5 Best Whitetail Cartridges

5 Best Whitetail Cartridges

Here’s the truth about these “Best Cartridge” articles: the only honest answer is, “It depends.” Are these five cartridges really the five best whitetail cartridges in existence? It depends.

It depends on where you’re hunting, your experience with firearms, what rifles you already own, how much money you can spend, how sensitive you are to recoil, and how much weight you’re willing to carry.

The best cartridge for you might not be on this list. But to increase our odds of success, I’ve categorized each of my choices according to different hunting needs. If you can determine where you fit, you’ll have at least one solid option if you’re looking for your first (or second or third) deer gun.

For the Recoil-Sensitive: .243 Winchester

There’s a reason the .243 Winchester has taken down more youth-season whitetails than (probably) any other cartridge. The .243 throws bullets in the 70- to 100-grain range a very respectable 3,000 feet-per-second. That’s enough power to take down a whitetail in a hurry, but in most deer guns, recoil is still extremely manageable. Of the cartridges on this list, only the .30-30 Winchester can boast comparably low recoil, making the .243 a great choice if you’ve managed to develop a flinch (or just don’t like shoulder pain).

Our Pick: 85-Grain Trophy Copper .243 Win. Muzzle Velocity: 3,200 fps Muzzle Energy: 1933 ft.-lbs. Drop at 300 Yards: 9.8 inches Recoil: 7 to 11 ft.-lbs. Other Options: .223 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, .257 Roberts

For the Long-Range Hunter: 6.5 PRC

Everyone wants to play Chris Kyle, but not everyone should. Long-range hunting requires practice, patience, and an intimate knowledge of how your cartridge performs in different conditions. But if you’re willing to put in the work, the 6.5 PRC won’t let you down. The PRC has become a favorite option on the long-range competition circuit, and Federal offers a loading with their 120-grain Trophy Copper hunting bullet. The projectile is traveling north of 3,000 feet-per-second (fps) at the muzzle and is still traveling over 2,100 fps at 500 yards. With a 200-yard zero, it only drops about 36 inches at that distance and hits with 1,241 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy. Click here to check out more long-range hunting options.

Our Pick: 120-Grain Trophy Copper 6.5 PRC Muzzle Velocity: 3050 fps Muzzle Energy: 2478 ft.-lbs. Drop at 300 Yards: 10.5 inches Recoil: 15 to 18 ft.-lbs. Other Options: 6.5 Creedmoor, .270 Winchester, 7mm Remington Magnum

For the Budget-Conscious: .308 Winchester

Hunters often forget about cost when selecting a cartridge. That’s understandable if you only purchase one box a year. But if you’re looking to up your game and improve your skill with a rifle, practice ammo can get expensive, fast. This is where the .308 Winchester shines. It’s one of the greatest big-game cartridges of all time, so you won’t have trouble filling your tag when the season rolls around. But during the offseason, you can hone your skills with bulk ammo cheaper than anything else on this list. Midway USA offers 500-round packages for as little as $1.16 per round, and Federal has good soft-point ammo in stock for $1.75 per round.

Our Pick: 165-Grain Sierra GameKing Boat-Tail SP 308 Win Muzzle Velocity: 2700 fps Muzzle Energy: 2671 ft.-lbs. Drop at 300 Yards: 15.1 inches Recoil: 15 to 18 ft.-lbs. Other Options: .223 Remington, .30-30 Winchester, .350 Legend

For the Straight-Wall Hunter: .350 Legend

In some states (or portions of states), whitetail hunting has traditionally only been permitted with smoothbore guns. Lately, however, many of those states have expanded legal means of take to include straight-wall cartridges. If that’s you, the .350 Legend is the way to go. As I explain in more detail here, the .350 Legend balances power, range, recoil, and cost better than any other option on the market. Federal’s Fusion .350 Legend can push a 160-grain projectile 2,300 fps at the muzzle and maintain terminal velocity out to about 250 yards. Plus, recoil is extremely manageable and ammo is inexpensive.

Our Pick: 160-Grain Federal Fusion .350 Legend Muzzle Velocity: 2300 fps Muzzle Energy: 1879 ft.-lbs. Drop at 300 Yards: 26.6 inches Recoil: 8 to 10 ft.-lbs. Other Options: .450 Bushmaster, .45-70 Govt., .44 Remington Magnum

For the Close-Range Hunter: .30-30 Winchester

Long-range hunting gets a lot of press, but I’m willing to bet that the vast majority of whitetail hunters take the vast majority of shots within 150 yards. If that’s the kind of shot you’re looking at this year, you can’t go wrong with the .30-30 Winchester. The .30-30 has been earning its keep in gun safes since your grandfather’s father was using it to bring home whitetails. Most modern loads use a bullet between 150 and 170 grains that scoot along at 2,300 fps, and many of these bullets can take advantage of the latest designs. Federal offers a Trophy Copper edition of the .30-30, which is sort of like putting one of those new twin-turbo V6 Ford engines in an F-100. Best of both worlds.

Our Pick: 150-Grain Trophy Copper .30-30 Winchester Muzzle Velocity: 2300 fps Muzzle Energy: 1762 ft.-lbs. Drop at 300 Yards: 29.0 inches Recoil: 9 to 12 ft.-lbs. Other Options: .35 Remington, .300 Blackout, .357 Magnum

Use the Rifle You Already Have

The best whitetail cartridge for you is probably the one chambered in the gun you already have. You don’t need a Howitzer to bring home venison. Whitetail are killed with .22 LR rifles every year, and even though I don’t recommend that particular cartridge, it proves my point. Anything with as much or more power than a .223 Remington that’s loaded with a quality hunting bullet will get the job done.

Federal also makes it easy to know which versions of a particular cartridge are designed for whitetail-sized animals. Every product on their website comes with a “usage” designation like “small game,” “big game,” or “target shooting.” If you pick something in the big- or medium-game category, you’ll be good to go.

Don’t let indecision over the “best” whitetail cartridge keep you from the deer woods. If you already have your grandfather’s deer gun, or you purchased a semi-auto rifle for home defense, those will probably work just fine. Get them cleaned up, get some practice, and get out there.

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