The best part of pursuing whitetails are the places they take you. In your pursuit of deer over your lifetime, you might experience rugged country in the deep woods of Maine, the deserts of Arizona, the bean fields of the Carolinas or the mountains of Montana. The varied terrain and the habits of the deer you hunt can mean some of your shots will be measured better in feet than yards, and others will only be limited by your confidence in your rig and abilities.
By Bill Miller
It’s legitimate to ask if there’s a cartridge that can really handle it all when it comes to whitetail hunting in every habitat. Let’s find out.
In my formative years as an impressionable young gun writer, one of my greatest mentors was lifelong hunter and writer Hal Swiggett. Hal instilled in me some simple beliefs to which I still adhere today when it comes to cartridge selection, bullet performance and shot placement.
First, Swiggett used to say, “Dead is dead. There is no such thing as overkill.”
He liked big bullets that made a big hole going in and a bigger hole coming out. This goes hand in hand with his adage, “Entrance wounds don’t make blood trails. Big exit holes leave big blood trails. You want a blood trail in case the deer doesn’t tip over where you can see it.”
In selecting all-around cartridges for anything, I’m all about providing for maximum margin for error. No matter who you are or how good a shot you are, there are times in the woods when conditions are not optimal. In fact, that’s most of the time. If you’ve built a hunting rig that demands perfection of range, weather conditions, body position of the animal and your shooting position on every shot, ethically you’ll have to pass up more shots than you take.
Hal also often told me, “A .22 rimfire is a fine cartridge for killing moose … if you can get up next to him and put the muzzle in his ear before you pull the trigger.”
That’s a zero-margin-for-error moose hunting rig.
Select a cartridge and bullet combination that on a reasonable shot will reli- ably enter the deer, expand the bullet to two or three times caliber, deposit most of its energy in the animal and have just enough left to make it out through the hide on the offside, creating a good exit hole. If the animal doesn’t go down in sight, the resulting blood trail will significantly boost the odds of recovering that deer.
Remember, we don’t shoot every deer in the morning on a bright bluebird day with mild temps and a light breeze. Building in the blood-trail margin for error is most important when you squeeze the trigger at the last minute of legal shooting light in rain that’s threat- ening to turn to wind-driven snow.
Consistent performance of this kind relies at least as much on bullet placement as it does the selection of a cartridge. Again, the best cartridge is going to provide some margin for error in case you don’t make the perfect shot.
SEE ALSO: Do You Believe These Deer Rifle Myths?
Narrowing the Field
With margin for error as a guiding principle, let’s narrow the field. I’m sure this is going to get contentious right away because I’ll be cutting out somebody’s favorite deer killing round, but if you are already committed to a cartridge, you don’t need this advice anyway. Go live happily ever after with your favorite cartridge.
On the small-caliber side of things, I’m opposed to the use of .22s of any kind for deer hunting. I understand and applaud the popularity of owning a modern sporting rifle. They are great for hunting deer or anything else if you pick a legitimate hunting caliber such as the .308 Win.
However, most of these guns are in .223 Rem. — a .22 caliber. The .223 Rem. doesn’t offer anything close to the margin for error I’m looking for in an all-around whitetail cartridge.
At the risk of upsetting even more folks, we’ll keep moving up the caliber range to eliminate the 6mm rounds. Yes, that includes the popular .243 Win. Many deer have been taken with this cartridge, but I believe it’s an expert’s choice — definitely not a beginner’s gun.
Even though it is a light-recoil weapon, it doesn’t offer any significant margin for error, and you’ll ethically have to pass up too many shots to give the .243 Win. any kind of consideration as an all-arounder.
To pare the list more quickly, I recommend going with a cartridge that offers a selection of high-quality hunting bullets weighing at least 130 grains and delivered from-the-muzzle velocity of at least 2,700 fps. These standards eliminate a lot of whitetail hunters’ old favorites. In fact, some of these cartridges are legendary in some regions of North America.
Out goes the .30-30 Win. Out goes the .250 Savage (with which I’ve taken many deer myself). Out go all the .257 cartridges including the .25-06. Out goes the .300 Savage. Out goes the .35 Rem. (which was my first deer rifle). Although these cartridges still take thousands of deer each year, we’re looking for cartridges that provide maximum margin for error during the broadest range of shooting situations in every terrain across North America. These are great cartridges, but they do not offer the greatest margin for error.
Must Be Available
I’m going to set one more parameter that will eliminate some cartridges from consideration. If you and your ammo somehow get separated in getting from Point A to Point B, an all-around cartridge should also be readily available over the counter somewhere in the vicin- ity of Point B. Many are not. Included in that list are some of the new cartridges, including short magnums, that never really took off or have waned in popu- larity since their introductions.
And despite adherence to my adopted dead-is-dead-and-there’s-no-such-thing-as-overkill philosophy, there’s no reason to burden ourselves with super magnums that could boot us out from under our hunting caps. These guns cost ever more to fuel, and in whitetail country, ammo for guns best suited for Alaska or Africa can be tough to find at the village hardware store.
Out go the .338 magnums and anything up from there.
Who Are the Contenders?
That leaves us with a significantly shortened list of contenders for the best all-around champion cartridge.
