson about shooting hard-kicking guns when you don’t need to.

I also left off all the Weatherby and Nosler cartridges because of rifle and ammunition availability. Two of my favorites, the 30 Remington AR and my wildcat 2Fity-Hillbilly, are not on the list for those same reasons. You’ll also not see any short magnums, because no one gives a rat’s ass about short magnums anymore. And yeah, there’s some great AR-15 cartridges missing too. I think the question of What would number 12 be? if I could add one more may be as difficult as choosing the first 11.

What Really Kills Deer

photo of hunter with deer
The author with a West Virginia whitetail. Richard Mann

It’s fun to argue whitetail cartridges, and it’s smart to buy a gun chambered for a good one. But what really kills deer is a good shot made with a good bullet. The numbers and letters impressed on the heads of cartridge cases are there to make sure you get the right ammo in the right gun.

So, debate all you like. That’s what deer camp is for. But before the deer season, spend as much time as you can becoming a better marksman. Find the cartridge you like the best, learn its and your limitations, and it’ll be the best deer killer for you in the timber and at the campfire. But rest assured, someone will be there to argue that fact, and they’ll probably be just as right and wrong as you are.

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