Selecting a cartridge for deer hunting is largely a matter of opinion, but there are a number of qualities that make some cartridges stand out from the crowd. First, it must be powerful enough to humanely kill even the largest deer, but recoil shouldn't be so great that it precludes smaller-framed shooters from becoming proficient with the cartridge. Each cartridge should have a proven track record on game, and should be versatile enough to use out to moderate ranges. Lastly, nostalgia and popularity also played a role in making selections for our list. If it's a cartridge American hunters love, we had to include it.
Are there good deer cartridges that didn't make our list? Absolutely. But discussions regarding the best deer cartridges of all time have been going on around campfires in this country for over a century. Here's a list of the top ten finishers.
The 6.5 Creedmoor is a relatively new cartridge that was designed specifically as a target round, but it has caught fire among hunters who appreciate its many qualities. It's extremely accurate, and the current crop of .264 hunting bullets make this a standout cartridge despite its status as a newcomer in the hunting world. Whether you hunt with a bolt-action or prefer an AR platform, this cartridge is a good choice for deer hunting. Recoil is light enough that most shooters can handle rifles chambered in this round, and even at long ranges the Creedmoor is an effective deer cartridge.
The little 7mm-08 can do big things. Introduced 33 years ago by Remington, this cartridge is simply a necked-down version of the .308. It's a favorite among benchrest shooters and it's extremely accurate. There are lots of quality .284 bullets on the market, ranging from 120 up to 175 grains, and the 7mm-08 produces a lower level of recoil than its parent cartridge, making it a perfect gun for new or small-framed shooters. The cartridge's small overall size makes it perfect for short, light rifles like the Remington Model 7 and the Winchester Model 70 Featherweight. The popularity of this cartridge is on the rise, and with all of the competition the 7mm-08 faces in today's market, that's a telling statistic.
The other ought six, the .25-06 can't match its parent cartridge (the .30-06) in terms of popularity, but it certainly has the chops to be counted among the elite of deer hunting cartridges. Although the .25-06 existed since the 1920s in various wildcat designs, it wasn't until slow burning powders became available that it began to excel. Today, the .25-06 is one of the most versatile deer cartridges available. It's capable of pushing 100 grain bullets up to 3,400 feet per second, and with heavier 115 and 120 grain bullets, velocity only lags by about 200 fps. It's a flat-shooting cartridge capable of killing deer out to 400 yards or more, and reloaders can easily form brass from .30-06 cases. A wide selection of .257 bullets helps make the .25-06 one of the greatest deer cartridges of all time.
Like the .308, the '06 began as a military cartridge at the turn of the twentieth century and has remained the favorite cartridge for legions of hunters for over a century. Part of the .30-06's popularity stems from its versatility on a wide variety of game, but it is extremely effective on deer. There are plenty of choices with regard to ammunition and rifles. Unlike the hotter .30s, the '06 produces a level of recoil that most shooters can tolerate, and it shoots flat enough and hits hard enough to kill any deer. No discussion of the top hunting cartridges of all time would be complete without giving credit to this versatile, effective cartridge.
Hunters who love to spout ballistic data will shake their heads at this one. The .30-30 Win., which was the first cartridge loaded with smokeless propellants way back in 1895, is anemic by today's standards. The average 150 grain load leaves the barrel between 2,200 and 2,300 feet per second, and with 170 grain bullets, the velocity remains under 2,200 for most ammo. It doesn't shoot very flat and it doesn't hit particularly hard, but the .30-30 deserves its place among the greatest cartridges of all time — if for no other reason than it has accounted for untold numbers of dead deer. At moderate ranges, the .30-30 is a sure killer if the bullet is placed properly. The light, handy lever-action rifles that are currently chambered for this cartridge are easy to carry and recoil is minimal. Advances in ammunition, like Hornady's Leverevolution
, make this great cartridge even better.
American hunters like flat-shooting, hard-hitting magnums, and Roy Weatherby was the dean of high-velocity, high-energy cartridge design. The .240 Weatherby is a totally unique design — a belted 6mm that debuted in 1968 in the Mark V rifle. It could move a 100 grain bullet at 3,200 feet per second, making it one of the flattest-shooting cartridges in this class. The .240 Weatherby has always had a group of loyal followers, but there seems to be a resurgence in the cartridge's popularity today. Those who have had the opportunity to hunt with this cartridge laud praise on it, and the combination of high energy, low recoil, and flat trajectory make it one of the best deer cartridges ever designed.
The .243 Winchester debuted in 1955 and hunters were immediately drawn to this light-recoiling, flat-shooting offspring of the .308 Winchester. The mild kick of the .243 makes it perfect for kids, and yet it is powerful enough to take down the largest deer. In addition, it doubles as an effective varmint cartridge. Ammunition is available nearly everywhere, and bolt-actions, lever guns, single shots, and semi-autos are all available in this caliber.
When legendary cartridge designer Ned Roberts took a 7mm Mauser case, necked it down to accept .257 bullets and adjusted the shoulder angle from 20 to 15 degrees, a star was born. That new cartridge became his namesake round, the .257 Roberts, and it's still one of the best deer cartridges ever designed. Recoil is minimal and just about everyone can shoot the .257 well. This cartridge will also push a 100 grain bullet at 3,000 feet per second, so it shoots flat and produces enough energy to kill deer quickly and cleanly, even at long ranges. The .257 Roberts was introduced in the mid-1930s and suffered a bit as other newer and faster cartridges came to market over the next three decades. Today, however, the .257 is still a viable option for the hard-core deer hunter.
There's nothing to say about the .270 that hasn't already been said, but let me give you the basics: Since it appeared on the hunting scene in 1925, hunters — including such notables as Jack O'Connor — couldn't stop praising the cartridge's combination of power, trajectory, accuracy and killing ability. Most shooters can handle the recoil, and there is a huge selection of both ammo and bullets available. Another offspring of the .30-06, the .270 is one of the most popular cartridges of all time, and hunters around the world have carried rifles chambered for this cartridge after a wide variety of big game. Hunters also like the versatility of the .270, and the cartridge sees use for everything from jackrabbits and groundhogs up to elk.
The .308 came to market as a military cartridge in 1954 and has gained quite a following among sport hunters. Currently, however, the ballistics of the .308 may seem unexceptional in the crowded .30-caliber cartridge segment. In terms of sheer velocity and power, it can't compete with the various .30 magnums, but the .308 remains a popular choice. It's available in lever-action, slide-action, bolt-action and semi-auto rifles, it doesn't kick hard, and there is a wide selection of quality hunting ammo on the market. It's also extremely accurate, which is probably why the majority of sniper rifles are chambered for this cartridge. It's versatile enough for use on everything from varmint to elk and moose, and it remains one of the best deer cartridges of all time.