Thinking about the three best deer hunting calibers took me back in time. The last time I took a deer hunter into the thick woods of Upstate New York, the buck he shot was 19 yards away when he pulled the trigger. The shot was immediately followed by a shower of falling branches and leaves and the thump of the buck hitting the forest floor.
The shooter, my father out on his last Opening Day, lit a cigarette and handed me the gutting knife. Some 50 years after he first took me deer hunting, it was still the ”kid’s” job to gut and drag the victorious hunter’s prize. Instead, I used the knife to carefully remove the spent round from a nearby tree trunk. The 170 grain, Core-Lokt 30-30 Winchester round was intact and nicely petaled.
Author’s note: I do not sell, nor am I affiliated with any gun or ammunition manufacturer. So, there are no ads here, and all weapons pictured are owned and used by me during deer hunting season in New York.
Related: Where is the best place to shoot a deer?
The three best deer hunting calibers.
The best calibers for hunting deer are the 30-30, the .308, and the 30-06. The 30-30 is best from point blank range to 150 yards and where foliage lays between shooter and target. The .308 retains enough velocity up to 300 yards to expand, while the 30.06 can do it at 400 yards.
One of the best things all three of these calibers have in common is tradition. Deer hunting is the only major sporting tradition within families where parents teach the skills and pass down their own tools. Today’s new deer hunter can take his great grandfather’s rifle out and bring down a whitetail buck as effectively 70 or more years later.
Of course, there are a plethora of other calibers available. Some are superior in ballistics, lighter in weight, and able to fire at a faster rate. But no 6.5 Creedmoor spent a season in the back window of grandpa’s 1952 Chevrolet 3100 pickup truck. And as for ammunition availability, there’s always dad or one of his friends willing to dust off an old box of ammo to carry you through deer season.
Related: Best place to shoot a coyote.
The 30-30, America’s favorite deer hunting caliber.
There is a damn good reason nearly 10 million 30-30’s rifles have been manufactured and sold in the United States—it’s perfect for the average range a deer hunter shoot at.
What is the average range a deer hunter shoots? According to Pope and Young, the average trophy was 19 yards away when shot, and less than 25% of the record bucks they have officiated were more than 40 yards away from the deer hunter.
The 30-30 is forgiving of unseen twigs and leaves between you and your deer. At the short ranges most deer hunters shoot at, the 30-30 has lost less than 10% of its velocity and can still expand to twice its original diameter. At the average distance of 19 yards, you hit that whitetail with nearly twice the so-called foot pounds needed to kill it.
Why do I limit it to 150 yards after having sung its praises? Because at that distance, the round travels at a velocity that starts to degrade its ability to expand completely. At 150 yards, it moves at just above 1800 feet per second (with 2,000 fps recommended by the manufacturer to guarantee proper mushrooming).
The second problem is in the dreaded and highly disputed category of foot pounds. There is a common belief that a whitetail deer requires at least 1,000 foot-pounds to humanely and instantly kill a deer. One hundred fifty yards is the last place you’ll meet that requirement when firing the 30-30.
Another massive benefit of having so many 30-30 rifles in hunters’ hands? The 30-30 round is always on the top 10 list of rounds manufactured every year. Even in a long-running ammo shortage, there’s usually a box of 30-30 on your gun store’s shelves.
The 30.06, the post-war deer hunting caliber of American veterans.
The 30.06 became popular during World War II. How the average American soldier in that war (weighing 150 pounds, compared to today’s military average of 180 pounds) carried the Springfield (or Remington) 1903 (8 pounds, 11 ounces) or the M-1 Garand (9 pounds, 8 ounces) is a mystery to me. My M-16 weighed a ton (just over 6 pounds), and I was over 20% heavier and five inches taller than my military predecessors.
Over 5 million American service members were issued the M-1 Garand during World War II. As a result, millions of American veterans became familiar and accurate with the 30.06 caliber round. After the war, many leftover M-1 Garands ended up in high school basements and local marksmanship training programs. The M-1 Garand became America’s rifle, and the round exploded into hunting popularity.
As newer 30.06 ammunition was soon being designed with flatter trajectories and great velocities than the 30-30, the 30.06 was quickly recognized as the superior (more versatile, able to bring down all American and even most African game animals) caliber.
Today, a 150-grain bullet designed for deer hits a velocity of nearly 3,000 fps, and the hunter need not worry about the bullet dropping out to 300 yards. And out to 400 yards, the round will petal nicely and expand in size—dumping a massive load of energy right into your target. A deer hunter favorite is the Winchester Ballistic Silvertip Ammunition 30-06 Springfield 150 Grain Rapid Controlled Expansion Polymer Tip.
You can also buy low recoil (nearly 50% less) 30.06 hunting rounds and take your kids to the range with the same gun and ammo they will use to take whitetail during deer season. And while the old M-1 doesn’t take kindly to some modern (hotter) hunting ammunition, a few manufacturers have already addressed this problem. A great one is Underwood’s 30-06 SPRINGFIELD M1 GARAND 168GR. CUSTOM COMPETITION HOLLOWPOINT BOAT TAIL MATCH HUNTING AMMO.
If the 30.06 has a drawback, it’s pointed, polymer tip is more unforgiving when it encounters brush.
The .308, the deer hunting caliber for 150-250 yards.
When hunting an open field and needing to drop a whitetail buck down right where he is standing, I use a Remington Model 700, .308 loaded with 150-grain, Hornady’s American Whitetail. Hornady’s round has always gone precisely where I aimed it, expanded as advertised, and left a super wide lead slug sticking to the inside skin on the opposite side of the ribcage. Trust me; these people have never heard of me—so I have no financial benefit for admitting this fact.
It took me a while to realize it was the .308 itself that produced these consistent results. The Barnes Vor-TX (150-grain) and the Browning BXC (168-grain) were equally effective at distances between 150 to 250 yards. Shot deer crumpled where they stood.
As I learned, the .308 delivers an average of over 2,000-foot-pounds of energy at 150 yards and 1750 foot-pounds of energy at 250 yards. That’s far more than needed. And at these distances, the velocity of the .308 is well over that required to guarantee sufficient expansion.
Simply put, the .308 is a deer cartridge made to make average deer hunter look like professional hunters. At 150-250 yards, it’s dang near a point blank round. If I’m not in the woods, and have to reach out to 300 yards, I will use the .308. I recommend you do as well.
The three best calibers for deer hunting.
The 30-30, the .308, and the 30.06. Generations have used and proven the effectiveness of these rounds. Why try to reinvent the wheel?