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.
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.
.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.
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.
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.
.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.
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.