By my calculation, they are: .270 Win., .270 Win. Short Mag., 7mm-08 Rem., .280 Rem., 7mm Rem. Mag., 7mm Win. Short Mag., 7mm Weath- erby Magnum, 7mm STW, .308 Win., .30-06 Springfield, .300 H&H Mag., .300 Win. Mag., .300 Win. Short Mag., .300 Weatherby Mag., and .300 Rem. UltraMag.
Now, you could get yourself your favorite action and brand of rifle in any of these contending cartridges, top it with quality optics and pursue white- tails of every subspecies and in every habitat happily ever after. They are all that versatile. Yet we’re trying to select a champion (and a couple of runners up), so we must forge ahead.
Let’s trim some more based on the aforementioned criteria of wide availability. As I travel, I check out what’s available at local stores. While hunting with Frank Wesley’s Sundown Outfitting out of Fort Macleod, Alberta, we acquired our hunting licenses at the local laundromat, which also served as a grocery store and sporting goods emporium. While waiting on the clerk to serve hot dogs to the customers ahead of us, I checked out the ammo stock in the glass counter. By the Fort Macleod test, I’m ruling out the 7mm STW, 7mm Wthby. Mag, .300 Rem. UltraMag, .300 H&H Mag., the 7mm Win. Short Mag., .300 Wthby. Mag. and (tear my heart out) the 7mm-08 Rem.
By comparison, none of these cartridges are available with a wide variety of factory-loaded bullet options anyway. Pursuit of whitetails across more than just your home state is much more about hunting the deer and much less about the time and resource consuming research, development and testing of handloads. So even though it’s fairly available (and for decades the deer hunting darling of many a gun writer), I’m knocking the .280 Rem. out of contention, although I’ve hunted with many and will continue to do so in the future.
Time to Get Personal
With the .270 Win., .270 Win. Short Mag., 7mm Rem. Mag., .308 Win., .30-06, .300 Win. Mag., and .300 Win. Short Mag. still in the running, the only way to gain ground is by being subjec- tive. Anyone who favors one of these cartridges over the others can certainly state a case in which I could not shoot any holes, so I’m just stating mine.
May the spirit of Jack O’Connor forgive me, but I’m not a .270 Win. fan. It just never did anything for me that I didn’t think some other cartridge couldn’t have done as well or better. I’ve shot it. I’ve hunted with it. It worked great. It just leaves me … blah.
I’m also not a short magnum fan. As much shooting as I’ve been blessed to do, no cartridges (excepting the Ultra- mags) have beat me up as badly as the short magnums — and in some very well-designed, well-built rifles. I’m too old to suffer such abuse. No short mags for me.
As much as I love the 7mm (.284 cali- ber) bullets in the 7mm-08 Rem. and the .280 Rem. for hunting deer-sized game (I’ve taken more head of big game with the 7mm-08 Rem. than any other cartridge), I’m not a 7mm Rem. Mag. fan, either. It’s a great cartridge, but I’ve had more brand to brand and rifle to rifle consistent accuracy with the .300 Win. Mag. than the 7mm Rem. Mag. So on the road to naming the champion, the .300 Win. Mag. stays on the bus; the
7mm Rem. Mag. gets off.
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The Big Three
And now, the moment has arrived. It’s time to name the greatest all-around whitetail cartridge.
Of course, that means I’m going to wimp out.
With the .308 Win., .30-06 Spg., and .300 Win. Mag as our remaining contenders, I simply can’t choose. I own and hunt with all three. Selecting one from the gun safe on the way to a whitetail hunt, it just depends on what mood strikes me.
If I’m hunting big woods and close cover, the .308 Win. will join me. If there’s a chance I’ll get a really long shot, the .300 Win. Mag. will go in the truck. And if I’m headed to a remote corner of whitetail country or could encounter a variety of conditions, it’s the .30-06.
I guess then, by default, the .30-06 earns the title. There’s a reason it’s proven most popular by every sales measure whitetail season after whitetail season.
It’s a safe choice for a reason. Simply put, you can’t go wrong.
— Bill Miller is an accomplished big-buck hunter from Minnesota. For a bonus sidebar on top rifles, turn the page.
Some New Contenders
Picking the venerable .30-06 as an all-around choice for anything is not earth- shaking or risky. In fact, many will consider it boring. So in the spirit of giving you something new to consider, there are a couple of relatively new factory-loaded cartridge introductions to the hunting world. Let’s keep an eye on these contenders.
The 6.5 Creedmoor was originally developed from the drawing board to be a match cartridge, but now Hornady is loading it with the 129-grain SST bullet boosted out the barrel at 2,950 fps. Ruger and DPMS are chambering the Creedmoor in hunting rifles, and you can get it in a T/C Encore pistol, too. For all it’s speed and energy, it’s mild in recoil. Though load variety and over-the-counter availability are extremely limited (as they always are with new introductions), the 6.5 Creedmoor is an all-around contender to watch.
The second contender has been around in factory-loaded form a bit longer. The .338 Federal is based on the .308 Win., but with the larger-caliber bullet that really adds some punch. It moves the 200-grain Federal Trophy Bonded Tip bullet down- range at just slower than2,700 fps. Both 180- and 185-grain bullet selections are available that best the 2,700 fps minimum for all-around consideration. If the pursuit of big bucks will have you shooting from 300 yards and closer, the .338 Federal must be considered an up-and-coming contender for rifle cartridge ruler of your whitetail kingdom.
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