Five Popular Deer Calibers
Being neck-deep in whitetail season across the country, we decided to take a closer look at some of the bestselling and most common deer rounds from coast to coast. With so many to choose from we had a hard time just picking five.
How did we choose them?
Here at Firearms Talk, we are gun-guys, not necessarily statisticians. With that in mind we visited a number of rifle manufacturer's websites (Ruger, Remington, Weatherby, Browning, Marlin, you get the idea) and browsed their best-known deer rifles, taking note of their most common chamberings. Then we called around and visited a number of both big box and smaller hometown sporting goods stores, taking careful note of what they stocked and sold for deer. A few dozen interviews with counter staff later, we added up our responses, threw in our own personal experience, and came up with the following.
This is the granddaddy of all high-powered rifle rounds in the US. The good old 'aught-six has been standard issue for working in the woods since The Bull Moose Party had a viable Presidential candidate. Just about every store we checked had a pile of 30.06 boxes on the shelf, with demand high. This is understandable when you realize that every common bolt-action rifle made (Ruger 77, Winchester 70, Remington's 700/783, etc.) are available in this caliber. Former military guns like P17 Enfields, M1 Garands, and Springfield 1903s are often pressed into service as sporting rifles for whitetails alongside converted Mausers, further adding millions of guns to the ranks these bambi slayers. Ballistically similar rounds to this include the 7.62x54R and British .303.
Long seen as the poor, stubbier brother to the .30.06, and often mistaken for its near identical twin the 7.62x51mm NATO, the .308 Winchester has spent the past fifty years building a following. Steady interest has been shown in this caliber due to the large stocks of surplus military rounds and popularity of modern semi-auto sporting rifles (clones of HKG3s, FN FALs, and M1A's). This caliber makes a good choice as it's often more affordable than comparable 30.06 loads, especially for practice, while still giving comparable performance coupled with a slightly more comfortable recoil. Few deer in the US can take a cardio-pulmonary shot with a .308 and walk away. Ballistically similar rounds to this include the 7mm-08.
Talking about recoil, the sweet-shooting .243 Winchester has a huge group of fans. To tell you a secret, it is a necked down .308 Winchester with a 100-ish grain bullet designed to offer just that alternative in a deer round (don't tell anyone). Capable of taking whitetails with proper shot placement without sending you to the chiropractor, every popular bolt-action deer rifle we could think of was chambered for this supped up varmint round. In many places, especially the South East, this is seen as an all-around cartridge for not just deer but also hog, coyote, and miscellaneous predators. Ballistically similar rounds to this include the 6.5x55mm Mauser.
If the diminutive .243 isn't your cup of tea, and the larger .30 caliber rounds seem like too much, the .270 may be for you. Based on the old military .30-03 (the round the Army used for about thirty minutes before the 30.06 came out), the .270 has been around the block for almost a century. A great benefit of this round is its ability to be something of a chameleon of sorts. In whitetail country or for varmint shooting you can use light and hyper accurate 100-grain loads. Switching to muleys and elk, beefy 150 and 160-grain bullets work just as well on those outsized grazers. Therefore, it is easy to see why they are a hit across the board.
There have probably been more deer shot at with a 'thuddy-thuddy' than any other rifle caliber in history. The 30-30 Winchester/.30 Winchester Center Fire has been around for going on 120 years and is the standard for lever-action cowboy style rifles. In fact, just between the Winchester Model 94 and the Marlin Model 336, more than 15-million of these guns have been made. Its stubby, fat, bullet provides a heck of a wallop and its rimmed cases are easily ejected which means few jams. Its only problem is that most loadings will only be effective at ranges under 150-yards, making it a good candidate for a brush gun caliber. However, this can be mitigated by using new pointed-tip rounds that are still safe enough for the tubular magazines of lever-action rifles. Ballistically similar rounds to this include the Russian 7.62x39mm found in the SKS, Saiga, and Mini-30 rifles.
Of course, your mileage may vary. If you have a favorite deer round of your own, leave it in the comments below.