The 8 Best Deer Cartridges for This Season

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Which of These Do You Prefer?

.243 Winchester

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1 | .243 Winchester

A 1955 introduction, the .243 Winchester won the 6mm popularity contest hands down. The 6mm Remington is a better round, the new 6mm Creedmoor destined for greatness, but Winchester’s contribution remains iconic. It’s nothing more than the .308 Winchester necked to .243/6mm caliber. Much of its popularity can be attributed to Winchester’s wise choice of 1-in-10-inch rifling in introductory rifles.

This down-the-middle rifling twist allows shooting light varmint (55-85 grains) or heavier deer bullets (95-100-plus grains) from a single rifle. The .243 provides deer-killing performance while remaining mild-mannered and easy-to-shoot. I have a soft spot for the .243, as it was my first big-game rifle, used on everything from prairie dogs to bull elk. I never found it lacking. Loaded with 100-grain soft points pushed to 2,900 fps, it often drops deer in their tracks, controlled-expansion pills (like Nosler’s Partition) providing added insurance on larger targets.

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6.5 Creedmoor

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2 | 6.5 Creedmoor

Developed by Hornady in 2007, the 6.5mm Creedmoor has become an instant darling with serious riflemen. Frankly, I’m sick of hearing about this cartridge, but its 6.5mm chambering relinquishes ultra-high ballistic coefficients (BCs) and remarkable downrange performance, in rifles built on short actions with generous freebore and fast rifling twists. The extra freebore allows seating bullets less deeply, so they don’t intrude into powder space, the fast rifling properly stabilizing long-for-caliber bullets. The Creedmoor also includes higher SAMMI pressures than the near ballistic twin .260 Remington.

The Creedmoor produces mild recoil and muzzle blast, making it perfect for small or inexperienced shooters, though impressive downrange performance makes it popular with the big boys, including those bitten by the long-range bug. It does its best work with 130- to 140-grain bullets including BCs from .480 to .625 and launched at 2,800 to 2,750 fps. These long-for-caliber pills also perform better on game than paper.

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7mm-08 Remington

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3 | 7mm-08 Remington

When faced with customers shopping for a child or female significant other, I typically reached for a 7mm-08 Remington. This 1980 introduction — popular with wildcatters for decades before — is another .308-Winchester-based creation, and in my opinion, is one of the most successful. The average 7mm bullet is another chambering offering excellent BCs, making it an excellent choice for longer-than-average shots and pile-driving penetration. Factory ammunition typically includes 120- to 140-grain bullets perfectly suited to deer hunting, though handloaders can seat pills up to 175 grains for even larger game.

Technically, the much older (circa 1892) 7x57mm Mauser will do everything the ‘08 will, maybe a little more, but that cartridge never really took off in the US. The 7mm-08 loaded to higher pressures and faster velocities because it was chambered only in modern rifles, while the 7mm Mauser has been around awhile and loads generally remain anemic in difference to older arms. The 7mm-08 Remington produces moderate recoil and muzzle blast, especially with lighter bullets. Its popularity continues to grow.

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6.5 Grendel

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4 | 6.5 Grendel

AR-15 rifles have become mainstream hunting tools with many modern deer hunters. Standard-issue .223 Remington chambering gets the job done — in the right hands, with the right bullets, but isn’t exactly ideal. This is why Bill Alexander, owner of Alexander Arms, developed the 6.5 Grendel in 2002. What the Grendel has become is possibly the most efficient cartridge ever chambered in the AR platform.

It is also hugely versatile, shooting 85- to 95-grain varmint bullets to 125- to 130-grain bullets better-suited to heavy-bodied deer. My Grendel experiences include nighttime feral hogs and thermal imaging technology, taking multiple hogs up to 350 pounds with convincing authority. The 6.5 Grendel and its high ballistic coefficients makes a surprisingly effective long-range round, shooting a 123-grain bullet to 2,450 and 129-grain to 2,300 fps, but remaining supersonic past 1,200 yards. The Grendel is quite pleasant to shoot, including light recoil and mild report.

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.25-‘06 Remington

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5 | .25-‘06 Remington

The .25-’06 Remington is one of many necked-down .30-‘06 Springfield incarnations providing faster velocities and flatter trajectories than its parent case. Introduced by Remington in 1969, the cartridge was a popular wildcat as early as 1949. The .25-‘06 has been used as a varmint cartridge by many, shooting pills as light as 75 and 87 grains at 3,600 to 3,000 fps, respectively. My own .20-’06 has typically done its best work on deer-sized game with 117-grain pills pushed to around 3,000 fps, providing one-hole-group accuracy and knocking deer flat. I have also deployed poly-tipped 100-grain bullets to nearly 3,300 fps on lighter-framed Coues whitetails out to 350 yards with devastating results.

