Is The .22 Enough For Whitetail?

March 30, 2011

Should any centerfire cartridge that shoots a .224-inch (.22) caliber bullet be used for white-tailed deer? Most readers probably already have an opinion, but the real answer is both yes and no. It’s all a matter of bullet weight, velocity and conditions.

Bullets in the .22-caliber family run the gamut from the ultra-light 37-grain pure lead bullets driven as low as 900 feet per second (fps) in the subsonic long-rifle rimfire, to 80-grain jacketed bullets driven at over 3,500 fps from the likes of the .220 Swift and the Wildcat .224 TTH. Obviously, at those two extremes, the energy delivered and terminal performance vary greatly. On one end, the performance is totally inadequate and on the other, it has proven to be marginally acceptable for smaller species of big game. Smaller species include antelope and pint-sized whitetails. That’s where the controversy begins.

Clean Kills And Quick Drops


.22s cover a broad range of sizes, from the mini .22 long (left) on up to the .224 TTH (right).

Heavier (62- to 80-grain) bullets driven at speeds over 3,200 fps have taken scores of deer. In many ranches in Texas, state biologists will recommend a population-thinning program to bring total deer numbers, as well doe-to-buck ratios, in line with the land’s carrying capacity. They often recommend specific numbers of does and smaller bucks be removed and issue special permits for those deer to be culled. Professional shooters are brought in, as are refrigerated trailers and skinners to process the meat. I have participated in several of these hunts, and in many cases the professional shooters’ caliber of choice was either a .220 Swift or a hot-loaded .22-250, always loaded with heavy, jacketed, hunting-grade bullets. The rationale? With well-placed shots (the key), death was instantaneous and meat destruction was minimal. These were pros who could use any caliber they wished. Targets were usually does and juvenile bucks weighing about 100 pounds. Shot placement was deliberate and precise, and double-lung shots were the prime objective. If the hunters couldn’t get the shot they wanted, they didn’t shoot! Not enough bullet, you say? Just about right?

I was the staff gun writer for a leading Texas deer-hunting magazine for about a decade. The subject of .22s for deer was consistently the chief topic of the calls, correspondence and general talk. Many hunters were using .22-250s and Swifts to take Texas deer, and since these rifles are normally made with a 1:12 or 1:14 twist designed for varmint bullets, the off-the-shelf guns wouldn’t handle the heavier 62- to 80-grain stuff.

I came up with a 6mm Remington case necked down to .224 and matched to a 1:9 twist barrel — the .224 TTH (Texas Trophy Hunter). Its prime goal was to drive heavy, well-constructed bullets fast. My thinking was, if you must use a .22-caliber on deer, here’s one that maximizes the best deer bullets. I took many deer and antelope while evaluating the round. It is still popular today. Is it my first deer choice? No. But a 1:9 twist barrel will drive the Remington 62-grain CoreLokt, the Nosler 60-grain Partition, or the Barnes solids to 3,500 fps easily, and with these, well-placed shots smash smaller big game with pretty spectacular results.

The Other Side

Of course, under ideal conditions — like those the cull hunters try to create or when animals are smaller-bodied — almost any round, including the .22 rimfires, can deliver a killing shot. On a recent hunt in northern Alaska, I asked a local Inuit what cartridge he preferred for caribou. Caribou closely match whitetail in body size, and the Inuit shoot quite a lot of them each winter. His answer — a .22 Magnum. The technique used? Catch the caribou crossing a river and shoot for either the spine or the head. Hardly the conditions the average whitetail hunter encounters, but thousands of caribou are killed that way annually.

For most of us, one shot is all we get, and it’s rarely a perfect setup. If a hit is the least bit off from “ideal,” only the big caliber and power inherent in a big case will deliver the energy to kill on impact. In the case of a marginal hit (which happens to all of us sooner or later, let’s be honest), a lighter .224-caliber bullet would most likely have caused a wreck, a miss or wounded lost game. I hunt in the real world where stuff happens, so given the choice, I’ll always opt for more horsepower.

For the shooter who sits in a blind or stand, especially over a food source, and knows to within a few yards where his target will appear, one who can take deliberate, unhurried care, a hot-loaded .22 will get it done. For any other scenario, when we don’t know what to expect, more power is good insurance.