There is no doubt that deer are the most widespread and popular big game animal in the U.S. Today, whitetails are found all across the nation, from the forests of New England to the farmland of the West, across the Great Plains and north all the way into Minnesota. Deer are found in remote wilderness areas as well as the fringes of the largest cities. If you’re living in North America, odds are you live very close to whitetail deer. And if you’re a big game hunter, chances are you spend time each fall pursuing them.
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.
Read more here: 10 Best Deer Cartridges of All Time