Go into a sporting goods store, mom-and-pop gun shop, small diner, church, meeting hall, or anywhere else like-minded people gather, and discuss deer hunting. There are a few topics of conversation that will always get a good argument brewing. As deer hunters, it seems we love to argue about our sport almost as much as we love hunting. Luckily, the arguments tend to be as good-natured as the deer hunters themselves.

One of the best and longest-running arguments is that timeless question: what is the best rifle for deer hunting? Let’s get this over with quickly. There is no one best deer rifle. I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s true. If you’re legally hunting with any rifle, that’s the best deer rifle, period. Why? Because you’re hunting! Let’s look at some of the variations on the theme, though.

A word on taking the shot

If I had a nickel for every time I heard growing up that the .30-30 was the best deer caliber and rifle, well, I’d have enough money to buy a really nice .30-30. The reason often given is that “.30-30 is a great brush gun and can shoot through anything.” That comment makes me cringe.

There is no replacement for going to the range and practicing. Period.
There is no replacement for going to the range and practicing.

If anything gets between your muzzle and the target, it doesn’t matter which type of gun you’re shooting. It can and will alter the course of the bullet. I don’t care if you’re shooting a .375 H&H or even a .50 BMG. If you don’t take a clear shot and just throw a bullet through some brush, you’re hoping for the best. You shouldn’t be taking that shot anyway. Wait for the good shot and don’t be “that guy.” A round-nose bullet, like the .30-30, may in fact not be deflected as much from an impact with brush and the like, but any “obstacle” can alter the course of any bullet. Several years ago, I was involved in some test-shooting through thick brush at a range with several different rifle-caliber combinations. Sometimes we hit the target, sometimes we didn’t. The important thing we learned was that never once did the bullet go exactly where it was aimed. That alone makes it not worth attempting.

There are real reasons to want a .30-30 for deer hunting, however. For one, lever guns are just cool. There is a lot of history behind the lever action. Another is that most are short, tough rifles that handle well. That is what makes them a good choice in tight cover. Another reason to love the .30-30 is that the ammo is easy-to-find and usually pretty cheap. Wait, cheap, easy-to-find ammo? Sign me up!

Bullet breakdown

Bullets make up part of the argument about .30-30s, too. The usually have a rounded nose, unless you’re looking at Hornady’s excellent LEVERevolution offerings. I’ve heard just about every argument for and against certain bullets. In some states now (California—I’m talking about you), you can’t use lead-based bullets anymore. There are lots of good, but more expensive, non-lead options out there. Copper bullets, like those offered by Barnes, can be effective against deer.

With smaller calibers, bullet selection is more vital. You want one that will carry enough weight and energy to effectively kill a deer. Remember, it’s tissue damage and hydrostatic shock that kills quickly. Even if a bullet fails to expand, if it transfers energy and causes enough tissue damage, the deer is going to die. Deer aren’t bulletproof tanks made of Kevlar. They are tough, however, as you can tell by the number of times you’ve heard or seen one hit by a car and run off. Get the right bullet for your game and gun and you’ll be fine.

Howa has a great gun in their Model 1500, here in 7mm. That caliber is one of the author's favorites due to lower recoil and great bullet choices.
Howa has a great gun in their Model 1500, here in 7mm-08. That caliber is one of the author’s favorites due to lower recoil and great bullet choices.

There are variables to take into account when selecting a caliber. Range is one. Ammo cost might be one depending on what you’re shooting and your budget. A .223 is on the smaller end, but it can be a lethal deer round. On the flip side, a .375 H&H can be a very effective deer round, but it’s not for everyone. Be sure to check the regulations for your state that you’re hunting. Know the rules and follow them.

Personal picks

I do have my favorites, but I don’t want to present them as what I objectively think you should have for deer hunting. I have killed plenty of deer and other critters with a Winchester Model 70 in 7mm Remington Magnum. That’s not to say it is always the gun I reach for, but more often than not I grab that gun. I have sent a lot of bullets downrange with it and am comfortable using it.

I would like to add the fact that there are better rifles for some situations and because of that fact, I need to have more than one rifle. If my wife reads this, I need those guns. The best reason to buy a new rifle is because you want it.

I hear guys all the time say they want a new rifle because they might be going “out West,” a common thing to hear in the Midwest. Sometimes you want a lightweight rifle, especially if you’re going to be carrying it for a long time for a backcountry hunt. Lighter weight usually results in more felt recoil, so you might not want it for every hunt. You also might want to have some different calibers around just to spice things up.

I’ve found that the best reason to own more than one good deer hunting rifle is having additional firearms on-hand to loan to a new hunter. I remember taking my wife out deer hunting for the first time, which I was able to do thanks to having more than one good gun. She now hunts with me all the time, and I can spend that much more on hunting stuff. See, that alone has made me a smart hunter. You may disagree with me on some of what I’m saying here, but you can’t argue with that.

