What’s the Best Straight-Wall Rifle Round for Deer Hunting?

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A look at a few favorite calibers for hunters stuck in shotgun slug and straight-wall cartridge states

If you’re going to be hunting this fall in places like Ohio, Iowa, or Michigan, take a quiet moment to yourself and give thanks for the straight-wall rifle cartridges that are slowly replacing shotgun slugs in the deer woods. Though I’m saying this in the nicest way possible, shotgun slugs are ballistic atrocities. Straight-wall rifle cartridges, generally speaking, kick way less, shoot flatter, and are much more accurate. “Yeah, but nothing hits a buck like a 12-gauge slug!” you say.

Except something like a .45-70, which hits them much harder. 

Federal’s new HammerDown is designed for optimum performance in lever-action rifles, and available in several straight-wall calibers. (Federal Premium)

(Planning a hunting trip? Check out our state-by-state rundown in Realtree’s Antler Nation)

That you need a straight-wall rifle is the perfect excuse to go gun shopping (as if you needed another reason in 2020). There are plenty of good straight-wall calibers out there that run the power spectrum — including a variety of fairly specialized ones for AR platforms. But when it comes to the bread-and-butter rounds you’re likeliest to find on a Wal-Mart shelf three days before the opener, these are the ones I’ve used and recommend.  

.357 Magnum 

This magnum revolver classic has been around since 1934 and has long been heralded for self-defense, but also dismissed as marginally effective on whitetails. I’m here to tell you, unequivocally, that it works fine on deer, particularly from a rifle. Federal’s new HammerDown load, which is designed for rifles and shoots a 170-grain bonded bullet, clocks 1,767 fps out of my 20-inch lever gun, generating 1,178 foot-pounds of energy. That’s real power with virtually no recoil (about 5.5 foot-pounds, or a little more than a .223). 

If you really want to powder-puff it down for practice, load it with light .38 Specials. That’s what my 6-year-old son has been using to bounce cans around at 25 yards. A couple of weeks ago, I used this very setup to kill a pronghorn in Colorado at 91 yards, with the HammerDown load. The bullet hit him squarely through both shoulders, exited the off side, and dropped him where he stood. If minimal recoil is a priority, you like to shoot a lot (.38s are cheap), you want a nimble, multipurpose gun, and your shots at whitetails are within 100 yards, get a .357 and don’t think twice. 

.44 Magnum 

Everything I said up there about the .357 holds just as true for the .44 Magnum. This is a revolver round that, from a rifle, will push a 270-grain bullet to similar velocities of around 1,800 fps. That means more muzzle energy and momentum than the .357 with a bigger hole, and with similar trajectory. You can smash through a big buck’s shoulders with that — or a boar hog or black bear, too. 

The downside? You’re not going to see a big terminal difference on whitetails between the .44 and .357 Magnums, but there will be a recoil difference, with the .44 generating about twice the kick. Still, you’re only talking around 11.4 foot-pounds of recoil energy, which is about the equivalent of a .243 Winchester. Like the .357 with .38s, .44 Magnum rifles will function just fine with light-kicking .44 Special ammunition. The guns will be about as light and handy as the .357s, too, but with a little extra pumpkin. Premium hunting loads will cost around the same, but .44 Special plinking fodder is generally a good bit more expensive than .38s.   

(Rifle all dialed in? Check out Mike Hanback’s 15 Tips for One-Shot Kills

.350 Legend

Much as I enjoy shooting pistol-caliber carbines, the .350 Legend would be my first choice if I was shopping for a dedicated, straight-wall deer gun. This newish round, introduced by Winchester in early 2019 specifically in response to relaxed straight-wall rifle regs, has created a pretty good reputation for itself. I’ve shot it through a couple of different bolt-actions and come to expect 2-inch groups, give or take, at 100 yards. Sighted in at that distance, you can expect to be about 9 inches low at 200 yards, while still carrying enough steam to easily punch through a buck’s chest. 

The .350 Legend has neither the ballistics nor accuracy to excite serious rifle shooters. In places like my home state of Kentucky, which allows necked rifle cartridges, you won’t see it dethroning the .270 anytime soon. But for Midwestern hunters long accustomed to fussing with shotgun slugs, this may be the perfect all-around deer caliber. It actually kicks less than the .44 Magnum in a rifle of roughly the same weight, works in AR-15-style rifles, and is easy to find and inexpensive to shoot. Subsonic loads are available for suppressed plinking fun, but go with a 180-grain soft point at around 2,100 fps for hunting. I’ve killed a couple of deer with that, and it’ll do everything you need. 

.45-70 Government

This old military cartridge transcended its blackpowder roots to become a very popular modern hunting round. It’s currently available in a variety of lever-action and single-shot rifles. With a big case that’ll hold a wide selection of bullets and a healthy scoop of powder (you’re not limited to 70 grains of FFG these days), you’ve got a lot of factory and handload options available, including true dangerous-game-level stuff. But most of the easy-to-find factory loads that we whitetail hunters use shoot a 300-grain bullet, give or take, at around 1,900 fps. That means the .45-70 will kick some, but it still won’t jar you like a magnum 12-gauge slug — and personally, I’ve never found standard .45-70 recoil to be as unpleasant as, say, a .30-06. 

Speaking of 12-gauge slugs, the .45-70 is flatter shooting, faster, and produces more muzzle energy. And simply put, the round crushes whitetails. I’ve seen it in action multiple times. It’ll do the job out to 200 and a little beyond — though at those distances, it drops fast. If you want a big gun that you might use on a big bear, elk, or moose, too, and don’t mind getting close, it’s tough to go wrong with this one. Ammo is expensive, but most of the good things in life are.  

(Need a scope? Check out 21 Riflescope Tips for Hunters