Some might say there’s a certain charm and pride to be taken in using tried-and-true deer cartridges for Whitetail. But then again, there’s more to life than the old 30-30 sitting in the closet.
Similarly, there’s a lot to learn by using classic deer cartridges instead of always running the latest hotness, like 6.5 Creedmoor was at once. What’s the best rifle cartridge for hunting deer? While there’s really no such thing as a “best”—because the choices depend on the specific situation—there are many fantastic rounds out there to consider trying. Check out this “Top 10” list for ideas on cartridges to add to your collection for the next deer season.
The 35 Whelen is a cartridge that was designed in 1922. It’s sometimes called the poor man’s Magnum. In reality, it’s simply a capable cartridge that doesn’t usually get the accolades it deserves. Its parent cartridge was the 30-06 Springfield, which is a fantastic round in its own right. The 35 Whelen is effective on Whitetail deer as a mid-range round, meaning it will get the job done out to around 300 yards. The load being used certainly impacts the round’s performance. This is a relatively flat-shooting deer cartridge that’s well worth adding to your hunting repertoire.
Although the 6mm ARC is newer than most cartridges, it has already proven itself as a viable hunting round. It was created by Hornady in 2020 and made for optimal use in the AR-15 platform, but it also performs beautifully in bolt-actions. The bullets have a high ballistic coefficient and an effective range of 500 yards. The 6mm ARC’s ballistics outdo many other similarly-sized cartridges and they produce a nice, flat trajectory. According to Hornady, this cartridge outperforms many popular deer cartridges in one way or another. If you want a lighter setup that produces less felt recoil with better ballistics, this might be the deer cartridge for you.
Often shoved aside for the much newer 6.5 Creedmoor, the 308 Winchester still has a place for deer hunters. Perhaps even better, you can get almost any gun imaginable chambered in 308 Win. That means whether you like ARs, bolt-actions, lever-actions or even bolt pistols, you can find one chambered in this classic rifle cartridge. The 308 Win has an approximate effective range of 300 yards, although certain loads can stretch it farther. If you want a versatile, well-known, widely available deer cartridge, you want 308 Win. It’s loved by many hunters for a reason.
When you think of lever-actions for deer, you might think of 30-30 Winchester or 45-70 Government, both stellar options. However, the 444 Marlin is an awesome, hard-hitting cartridge that’s both fun to shoot and incredibly effective. As a heavier round, it does have a shorter effective range of 150 yards (and 200 yards possible under some circumstances). This is an especially excellent cartridge for closer-range hunts in heavy brush. If you enjoy hunting with lever-action rifles and don’t yet own one that is chambered in 444 Marlin, it’s time to remedy that situation.
The 7mm-08 Remington is vastly underrated by many hunters. It shouldn’t be ignored (but often is) despite its excellent capabilities on target. Around 300 yards to 400 yards, it can deliver a clean kill on deer. Depending on the specific load, it is possible for it to reach beyond that a bit. You’re most likely to find this cartridge in bolt-actions and lever-actions. The 7mm-08 can be quite versatile and it outdoes 308 Win in many applications. Its ballistics are even solid enough to perform well from a bolt-action pistol on a medium-sized game. This one’s great for handgun and long-gun hunters alike.
The 350 Legend is another newer cartridge, having been designed by Winchester Repeating Arms in 2019. The 350 Legend is a straight-walled cartridge that was created so that deer hunters in restricted states had a viable option in places where restrictions on rifle cartridges exist. After a few deer seasons, it has become well-established that the 350 Legend is a reliable round for deer hunting. It has an effective range of 200 yards and is a smaller deer cartridge than many. This cartridge is capable of solid terminal performance and produces a fairly flat trajectory. It absolutely has an edge over the 223 Remington. It’s also a good option whether you’re in a restrictive regulatory state or not.
300 Winchester Magnum
You might be thinking that the 300 Win Mag is a bit much for deer, and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong if you’re focusing on shorter distances. For longer shots, 300 Win Mag is perfect (and it certainly works at closer ranges).
If your hunt is likely to involve shots beyond 300 yards and out to around 750 yards, the 300 Win Mag is a smart choice. Could it reach even farther? Technically, yes. Just be aware that its trajectory does begin to drop more steeply after 500 yards. However, you should be intimately familiar with your round’s drift-and-drop rate anyway. If you intend to do some long-range deer hunting, make sure you have the skills and familiarity with your rifle and load to be ethical about it. This is a fantastically versatile round for hunters who want one gun to do it all.
270 Win is the cartridge lauded by famed gun writer Jack O’Connor as the ideal round for all types of game. It does have its applications and is, in fact, a fantastic deer cartridge under 400 yards. Its ideal performance takes place under 250 yards. It’s a great hunting round and offers solid velocity. Then, it’s a personal preference as to whether you’d like your deer rifle to also be your go-to for coyotes. The 270 Win is a versatile mid-range round with the ability to stretch its ballistic legs a bit farther and flatter than many other rifle cartridges, so it is certainly worth consideration.
Also sometimes referred to as 257 Bob, the 257 Roberts is a cartridge you really should have in your collection if you want to be a well-rounded hunter. Its effective range is around 300 yards provided that you’re using heavier bullets. It has nearly a century of proven performance. If you want a light-recoiling, bolt-action rifle, the 257 Roberts could be perfect for you. The fact that it doesn’t produce significant felt recoil or muzzle rise—yet remains effective at moderate distances—can also make it a good option for younger hunters. Why not teach your kids to love the classics? The 257 Roberts is a nice round with good ballistics and versatile hunting applications.
Many of us have a soft spot for 30-06 Springfield. It was and often still is praised as being capable of dropping any game animal in North America and it absolutely is an excellent deer hunting cartridge. And yes, it really can be used on all manner of game animals and predators as long as you take distance and shot placement into consideration. The 30-06 Springfield has an approximate effective range of 400 yards, although it is possible for it to take a deer at greater distances. This is a deer cartridge that does have some recoil, but it’s worth that for the consistent results it produces. With a bolt-action chambered in 30-06 Springfield, you can do it all. It is, quite simply, an excellent hunting round.
Whatever your deer rifle is chambered in, take the time to practice. Shot placement is key and knowing the drift and drop of your chosen gun and ammo combo is a must. Don’t be afraid to try new things, though; there’s more to life than staying with the same deer cartridge you’ve been using for years. Try something new—and use this list as starting point!