11 Best Rifle Cartridges for Whitetail Deer | Field & Stream
Hornady Precision Hunter in 6.5 Creedmoor

11 Best Rifle Cartridges for Whitetail Deer

A ranking of the greatest rounds for tagging a bruiser buck

Consider for a moment the fact that, in 1914, James Jordan killed his 208-inch, number-two all-time typical whitetail with a Winchester 1892 rifle, chambered in .25-20 WCF. Delivering only 550 ft.-lb. of energy at the muzzle, the anemic .25-20 is far from ideal by today’s standards and is, in fact, now illegal for deer hunting in Wisconsin, where the Jordan Buck fell. Modern-day hunters enjoy vastly superior cartridge options, and it’s the duty of ethical hunters to use the ones that dispatch deer swiftly. Distance, bullet construction, shot angle, and the size of the animal all come into play when narrowing down the field of contenders. After taking more than 100 whitetails in dozens of states, I’m convinced that the 11 cartridges ranked below are the best at getting the job done.

11. .30-30 Winchester (Hornady Leverevolution)

hornady 30 30 winchester cartridge whitetail

.30-30 Winchester

Hornady

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
140 gr. 2,465 fps 1,943 ft/lb.

This 140-grain bullet travels only at 2,465 fps and produces about 1,943 ft.-lb. of energy at the muzzle, and 1,501 ft.-lb. at 100 yards, but few deer live to complain about those numbers if shots are kept within reasonable ranges. In 1895, when this .30-caliber cartridge was introduced, it was the first round specifically designed round for smokeless powder—30 grains to be exact—and it has been filling freezers ever since. The Winchester or Marlin lever-action .30-30 is perhaps the quintessential rifle and caliber for deep-woods deer hunting, where brush is thick and bucks are rarely taken farther away than a frisbee toss. Recently, modern ammo like Hornady’s Leverevolution has breathed new ballistic life into this old favorite. If kept at ranges within 150 yards, a .30-30 will get the job done every time.

 

10. 6.5 Creedmoor (Hornady Precision Hunter)

creedmoor precision hunter rifle ammo

6.5 Creedmoor

Creedmoor

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
143 gr. 2,700 fps 2,315 ft/lb.

Introduced in 2007, primarily for long-range target shooters, Hornady’s Precision Hunter load in 6.5 Creedmoor fires a .264-caliber, light-for-caliber 143-grain ELD-X bullet at 2,700 fps and produces 2,315 ft.-lb. of energy. Because of the 6.5 bullet’s aerodynamic qualities—namely its sectional density, and its cutting-edge, ridiculously high BC bullets, including Hornady’s ELD-X—it carries more energy than other larger rounds as yardage increases. And its relatively light bullets aren’t overkill on your steaks or shoulder meat, either. So far, I’ve only taken a few deer with the supremely accurate 6.5 Creedmoor, but I won’t be surprised if, in a few years, the round edges a lot closer to Number 1 on my deer-cartridge list.

 

9. .270 Winchester (Winchester Deer Season)

270 winchester hunting rifle ammunition

.270 Winchester

Winchester

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
130 gr. 3,060 fps 2,315 ft/lb.

The fact is that any factory-loaded .270 Winchester round will drop a deer faster than you can yell, Big buck down! Since its 130-grain bullet travels north of 3,060 fps to produce 2,702 ft.-lb. of energy, many hunters use it for elk and mule deer, so it can certainly handle 150-pound whitetails, too. The venerable round is ranked 8th here only because other calibers with ample energy for deer have shorter cases, making them better suited for smaller, lighter rifles than many of those chambered in .270. That said, if you needed a powerful deer rifle that can make most any shot, regardless of distance or angle, the .270 is a great choice.

 

8. .257 Weatherby Magnum (Weatherby Select Plus)

weatherby 257 hunting rifle ammunition

.257 Weatherby Magnum

Weatherby

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
100 gr. 3,500 fps 2,721 ft/lb.

