Choosing the best overall deer hunting cartridges is like asking a man if he prefers blondes, brunettes or redheads. The proper response, of course, is “Yes!”
So, too, it is when choosing the Top 10 Non-Magnum Deer Hunting Cartridges in America. There are so many good answers, and so few wrong ones, but there are many factors to consider. Does the cartridge have enough power to cleanly kill a deer? Is it accurate enough to consistently hit the animal where you want? Can you find ammunition easily and at reasonable cost? And, a very big factor for me, is the recoil manageable? I mean, unless you are hunting the wide-open spaces where shots might exceed 300 yards, why arm yourself with a magnum cartridge that might knock your boots off?
Here, then, is my list of the Top 10 Non-Magnum Whitetail Deer Cartridges available today, in descending order:
10. .30-30 Win.
Making its debut in 1895, the .30-30 Win. was first marketed in early 1895 for the Winchester Model 1894 lever-action rifle. The .30-30 was America’s first small-bore sporting rifle cartridge designed for smokeless powder. With almost zero recoil, it’s still a solid choice for close-quarters whitetail hunting.
9. 7×57 Mauser
Basically the 8×57 Mauser necked down, the 7×57 was designed in 1892 for a new Mauser rifle adopted the next year by the Spanish military, and was eventually used as the military cartridge of several other countries for decades. Factory loads using 140- to 145-grain bullets produce muzzle velocities of around 2,600 to 2,700 fps. It’s a fine all-around deer cartridge.
8. 6.5 Creedmoor
Developed in 2007 to give competitive shooters a factory-loaded cartridge that would allow them to compete and win in the highest levels of competitive shooting, the 6.5 Creedmoor is rapidly making its way into the hearts of deer hunters everywhere. Using bullets weighing 129 to 140 grains at velocities between about 2,900 and 2,700 fps, respectively, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything more accurate than this light-recoiling, highly-efficient sweetheart.
7. .243 Win.
Introduced in 1955, countless hunters shoot rifles chambered in .243 Win. to take untold numbers of deer each fall, despite assertions from big-bore advocates that the .243 is marginal, at best, for deer-sized game. In truth, the .243 — based on the .308 Win. necked down — sends a 100-grain bullet out at about 2960 fps while delivering just a tick over 10 ft./lbs. of recoil in an 8½-pound rifle. It’s accurate and deadly.
I’ve taken untold numbers of deer with this cartridge with both handloads and factory ammo. Up to 400 yards it’s a great choice, as the cartridge is very accurate in most rifles and generates very manageable recoil. Deer hunters are well-served with bullets weighing between 110 and 120 grains.
5. .280 Rem.
A .30-06 necked down to accept 7mm bullets, the .280 is one of my all-time favorites. There are tons of bullets available but for deer hunting, the best overall choices are those weighing 140 grains. Many years ago I killed an Alaskan grizzly with a .280 and handloads featuring a 160-grain Nosler Partition. It’s a great deer cartridge for both long and close range situations.
Originally a military cartridge termed the 7.62mm NATO, the .308 is accurate enough to be used by top benchrest competitors and remains a favorite of professional snipers. Rifles of all action types, makes and models are chambered for the .308, there’s little muzzle blast or recoil, and .308 ammo can be found anywhere at reasonable cost. For deer, I prefer 150-grain bullets.
The 7mm-08 is a .308 necked down to .284. It’s highly accurate and kicks little. The cartridge began life as a wildcat back in the 1950s and was legitimized by Remington in 1980. Most factory ammo features bullets weighing between 120 and 140 grains starting out at between 2,800 and 3,000 fps, respectively. I own a sweet little Remington Model 700 Titanium rifle chambered in this round, and it’s a delight to hunt with, though I try and keep shots inside 300 yards with it.
2. .270 Win.
Back in the day, the .270 was the cat’s meow. Today, thanks to its less than light speed velocity, many folks overlook it when, in truth, there is very little big game in North America the .270 can’t easily handle. Factory 130-, 140- and 150-grain loadings are available and found everywhere, and with this cartridge bullet design is much more important than bullet weight. My first deer rifle was an old pre-64 Winchester Model 70 in .270; it never let me down.
Introduced as a military round back in 1906, this oldie is still arguably the single most useful big game hunting cartridge in all of North America. With modern powders and bullets, the round is far more accurate and deadly that its forbearers. Factory ammo can be found in towns large and small and comes in loadings with bullets weighing between 110 to 220 grains, but for deer hunting the 150- and 165-grain loads are the most popular.
There you have it. What’s your thought on the best deer hunting cartridges out there? Drop me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know.