Muscle Vs. Finesse

What's your go-to cartridge for hunting mule deer?

They say that in hunting camp you can talk about anything and everything without starting a brawl except religion, politics … and the best cartridge choices for a given game animal. So, before we begin talking about the very best cartridges for mule deer, we need to establish some ground rules.

First, I know there are 101 cartridges that will kill a deer. In an effort to simplify what can be a rather complex issue, here are the four things your deer hunting cartridge must deliver, in order of importance.

1) Adequate Power:
Huh? At first blush this might seem to be a moot point, but in reality if, when the bullet reaches the animal, it doesn’t have enough power to cleanly kill it, you might want to reconsider your choice. For many years the accepted minimum kinetic energy deemed acceptable for hunting deer-sized game has been 1,000 fpe at the target. Fortunately for North America’s deer hunters, the list of commercially available cartridges that meet this criteria at reasonable ranges is long.

Another factor is bullet construction. Today, you can choose from a wide array of “premium” bullets, featuring poly-carbonate tips, bonded-core construction, or homogeneous construction such as solid-copper bullets. And many old-timers, such as Remington’s Core-Lokt, have been improved tremendously; this one is now called the Core-Lokt Ultra. When it comes to deer bullets, hunters have never had it so good.

2) Accuracy:
All that power does you no good if you cannot place the bullet precisely where you want it. Admittedly, the accuracy equation is influenced as much, if not more, by the rifle as it is by the cartridge, and the quality of the rifle scope can play a big part, too.

3) Felt Recoil:
Recoil can influence how well one shoots a particular cartridge. Let’s face it: If a cartridge kicks like a mule, then the odds are good there will be a bit of flinching involved— which is never a good thing. And with deer cartridges, there really is no need to shoot a cannon that hits equally as hard fore and aft.

4) Availability And Cost:
Most deer hunters hit the woods only a few days each year, and spend very little time at the range. Thus, they’re best served by a cartridge they can find every time they head down to the local Wal-Mart that’s loaded with the bullet they prefer at reasonable cost. This is also true for those of us who travel a lot to hunt and have experienced the joys of airlines losing the duffel that contains our ammunition.

There’s a long list of cartridges that meet all the above criteria. For the sake of discussion, the seven top-selling deer hunting cartridges in North America (listed smallest to largest) are: .243 Win., .270 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., .30-30 Win., .308 Win., .30-06 and .300 Win. Mag. Personally, I’ve used a wide array of cartridges on deer. The smallest is the .223 Rem. in Texas. When hunting on Kodiak Island in Alaska for Sitka blacktails, I often carried a .375 H&H Mag., as much for brown bear protection as a deer rifle. Admittedly, both of those cartridges are on the fringes of what most hunters would consider the best choice for deer hunting.

Here are my choices for the three best mule deer cartridges available today.

1) .30-06:
I don’t know of any other cartridge that’s more efficient—including the new generation of super whizbang fire breathers—as the .30-06. When you factor in the range of game it will take, relatively low recoil and limitless variety of high-quality, low-priced factory ammunition, I can’t think of anything that matches the .30-06, much less surpasses it. The most useful bullet weights for muleys are the numerous 150- or 165-grain offerings, depending on which your rifle shoots best.

2) .270 Win.:
Jack O’Connor had it right: The .270 Win. is an outstanding mule deer cartridge, giving you a bit higher velocity and lighter recoil than the .30-06. You can choose from bullets weighing 130, 140 and 150 grains, and all work great, though I like the lighter stuff for deer hunting.

3) .300 Win. Mag.:
I’ve taken everything from ground hogs to grizzly bears with this cartridge, at ranges from in-your-face to way-out-there. There’s a reason it’s the choice of many snipers for long-range shooting. Those same reasons—accuracy and lots of “pop” when the bullet gets there—are why it’s an excellent choice for those who can handle the recoil, which isn’t all that bad. While you can use bullets weighing 150-200 grains, my rifle likes 180-grainers best. I find it’s the rifle I turn to when I’m going deer hunting in country where long shots are probable and wind might be a factor.

OK, now it’s your turn. What’s your favorite mule deer hunting cartridge?

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