Straight-wall cartridges are surging in the whitetail world. The best evidence of this is recent legislation.
Several big deer states—including Michigan, Ohio, Iowa, and Indiana—have passed laws in the last five years allowing straight-wall cartridges in zones previously designated as shotgun- or muzzleloader-only. These new policies allow hunters to use cartridges like the .450 Bushmaster, .45-70 Govt., and .350 Legend, which have limited range and travel distance compared to their bottleneck brothers but still pack enough punch to bring down a whitetail at distances greater than 200 yards.
If you live in a straight-wall state and are thinking about making the switch, you’ve come to the right place. We’ll cover the most popular straight-wall cartridges on the market today and then make our pick: Which is best for whitetail hunting?
“Straight-wall cartridge” could describe virtually every pistol cartridge, but that’s not how most hunters use the term. (The reliable old .45 ACP may have won World War II, but it hasn’t taken down many deer.) Instead, “straight-wall cartridge” refers to the cartridges that produce enough velocity to reliably dispatch an animal while maintaining the straight-wall design. All of these cartridges use large, heavy bullets, which helps compensate for their limited velocity compared to most deer guns.
You have more options than what’s included in the list below, but these are some of the most popular and widely available:
Most of these cartridges were originally designed for revolvers or lever-action rifles, but these days you can find them in a wide variety of platforms. The .44 Rem. Mag., .357 Mag., .454 Casull, .460 S&W Mag., and .500 S&W Mag. were developed for pistols but are also chambered in long guns. The .45-70 Govt. and the .444 Marlin are old-school lever gun cartridges. The .450 Bushmaster and .350 Legend were released in the last 15 years and can be found in semi-auto and bolt-action rifles.
The Best Cartridge for Deer Hunting?
When I say “best,” I of course don’t mean “best in all circumstances and for all people.” Your best cartridge might differ depending on your background with firearms, comfort with recoil, or preferred action.
But even with that caveat, I stand by my choice for most hunters looking for their first straight-wall gun in the whitetail woods. If you’re familiar with our Caliber Battle series, you know that knock-down power isn’t the only factor we consider when selecting a hunting cartridge. Ballistics are important, but so is availability, versatility, cost, recoil, and a host of other factors.
So, here’s my argument for the .350 Legend.
Ballistically speaking, it doesn’t hit as hard as the .444 Marlin, .450 Bushmaster, .500 S&W Mag., or .460 S&W Mag. (the .45-70 Govt. is close, but it usually doesn’t break the 2,000-feet-per-second barrier). If you’re going after elk or moose with a straight wall, those larger, more powerful cartridges might be the way to go. But for whitetail, the .350 Legend gives you plenty of juice to get the job done, and it comes with other advantages over its competitors.
Federal’s Fusion .350 Legend pushes a 160-grain projectile at 2,300 fps from the muzzle and maintains supersonic speed past 400 yards. Federal lists the minimum velocity for terminal performance at 1,600 fps, which means that, depending on the accuracy of your setup, you can expect to reliably dispatch deer at 250 yards and possibly even further.
The other cartridges on the list boast more power at close range, but their stubby, low-BC bullets waste power with sub-par accuracy and quickly diminishing velocity. The .350 Legend provides enough power to drop whitetail, and you aren’t losing much (if any) in the maximum effective range category.
The .350 Legend also has the other straight-wall cartridges beat in two additional categories: recoil and cost. Winchester (the company that developed the cartridge) lists the recoil energy of the .350 Legend at 8.52 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) using a 7-pound rifle. The .450 Bushmaster clocks in at 22.9 ft.-lbs. of energy using a 7-pound rifle, and .444 Marlin smashes shoulders with 27.6 ft.-lbs. using a 7.5-pound rifle. The .500 and .460 S&W Magnums are so infrequently chambered in rifles that recoil data isn’t readily available, but I’ve shot the .500 Auto Max (a reduced rim .500 S&W Mag.) in an AR-type rifle, and it ain’t no cake walk.
Of course, all of these cartridges use much heavier bullets that produce more energy, but I would argue that anything bigger than 250 grains isn’t necessary for deer. If you’re trying to balance recoil and stopping power, the .350 Legend is the way to go.
Cost advantage also goes to the .350. Federal sells their .350 Legend cartridges between $26 and $32 for a box of 20. For .450 Bushmaster and .444 Marlin, you’re looking at $41 to $49 per box, and .45-70 Govt. is even more expensive. A box of .357 Mag. is more comparable to the .350 Legend, but you’re losing power and velocity.
Right now, hunters can find the .350 Legend chambered in semi-auto AR-type rifles and bolt guns. And, given the cartridge’s popularity, I’d bet my house that a gun company will be releasing a .350 Legend lever gun by 2023.
I understand the appeal of other straight-wall cartridges. The .450 Bushmaster is a heavy hitter, and the .45-70 Govt. is a nostalgic round. But if I’m recommending one straight wall to a hunter, I’m sending them to the .350 Legend. It’s accurate, cost-efficient, low-recoil, and plenty powerful to get the job done.