Best Caliber for Deer Hunting: Settling the Whitetail Cartridge Debate

Written by Sam Jacobs Subject: Gun Rights

The topic of deer hunting calibers has been hotly debated around tailgates, campfires, and skinning sheds for more than a century. Because there are about as many opinions as there are deer hunters, narrowing down the options to make a "best cartridge for deer" list was no easy task.

Whitetail deer live in diverse habitats. Whitetail deer hunters also use diverse hunting tactics. Rifle cartridges that work well from a big woods treestand aren't going to cut for a hunter sniping shots across acres of harvested corn.

We tried to include something for every type of deer hunting, from spot-and-stalk to long sits in a box blind. The cartridges on this list are the rock stars of American deer hunting.

What is the Best Deer Hunting Cartridge?

Quick Note:

Although some shooters use the terms "caliber" and "cartridge" interchangeably, the words refer to vastly different things.

"Caliber" is literally the diameter of a projectile (or the barrel of a firearm that the projectile travels through), and is generally measured in fractions of an inch. The word "cartridge" refers to an entire unit of ammunition - bullet, casing, powder, and primer.

In this article, we'll be discussing the best cartridge for hunting deer.

.308 Winchester: Best All-Around Whitetail Deer Cartridge

Although it's impossible to crown a single cartridge as king of the deer droppers, this cartridge comes awfully close. We have a long list of reasons we love the .308 Winchester for deer hunting.

This .30-caliber cartridge works well in a variety of hunting conditions, from up close and personal to long-range deer dropping. It has better-than-average ballistics, relatively light recoil, and you can buy 308 in bulk to save some money.

There are also a ton of big game-specific loads on the market today. Modern .308 Winchester ammo features classic soft point, ballistic tip, monolithic, bonded bullets, and more.

.308 loads also feature projectiles in a wide range of weight classes, from lightweight options to deep-driving heavy bullet weights.

The .308 Win offers perhaps the best rifle selection on the market today. There are literally hundreds of hunting rifles chambered for this popular deer cartridge being rolled off assembly lines every day. Hunters can choose from traditional bolt-action rifles to semi-auto AR-10 modern sporting rifles. The possibilities are nearly endless.

If you need to shoot at longer ranges, the .308 Winchester has a well-earned reputation for precision. I've also seen this cartridge drop deer at 40 yards in thick woods without breaking a sweat. When it comes to slaying whitetails, the .308 Win is as close as it gets to a jack-of-all-trades.

.243 Winchester

Many serious, life-long deer hunters were introduced to the sport with a rifle chambered in .243 Winchester. While the .243 is a mild-shooting cartridge perfect for small shooters, this cartridge shouldn't be limited to young hunters. Its mild recoil certainly makes the .243 an attractive option for women and young hunters. However, this cartridge has plenty to offer deer hunters of every shape, size, and experience level.

Some states require hunters to use cartridges with a minimum bullet diameter of .243 inches. Although the .243 is on the low end of the caliber spectrum, it shouldn't lose respect as a deer cartridge. While critics often claim it "isn't enough gun" for whitetails, the number of deer that have fallen to this cartridge proves otherwise.

The .243 Win pushes relatively lightweight bullets with a muzzle velocity that exceeds 3000 fps. That speed produces a flat trajectory and helps projectiles buck the wind, both of which enhance this cartridge's long-range precision.

The .243 Win is also a highly versatile cartridge. If you need to shoot antelope, wild hogs, coyotes, or varmints in addition to whitetails, this little cartridge has the capacity to get the job done.

Modern advancements in bullet technology have certainly helped level the playing field for small caliber cartridges like the .243 Win. However, you'll still want to pick a load with controlled expansion projectiles.

You should also choose your shots carefully. Lightweight, narrow bullets don't do a great job of punching through bone. Also, because the .243 has the narrowest bullet diameter of any cartridge on our list, shot placement is crucial.

6.5 Creedmoor

Although the 6.5 Creedmoor was originally designed for precision rifle series target competition, it has gained a die-hard following in the hunting world.

Introduced in 2007, it is still a relative newcomer to the cartridge world. However, its pancake-flat trajectory, ultra-mild recoil, and reliable accuracy have quickly earned this cartridge superstar status among target shooters and deer hunters alike.

The long slim profiles of 6.5mm projectiles provide a high ballistic coefficient, especially bullets with heavy-for-caliber grain weights. Heavier bullets also produce deeper driving penetration, which is crucial for reaching vitals, especially when you're shooting whitetails at longer ranges.

To milk the full long-range capabilities of the 6.5 Creedmoor, choose loads topped with high BC projectiles (.500 or higher). With good marksmanship skills and the right hunting load, there's no reason you can't ethically harvest whitetails out to at least 500 yards.

Because of its booming popularity, hunters can easily find hunting rifles chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor from all the major manufacturers, including Browning, Savage, Weatherby, and Ruger. You can even find the iconic Remington Model 700 chambered for this hot rod cartridge.

6.5 Grendel

Although the 6.5 Grendel is nowhere near as popular as its Creedmoor cousin, this one deserves a mention for one very special reason - it is short enough to fit in an AR-15.

If you want to hunt whitetails with an AR-15 rifle, 6.5 Grendel is probably the best way to do it. Although the ballistic performance of the Grendel pales in comparison to the 6.5 Creedmoor, it cranks out far more horsepower than the standard AR-15 cartridge - the .223 Remington.

Like the Creedmoor, the 6.5 Grendel utilizes highly aerodynamic bullets with high sectional density and high BC. These projectiles hold their velocity like there's no tomorrow and are less affected by wind than most of the big .30s.

While deer hunting with a modern sporting rifle is cool, the 6.5 Grendel has some limitations compared to the Creedmoor. Its shorter case limits its powder capacity. That means these short-action cartridges don't have as much oomph behind them as the 6.5 Creedmoor. However, a 123-grain pill shot from a Grendel is still toting well over 1000 foot-pounds of energy past 300 yards, which is far better than the average .30-30.

.270 Winchester

The .270 Winchester cartridge was released in 1925 and gained popularity thanks to an endorsement from the famous outdoor writer, Jack O'Connor.

Winchester based the design of their new cartridge on the .30-03 Springfield. They took the .30-03 case and necked it down to take thinner .277-caliber bullets. The result is an effective high-velocity deer cartridge with a flatter trajectory and less recoil than the .30-06 Springfield, which has long been considered the gold standard for deer cartridges.

The .270 Winchester sits in a performance sweet spot between the .308 Win and the .264 Win. This cartridge uses thinner bullets than the big .30s, which means hunters benefit from projectiles with better sectional density which deliver deeper penetration in soft tissue.

Meanwhile, the .270 Win carves wider wound channels than the little .243. Wide, deep penetrating wounds are more effective for humanely harvesting whitetails. That makes the .270 Win a godsend, especially for hunters chasing western whitetails, where shots are often stretched across acres of open plains.

Choose .270 loads with 130- to 140-grain bullets for most whitetail deer hunting. If you want to stretch the capabilities of the .270, or you need your rifle to pull double duty for mule deer and whitetails, opt for a heavier 150-grain pill with a ballistic tip.

Continue reading about the best calibers for deer hunting here.