Top 5 Deer Rifle Calibers — Fill Your Freezer By: Kat Ainsworth


Whatever time of year it is, you might be wondering what the ideal calibers are for deer hunting. Maybe you want a reason to buy a totally new set up or perhaps you’re trying to justify what you have on hand; whatever the reason, we’re here to help. In reality, there are a lot of capable calibers and gauges for deer, whether they’re whitetails, blacktails, or mulies. Consider this a handy guide to set you on the right path to caliber selection for your next hunt.

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1. 6.5 Creedmoor

Love it or hate it, it’s impossible to deny the 6.5 Creedmoor’s abilities. It might be a cartridge strongly associated with precision rifle shooters and anyone else interested in long-range, but it’s a solid hunting round as well. In many circles, it’s replacing 308 Winchester. You’ll find the 6.5 Creedmoor more than capable of taking deer at a variety of distances.

Federal Premium 6.5 Creedmoor 135 grain Berger Hybrid Hunter
6.5 Creedmoor is a versatile round that’s at home shooting long-range or hunting deer. Federal Premium 6.5 Creedmoor 135 grain Berger Hybrid Hunter is a great option for hunting whitetails. (Photo credit: Federal Premium)

Regarding effective range on deer, opinions vary somewhat. Many of the well-made hunting rounds produce enough energy and maintain a flat enough trajectory to drop a deer at up to 500 yards, give or take. That doesn’t mean you need to get into long-range hunting, only that this cartridge does have some good longer-range capabilities.

Take the time to familiarize yourself with your specific load so you know what it, and you, can and can’t do. That said, if you’re hunting mulies out where the terrain stretches out and you’re likely to need to take a 200-yard (or however far) shot, 6.5 Creedmoor is worth considering to get the job done.

2. 223 Remington

Yes, it’s legal to hunt deer with 223 Remington in most states. At the time of this writing, 36 of the 50 states allow it, and more change their minds and allow it every year. Using 223 Remington on deer is common but it’s one of those things best done with very specific ammo. After all, it’s a relatively small cartridge that loses energy fast; by around 175 yards, it’s not effective (well, most aren’t). There are some loads that are trustworthy for taking deer, though, like Winchester Power Point.

223 Remington, a legit choice for hunting? It can be. Winchester 223 Remington 64 grain Power Point is a good choice if you intend to hunt deer with this caliber. (Photo credit: Winchester)

The reality is that the AR-15 platform is everywhere, and if it’s the only option you have available for deer season, you should use it (assuming it’s legal in your state). It’s also great for kids to use because it’s a soft-recoiling platform that’s relatively simple to operate. Do your due diligence making sure the ammo you’re using is good enough to make an ethical kill, spend time practicing, and work within the yardage limits of the caliber. For closer shots on mid-size deer, 223 Remington is just fine as long as it’s the right load.

3. 45-70 Gov’t

After regular use spanning three centuries, it’s safe to say the 45-70 Government is a capable cartridge. Yes, it’s a lever-action round, but that shouldn’t stop you from using it. Not only are levers fun, but they’re also effective, and many hunters will point out they’re visually less intimidating if you run into a random person in the woods. The 45-70 Gov’t, specifically, is a seriously hard-hitting cartridge. Not only will it drop deer, but it’ll also take down bear, elk, or whatever else you want to hunt.

Barnes Vor-TX 45-70 Govt ammunition
45-70 Gov’t has seen use spanning not one but three centuries and remains a stellar hunting round. Barnes produces fantastic ammunition, and their TSX loads are a nice choice for deer. (Photo credit: Texas Shooting Supply)

One of the great things about 45-70 Gov’t is that it maintains its velocity and energy better than some other lever-action cartridges. Its best effective range on deer is going to be within 150 to 200 yards, depending on the specific load. After that, it can still be effective, but the drop rate speeds up, making precision more difficult. Really, just about any hunting load made for 45-70 Gov’t will work. It’s a heavy, hot round that’s a reliable deer hunting option.

4. 308 Winchester

308 Win is a common round that’s been around for a long time and when it comes right down to it, 308 Win is almost a must-have for hunters. You can get lever-actions, bolt-actions, and AR platform rifles chambered in it. It works well, and it is typically easy to find. It’s trusted by a lot of hunters, and that trust has been earned over generations of successful use. It’s easy to shrug and dismiss the 308 Win as an antiquated or boring cartridge, but this is a cartridge that performs reliably and has filled many freezers with venison and other game.

Hornady American Whitetail 308 Win 150 grain Interlock is an awesome deer round.
308 Winchester is a classic for a reason. Hornady American Whitetail 308 Win 150 grain Interlock is an awesome deer round. (Photo credit: Hornady)

308 Win is a no-nonsense cartridge you can count on to work, every time. You bring the shot placement and let the bullet do the rest. Its effective range on deer is around 300 yards although that distance will vary based on the specific load, as always. There are a lot of loads on the market for this cartridge, and they’re not all created equally. Take the time to be sure you’re using the best possible hunting ammo for your 308 Win. Then hit the woods with your solid, reliable caliber.

5. 243 Winchester

Although it doesn’t seem to get as much attention as 308 Win, 243 Win is another long-time favorite cartridge. This is a cartridge that usually produces somewhat less felt recoil than the 308 Win, and it’s fast. It’s loved by a lot of coyote hunters, but it’s also good on deer. There’s a reason classics are, well, classics. Sure, you could go with the new hotness, but why not put your faith in a cartridge that’s been dropping deer for decades?

Norma Whitetail 243 Win 100 grain Soft Point is a nice round for dropping deer.
The 243 Winchester is a capable deer cartridge that’s preferred by many seasoned hunters. Norma Whitetail 243 Win 100 grain Soft Point is a nice round for dropping deer. (Photo credit: Norma)

The effective range on deer for the 243 Win is around 200 yards. Considering the average deer hunter shoots whitetails at 100 yards, this is a more than capable cartridge. It does produce enough velocity to reach out and touch things far beyond 200 yards, but if you intend to shoot a deer with it beyond that, do your homework first. 243 Win is a readily available, lighter-recoiling choice that can deliver fantastic velocity.

The Bottom Line

Choosing a caliber for deer season tends to be a personal thing. Maybe you want a sure thing like the 45-70 Gov’t, or perhaps you’re comfortable with a lighter choice, like 243 Win. Or maybe you’re after something else entirely such as 350 Legend, 444 Marlin, or 30-06 Springfield. Whatever you choose, make sure it’s good enough to take down your deer with a single, well-placed shot, and if you find ammo you like, stock up. You can never have too many guns or too much ammo. Now hit the woods and find your target buck!