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.
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.