Keep reading to find out my choices for the 11 best deer hunting calibers of all time.
Deer are the most sought after big game animal in North America and many hunters take the sport very seriously. Discussions about the best deer hunting calibers have been occurring around campfires all over the world for decades. For that reason, picking a best caliber for deer hunting is sure to evoke strong feelings. Many gallons of ink, and maybe even a little blood as well, have been spilled on this exact topic.
Add to the mix the fact that deer vary significantly in size across their range and are found in a number of different habitats, both often necessitating the use of a different cartridge for optimum performance, and you’ve got a tricky situation on your hands. However, there are still a few different cartridges that always seem to rise to the top in the best deer hunting caliber debate.
Though picking the single best cartridge for deer hunting is an impossible task, in today’s post, I’m going to share my choices for the 11 best deer hunting calibers. All of these cartridges will get the job done with good shot placement, they’re all available in a number of high quality firearms, and the major ammunition companies like Barnes, Browning, Federal, Hornady, Nosler, Remington, and Winchester all make a wide variety of factory ammo loads for these cartridges.
Before I get started, please understand that the purpose of this article is not to bash anyone’s “pet” cartridge. There are many fine cartridges like the 7mm-08 Remington and .300 Savage that hunters have taken many deer with over the years that didn’t make the list. Their absence does not mean that I think they are “garbage.” Indeed, there are dozens of outstanding cartridges out there, but not all of them can make the list of the best deer hunting calibers.
Finally, these cartridges aren’t limited to just deer hunting either. Indeed, with the right ammunition, many of these deer hunting calibers are also good choices for hunting feral hogs and other big game like black bear under the right conditions.
Developed by necking a .308 Winchester cartridge down to shoot .243″ (instead of .308″) diameter bullets, the .243 Winchester is considered an entry level deer hunting cartridge in most states. Available in a variety of bullet weights ranging from 55 to 105 grains, the .243 Winchester is well suited to a number of applications, especially deer hunting. This little cartridge has developed a reputation for being extremely effective on deer, not to mention being accurate, flat shooting, and having a very mild recoil.
It’s also available in a number of lightweight, compact short-action rifles that are easy to carry. These attributes make the .243 Winchester one of the best deer hunting calibers for small framed hunters, such as women or children. For this reason, a good rifle chambered in .243 Winchester is a great gift for a hunter who is just getting started.
The Remington Core Lokt (80gr PSP), Winchester Ballistic Tip (95gr BST), and Winchester’s new Deer Season XP ammo (95gr XP) are all great ammo choices if you plan on taking a .243 out during deer season.
To learn more about the .243 Winchester and how it compares to the 7mm-08 Remington and the .308 Winchester, check out the article below:
Jack O’Connor helped make the .270 Winchester famous with his sheep hunting exploits using the cartridge. However, the .270 Winchester is also one of the world’s best deer hunting cartridges. Designed by necking a .30-06 Springfield cartridge down to shoot .277″ (instead of .308″) diameter bullets, the .270 Winchester shoots those smaller diameter bullets at a higher velocity with a flatter trajectory and less recoil than bullets from the .30-06 Springfield. It doesn’t carry quite as much energy downrange as the .30-06, but it’s still more than powerful enough for deer hunting at all reasonable hunting ranges though.
There are many excellent .270 Winchester deer hunting loads, but try the Remington Core Lokt (130gr or 150gr SP), Winchester Ballistic Tip (130gr BST), and Winchester’s new Deer Season XP ammo (with a 130gr XP).
For more information on the .270 Winchester and how it stacks up against other popular centerfire cartridges like the .25-06 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor, and .30-06 Springfield, read the articles below:
7mm Remington Magnum
The 7mm Remington Magnum is one of the best long range deer hunting calibers. Most 7mm Magnum loads feature bullets with high ballistic coefficients fired at a high muzzle velocity, giving the cartridge a very flat trajectory. While most hunters don’t need this sort of performance is in their deer rifle, the 7mm Mag is a great cartridge for taking shots at ranges out past 250 yards. Even with all of that power, the 7mm Remington Magnum has less recoil than comparable cartridges like the 7mm Weatherby Magnum or the .300 Winchester Magnum, which also helps explain its popularity.
For some quality 7mm Rem Mag deer hunting ammo, I recommend Barnes VOR-TX (with a 140gr or 150gr TTSX BT bullet), Hornady Precision Hunter (162gr XLD-X), and the Winchester Deer Season XP (140gr XP) loads. The Hornady Precision hunter ammunition in particular is perfect for hunter who want to take advantage of the flat shooting characteristics of the 7mm Rem Mag during a longer range hunting situation.
