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If you spent any time at a deer camp this fall, there’s a pretty good chance that the topic of hunting deer with a .22-caliber rifle was discussed. And, if so, argued about. It’s a favorite topic not just at camps but on Internet forums and social media, where opponents are about guaranteed to roll out at least one and probably all of these tree statements:

  1. Twenty-two-caliber cartridges are illegal for deer hunting in most states.
  2. They’re way underpowered for deer-size game.
  3. It’s unethical to shoot a deer with a .22-caliber bullet.

But are these claims really true? Or have they just been repeated so many times that a lot of hunters assume they’re gospel? Let’s break down the facts, one topic at a time, and then look at the best .22-caliber cartridges for deer hunting.

The Legality of .22-Caliber Cartridges for Deer

photo of deer taken with .22-caliber ammo
Although many hunters are not aware of it, taking deer with a .22-caliber rifle is legal in the majority of states. Richard Mann

A few years back I conducted exhaustive research to determine the legality of deer hunting with the .223 Remington. After reading the game regulations for all 50 states, I found that it was legal in 33 out of 50. Two additional states require a muzzle energy of 1200 foot-pounds or more, which is achievable with a few .223 Remington loads and easily surpassed by other .22-caliber centerfire cartridges. In other words, despite what many people believe and espouse, it is legal to hunt deer with a .22-caliber rifle in about 70 percent of states.

The Power of .22-Caliber Cartridges

Power is a hard thing to quantify with cartridges. The most common measure is foot-pounds of energy. You’ll often hear that 1000 foot-pounds at the point of impact is desirable for deer hunting. But desirable and necessary are two very different things: I’ve cleanly taken deer with cartridges generating less than half that. Most loads for one of the greatest deer hunting cartridge of all time—the .30/30 Winchester—drop below 1000 foot-pounds at around 150 yards. Still, even if we accept the debatable 1000 foot-pounds minimum, it rules out only a few .22 centerfire rifle cartridges. Others are clearly powerful enough.

The Ethics Taking Deer with .22-Caliber Ammo

.22-caliber deer ammo
For killing deer cleanly, it’s the terminal performance of the bullet—not the caliber—that matters most. Richard Mann

When it comes to the ethics of using a .22-caliber bullet on deer, you need to remember that a bullet’s diameter before impact has no bearing on lethality. A 60-grain, .22-caliber Federal Fusion bullet fired into a deer at 100 yards will have a recovered diameter approaching a 1/2 inch. This is similar to a recovered 95- or 115-grain Nosler Partition fired from a .243 Winchester or .257 Roberts. Given actual, measured expanded bullet diameters and penetration depths, I have seen no evidence that to suggest the right .22-caliber bullet can’t kill just as cleanly as those of other widely-accepted cartridges.

So to wrap things up: .22-caliber cartridges are legal in most states; they meet the popular 1000-foot-pound minimum in several cases; and they are more than capable of making quick, ethical kills on deer, particularly with today’s excellent bullets. Of course, if you want to go with something bigger for your deer hunting, that all well and good. I’m just here to set the record straight that .22-caliber cartridges are indeed up to the task—and that these four will do the best job of it.

1. The .223 Remington

Mostly popular for deer hunting because of the prevalence of AR-15 rifles, this cartridge can be very effective with the right load. AR-15s are also easily adapted to fit youth hunters. At age 7, my son killed his second deer with an AR-15 in .223 Remington. From a foot-pound standpoint, the .223 Remington will run out of gas at about 150 yards and for optimum results go with bonded, mono-metal, or partitioned bullets, which hold together for maximum penetration. It terms of effective range, that’s right on par with your typical .30/30 Winchester load.

2. The .22/250 Remington

Nosler .223 ammo
The 60-grain Nosler Partition bullet is a great option for the .22/250, but you may have to handload it. Richard Mann

A farmer neighbor near my hunting camp has probably killed more deer with a .22/250 than most other hunters have shot with any one cartridge. Its advantage is velocity. The .22/250 can push bullets 20 percent faster than the .223 Remington. Its downside is the slow rifling twist rate that prohibits the use of high-BC, heavy-for-caliber bullets. A premium load utilizing a bullet that will hold together is the way to go. On occasion you can find the 60-grain Nosler Partition load from Federal, but you may have to roll your own. Regardless, energy will fall below 1000 foot-pounds at about 200 yards.

3. The 22 Nosler

22 Nosler ammo
There is only one good load available for deer hunting with the 22 Nosler, and that’s the excellent 70-grain AccuBond load from Nosler. Nosler

Like the .223, the 22 Nosler is AR-15 compatible, but it holds more powder. This means higher velocities and with a standard 1-in-8 rifling twist, it handles heavy bullets better. The only real deer-capable factory load is the 70-grain AccuBond load from Nosler. This bonded bullet can handle high impact velocities, and at 100 yards it’s still traveling at 2700 fps and carrying more than 1000 foot-pounds of energy. Handloaders have more options, but for deer it’s only marginally better than the .223 Remington and nowhere near as popular.

4. The .224 Valkyrie

.224 Valkyrie ammo
Because it can handle heavy, high-BC bullets, the Valkyrie is the best .22-caliber cartridge for deer hunting. Federal’s 90-grain Fusion load is ideal. Richard Mann

The Valkyrie is fairly new and also AR-15 compatible. It has an even faster 1-in-7 twist rate. This allows it to stabilize long, heavy-for-caliber bullets, like a 90-grain Fusion soft point at 2700 fps. With its high ballistic coefficient, this bullet retains velocity and energy very well; it will carry 1000 foot-pounds of energy past 250 yards. As far as .22-caliber cartridges for deer hunting go, this is the best option currently available. From a terminal-ballistics standpoint, it should perform on par with the grand, old .250 Savage, which has a storied legacy in the deer woods.