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Best Caliber for Deer Hunting Guide

WriterAubrey McShan
15 min read
how to sight a rifle

Whitetail deer are the most hunted big game animal in North America, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy for hunters to successfully bag them. It’s important for all hunters (especially novices) to consider the differences in weapons and what works best for hunting deer to ensure a successful hunt.

In this complete guide, we’ll break down the best rifle caliber to use when hunting deer. By the end, you'll be able to decide which caliber is the best one for you to enjoy a successful deer hunting season.

Key Takeaways

Rifle Caliber vs. Cartridge

Once you choose your rifle for deer hunting, it’s crucial to understand the difference between a bullet’s caliber and the cartridge:

  • Caliber: The caliber is the diameter of the bullet and is usually measured in millimeters or inches, like a 9mm Luger or .45 Colt pistol. Higher calibers have larger bullets, and therefore usually work well for larger game.
  • Cartridge: The cartridge is a combination of a case, primer, propellant substance and projectile that work together to provide powerful and effective shots.

To be clear, the caliber is just one part of the rifle cartridge. Cartridges are usually used to distinguish different rifles over calibers. However, since many people use cartridge and caliber interchangeably, we will refer to rifle calibers as a generalization.

Expert Tip:

Before you head out on your next deer hunt, learn about how the camo you wear can improve your success rate. Learn about how camo from Academy can help you stay concealed in the field.

Things to Consider When Choosing a Caliber

When choosing the best deer hunting caliber, a hunter should consider the following factors:

  • Cost
  • Striking Energy and Performance
  • Accessibility
  • Recoil

Weighing those factors can help you make an informed decision about what deer hunting caliber is best for you. There’s a wide variety of rifle calibers along with differing opinions on which is the best one for deer hunting as well as the best way to choose your caliber.

Generally, almost every rifle caliber is suitable for shooting whitetail deer — as long as it is larger than a .22 caliber. Practice, however, is the most important thing to improve your deer hunting skills as well as to learn your personal caliber preference.

Expert Tip:

If you’re a beginner hunter, make sure to check out our guide on how to properly sight a rifle, so you can make sure to get the most accurate and targeted shot.

Cost

With practice being a key thing to do (and often), you should always consider the cost of practice ammunition and hunting ammunition. The cost between both of those is obvious:

  • Practice ammunition: Practice ammo should generally cost you about $20 per box.
  • Hunting ammunition: For most calibers, quality hunting ammo commands about $50 per box.

Striking Energy and Performance

The standard striking energy for deer hunting is typically known to be 1,000 foot-pounds. That energy is sufficient enough to ethically kill a deer. However, recognize that striking energy alone is not what kills the deer.

The terminal ballistics of the projectile also affect how it behaves inside the deer and how the energy strikes the deer. If the terminal ballistics are capable enough, they will cause sufficient damage and disrupt the animal's vital systems.

When it comes to hunting whitetail deer, ethical shooting is always important. To achieve that, you need a more swift and accurate shot.

Accessibility

Some calibers are more popular — and therefore more widely available than others. The caliber you purchase should be easy to find in-store or online for your practice ammunition so you can practice as you need to or want to.

Expert Tip:

If you choose a relatively common caliber, there will be more loads, weights, and designs versus a rarer caliber that is harder to find.

Recoil

Choose a caliber with minimal recoil. Doing so will reduce the kickback that can cause you to flinch. Less recoil will also allow you to practice more, shoot from tricky positions and improve your accuracy.

The amount of recoil a hunter can handle is unique to every hunter; in general, recoil past 15 foot-pounds can leave you sore and uncomfortable.

Best Deer Hunting Calibers

When it comes to big game animals, deer remain the top most popular among North American hunters. Naturally, the subject of what constitutes the 'best' deer rifle caliber (more accurately called cartridges) varies depending on a number of factors — which we’ve already explored above.