For more information on the 7mm Remington Magnum and how it stacks up against the .270 Winchester, .280 Remington, .280 Ackley Improved, and .300 Winchester Magnum, read the articles below:
Developed in the 1890s for the Winchester Model 94 rifle, the venerable .30-30 Winchester was one of the first cartridges designed specifically for smokeless powder in the United States. Though the cartridge is pretty anemic on paper by modern standards, the .30-30 Winchester has been cleanly taking deer for over a century, so it is clearly an excellent deer hunting cartridge. At ranges of 150 yards or less, the .30-30 Winchester is one of the best in the business. Combine this with the fact that most rifles chambered in .30-30 are handy, quick pointing lever-action rifles, and you can see why the .30-30 is so popular among deer hunters in the Southern and Eastern United States.
My favorite .30-30 Winchester deer hunting loads are the Hornady LEVERevolution (with a 160gr FTX bullet), Remington Core Lokt (150gr SP), and the Winchester Deer Season XP ammo (150gr XP).
Visit the link below for couple of recommendations for some of the best .30-30 Winchester hunting ammo currently available on the market.
For more information about the .30-30 Winchester, read the article below:
The .308 Winchester came along after World War II as a result of experiments conducted in an effort to replace the .30-06 Springfield as the primary service cartridge for the US Military. Though the resulting M-14 rifle and 7.62x51mm NATO cartridge did not have a very successful run as the primary infantry service rifle and cartridge with the military, the extremely similar .308 Winchester cartridge has been much, much more successful in the civilian hunting and shooting market.
Though most hunting loads are slightly less powerful than modern .30-06 hunting loads, the .308 is still more than powerful enough for hunting deer. However, the .308 has less recoil and is available in short action rifles (while the .30-06 only fits in long action rifles). The .308 Winchester is also known for being an extremely accurate cartridge in the right hands.
Add it all up and you’ve got an excellent all around cartridge for deer hunting over most of North America.
For more information about the .308 Winchester, read the articles below:
It’s really tough to determine which cartridge American hunters have killed more deer with over the last century: the .30-06 Springfield or the .30-30 Winchester. Regardless of which one is #1, it’s pretty clear that the .30-06 Springfield is one of the best deer hunting calibers in existence. It is flat shooting, powerful, has a manageable amount of recoil, and there are dozens of great hunting rifles chambered in this outstanding cartridge. If you had to choose one cartridge to hunt with for the rest of your life, you could do a whole lot worse than the .30-06 Springfield.
There are so many great .30-06 Springfield ammunition choices that picking the best one can be really tough. However, my favorites are the Barnes VOR-TX (with a 150gr or 168gr TTSX BT bullet), Remington Core Lokt (150gr or 165gr SP), and the Winchester Deer Season XP ammo (with a 150gr XP). The 168gr Barnes TTSX load is an especially nice load for hunters who want to use a single bullet for hunting whitetail deer along with larger species like fallow deer, elk, and red stag.
For more information on the .30-06 Springfield and how it stacks up against other popular .30 caliber deer cartridges like the .308 Winchester and the .300 Winchester Magnum, read the article below:
Though it outperforms the .30-30 Winchester on paper by a significant margin, the .35 Remington never achieved anywhere near the notoriety as a deer slayer as the venerable “dirty 30.” Don’t be fooled though, the .35 Remington is one of the most underrated deer hunting cartridges in North America. Like the .30-30, the .35 Remington is quite popular in fast pointing and easy to carry lever-action rifles like the Marlin 336. Indeed, the .35 Remington is such a heavy hitter that it will absolutely do the job on even bigger animals like black bear, brown bear, elk, and even moose at reasonable ranges. For that reason, it’s a better choice for hunters who love lever guns and who want a single rifle for deer as well as hunting moose and other larger creatures.
Hornady LEVERevolution ammo is available in .35 Remington (with a 200gr FTX bullet) and so is Remington Core Lokt ammunition (150gr PSP or 200gr SP). Both 200gr loads are great all around choices for deer and just about any other species of big game you might encounter in North America and fully take advantage of the strengths the .35 Remington has over the .30-30.
For more information about the .35 Remington and some other, more specific .35 Rem hunting load recommendations, read the articles below:
In a nod to all of the hunters out there who prefer to hunt deer with a pistol, I had to include a good pistol cartridge on this list. It’s hard to think of another pistol cartridge that has accounted for more dead deer over the last half century than the .44 Magnum. At one time it was the most powerful handgun cartridge in the world. Even though that is no longer true, it is still one of the best deer hunting calibers around for hunters who use pistols or carbines. The .44 Magnum’s big, slow, and heavy bullets deliver bone crushing power and have plenty of power to ethically take even the biggest deer out to 150 yards or so.
