Best Rifle Cartridges for New Deer Hunters

Best Rifle Cartridges for New Deer Hunters

Caliber selection can be intimidating for new deer hunters. There are so many options, and every gun writer with a blog and an Internet connection has an opinion he’s more than happy to share.

You can read our recommendations below, but first, know this: almost every rifle caliber can take down a whitetail. Some calibers offer unique advantages, but if you can find it at a sporting goods store and it’s bigger than .22 caliber, you’ll be fine. The important thing is to pick something and start practicing.

If you want to make the most informed decision, however, there are a few criteria you should keep in mind.

  1. Cost: You’ll forget about cost until after you purchase the rifle and start looking for practice ammo. Be sure you know how much a box of 20 premium hunting rounds will set you back and whether you can find practice ammunition at a reasonable price. For hunting ammunition in most calibers, expect to pay about $50 per box. For practice ammo, try to choose a caliber you can find for around $20. Check out Federal’s rifle cartridge offerings or go to a big online dealer like Midway USA.
  2. Selection: Some calibers are more popular than others, so manufacturers offer a wider variety of loads (i.e., different bullet weights and designs for different applications) in these cartridges. The .308 Winchester is among the most popular cartridges ever produced, and Federal makes 32 varieties. But the ammo maker only offers three options for the .280 Ackley Improved, all of which cost more than $63 per box. If you want to be sure you’ll find your deer cartridge at your local sporting goods store, go with something that’s relatively common.
  3. Recoil: Every new hunter article mentions recoil, but it’s something even veteran hunters take into consideration. Choosing a caliber with limited recoil allows you to practice longer, take shots from awkward positions, and most importantly, it reduces the chances of flinching. Flinching can significantly affect accuracy, especially if you don’t have much experience behind the trigger. Only you can determine how much recoil you can tolerate, but generally speaking, shooters say recoil becomes uncomfortable past about 15 foot-pounds. To see the recoil energy of most rifle calibers, check out Chuck Hawks recoil table.
  4. Range/Power: This is what most people jump to when they’re thinking about choosing a rifle caliber, but I think it’s the least important criteria for new whitetail hunters. A deer isn’t a brown bear. If you hit it in the vitals, it’ll go down in short order. And if you’re a new deer hunter, I wouldn’t recommend taking a shot beyond 200 yards, which is within the maximum effective range of most rifle calibers. Still, it’s better to choose a caliber you can grow into than something you’ll have to replace in a few years. For that reason, you should also make sure the caliber you select can take deer at distances you’ll be hunting for years to come.

Hopefully, these criteria will help you evaluate rifle calibers on your own (“better to teach a man to fish,” and all that). If you’re looking for specific calibers that meet these criteria, here are a few recommendations.

.243 Winchester For many years, the .243 Win. has been the go-to for parents looking for their kid’s first deer rifle. There’s a reason for that. As I explain in more detail here, the .243 packs enough punch to take down a whitetail past 300 yards while delivering a feather-light recoil. It can’t jump up to larger animals, and there are better options for long-range work. But for a new deer hunter looking to test the waters of the whitetail world, it’s a great choice.

Cost: $1.15-$3.35/round Selection: 61 varieties on Midway USA Recoil: 7.2 to 11 ft.-lbs of energy Max Range/Power at Muzzle: 500 yards/1933 ft.-lbs of energy with Federal’s 85-grain Trophy Copper

.30-30 Winchester If you’re a fan of lever-action firearms or like the idea of using a 125-year-old deer cartridge, the .30-30 Winchester is for you. The .30-30 Win.’s range is limited, but recoil is super light and the caliber is widely available. Even after the advent of faster, sexier cartridges, the .30-30 Win. is still a favorite among Eastern whitetail hunters, and I helped my buddy take his first deer with a .30-30 lever action two seasons ago.

Cost: $1.05-$4.60/round Selection: 36 varieties on Midway USA Recoil: 6.6 to 12.7 ft.-lbs of energy Max Range/Power at Muzzle: 150 yards/2300 ft.-lbs of energy with Federal’s 150-grain Trophy Copper

6.5mm Creedmoor Hunters just a few years ago would be surprised to see a 6.5mm in a short list of new hunter cartridges, but here we are. The Creedmoor is an excellent deer cartridge for a few reasons. First, it has the juice to take deer reliably at extended ranges, but it doesn’t come with the shoulder-breaking recoil of something like a .300 Win. Mag. There are tons of bullet options, and many use the long, sleek shape designed to cut through wind and keep shots on target.

Cost: $1.20-$4.90/round Selection: 93 varieties on Midway USA Recoil: 12 to 16 ft.-lbs of energy Max Range/Power at Muzzle: 650 yards/2202 ft.-lbs of energy with Federal’s 120-grain Trophy Copper

7mm-08 Remington Much like the Creedmoor, the 7mm-08 offers lots of power at extended ranges without the associated recoil. Federal loads 140-grain bullets in their Trophy Copper line, which provides more power at close ranges than the Creedmoor while maintaining enough velocity to reliably expand out to 600 yards. The 7mm-08 is probably the least common of the five cartridges on this list, but it’s still readily available and chambered in a wide variety of rifles.

Cost: $1.50-$4.90/round Selection: 32 varieties on Midway USA Recoil: 12 – 14 ft.-lbs of energy Max Range/Power at Muzzle: 600 yards/2437 ft.-lbs of energy with Federal’s 140-grain Trophy Copper

.308 Winchester My first deer gun was a .308 Win., so maybe I’m biased, but it’s a nice choice if you’re looking for a deer cartridge that can one day graduate to larger game. As a NATO cartridge, the .308 Win. is readily available in a wide variety of loads using bullet weights ranging from 110 grains to 240 grains (though it’s usually loaded with 150-, 165-, and 175-grain bullets). It’s the hardest-recoiling cartridge in this list, and new hunters might need some time to acclimate to the kick on lightweight hunting rifles. But the .308 Win. will take deer without breaking a sweat, and it’s effective past 500 yards.

Cost: $0.90-$5.15/round Selection: 158 varieties on Midway USA Recoil: 10 – 18 ft.-lbs of energy Max Range/Power at Muzzle: 580 yards/2648 ft.-lbs of energy with Federal’s 150-grain Trophy Copper

Last Shot One last piece of advice: if you can, try to shoot the cartridge you’re considering before purchasing your first deer gun. We can talk about recoil numbers and effective ranges until the cows come home, but there’s no substitute for real-life trigger time. Get in touch with a friend or family member who owns a few hunting rifles and ask if you can take them for a spin. Your choice might be easier than you think.

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