How to Choose the Best Caliber For Deer Hunting in 2023 – Top Guide For a Successful Season

hunter, deer hunting, rifle-67002.jpg
James Gangler

It wasn’t easy. As I said before, there are literally hundreds of deer-hunting pistol/rifle calibers available today, and paring them down to a select few is no easy feat. Some of them represent the most advanced technology the hunting world has ever seen. Others were trusted by your great-grandfather and still hold up today. With a few exceptions, each deer hunting caliber here is time-tested and field-proven. Should additional calibers be added? Debatable. Could additional calibers be added? Absolutely. Experienced hunters can’t deny any of the following don’t belong here. Because they do.

A Word On Cartridges vs. Calibers

Let’s get one thing straight right out of the gate—there is a difference between “calibers” and “cartridges”. A firearm’s caliber references the diameter of the bullet (and therefore its barrel) whereas a cartridge includes the case, primer, propellant, and bullet. In other words, a specific caliber bullet is seated in a specific cartridge case.

For the sake of this conversation, we’ll loosely interchange caliber with cartridge. However, keep in mind your caliber is just one of several variables to consider when it comes to dropping that 12-point whitetail at 197 yards with a slight crosswind. 

.243 Winchester

Arguably the best deer hunting caliber for youth or beginners. Ask your average hunters about the .243 Winchester and they’ll say the same thing. However, there’s more to the story than that. Originally a wildcat caliber designed by the legendary Warren Page, he necked down a .308 case and Winchester noticed. In 1955, they introduced the .243 Winchester as a “dual-purpose” cartridge intended for both small varmints and medium game. 

And it has more than lived up to expectations.

It’s extremely accurate, readily available, and the light recoil makes it perfect for those new to deer hunting. It’s also available in almost every type of action and rifle style you can think of; from single-shot and bolt-action to semi-auto. Depending on the grain (the weight of the bullet/projectile), it’s simply devastating on varmints, perfect for predators, and lethal on deer. More than a few people even take it a step further and call it the best pronghorn antelope round ever. 

When it comes to versatility, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a deer caliber that can do more. 

243 Winchester Mohawk 600 Rifle leaning against tree
Mohawk 600 .243 Winchester Rifle - © 2023 Lunde Studio

6.5 Creedmoor

Developed by Hornady in 2007, the 6.5 Creedmoor has skyrocketed in popularity among hunters. It was originally designed specifically for precision long-range shooting. Nearly half of the nation’s Top 50 precision shooters run with the 6.5 Creedmoor (or its close cousin the 6.5×47 Lapua), and the caliber has won over 50% of the Top 100 Precision Rifle matches.

The cartridge offers fantastic ballistic advantages for long-range hunting. Little wind drift and elevation drop, coupled with lighter recoil, provide the typical hunter with the best of both worlds. It shoots flatter, farther, and more accurately than the iconic .308 Winchester (and even delivers more energy down range). 

Deer hunters, of course, took notice. And so did U.S. Special Operations Command.

Bergara B-14 HMR 6.5 Creedmoor Rifle Leaned Against Tree
Bergara B-14 HMR 6.5 Creedmoor Rifle - © 2023 Lunde Studio

In October 2017, SOCOM tested several calibers for a new sniper rifle and got the same results. They determined the 6.5 Creedmoor performed extremely well (beating out the .308 Win and 7.62 NATO). It was adopted in 2018 as their new precision rifle cartridge.

It’s easy to see why. The cartridge combines outstanding accuracy with bullets that excel on any target. And that minimal recoil? That allows the shooter to literally spot where their bullet impacted and make a quick, accurate follow-up shot if needed. 

There’s a reason why many are coming to the conclusion that the 6.5 Creedmoor is the best deer hunting rifle of the modern era. Because it probably is.

Read next:

6.5 CREEDMOOR AMMUNITION

6.5 CREEDMOOR RIFLE

.270 Winchester

Next to the venerable .30-06 cartridge or the history-laden .30-30 Winchester, the .270 Winchester has arguably been the most popular deer cartridge in the United States over the past 75 years. And there’s one man you can thank for that.

Jack O’Connor was the undisputed dean of outdoor writers. For over 30 years, he educated, informed, and entertained hunters as the Shooting Editor for Outdoor Life magazine. He was also one of the first to see just how special the .270 Winchester cartridge was.

270 Winchester Rifle with Buck
.270 Winchester with Buck | .270 Winchester Fan Club
Complete Book of Rifles and Shotguns by Jack O'Connor - Book Cover
Complete Book of Rifles and Shotguns by Jack O'Connor

Introduced in 1925, O’Connor was impressed with the ballistics of the round when shooting a 130-grain spire-point bullet (full metal jacket with the tip cut off and topped with a pointy soft lead tip). When compared to the .30-06, the .270 delivers better velocity, a flatter trajectory, and lighter recoil. Sounds like a fantastic combination to us. 

