November 23, 2016
Tortured into an honest answer, most experts would admit it's been ages since the world truly needed a new whitetail cartridge. But then, need doesn't always have that much to do with it. We seek fun just as much as venison or antlers, and part of the fun of hunting lies in telling friends why our gear is better than their gear. We enjoy feeling smart for using what we use.
In rifle hunting whitetails in over two dozen states and provinces, I've toted centerfires from the puny .32-20 Win. up to the husky .300 Win. Mag. My list hasn't come close to including all options, and I still like to try new ones. (Here's looking at you, .26 and .28 Nosler.)
But no matter the cartridge or time zone, I've found that deer hit in the vitals die in a hurry. Likewise, those hit marginally rarely do — again, irrespective of cartridge.
So the proverbial "loose nut behind the trigger" is often the key variable in the killing equation. At reasonable whitetail ranges, most legal cartridges can get it done just fine. Problem is, many shooters can't.
Blame the gun if you like, but poor results more often are due to practice: either too little or too much. We know lack of time on the range doesn't help — but then, neither does absorbing abuse while there.
Extra-loud, mule-kicking rifles encourage poor shooting. Your memory of that punishment might be all but subconscious, but it can cause flinching at the worst time. In the woods, any urge to look up quickly to see the shot's result will further jeopardize accuracy.
If you're a sniper with a .338 Lapua, great. That extra punch might help you add some sag to the game pole. But we don't hunt in Jurassic Park. Even the thickest whitetail is near the lower end of the weight range for big game, with thin hide and light bones. Slam a decent chunk of mushrooming metal into the vitals and a deer dies quickly.
Today I mostly hang out in the shoulder-friendly part of the deer-cartridge spectrum. I want a gun that's easy to shoot and puts at least 120 grains of bullet where it needs to go. While this weight minimum excludes anything lighter than the heaviest .257 bullets, I feel it's a safer threshold than 100 grains, which drops us into .243 (6mm) territory.
This isn't to knock a well-made 100-grain bullet. I've killed many deer with them. Jerry Froma's 267 7/8-inch Alberta non-typical — one of Canada's best ever — was downed at 300 yards with a .243 Win., and giants have been taken with even lighter loads.
Still, being eager to recover what I shoot, I'd rather not be limited to 100 grains of payload. I prefer to use something along the lines of 6.5 Creedmoor.
Maybe it's ironic, given how I've scoffed at the lack of need for new cartridges, that this one didn't even exist until 2009. That's when Hornady engineers tweaked the .30 TC (itself then a newcomer, based on the .307 Win.) and stuck a .264 bullet into the short case.
Thus was born a superb target cartridge that also is low-recoil whitetail poison. It fills a niche the .260 Rem. should have but never quite did.
Most .264 hunting bullets run 120-140 grains, with a high ballistic coefficient that helps them buck stiff crosswinds. I've had great results on every deer or antelope shot with this cartridge; some guys even love it for elk.
While all of my hunts have been with a Thompson/Center Icon or Ruger M77 Hawkeye and Hornady rounds, more gun and ammunition makers are boarding this train every year. So are many of their customers.
Should you join them? That's your call. My advice is simply to use the deer-class cartridge you shoot best. In the woods, skill under pressure often matters at least as much as what's stamped on the barrel.