Roy Weatherby’s darling, the .257, is one of the most powerful commercially available .25 calibers, and kills deer like a death ray. I once shot a Coues deer in Mexico at 50 yards with this hyper-velocity cartridge; no tracking was necessary. Trouble was, at that distance, few 100-grain, copper-jacketed bullets stay intact when they hit shoulder bone at 3,500 fps for 2,721 ft.-lb. energy. Fortunately, now hunters can choose a tough bullet, such as the Barnes TSX or Hornady GMX, that forgo such failures. I love the .257 Weatherby, despite its sharp recoil for a quarter-bore, and if it weren’t for the fact that only a few rifles are chambered for it and ammo tends to be pricey, it might top this list.

 

7. .25-06 Remington (Federal Premium Vital-Shok)

federal premium remington 2506 hunting rifle ammunition

.25-06 Remington

Federal Premium

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
100 gr. 3,220 fps 2,302 ft/lb.

The .25-06 Remington was introduced in 1969 for deer-sized game and has a .30-06 case necked down to .257 caliber. With Federal Premium Vital-Shok ammunition, it delivers a 100-grain bullet around 3,220 fps, producing nearly 2,302 ft.-lb. of energy, and it is a solid long-range option that’s easy on the shoulder. It’s no surprise that this standard-length .25-06 cartridge remains a popular choice in open-country states, such as Arizona, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.

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6. 7x57mm Mauser (PPU)

7 57 remington centerfire rifle ammuntion

7x57mm Mauser

PPU

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
139 gr. 2,660 fps 2,184 ft/lb.

Concocted in 1892 by Paul Mauser, this 7mm/.284-diameter round, with a 57mm-long case, fires a 139-grain bullet at 2,650 fps, generating 2,200 ft.-lb. of energy, which is more than adequate to tag any buck on this planet. As proof, William Bell used the round—albeit called the .275 Rigby when chambered in his Rigby rifle—to fell more than 800 African elephants with precise head shots. This Spanish military cartridge truly has it all: ample energy, relatively light recoil, high sectional density, great ballistic properties in its long-for-caliber bullets, and a rich history to boot. Frankly, if more American rifles were chambered for it, it would likely be as hugely popular stateside as it is in Europe. But many domestic ammo makers decided to make their own 7mm, short-action rounds—all copies of the 7x57 Mauser—and so it remains a cult favorite among American riflemen in the know.

 

5. .257 Roberts + P (Hornady Superformance)

hornady 257 roberts p rifle ammunition

.257 Roberts + P

Hornady

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
117 gr. 2,945 fps 2,253 ft/lb.

Remington first mass produced this quarter-bore in 1934. The .257 Bob, as it’s known, was based on wildcatter Ned Robert’s design from a decade earlier and was a popular medium-size game caliber in its day. As a part of Hornady’s Superformance ammo line, it’s available with a 117-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip bullet, for consistent expansion, and travels at 2,945 fps with more than 2,253 ft.-lb. of energy at the muzzle. This translates to less recoil and longer life for your barrel. The round has a somewhat shorter range than the other high-velocity .25s listed here, but it’s no doubt effective. I’m not entirely sure why it’s not more popular today than it is, because it’s one of the best pure whitetail cartridges ever conceived. I can tell you one thing, though: The next rifle I buy will be chambered for this classic deer slayer.

 

4. .308 Winchester (Winchester Ballistic Silvertip)

winchester ballistic silvertip rifle ammunition

.308 Winchester

Winchester

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
150 gr. 2,750 fps 2,629 ft/lb.

I’ve taken more whitetails with the .308 Winchester than any other cartridge, and so it has to be one of my favorites. The .308 is easy to shoot, and every deer that I’ve ever hit with it has died immediately. Available in Winchester Ammunition’s Ballistic Silvertip line, it’s accurate, has plenty of energy (2,629 ft/lb.) for even the longest shots, and the light recoil for a .30 caliber. What’s more, .308 ammo runs cheap and can be found virtually anywhere in the world, thanks to its 7.62 NATO designation. But, because it’s so common and everyone knows it works so efficiently, it’s lost some of its sexiness. Still, for large bucks—especially when hunting from a treestand—the .308 Win. is one of the best whitetail rounds ever. Period.