O’Connor stressed to his readers (and we suspect anyone around deer camp who’d listen) the value of retained energy down range. He explained how the .270 hit harder and had more power at long distances due to the efficiency of the 130-grain bullet. 

Entire generations listened and drew the same conclusion. No respectable list of the best caliber for deer hunting could respectably exist without the .270 Winchester. 

.270 WIN AMMUNITION

Nosler Trophy Grade .270 Winchester Ammunition

.270 WIN RIFLE

Impulse Mountain Hunter 270 Win Bolt Action Rifle

7mm-08 Remington

This choice is sure to ruffle a few feathers and we’re fine with that. A number of knowledgeable gun nuts would replace this caliber on the list with the 7mm Remington Magnum, and we wouldn’t disagree if this was a “Best Rifle Caliber For Deer/Elk/Moose/Brown Bear” list. But it’s not. We’re talking specifically about deer hunting. 

The 7mm Rem. Mag, introduced in 1962, is a belted magnum beast that’s basically a big game cartridge capable of taking big game animals at longer distances. While we agree it’s absolutely one of the great all-around hunting cartridges, the 7mm-08 has the advantage over its big brother when it comes to hunting deer.

To start, it delivers plenty of speed and energy for both whitetail deer and mule deer at almost any distance. This round with its comparatively light kick, shoots flatter than a .308 or .30-06, and a box of ammo is at least $20 cheaper than 7mm Remington Magnum. So what’s not to like? 

Not much, according to most whitetail hunters. That’s why the 7mm-08 Remington is considered a deadly round for whitetails and a great choice for many hunters. 

You may be interested in:

7MM-08 REMINGTON AMMUNITION

Hornady Precision Hunter 7mm-08 150 Gr eXpanding Centerfire Rifle Ammunition

7MM-08 REMINGTON RIFLE

Savage Arms 110 Apex Hunter XP 7MM-08 4-Round Bolt Action Centerfire Rifle

.30-30 Winchester

In the fall of 1895, a nameless hunter dropped the first whitetail deer ever taken with a lever-action .30-30 Winchester Model 94. In the 128 years since its development, the .30-30 has arguably killed more deer than any other cartridge in American history. 

And it’ll drop even more during the next deer season.

The reasons why are the same now as they were back during the Grover Cleveland presidency—it is fast and flat-shooting. The first sport cartridge loaded with smokeless powder, a 150-grain .30-30 bullet has a velocity of up to 2,300 feet per second but a surprisingly tolerable recoil. In fact, it’s about half that of a comparable rifle chambered for the .30-06 Springfield.  

With an effective range of 175 yards (give or take), it’ll handle most of the shots you want to take and 100% of the shots you should.

Advancements in modern ammunition have only helped the case for having a .30-30 in the gun cabinet. When Hornady introduced the LEVERevolution ammo in 2006 that uses a flex tip on a spitzer bullet (making it safe for use in the rifle’s tubular magazine), it made the already legendary round even more popular. 

*NOTE: As of May 2023, the popularity of the .30-30 lever action has reached almost unprecedented heights. Some point to its American design while others advocate (at times loudly) for its role as a self-defense long arm in addition to a classic deer rifle. Still, others quietly confess to having a little cowboy inside them (which we freely admit to possessing). Regardless of the reasons, you should expect to spend $1,500+ on a new .30-30 Winchester or Marlin rifle—if you can find them. With their limited availability, if you stumble across a good used one under $750, buy it immediately. Budget accordingly.

.30-30 WIN AMMUNITION

Federal Premium Barnes TSX 30-30 Win 150 Gr Triple-Shock X Centerfire Rifle Ammunition

.30-30 WIN RIFLE

Winchester Model 94 Deluxe Sporting .30-30 Winchester Lever-Action Rifle

.308 Winchester

How iconic is the .308 Winchester? Every decade or so, a new cartridge is introduced and billed as the “.308 Win Killer”. Yet, every year, the .308 continues to efficiently drop big game throughout North America (and beyond).

As is often the case, the .308 was born out of the U.S. military’s endless quest to find a ballistically better round. Looking for a shorter cartridge with similar ballistics to the .30-06 Springfield, they developed the 7.62×51 NATO round in the early 1950s. Seeing a market for a civilian version of the military round, Winchester introduced it to American hunters as the .308 Winchester.

It’s accurate (out to 500 yards). It’s versatile (offered in a dizzying array of bullet weights). It also packs a punch (a 175-grain bullet delivers over 1,500 foot-pounds of energy at 400+ yards). Although renowned as a premier whitetail round, the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game lists the .308 among the calibers recommended for hunting brown and grizzly bears. Hell, even the Canadian Arctic Rangers chose a Tikka T3 bolt-action rifle chambered in .308 Win for “polar bear defense” in 2014. 

