Open country, high elevation, and long shots are staples of Western whitetail hunting. Your rifle cartridge better be able to handle it.
In most scenarios, the .30-30 Winchester that shines in the thick foliage of the Appalachians won’t get the job done in the Great Plains or Rocky Mountains. You need something that can stretch its legs a little further. We polled the MeatEater crew about their favorite cartridges for pursuing whitetails west of the Missouri River.
Each of these cartridges can make fatal shots on medium-sized game past 500 yards, which gives proficient hunters more opportunities in open country.
For the All-Around Hunter: 6.5 Anything Six and a half millimeter cartridges were hands-down the top vote-getters in our informal MeatEater poll. Most 6.5mm cartridges offer more than enough power to bring down a whitetail at long ranges, without the shoulder-breaking recoil of larger-caliber loads. The 6.5 Creedmoor, the 6.5 RPM, the 6.5x55 Swede, and the 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum were all mentioned as great options for Western whitetails.
Brody Henderson especially favors Weatherby’s 6.5 RPM: “It’s fast, accurate, and excels at long ranges, which is what you need in open Western terrain where shots are typically much longer than they are in Eastern wood lots and Midwestern food plots. And you can use the 6.5 RPM for other Western big game animals from antelope to black bears to big bull elk,” he said.
Not all 6.5s are created equal, of course. Janis Putelis pointed out that some 6.5s are better for shorter ranges and offer lighter recoil while others are ideally suited for long-range work.
“Although Americans never jumped on the 6.5x55 Swede bandwagon, we should have, as we now see the benefits of the 6.5 caliber after using the Creedmoor and others for a decade,” Janis said. “If you can get close to a Western whitetail, go with the softer-hitting, enjoyable-to-shoot 6.5s like the 6.5x55 or the Creedmoor. If you need to shoot past 300 yards, try the 6.5 RPM or 6.5-300 Weatherby Magnum.”
For Knock-Down Power: .300 Winchester Magnum The .300 Win. Mag. is the granddaddy of high-powered long-range hunting cartridges. It isn’t the biggest or the baddest or the oldest, but for many Western hunters, it’s their go-to for high mountain environments.
The .300 Win. Mag. can push a 165-grain Trophy Copper bullet 3,050 feet per second at the muzzle, will reliably expand past 700 yards, and only drops 6 inches at 300 yards. Within that range, it hits hard enough to stop a whitetail in its tracks. That 165-grain bullet produces 2,289 foot-pounds of energy at 300 yards, a full 400 ft.-lbs. more energy than a .30-06 at that distance. It hits with 600 ft.-lbs. more energy than a .270 Win. and a .308 Win., and 700 ft.-lbs. more than a 7mm-08.
“It hits your shoulder really hard but hits animals even harder,” said Sam Lungren, MeatEater’s supervising editor. “Last year my MeatEater Vanguard .300 did quick work on a mature bull moose and even quicker work on muley buck. It'll do the same to any whitetail.”
After a long stalk in high altitude, you want to avoid a long blood trail. While you don’t need a .300 Win. Mag. to bag a whitetail, the high-power cartridge increases the odds that the animal won’t move much after it’s been hit.
The .300 Win. Mag. is among the most chambered rifle cartridges, so you won’t have any trouble finding a rifle in the flavor you’re looking for.
For the New or Young Hunter: .243 Winchester New and young hunters need a friendly cartridge that’s readily available, easy to shoot, and maintains enough power to account for the not-quite-perfect shot. The .243 Win. fits the bill.
New hunters won’t have any trouble finding a high-quality hunting load that won’t break the bank. Federal’s 85-grain Trophy Copper, for example, features a tough, all-copper bullet and runs about $47 for a box of 20.
Low recoil keeps new hunters from flinching, and the .243 Win. produces less than half the felt recoil of a .300 Winchester Magnum. Spencer Neuharth prefers lighter-recoiling rifles in part because they allow for accurate shots even in awkward field positions. In 2020, he killed four whitetail bucks in Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, and Kansas.
“Most of those hunts ended in a long stalk and awkward shooting position," he said. "I’ve found this to be the norm for Western whitetails, which is why I like something with low recoil. I might end up taking a shot leaning off a fence post or laying prone among cactus and yucca.”
But don’t sleep on the .243’s power. Federal’s 85-grain Trophy Copper maintains enough velocity for reliable expansion well past 500 yards.
For young hunters, Weatherby’s Vanguard Synthetic Compact is an excellent choice, and it’s chambered in .243 Win.
For Something Different: .280 Ackley Improved Variety is the spice of life, and the .280 Ackley Improved (AI) is spicy enough for even the most grizzled hunter. Developed by the legendary wildcatter P.O. Ackley, the .280 AI stacks up well against higher-powered cartridges like the .300 Win. Mag., but it doesn’t produce as much recoil as its larger brothers.
“I am personally a huge fan of the .280 Ackley. It's super-efficient at burning power, has less recoil than the 7mm, but still hits like a hammer. There's also a ton of bullet options for this caliber that make it a great gun for a variety of situations,” said MeatEater’s Garrett Long.
Federal’s 140-grain Trophy Copper .280 AI flies 3,075 fps at the muzzle, only drops 17 inches at 400 yards, and maintains enough velocity for reliable expansion past 700 yards. At 500 yards, it produces nearly 400 more foot-pounds of energy than a 140-grain 6.5 Creedmoor.
The .280 AI is less available than the other cartridges on this list, but are still available. Federal offers three cartridge options, and Weatherby has four models chambered in the .280 Ackley Improved, including their ultralight Backcountry Ti.
For the Old School: .257 Weatherby Magnum Roy Weatherby developed his stable of ultra-fast rifle cartridges specifically for Western hunting. After spending an entire night tracking an injured animal in Utah, he decided to craft cartridges that shot flatter and hit harder.
Today, over 75 years after Weatherby introduced the .257 Weatherby Magnum, it’s hard to find a faster-shooting deer cartridge. The .257 Weatherby launches an 80-grain bullet an astounding 3,870 fps at the muzzle. A 100-grain bullet travels 3,575 fps at the muzzle, and a 120-grain travels 3,305 fps.
If you combine that velocity with a high-BC bullet, you get “an absolute laser beam of a round,” according to Weatherby’s Zach Hein. A .257 Roberts drops 31 inches at 500 yards, and a .25-06 Remington drops 28 inches. A .257 Weatherby only drops 21 inches and carries the same energy at 600 yards that a .25-06 holds at 400 yards.
If you’re looking for an old-school quarter-bore cartridge, you can’t do any better than Roy Weatherby’s favorite round. Weatherby chambers many of their rifles in the .257, including the Vanguard First Lite.
“The Best Option” There are so many cartridge options these days that it’s easy to think yourself into a corner when you’re choosing one for a specific animal. But Putelis pointed out that, at the end of the day, the best option is “whatever cartridge you shoot well.” Almost any modern cartridge can kill a whitetail, and the minute differences between 6.5mm options, for example, aren’t likely to show themselves in the field.
Still, in the unforgiving terrain of the Western U.S., hunters need every advantage they can get. All of these cartridges offer accuracy and long-range performance, and they’ll serve you well on your next high-mountain hunt.