 

3. .243 Winchester (Hornady American Whitetail)

hornady 243 winchester hunting rifle ammunition

.243 Winchester

Hornady

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
100 gr. 2,960 fps 1,945 ft/lb.

For many American hunters, the .243 Winchester is the end-all whitetail round. And for good reason. It can handle all but the most extreme conditions, and its 100-grain bullet travels at 2,960 fps to produce 1,945 ft.-lb. of energy at the muzzle. If you don’t think that’s enough juice for deer, then you likely haven’t shot a .243 much. It simply works. Just be sure to use a premium deer bullet that will hold together yet expand, such as Federal’s Trophy Copper or Nosler’s Partition. An excellent cartridge for children thanks to recoil under 10 ft.-lb. energy, it’s nearly perfect for deer, provided shot placement is good and ranges are reasonable. Though it might not be the cartridge of choice for Saskatchewan hunters shooting across long alfalfa fields, it is ideal for the vast majority of American deer hunters.

 

2. .260 Remington (Hornady Superperformance)

hornady 260 remington rifle ammunition

.260 Remington

Hornady

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
130 gr. 2,930 fps 2,459 ft/lb.

A relative baby among rifle cartridges, the .260 Remington is another round, like the .243 Win and 7mm-08 Rem, that’s built on the .308 Win. case—only this one is necked down to .264 diameter. Like most .308-based calibers, the .260 Remington is efficient with its powder, reaching capable velocities with little recoil. And it doesn’t try to do too much. Its 120-grain bullet leaves the barrel of a .260 Remington at 2,930 fps, it produces about 2,459 ft.-lb. of energy, and it has about 13 ft.-lb. of recoil from a 7.5-pound rifle. As far as whitetail cartridges go, the .260 is about as close to perfection as you can get.

 


RELATED: Affordable Deer Rifles: 10 Options for Less than a Grand


 

1. 7mm-08 Remington (Winchester Ballistic Silvertip)

winchester 7-08 remington ballistic hunting rifle ammunition

7mm-08 Remington

Winchester

Ideal bullet weight Muzzle velocity Muzzle energy
140 gr. 2,770 fps 2,386 ft/lbs

The 7mm, or .284 diameter bullet, is, in my estimation, the best caliber for deer of all sizes, under all conditions—which is why it deserves the top spot on this list. It has innate ballistic properties, and its short-action case, which is a necked-down .308 Win., fires its 140-grain pill at 2,770 fps, resulting in 2,386 ft.-lb. of energy. That is plenty of speed and energy for deer as far as the eye can see. It’s also a comparatively light-kicking round. It yields only about 17 lb. of recoil in my featherweight, 6-pound Remington Model 7; I could shoot it with one hand from a treestand if I had to. I prefer the 7mm-08 over the 7x57mm Mauser for its extra 150 fps, and perhaps because of its American origins. All told, the 7mm-08 Remington strikes the perfect balance between deer-dropping power and easy of carry and shooting, making it my all-time favorite cartridge for the deer woods, no matter the condition.

 

Honorable Mentions

6mm Remington: Faster than a .243, but tougher to find ammo.

6.5x284 Norma: 6.5 Creedmoor on ‘roids; great long-range round, but hard to find.

New Hornady load in the works. Read about it in October.


No .30-06?

Get out your pitchforks, but don't bother perusing this list again because you still won't find the .30-06. I love this old, proven slayer of game, but a perfect whitetail cartridge it is not. Its long action isn't easily made in compact rifles built for treestands. Its bullet’s energy, while impressive, is more than what’s needed for deer, and it comes with the cost of added recoil. Sadly, it's just not sexy anymore. Everyone knows the .30-06 works wonderfully on all game, but I’m sacrificing it in order to inform readers of other cartridges that are better suited for deer.