.308 Winchester Rifle Leaned Against a Tree
.308 Winchester Rifle - © 2023 Lunde Studio

So yeah. It’s more than adequate for deer hunting. 

Yes, it’s an old round. No, it’s not a flashy one. But it is probably the most successful short-action big-game hunting round in North America. None other than Wikipedia itself [1] claims the .308 Winchester is the standard hunting cartridge in the United States. Hard to argue with that. 

Read on:

.30-06 Springfield

If the .308 Winchester is considered the standard hunting cartridge in America, it’s only because it stands on the shoulders of the immortal .30-06 Springfield. Steeped in history, the aught six won two world wars and the undying respect of an entire nation in the process.

Ammunition manufacturers weren’t exactly creative when it came to naming their new cartridges. The .30-06 Springfield fires a 30-caliber bullet and the “06” refers to the year the cartridge was adopted by the U.S. Army (1906). While the name may be lacking in originality, the caliber doesn’t lack anything.

In World War I, American servicemen were issued the M1903 Springfield bolt-action rifles. Afterward, the US military issued its soldiers the M1 Garand chambered in .30-06 (the Garand, by the way, was the first semi-auto military rifle ever used as a standard combat shoulder weapon). After saving the world not once, but twice, the revered cartridge eventually found its way from the battlefield to the deer field. And the hunting community never looked back.

.30-06 Ruger M77 - Hunter with Buck
Buck harvested in West Texas with .30-06 Springfield Rifle - © 2023 Lunde Studio

The .30-06 strikes almost the perfect ballistic balance. It brings plenty of power to the table with many hunting loads delivering over 3,000 foot-pounds of muzzle velocity. Used with expanding bullets, it rapidly transfers energy to any target. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that it results in a recoil nearing the upper edges of acceptance by most hunters. Yes, the legends are true—a hot .30-06 kicks like an angry mule with a toothache. Just remember you can always opt for lighter bullets that don’t generate quite as much recoil energy.

It’s more gun that most deer hunters need, but it’s the perfect caliber if you want an American legend that’s great for big game or Nazis. That’s the Tweet. 

.30-06 Ruger M77 Leaned on Tree
.30-06 Springfield Rifle - © 2023 Lunde Studio

.30-06 SPRINGFIELD AMMUNITION

.30-06 SPRINGFIELD RIFLE

.350 Legend

Don’t call it a comeback. The straight-walled cartridge has been around for over a century. The .45 Long Colt helped tame Dodge City and the .45-70 essentially destroyed most bison on the continent during one of the worst acts of animal genocide in history. Both are heralded as two of the finer calibers ever developed and are still enjoyed by shooters and hunters alike. 

Known for having a case diameter that is the same across its length with no taper, the straight-wall fell out of favor when manufacturers started developing bottleneck centerfire cartridges that created higher pressures behind the bullet (hence, more velocity). But the straight-wall never truly disappeared. And the .350 Legend is proof. 

First introduced by Winchester at the 2019 SHOT Show, it was designed to solve a very specific problem. For decades, a number of states passed hunting regulations that prohibited the use of traditional bottleneck rounds on deer. Why? Because shooting a longer-range bullet in heavily populated areas is a recipe for disaster. At some point, something other than a deer will get hit by an errant shot. 

.350 Legend Rifle
.350 Legend Rifle - © 2023 Lunde Studio

The .350 Legend is an impressive caliber designed to mitigate that issue. Built to deliver enough energy to achieve lethal effects on deer out to 200 yards, the felt recoil generated is 20% less than a .243 Winchester (known in certain circles as a great youth caliber rifle for context). It also offers a flatter trajectory. Coupled with impressive terminal velocity and less recoil, it offers better overall performance than other straight-wall cartridges (although the .360 Buckhammer has recently entered the chat). 

Not every cartridge lives up to its name but, as one of the lightest-kicking rounds that’s absolutely deadly on deer, the .350 Legend more than does.    

.350 LEGEND AMMUNITION

Calibers That Just Missed The Cut

The problem with an exercise like this? A handful of qualifying calibers could easily make the list. In fact, if you’ve been pulling the trigger for a while or still hunt in the boots you bought 25 years ago, there’s a good chance you have your own list of The Best Ever. Would love to hear it below in the comments if you do. 

So which calibers almost made it?

300 Winchester Magnum

Oh, this one was close. Very close to making the list. Not only will the .300 Win Mag drop every deer at any reasonable distance, it’ll also drop almost any deer at any unreasonable distance. That’s in part why the U.S. Navy SEALs use the .300 Win Mag in their preferred sniper rifle platform—it almost perfects the combination of precision and transferred energy downrange. And that’s why a number of vocal proponents claim it’s the best long-range hunting caliber available today. 