Hornady makes a handgun line of their LEVERevolution ammo in .44 Magnum (with a 225gr FTX bullet) along with their Custom Handgun ammo (with a 200gr JHP). Buffalo Bore also makes a standard load firing a 255gr Keith SWC and a +P load firing a 340gr LFN bullet. All those loads, but particularly the 225gr Hornady and 255gr Buffalo Bore, are all absolutely deadly on deer.
A personal favorite of mine, the .45-70 Government is one of the best deer hunting calibers for hunters who need a good “brush gun.” While some would criticize the .45-70 Government for being a little on the big side for deer, there really is no such thing as using “too much gun” on any animal. This is especially true with the .45-70 because not only does it deliver bone crushing power, but it also does so while using a heavy bullet at a moderate velocity. Because of this, the .45-70 does not produce large amounts of ruined, blood shot meat, like other cartridges (like the 7mm Magnum or sometimes the .30-06).
Like the .30-30, the .45-70 Government is most often available in handy lever-action rifles (like the Winchester 1886 and Marlin 1895), making it a great choice for close quarters shooting. Additionally, the .45-70 also has a manageable amount of recoil. At close range, there are few other cartridges that can compare with the .45-70, especially if the owner also wants to hunt larger species such as bear, elk, and moose.
Hornady LEVERevolution ammo is available in .45-70 Government (with a 250gr Monoflex or a 325gr FTX bullet) and so is Remington Core Lokt ammunition (300gr JHP or 405gr SP). All of those loads are more than capable of taking down any deer in the world. The 405gr Remington Core Lokt ammo is perfect for hunters using a Trapdoor Springfield and the 325gr Hornady load is great for hunters who want some really hard hitting ammunition that carries even more energy downrange than a typical .45-70 load.
For more information about the .45-70 Government, some other, more specific .45-70 hunting load recommendations, and some other cartridges comparable the .45-70 in terms of power that fit in a standard AR platform, read the articles below:
12 Gauge Slug/Buckshot
Unfortunately, not everyone in the United States is allowed to hunt using centerfire rifle cartridges. Instead, some states restrict hunters to using shotguns during their modern firearm deer season. That is the reason it is on this list. Using a rifled slug barrel and topped with a scope, a 12 gauge shotgun is quite the deer slayer out to about 150 yards or so. A 1 ounce (437.5 grains) lead slug weighs almost three times as much as the 150 grain bullets popular with rifle calibers like the 7mm Mag, .30-30 Winchester, and .30-06.
Not surprisingly, a shotgun slug is absolutely deadly on a whitetail deer. Additionally, using buckshot (the name is no accident) a hunter carrying a 12 gauge shotgun is ideally armed for a close range encounter with a deer. Though it is only effective out to about 30-35 yards, buckshot is a great choice for shooting a moving deer (like when using hounds) or when hunting in areas with very thick vegetation.
To learn more about shotgun gauges, their naming conventions, and which bore size is best suited for various hunting situations, check out the article below:
Just like the case with shotguns, some states prohibit centerfire rifles, but allow hunters to hunt deer with muzzleloaders. Fortunately, a .45, .50, .54, or .57 caliber muzzleloader is absolutely deadly on deer at close range. After all, muzzleloaders were the primary weapon deer hunters in North America used for nearly three centuries before the introduction of modern centerfire rifle cartridges.
Depending on individual tastes (and local regulations), hunters can use a variety of muzzleloaders ranging from flintlock and percussion muzzleloaders that look very similar to what hunters used in the 1700s and 1800s to much more modern inline muzzleloaders with scopes. All are perfectly capable deer slayers in the right hands and under the right circumstances.
To learn more about the muzzleloaders, powder, primers, and bullets I recommend, check out the articles below:
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John McAdams is a proficient blogger, experienced shooter, and long time hunter who has pursued big game in 8 different countries on 3 separate continents. John graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and is a veteran of combat tours with the US Army in Iraq & Afghanistan. In addition to founding and writing for The Big Game Hunting Blog, John has written for outdoor publications like Bear Hunting Magazine, The Texas State Rifle Association newsletter, Texas Wildlife Magazine, & Wide Open Spaces. Learn more about John here, read some of John’s most popular articles, and be sure to subscribe to his show: the Big Game Hunting Podcast.