Youth Hunters: Choosing the Right Deer Caliber

By Steve Sorensen

Here’s help for finding the right cartridge
for the beginning hunter.

“Hit him in the butt with the .222 and you’ll rupture the blood vessels in his head.”

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The author and his nephew Eric with two deer taken using the 7mm-08 and the .243. (Photo by Steve Sorensen)

That’s what one adult friend told me back when I was a teenager trying to understand deer rifles, cartridges and ballistics. I had purchased a .222, and he went way beyond exaggeration to assure me I had made a great choice.

I shot a couple of deer with that old Savage Model 340, chambered in .222 Remington, but if I were to counsel a youngster about what gun to start out with, I would not recommend the .222. Nor any .22 caliber.

Actually, the .22 centerfires on the market today are better deerslayers than they have ever been. The reason is that better loads and better bullets are available. But, despite my friend’s overstatement, .22 caliber bullets won’t rupture the blood vessels farther than a few inches around the wound channel.

Shooting Conditions Considered

In any discussion of deer calibers, someone always brings up this old argument: “Any caliber will kill a deer with proper shot placement.” I agree completely, but let’s not assume every shooter is unfailingly capable of proper shot placement.

The .22 centerfires are accurate, but few 12-year olds are, no matter how agile their thumbs from playing video games on their iPhones. Accuracy takes practice, and a few shots from the bench just before hunting season don’t insure an accurate shot on a live target. Most hunters don’t shoot more than a box of shells per year, and that can’t make anyone an expert shot.

When the adrenaline starts pumping, will the inexperienced shooter (and inexperience can be at any age) be able to perform as he did from the bench? What kind of rest will he have for the shot? How far away will the deer be?

A one-hole group in a paper target doesn’t prove an inexperienced hunter knows exactly where to place the shot. Is the buck facing him? Angling toward? Angling away? Broadside? Are his vitals obstructed by a limb? Where exactly is the heart? The lungs? Is a neck shot a good idea? Where will the bullet exit the deer? (That’s a factor that’s as important as bullet entry, because it determines the path through the deer.)

The .308 Family of Cartridges

It’s best to choose a rifle larger than .22 caliber for a beginning hunter. Though we have lots of new and exciting calibers available today, for the sake of simplicity and ease of comparison I’ll discuss some calibers based on a common brass cartridge – the .243, .260, and the 7mm-08. These are all derived from the .308. And since most deer are shot within 100 yards, I’ll compare energy levels when using low-recoiling loads at 100 yards.

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The damage a bullet will do to a deer depends mostly on its size (in both weight and diameter) and the energy it delivers.
(From Rifle Ballistics Table, www.chuckhawks.com)

The deficiency of the .222 shows up by comparing it to the .243. The little 50 grain bullet that pops out of the muzzle at about 3140 fps has only 836 foot/pounds of energy at 100 yards. The .243 is more than double that (1719 f/p) with a 95 grain bullet.

In addition, the bullet from the .243 will give deeper penetration, and likely give an exit wound that aids in blood trailing if that becomes necessary. It will do more damage on its way through the deer, so even if shot placement isn’t perfect, the odds of recovering the deer are much higher.

The .260 is less common, but more deadly and is still has a light recoil. Using a 120 grain bullet, it generates 1924 f/p of energy at 100 yards. Going a little larger, the 7mm-08 with a 120 grain bullet has 1979 f/p of energy at 100 yards. Or, you can move up to a 140 grain bullet for 2180 f/p of energy – higher than the .308 with an even bigger bullet, but with less recoil.

Considering Recoil

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.243 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington, and .308 Winchester all have the same case capacity, but they shoot different size bullets. The .30-30 is another cartridge with plenty of power for deer, and it’s soft on recoil.

What about recoil? Since all four of these cartridges have the same powder capacity and simply use bullets of different diameters, the influence of the powder charge on recoil is virtually a constant. Generally, recoil increases as the bullets get heavier. And, exit wounds get larger with heavier bullets (assuming the same shot placement and the same rate of expansion in the bullets.)

Depending on the size of the shooter and his or her sensitivity to recoil, somewhere in this family of cartridges will be a suitable cartridge for a beginning hunter. Lots of cartridges with similar ballistics are worth considering.

.30-30 Winchester – Still a Valid Option

Don’t overlook the .30-30 Winchester. This old-timer is not as glamorous as all the competing whippersnapper whiz-bang cartridges on the market today, but it delivers 1356 f/p of energy at 100 yards, and has a bullet three times the weight of the little .222. It has 62% more energy, but with negligible recoil. It has passed through lots of deer and spilled lots of blood.

It’s an unchallenged axiom that the .30-30 has killed more deer than any other cartridge. It’s still a great starting place for a deer hunter – especially in a safe, dependable bolt action rifle or a lever action with a reliable safety. But the cartridges in the middle of the chart – and any of the many others that deliver comparable energy – are also great choices for the beginning hunter.

***

About Steve Sorensen

steve-sorensen-head-shotOutdoor writer and speaker Steve Sorensen writes an award-winning newspaper column called “The Everyday Hunter®,” and he is a regular contributor to the Havalon Sportsman’s Post. He has also published articles in Deer & Deer Hunting, North American Whitetail, and many other top magazines across the USA. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, and follow him at www.EverydayHunter.com.



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