Named for their large, mule-like ears, mule deer are the second most widely distributed deer species in the United States. However, since they’re best adapted to arid, rocky environments, they can only be found west of the Missouri River and especially in the Rocky Mountain region.
This western terrain is what distinguishes a good mule deer cartridge from a good whitetail cartridge. While muleys tend to be larger than their eastern cousins, both animals are thin-skinned and relatively easy to bring down with a well-placed shot. But the mountainous, open country of the western U.S. usually necessitates a longer shot than you’re likely to encounter in the whitetail woods.
So, your cartridge should be flat shooting (i.e., it resists gravity and wind) and capable of maintaining enough speed for reliable bullet expansion out to 400 or 500 yards. This depends on the bullet you choose, but Federal’s Trophy Copper bullet, for example, requires a velocity of 1,800 feet-per-second for reliable expansion.
We would also recommend against a long-action cartridge. The .30-06 Springfield and the .300 Winchester Magnum are perfectly capable of bringing down a mule deer, but short-action cartridges will save you a few ounces in your rifle. Maybe that’s worth it to you, and maybe it isn’t, but if a short-action cartridge will kill a mule deer just as dead, why not make your kit a little lighter?
Finally, as with all precision shooting, minimizing recoil will make your job easier. Flinching is a death sentence for a long-range shot, so selecting a cartridge with recoil in mind will help keep your shots on target.
Roy Weatherby’s souped-up quarter bore is a mule deer hunter’s dream come true. The famous wildcatter and gunmaker developed the round specifically for open country and long-distance shots, and it boasts a flatter trajectory than other common options in this caliber.
At 500 yards, a 100-grain .257 Weatherby only drops 29.7 inches with a 200-yard zero and is still traveling 2,243 feet-per-second (fps). A 100-grain .25-06 Remington, another flat-shooting quarter bore, drops 35 inches at that distance and is traveling over 100 fps slower. You aren’t likely to find super-high-BC bullets in the .257 category, but the Weatherby’s 20 inches of drift is more than acceptable even compared to other cartridges.
The disadvantage of the Weatherby’s added power is a relatively stiff recoil, especially compared to the .260 Remington or the 6.5 Creedmoor. But it still clocks in at less than 20 ft.-lbs. of recoil energy, which is still comfortable for most hunters.
Our Pick: 100-Grian Barnes TTSX, Federal Custom Shop Velocity at 500 Yards: 2,243 fps Wind Drift at 500 Yards (10 mph crosswind): 20.2 inches Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 29.7 inches Recoil: ~16 ft.-lbs.
The .260 Remington has been eclipsed by sexier cartridges in recent years, but it’s still an excellent option for mule deer. Generally loaded with bullets between 120 and 142 grains, the .260 can fire a 120-grain bullet faster than a 6.5 Creedmoor and match the Creedmoor’s trajectory out to 500 yards. These Nosler Ballistic Tip loads from Federal, for example, leave the barrel at 2,950 fps and only drop 42 inches at 500 yards. That might sound like a lot, but the 6.5 Creedmoor, which is often praised as a great long-range hunting cartridge, drops virtually the same distance at that yardage.
Plus, also like the Creed, the .260 only produces about 13 ft.-lbs. of recoil energy, making it an easy and comfortable cartridge to shoot even in lightweight mountain rifles.
Options for cartridges and rifles are limited, but if you already have a rifle in the .260, there’s no need to buy a new long-gun for mule deer. The Remington will do just fine.
Our Pick: 120-Grain Nosler Ballistic Tip Velocity at 500 Yards: 1928 fps Wind Drift at 500 Yards (10 mph crosswind): 21.2 inches Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 42.1 inches Recoil: ~13 ft.-lbs.
If the .260 Remington is so ballistically similar to the 6.5 Creedmoor, why have hunters flocked to the 6.5 in droves? Two words: ballistic coefficient. The Creedmoor was designed from the start to use the long, slim bullets that buck the wind and keep shots on target. Any long-range hunter or competitive shooter will tell you that adjusting for wind is the most difficult part of the discipline. The less you have to adjust for wind, the more likely you are to make a clean, ethical kill.
With a 200-yard zero, these 135-grain Berger Hybrid Hunter loads from Federal drop about 42 inches at 500 yards but only drift 15.7 inches with a 10 mph crosswind. That’s the least wind drift of any cartridge on this list, and the Creedmoor’s popularity means you’re more likely to find these high-BC bullets loaded from the factory.
Our Pick: 135-Grain Berger Hybrid Hunter 6.5 Creedmoor Velocity at 500 Yards: 2049 fps Wind Drift at 500 Yards (10 mph crosswind): 15.7 inches Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 42.7 inches Recoil: ~13 ft.-lbs.
When it comes to hitting an animal with force beyond 300 yards, it’s really, really tough to beat the 6.5 PRC. That’s because the cartridge’s recommended barrel twist rate can stabilize the long, high-BC bullets that buck the wind, maintain velocity, and resist gravity’s pull. The PRC is among the flattest-shooting cartridges on this list, and it combines that flat trajectory with excellent wind-bucking ability. The 6.5 Creedmoor mentioned above drifts a little less, but the PRC drops six fewer inches. That means you’re more likely to hit that trophy mule deer even if it’s feeding across the canyon.
The 6.5 PRC is a hair longer than the unofficial cutoff for short-action cartridges (2.8 inches), but it’s generally marketed as a short-action, and it’s shorter than the .300 Win. Mag. and the .30-06 Springfield.
Our Pick: 120-Grain Trophy Copper 6.5 PRC Velocity at 500 Yards: 2158 fps Wind Drift at 500 Yards (10 mph crosswind): 16.5 inches Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 36.5 inches Recoil: ~17 ft.-lbs.
If you ask me, the .308 Winchester doesn’t get enough love these days. As the U.S. military’s successor to the legendary .30-06 Springfield, the .308 has become one of (if not the) most popular short-action big-game cartridges worldwide. It can step up to larger game like elk and bear, but it’s also a great all-around deer cartridge for both muleys and whitetail.
And while 6.5mm cartridges have earned a well-deserved reputation as wind-bucking wunderkinds, don’t sleep on the old Winchester. This Trophy Copper option from Federal drops more at 500 yards than other cartridges on this list, but it only moves 19.2 inches in a 10mph cross breeze. For those keeping score at home, that’s less wind drift than the .260 Remington and the .257 Weatherby.
Plus, you can find reasonably priced .308 Winchester cartridges at every gun store, gas station, and hardware store from Virginia to California (you’ll have to pass a background check in California, but you’ll still find them!).
Our Pick: 165-Grain Trophy Copper 308 Winchester Velocity at 500 Yards: 1881 fps Wind Drift at 500 Yards (10 mph crosswind): 19.2 inches Drop at 500 Yards (200-yard zero): 47.6 inches Recoil: ~18.1 ft.-lbs.
Other cartridges could have been easily added to this list. Short-action cartridges like the .243 Winchester along with long actions like the .270 Winchester, 7mm Rem. Mag., .280 Ackley Improved, and the .300 Win. Mag. have all taken their fair share of muleys. If your rifle is chambered in any of these, don’t feel like you have to go out and buy one of the top five. But if you’re looking for the ideal mule deer cartridge, something that shoots flat in a lightweight rifle, look no further than the .257 Weatherby, .260 Remington, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, and the .308 Winchester.