A grandson of the .375 H&H (the father of all belted magnums), this formidable round carries more than 2,000 foot-pounds of energy out past 500 yards. But that outstanding terminal performance comes at a price. Namely in the pounding your shoulder takes with every round sent. 

For perspective, the .300 Win Mag generates roughly 30% more recoil than a .30-06. That says a lot. Sure, a heavier rifle or one fitted with a solid muzzle break will soften the blow but it’s still a somewhat punishing trigger pull. Why does this matter? Because a gun that feels like a hammer against your shoulder is one most hunters won’t practice enough to perfect. 

That’s why it fell just short of making the list.

If 300 Win Mag is your favorite, but the recoil is less than manageable, check out our list of top 300 Win Mag muzzle brakes.

.300 WIN MAG AMMUNITION

.45-70 Government

Developed just one year after the legendary .45 Colt, this proven hunting workhorse is more than worthy of the “almost made it” list due in large part to its longevity. It’s been used to drop every big-game animal in North America for over 100 years.  

As usual with most military rounds, the .45-70 was an immediate hit among hunters back in the late 1800s and still is today in certain circles. Available in a variety of heavy loads (from a 300 grain bullet all the way up to a 405 grain beast), it’s extremely effective out to 200+ yards with minimal bullet drop. If you understand windage and elevation by minute of angle, it’s also more than capable at longer ranges. Just remember longer, accurate shots are a challenge due to the round’s slow velocity and relatively low ballistic coefficiency. 

With many rifles chambered for the .45-70 being short-barreled lever actions, this is a deer-crushing round that can be easy to carry (on foot or horseback), quick to mount and fast to shoot.

Overall, the .45-70 has a storied history of success on every big-game animal on the continent and there’s a reason so many Alaskan guides still keep one strapped to their back. While it does have its limitations, few cartridges offer a better balance of power and portability. 

.45-70 Government Rifle Ready for Hunting in West Texas - © 2023 Lunde Studio

.45-70 GOVERNMENT  AMMUNITION

.45-70 GOVERNMENT RIFLE

6.5 PRC

Leaving this one off the list may break the Internet. Why? Because the 6.5 Precision Rifle Cartridge is that good. The big brother of the 6.5 Creedmoor, the 6.5 PRC offers a 200+ fps velocity advantage and delivers a long, heavy, high-performing bullet down range well beyond 1,000 yards. This is one that definitely punches above its weight class.

The round was originally developed in 2013 for Precision Rifle Series competition. There, competitors must quickly engage a variety of targets at a variety of ranges (up to 1,000+ yards). As a short-action magnum cartridge, the PRC fit the bill (and then some). It holds over 25% more powder than the Creedmoor which translates into more lethality at longer ranges. 

But consider this: a vast majority of us don’t feel comfortable squeezing the trigger on a deer out past 500 yards (nor should we in our opinion). In other words, why use the 6.5 PRC when its little brother the 6.5 Creedmoor is more than capable of doing the job? When you factor in recoil, ammo costs, rifle costs and availability of both, the 6.5 Creedmoor gets the nod here.

6.5 PRC AMMUNITION

Nosler E-Tip 6.5 PRC 120 Gr Brass-Cased Rifle Ammunition

6.5 PRC RIFLE

Bergara Premier Ridgeback 6.5 PRC 7-Round Bolt Action Rifle

REMINGTON .360 BUCKHAMMER?

Yes, that’s a question mark. While the new Remington 360 Buckmark holds the promise of being a true game-changer for Midwest hunters, we’re not sure because it’s not available yet. 

Introduced in January 2023 at the SHOT Show in Las Vegas, the 360 Buckhammer was specifically designed for states that require straight-wall rifle cartridges for deer hunting (we’re looking at you, Ohio). Remington says the Buckhammer has a muzzle velocity that’s 300 fps faster than the 350 Legend, with less bullet drop and more retained energy at 200 yards. It also claims similar results when compared to the 30-30 Winchester and 450 Bushmaster.  

Remington .360 Buckhammer Rifle and Ammunition

Remington is using proven 180 grain and 200 grain Core-Lokt bullets that retain energy close to 1,000 foot-pounds out to that magical 200-yard distance. 

Because of its rimmed case, the 360 Buckhammer is really built for lever-action rifles and single shots. Remington found a partner in Henry Rifles who will be offering multiple models chambered in 360 BHMR. This includes brass side gate lever actions, color case hardened side gate lever actions, steel side gate lever actions, and a single shot rifle. 

If the promises hold true, and once the caliber gets several seasons of testing under its belt, there’s a very good chance the 360 Buckhammer will replace the 350 Legend on our list for best deer hunting caliber. But until then, it’s just another round we can argue about.

REMINGTON .360 BUCKHAMMER AMMUNITION

REMINGTON .360 BUCKHAMMER RIFLE

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *