What Is the Best Rifle Caliber for Whitetail Deer?

Every hunter always wants to go into the woods with the best available tools to get the job done. One of the most important tools we use is our rifles, but with so many options, which rifle caliber is the best? Not only are there a plethora of options, but there are also a plethora of strong opinions on which rifle caliber is the most effective. Just like just about everything else is hunting, there is no right answer. The best rifle caliber for hunting is the one you like to shoot the way you like to shoot it.

In my opinion, the best caliber to hunt whitetail deer with is a .308 because that is what works best for me out of my Remington 700. As long as you can shoot accurately and comfortably, the best caliber is whatever you want it to be. Of course, some calibers have a slight edge over others, but most of the time it does not make a huge difference in the grand scheme of things for the average hunter. That being said, let’s dive into some of the most popular rifle rounds and see what they have to offer.

My Top 3 Picks

1 | .308 Winchester

The .308 Winchester was made in the United States in 1952, and since then it has proved itself thousands of times over again. It is my preferred round for plenty of reasons. It is easily found, provides a lot of power with little recoil, and mainly because of how successful I have been with it. Granted I have not shot every caliber out there, once I got a .308 in my hands, I have not had to track a deer very far. I am willing to shoot a deer fairly far away, but I rarely shoot a deer over 150 or even 100 yards away. So the energy transfer from this caliber often leaves my deer falling where they stand, or running a few dozen yards at most. Let’s look at the stats for this round,

Weight100 – 200 grains
Velocity2,500 – 3,100 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy2,134 – 2,776 ft-lbs
Effective Range250 yards

The ranges in my tables account for different variations of the cartridge on the market and seeing as the .308 is very popular it is quite a few variations. And I defined effective range as the range where the projectile started to show a significant amount of drop. So out to about 250 yards, the drop becomes noticeable with a .308. 

2 | 7mm-08 Remington

Next, I would have to go with the 7mm-08 Remington. Made in 1980 in the United States, the 7mm-08 is a popular round for many reasons. Compared to the .308 Winchester, it has a flatter trajectory. Meaning It will have less drop at similar ranges. It also has a slightly better ability to penetrate and a tad bit less recoil. I have killed nearly a dozen whitetails with a 7mm-08 and it is a wonderful round that was very forgiving. This is the caliber I was using when I was really honing my hunting and shooting skills so it is obvious that I made a few bad shots with my 7mm-08 Ruger. Nonetheless, I never lost a deer that I actually hit with it(we all miss a few). 

Weight110 – 175 grains
Velocity2,595 – 2,800 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy1,915 – 2,617 ft-lbs
Effective Range300 yards

3 | .243 Winchester

This American cartridge made in 1955 holds a special place in my heart. I killed my first dozen deer with a .243. It is a great caliber with little recoil compared to the .308. The recoil is so manageable that I was able to kill my first deer with a .243 at the age of 5, whether you believe me or not. It is also the caliber that I recorded my longest shot with, so I can vouch for its ability to reach longer ranges. The .243 is also a very versatile caliber. It is large enough to take out medium game like whitetail, but also manageable enough to hunt vermin with.

Weight55 – 115 grains
Velocity3,025 – 4,058 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy2,011 – 2,337 ft-lbs
Effective Range250 yards

Now I am well aware of how similar these three calibers are. The thing is they work. All three are great choices that can put whitetail down at just about any range that the average hunter would need. If you really want to know the specifics of these three calibers check out this post comparing the three by The Big Game Hunting Blog.

Other Great Rounds

6.5 Creedmoor

The 6.5 Creedmoor was first made in 2007 by Dave Emary for Hornady and has been all the rage in the past few years for good reason. 6.5 millimeters is about 0.256 inches so the 6.5 Creedmoor is on the smaller side in terms of caliber, but want it lacks in size it makes up for in accuracy and efficiency. This cartridge was made to shoot long distances and it does so very well. You can easily reach out to 500 yards with minimal bullet drop and still have plenty of energy when it gets there. While it is a small round it still packs a punch and has been known to even take down elk at hundreds of yards. Basically with a 6.5 Creedmoor in your hands, if you can see it you can kill it.

Weight120 – 140 grains
Velocity2,710 – 3,020 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy2,283 – 2,480 ft-lbs
Effective Range450 yards

.270 Winchester

This old American caliber was first designed in 1923. It is a staple across the country and you will not have to look too hard to find a hunter that relies on a .270 every year. It is a necked-down version of a 30-06, which gives it a lot more velocity. This allows hunters to reach out to ranges of over 500 yards if need be with this cartridge.The .270 commonly has a 200 yard zero, or shoots out to 200 yard with zero bullet drop. 200 yards is farther than most hunters regularly harvest whitetail. Its range coupled with small recoil makes this caliber a winner no matter how you slice it.

Weight90 – 120 grains
Velocity3,050 – 3,603 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy2,595 – 2,705 ft-lbs
Effective Range300 yards

.223 Remington

First designed in 1962, the .223 is a somewhat debated caliber in deer hunting. It is not even legal to harvest whitetail with it in every state, but where it is legal many hunters use it. With this .22 caliber bullet commonly used in AR-15’s you can definitely put deer down but you may not be able to reach out to those long ranges like other calibers on this list. While you could ping targets at 800 yards with a .223, you should probably stay well under 200 yards when you are hunting. At the normal range of 100 yards or less, this caliber will excel. It also has little or negligible recoil, so it is a good choice to use for young children or women. They are easy to find and not terribly cheap, so if you do not hunt at super long ranges, a .223 may not be a bad caliber for you.