The only “problem” with the .25-‘06 is .257-caliber bullets have traditionally offered inherently poor BCs, which can limit long-range effectiveness. More recently, .257 pills breaking the .450 BC barrier (that number generally considered a long-range threshold) have appeared: Nosler’s 115-grain Ballistic Silvertip and Ballistic Tip (.453), the 115-grain Berger VLD Hunting (.483), Hornady’s 110-grain ELD-X (.465) and Speer’s 120-grain BTSP (.480). The .25-‘06 is a true long-range thumper, and generally prone to accuracy.

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.280 Remington

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6 | .280 Remington

Though outwardly and ballistically similar to the venerable .270 Winchester, the .280 Remington owns a slightly longer case to prevent accidental chambering of the latter into the former. And though the .280 Rem has never been as popular as the .270 Win. (due in large part to the reverence and writings of the late Jack O’Connor), I deem it a superior cartridge. If for no other reason, the 7mm chambering allows a wider range of bullet weights and styles, including superior BCs and penetration potential at the heavier end.

The .280 is capable of propelling a 140-grain 7mm bullet to 2,900 fps, a 150-grain to 2,800, a 160 to 2,700 and a 175 to 2,600 fps. All make fine deer medicine. Plus, the 139-grain Hornady SST or 150-grain ELD-X (.486 and .555 BCs, respectively) are excellent long-range rounds. A 175-grain round nose is perfect for busting through brush in tighter quarters.

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.308 Winchester

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7 | .308 Winchester

Though not a .308 Winchester aficionado, I’ll readily admit to its big-game effectiveness. The .308 is accurate, versatile, efficient, and highly popular. It is also chambered in any rifle action you could name, including modern AR-10 semi-auto platforms. The .308’s inherent accuracy cannot be emphasized enough, the round far from finicky, providing reliable accuracy with a wide variety of powders. The .308 Win/7.62mm NATO is also a military standard, meaning handloading brass, like the wildly-popular .223 Rem/5.56mm NATO, is abundant and cheap.

At average ranges, targeting average-sized deer, I see nothing wrong with lighter bullets in the 125- to 130-grain range, launched to 2,900 fps. They pack a wallop, often dropping deer where they stand. For larger animals, or if bone might be encountered, 150- to 165-grain pills delivered around 2,600 fps offer added reliability. The .308 Win can be pressed into long-range service by adding 170-plus-grain bullets, all the way up to 220-grain boat-tail designs that maintain killing energy way out yonder.

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.30-‘06 Springfield

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8 | .30-‘06 Springfield

Initially developed in 1903, today’s standard dimensions finalized by 1906, the military’s .30-‘06 Springfield (30-caliber, 1906) remains a big-game juggernaut 112 years later. The ‘06 is arguably the most influential cartridge of the 20th century and continues to hold its own in the new millennium. It has been chambered in everything from lever guns to semi-autos and continues to sell briskly in modern firearms.

The ought-six’s wide appeal stems from its extreme versatility, shooting anything from 110-grain varmint pills to 225-grain long-range match bullets. It provides plenty of energy to confidently tackle any big-game animal in North America, with recoil most shooters easily tolerate. From a practical standpoint, as a deer hunter, 150-grain bullets pushed to 2,900 fps offer an ideal combination, providing enough velocity for flat trajectory and reliability to spare following even major bone hits. Boat-tail bullets weighing 180 to 200 grains offer excellent long-range potential in this caliber, too.

Overall, there are many great bullet options out there. But these are eight of the best. And if you’re looking to make a change, these options should be at the top of the list.

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If two years working in the retail gun trade taught me anything, it’s that anyone who has ever shot a firearm is an expert on the subject. Gun loonies know everything there is to know about rifles and cartridge ballistics and don’t require input from anyone, anytime. Well, at least everyone has strong opinions.

So, I understand deer-cartridge selection can prove a very personal and subjective matter (and let’s not start on rifle design or brands. So forgive me if I’ve failed to include your personal favorite. I understand the .30-30 Winchester has likely accounted for more deer than all other cartridges combined, but I do think it’s time to move on. I can appreciate the ballistics of the latest short or ultra-magnum or former wildcat, but I tend to view firearms from an entirely practical standpoint, largely impervious to whims and the latest fashions.

To follow are eight deer cartridges I feel have, or will, stand the test of time. Most are field-proven, yet a couple perhaps less mainstream than others (but fine designs). All said, there are literally hundreds of cartridges suited to deer hunting. Here are eight you should consider this season.