Images courtesy Derrek Sigler

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15 thoughts on “The Deer Rifle Debate

  1. Sierra’s 65 SPT at a touch over 3300fps in 22-250 will pass through the biggest whitetail or mulie chest/shoulder, leaving a wound channel that you’d swear was a hot 30 cal…at least. After the first 4 inches, you can roll a golf ball through the bullet’s path. The on-flesh results were amazing on a deer taken with it. Out of an M-4 short tube and the limits of the .223/5.56, there’s about 800fps loss in velocity and makes 100yds or less A-Okay, but the shot placement is very critical with the slower-moving projectile. Speed kills as the multiplier in the equation of force by hydrostatic shock in HV missiles with great and tissue destruction. The little SIE 65 grainer is a tough son of a gun; many .224 caliber shooters will swear by it. For me…The antique ’06 round covers just about anything and I’ve never been shy saying so.

  2. I’m still wondering when manufacturers will start putting out more rifles on the “AR” platform in other popular hunting calibers. I was semi-excited when I first read about Remington offering one chambered in 7mm-08, but found the price less than appealing when looking into it. It would seem to me a bigger market if more affordable models in more calibers were offered. You can buy a tactical version for half the price most anywhere, but throw camo on it and minor mods more fit for hunting and the price climbs out of reach for most…

  3. Out West (Utah) I hunted with a .243 Winchester Model 88 as a 16-24 year old lad. Then i moved up to 7mm Remington mag and finally a 25-06. I have to say I shot more deer with the .243 Winchester than the other 2 combined. Wish I still had the rifle.

  4. The gun I like the most is a Browning M1885 in .38-55. With a 300grain lead bullet in a hand load I get 1 MOA which is good enough for me. Beats a .30-30 at 150 yards

  5. I live in Michigan and I wouldn’t trade my .44 Ruger carbine for anything. Most shots here will be under 100 yards and the .44 is perfect for that. Very nice brush gun.

  6. I love my old 7mm Weatherby Mag, have had it for over 40 years, since 1971, A great shooting rifle, It fits me just right, that’s the secret, get a rifle that fits you and a scope to match, Don’t go cheap on the scope. Get a good one. This rifle has a Leopold Vari-X 111 3.5-10.

  7. Check out Dynamic Research Technologies. DRT. Their bullets are insane. Compressed powder core that penetrates hard obstacles, yet violently expands in soft tissue. The videos demonstrated culls on 6 Niglai (?sp) with shoulder shots using an AR 15 .223. Crazy. I’ll stick with my .270 or .308 for now. But considering a .223 and these bullets for my 107lb fiancée that wants to learn how to hunt. Sticking to deer and antelope. Can’t wait to try these bullets myself. Be safe and good hunting !

  8. The problem with bullets that are too fast is that they do create a lot of tissue damage in the deer. Butchers have complained that some customers gripe about the amount of meat they get from a deer shot with newer high powered rifles. The butchers say that it turns a lot of the meat to mush and ruins the meat. Some of the magnum loads just hits with such force, that it ruins the deer for those that would like to eat the meat. A 30.30 is good in short range situations. A lot if the magnum loads are better used in long range shots. It depends upon where you are hunting of which caliber type a person needs. A .243 is supposed to be a great caliber, but I have heard hunters complain that hitting the smallest twig in the woods would make you miss the deer. By that reasoning, it would be better to have a .243 in fairly open surroundings. It more depends on the terrain of where you are hunting to know what to choose.

  9. I’ve killed 19 deer with my “ole” 1911 Remington Model 8 in 35 Remington. I’ve also taken about the same number with an assortment of other rifles. The “best” deer rifle is the one that works the best for you.

  10. Spoon, I have to agree with you on the 65gr Sierra game king, that is one awesome bullet for deer at 223 volicities!
    Another is the Speer 70 gr simi spitzer, as a matter of fact a Sierra Tech steered me toward that bullet while they were perfecting their 65 gr gk.
    I don’t own an AR type rifle but I do have two Savage bolt action 223’s and both are tack drivers. When I’m not using one of them I am using my Marlin 1895 with 425 gr Bear Tooth Piledriver Jr’s at around 1700 fps.
    You can see my interest cover a large range of calibers and I can attest that most will kill deer cleanly but only if you place the bullet in the vitals!
    I haven’t been able to recover one of the 65 gr Game Kings as both were broad side hits and destroyed the lungs as they passed completely through.
    I will likely never recover one of those Piledrivers as their may not be a game animal in this country that will stop the bullet regardless of angle of hit!

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