Weight36 – 77 grains
Velocity2,757 – 3,750 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy959 – 1,301 ft-lbs
Effective Range125 yards

25-06 Remington

Designed in 1969, the 25-06 is a necked-down version of the famous 30-06. With a smaller neck and bullet, this cartridge is much faster than the 30-06, which gives it a longer range and with comparable energy. It also has less recoil than the 30-06, which makes it variable for those of you with the childhood trauma of sighting in a 30-06.

Weight100 – 120 grains
Velocity2,990 – 3,230 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy2,316 – 2,382 ft-lbs
Effective Range275 yards

.300 Winchester Magnum

Made in 1963, the .300 Winchester Magnum is a beast of a caliber. It has much more recoil than most of the calibers on this list, but it also hits hard. You are also able to reach out to those longer ranges as well, easily going over 300 yards. While its recoil and fairly long barrel are slight hindrances, the .300 win mag will put down any whitetail walking(or standing still for that matter).

Weight165 – 220 grains
Velocity2,875 – 3,300 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy3,990 – 4,038 ft-lbs
Effective Range350 yards

30-30 Winchester

Made in 1895, the 30-30 Winchester is about as classic as it gets. It is commonly said that the 30-30 has killed more deer than any other caliber, and that is probably true. It was very common in much of the 1900s and is still an effective round today. Although it is a bit dated, it still gets the job done.

Weight110 – 170 grains
Velocity2,227 – 2,684 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy1,760 – 1,873 ft-lbs
Effective Range300 yards

30-06 Springfield

Made in 1906, the 30-06 is a very popular caliber that you can never go wrong with. It is a very effective round that has seen plenty of use not only by hunters but also by the military. It proved itself on multiple battlegrounds and hunting lands. It does have a bit of recoil and does not have the longest range but even still the 30-06 is a go-to caliber for many hunters.

Weight150 – 220 grains
Velocity2,500 – 2,910 ft/sec
Muzzle Energy2,820 – 3,036 ft-lbs
Effective Range250 yards

There Are Plenty of Calibers Not on This List

There are hundreds of different calibers, and then most of those calibers have some variation between the cartridges. So there are thousands of different setups you could use. Although the calibers on my list are the most commonly known and available across the country. Many of the special design calibers are amazing at taking out deer but most of us have never used them and may not be able to find a rifle chambered in it or the ammo if we wanted to. Which is one of the main reasons the .308 is my go-to. You can easily find a .308 rifle in any gun shop, and the ammo is normally not too difficult to find either. 

What Does It Take to Kill a Deer at Long Ranges?

All of these calibers have their differences, especially when you get down to the ballistics of particular cartridges. Although which calibers can you typically use at what range? 

100 Yards or Less

To be honest, I often shoot my deer within 100 yards, and I would bet that the average hunter does not break 100 yards all that often. That being said, just about any caliber bullet out there will be plenty sufficient at 100 yards. At this range, we are more worried about the characteristics of particular cartridges and not so much the caliber. Things like fragmentation and penetration power are what we are going to watch at this distance.

200 – 400 Yards

This is the wheelhouse of most of our common deer hunting calibers. The only ones you should omit from this range are the .223 and smaller ones. Most of our calibers fall in this category, but not all of them reach 400 yards without a significant drop. That being said, most of us do not regularly shoot at ranges of 400 yards so that may not be much of a problem. Although with any common caliber, if you research your ballistic charts, the bullet drop should be fairly predictable. 

One caliber that shines here is the 6.5 Creedmoor. It starts to show a little bit of drop at around 350 yards, but for the most part, this cartridge is perfect for this range. Which is one of the main reasons for its popularity.

400 – 600 Plus Yards

After 400 yards you will not find a caliber that has negligible bullet drop. Even the 6.5 Creedmoor has over 25 inches of drop at 400 yards. The other calibers on this list have even more drop. Of course, there are beefier calibers out there that you could shoot something with at well over 1000 yards with less bullet drop, but those calibers are often too large to hunt whitetail with ethically.

What Is Important About Caliber Choice

If you are trying to pick a caliber to get your newest deer rifle in, there are a few things to consider, but also note that any caliber mentioned on this list here will get the job done.

The first thing you need to figure out is what level of recoil you are comfortable with. That will put you in one of three categories. Category one, you want as little recoil as possible. If this is the case you will want to go with a smaller caliber like a .223 or maybe the 6.5 Creedmoor. The .270 is a great choice here and is widely available. Next, you can handle moderate recoil. Then it is okay to go with a .308, 7mm-08, or a 25-06. Lastly, if you can handle a large amount of recoil you can look into magnums or a 30-06 or 30-30.

Another thing to think about is the availability of a particular caliber. Sure some calibers are super effective, but you can never find them on the shelf. There is also a problem finding a rifle chambered in certain calibers as well. So if you want something that you are going to be able to find easily, get a .308, .270, or a 30-06.

Thank you for reading my article about the best caliber for whitetail hunting. I hope you enjoyed it and learned something you didn’t already know. If you like my content, subscribe to my weekly update. If you have any other questions about hunting calibers or just want to connect, feel free to email me at Patrick.Long@omegaoutdoors.net.

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