Because of the diverse needs of deer hunters, there are many preferred cartridges to break down. To help you choose, we recommend you pick your preferred cartridge around the size of deer you expect to hunt as well as the range you plan on shooting from.

After considering those different factors to help you choose the best deer rifle caliber, it’s time to purchase the caliber you intend to use. Here are the best calibers for deer hunting:

hunter pointing rifle

.243 Winchester

The .243 Winchester is a suitable choice for a new deer hunter; it has light recoil and can even be shot by young adults.

  • This caliber was originally marketed as a varmint round, but now it can take down deer past 300 yards.
  • This smaller caliber also allows for shorter barrels, which makes for easy climbing into your treestand.
  • 2.43 Winchester ammunition is widely available with many loads to choose from.

30-30 Winchester

The 30-30 Winchester is a classic deer cartridge that has been used for over 125 years.

  • The bullet design allows for deep penetration and terminal performance while still having a light recoil.
  • The range is somewhat limited, but the ammunition is readily available.

25-06 Remington

The 25-06 Remington has a lightweight bullet that reaches ranges up to 550 yards. It offers a high ballistic coefficient, moderate recoil and significant kinetic energy that helps ensure a successful hunt.

.270 Winchester

The .270 Winchester is a versatile, long-action cartridge that is used to hunt both Eastern whitetail deer and Western mule deer. The design offers little recoil and works best with a 22-inch or longer barrel. The rifles and ammunition are easy to access and allow you to work on your skills consistently.

.308 Winchester

The .308 Winchester is a precise, lightweight cartridge that works past 500 yards and is very efficient at killing deer. It's also a NATO cartridge typically offered by every major ammunition manufacturer.

  • The balance of energy, velocity, and recoil helps provide accurate shots.
  • Since it has a moderate amount of recoil, it can take practice and time to adjust to the kickback.
  • The bullet weight and design choices are vast and even include some options with less recoil for younger hunters.

Expert Tip:

The .308 Winchester cartridge remains a highly regarded and well-used favorite among hunters as being one of the most accurate on the market — despite not having as high of velocity capabilities as some others available.

.30-06 Springfield

The .30-06 Springfield is an accessible and accurate caliber that offers flat shooting and almost 100 types of ammunition. It can reach higher levels of velocity and pounds of force while maintaining moderate recoil.

7mm Remington Magnum

The 7mm Rem Magnum is a powerful and versatile cartridge that reaches farther ranges without the associated recoil. It can also handle heavier bullets and has extremely flat shooting. There are limited ammunition options, so it can cost a little more.

Expert Tip:

If you’re looking for a ballistically balanced cartridge, the 7mm Remington Magnum may be right for you.

.300 Winchester Magnum

The .300 Winchester Magnum is a dependable caliber that is often used in heavier rifles with a longer barrel. The ammunition can be more costly than other types and there is more recoil than with other calibers, so you should weigh those factors against your level of hunting and preference.

.223 Remington

The .223 Remington is precise, easy to shoot, and AR-15 compatible. It offers a balance of penetration and bullet upset for deer while still having a light recoil.

6.5 Creedmoor

The 6.5 Creedmoor is a popular, medium-sized round that offers an excellent recoil-to-performance ratio.

  • This caliber can be used by both experienced and novice hunters.
  • It has little recoil and allows for extreme accuracy and effective power.
  • The accessibility of the cartridge is increasing and becoming less expensive and easier to find.

Enjoy a Successful Hunt

All the deer rifle cartridges mentioned above are perfect to use for deer hunting and will help you get the best hunting experience since they all have low recoil, an ideal range and easy availability. Choose any of the above cartridges and enjoy hunting deer like a pro!

Improve your hunting experience with tips and tricks from Academy Sports + Outdoors. Browse our rifles, ammunition and other hunting equipment to get everything you need to be prepared and successful this deer hunting season.

After deciding on the best deer rifle caliber, make sure you have everything else you need for a successful hunt with our hunting gear checklist.