This is one of those arguments that has been around for years and is unlikely to be settled by what I’m about to write. Nonetheless, unlike other silly exercises like comparing the .270 to the .280, this question merits a legitimate discussion.
One of the cornerstones of hunting ethics is to take one’s game as quickly and painlessly as possible. Since more and more hunters are heading afield with Modern Sporting Rifles chambered in .223, this ethical discussion merits fresh attention.
Let’s begin by putting the hyperbole aside and addressing the facts of what we’re asking this cartridge to do. We are asking a bullet to reach the animal at a velocity that will allow the bullet to expand reliably, and for that bullet to penetrate deeply enough through bone, tissue, and organs in order to produce enough damage to the anatomical target (heart and/or lungs) to permanently interrupt oxygen production.
The crux of the issue is: Will the .223 Remington perform in a suitable manner to reliably penetrate through both lungs of the whitetail that you intend to hunt, at the range you intend to hunt them, from angles at which you’re comfortable shooting? It depends.
Since we’re dealing in facts—not what grandpa told you—let’s reexamine the .223 Remington’s real capabilities. Much of what the great hunting magazine gurus wrote decades ago, and what we often take as gospel, was made obsolete by the innovation of modern premium bullets. My preferred deer load for the .223 Remington is the ASYM 70gr. TSX Barrier/Hunting load. Out of my 18-inch Crane barrel, this load averages 2,620 fps of velocity and requires at least a 1-in-8 inches twist to stabilize.
This long-for-caliber bullet stays together and penetrates deeply. I’ve used this load successfully on three different whitetail deer this year and didn’t recover a single bullet. I have used this same load on countless feral hogs, which are tougher targets than deer, and can’t recall ever recovering a bullet on a broadside shot.
Swift Sciroccos, Nosler Partitions, and Hornady’s GMX are all bullets that can be relied on to penetrate and stay together adequately to get the job done on most whitetails. I say “most” because I’ve never shot one of the Midwestern or Canadian giants with a .223 and don’t like to offer expertise where it doesn’t exist; I’m funny like that.
So we’ve established that the cartridge is capable of killing a deer from a purely technical point of view: So at least in the technical sense, the .223 is an adequate deer cartridge. Why would you use something that’s merely adequate? Well, for one, a .223 may be the only rifle that you own.
Let’s say that you weren’t a rifle guy until you became one of the thousands of folks who bought a “black rifle” in 2013. Ubiquity aside, the advantage of using a .223 for hunting is that it’s very forgiving from a recoil perspective and therefore very easy to shoot accurately.
Practice ammunition is inexpensive as compared to traditional deer cartridges, which allows a hunter to build supreme confidence in his or her rifle—the importance of this cannot be overstated. Most deer hunters I know use up a 20-round box of .270 Winchester or .30-06 over the course of 3 or 4 years; they’re lucky if they even check their zero before the season starts.
Maybe it’s because they’re lazy, that box of ammo cost them $40, or maybe it’s because they’re a little intimidated by the recoil. No matter what the excuse is, their rifle skills are no doubt lacking.
Give that same hunter an AR and he’s likely to put 100 or so rounds downrange in a weekend because it’s fun, it doesn’t hurt and the ammo is less-expensive (although admittedly prices have gone up all around in the past year or so).
Shot placement is absolutely key when using a cartridge that is at its margin, and there’s no better way to ensure proper shot placement than by using a cartridge you’re not afraid of, and practicing with it.
We know what the .223 can do; let’s talk about what it can’t do, at least not reliably. I paid a lot of money for a mule deer hunt last fall, a high country affair with lots of big bucks in the area. Thanks to some bad luck—and some really bad behavior on the part of some other hunters—the hunt came down to the last afternoon on the last day. The shot I ended up with was a 280-yard, steep-downhill, quartering-on shot at a four-point muley.
I didn’t have a great rest and the wind was blowing. Admittedly, it was a tough shot that I wouldn’t have dreamed of taking with a .223. When I’m hunting whitetails at home or elsewhere in the South, I’m likely hunting an undisturbed animal out of a stand or a ground blind where the shots aren’t terribly long and there’s usually a rail or a tree limb that makes for a passable shooting rest: The .223 works just fine under these circumstances.
On a real wilderness hunt for a trophy animal, you sometimes have to take quick, tough shots from bad angles. When these challenging shots present themselves, you need a cartridge that’s far more than adequate to get the job done.
In my experience—which includes a dozen or so deer shot with the .223—it is a viable deer cartridge when the appropriate bullets are used. It is good enough when shots aren’t excessively long and a broadside shot presents itself. It’s not a foolproof cartridge, however. If you choose to hunt with it, be prepared to pass on an animal when the angle or distance isn’t right.
If you’re not responsible enough to use it within it’s limitations, get yourself something more powerful. It wouldn’t be my first choice on bucks weighing over 200 pounds, and I wouldn’t pack one on an expensive trophy hunt, but if you pick your shots well it will get the job done.