What's The Best Caliber for Your Deer Hunting Experience?
Column By Jim Draper
As I sit here on my back deck this morning listening to the birds sing and the rest of the woods wake up, I got to thinking about how we as hunters are generally a very opinionated group. We love to debate things like gun hunting vs. bowhunting, ground blinds vs tree stands and one that I see more and more is… “The Best Caliber Rifle for Deer Hunting.” I’m sure we either have a very opinionated friend or have been around a group of fellow hunters that have gotten into a debate about this very topic. Most of the time it is just a friendly debate but here lately I have seen some pretty heated arguments on social media on the topic. Unfortunately, a lot of the times when someone asks this question on a social media group they are new comers to the sport and don’t get a straight answer. Instead they get mostly personal opinions and a thread full of bickering back and forth. This arguing back and forth usually leads to a very discouraged new shooter and they are left with more questions than answers. I will agree that a lot of the debate on the best caliber is opinion and based on personal experiences, but these are most of the time over powered by folks that just think because it’s what they are using it makes it “the best.” Now don’t get me wrong every person is entitled to their opinion but I personally feel that there are many factors in choosing the right caliber rifle for you. I get asked all the time on my opinion on this topic and just like everyone else I have my favorite caliber deer rifle. With that said, when a newcomer asks me what caliber he or she should get I always ask them some questions to help determine what I think would be their best option. There are no right or wrong answers to the questions and definitely no judgement; I just want to help the person make the best educated opinion for their particular situation.
The first question I always ask is, “What kind of budget do you have?” The reason I ask this question is because not only can different caliber rifles vary greatly in cost, but the ammunition in different calibers can vary greatly also. Most hunters are blue collar workers and hunting is a hobby so cost can sometimes be a huge factor. I have found that if the average person has to spend $50 + on a box of bullets they tend to really limit their practice time at the range. In my opinion a gun is a tool and the best way to get good at using a tool is to get comfortable with it and practice with it. I don’t care if you buy the top of the line rifle and ammunition; if you are not proficient with it because you are hesitant to practice due to the cost of ammo, it really becomes useless. As sportsmen we owe it to the game to be as proficient as we possibly can. I ask this question without judgement because most of us have been in a situation where our wants do not fit our budgets and the goal should be to help people get into the sport and keep it alive.
The second question I ask is, “Do you have a preference in rifle action?” (bolt action, lever, semi auto or even single shot) Again I have a reason for asking this. In my experiences, I have found that depending on the situation this choice can play a major part in a caliber choice. Although the gap in caliber choices between actions is definitely getting smaller, there still are some calibers that are not available in all actions. Also, different style actions can vary in price even with the same calibers. I have also found that accuracy and energy of different calibers can differ between actions. This is more noticeable at longer ranges so depending on terrain and area of country you’re hunting in (which I’ll cover later), can make a difference in your decision. This question is in most cases more about personal preference and budget than anything else, but one that I like to use to help with someone’s choice.
The next question usually is, “Are you choosing a caliber for deer hunting only?” In most cases the majority of calibers can be effective for most of North American Big Game, but in my opinion some calibers are just not effective enough if you plan on chasing some of the larger big game animals or even wild hogs (hogs are a tough critter). I know some people will disagree with me and that’s okay, but some of the smaller calibers lack the knock down power that I prefer. Although I have taken deer with some of the smaller calibers such as .223 (which is legal in GA) and .243, in my opinion they lack the knock down power. I know a lot of guys that are using the AR style chambered in 5.56 and have had success taking deer, but again I’m not a huge fan of it for deer hunting. I feel that the smaller calibers rely on a perfectly placed shot and leave little room for error. I am by no means perfect and like to remove all the variables I can so my shot can be an effective clean kill.
This leads me into my next question, “What area of the country will you spend most of your time hunting?” Some people think this is a strange question and doesn’t make a difference, but just think about it for a minute. Whitetail Deer in different parts of the country can vary greatly in size, body fat and muscle mass. Because of this, bullet weight and energy will play a bigger role in knock down power. Think of it like this, it’s easier to push something over that’s 100 pounds than something that weighs 200 pounds or more. I have hunted both here in the south and also up north, and I have seen shots that have done massive amounts of damage or passed
through on deer here in GA and have seen similar shots on deer up north do little damage and sometimes not even be lethal. The deer in the north in general have more body mass, thicker hides and a thicker fat layer than warmer climate deer. All of this can play a major role in effective penetration. Believe it or not, I have harvested deer up north and while skinning it out have found an old bullet stuck in the fat layer between the skin and meat. Now I don’t know all of the circumstances of how it got there and why it didn’t penetrate better, but I have tracked deer up there that were hit in the front shoulder, didn’t penetrate enough to kill the deer, and required a second shot to dispatch it. I take pride in being an ethical hunter and want to make sure my shot kills the deer as clean and quick as possible.
And my final question would be, “What kind of terrain are you going to most likely be hunting?” For example, most of the hunting I do is in large tracts of hardwoods so my shot distance is usually less than 100 yards. For many people they hunt large food plots or cutovers where their shots can easily be a couple of hundred yards. If you are hunting in an area that a 200 yard shot or better presents itself (and you are capable and comfortable taking it) then a flatter shooting caliber would probably be the best choice for you. The good thing about present day as opposed to years ago is that the cartridge manufacturers have made huge improvements in bullet coefficients and accuracy, so choosing a caliber and round that best fits your hunting application is much easier. I am a big fan of the .30-06 as my all-around hunting caliber, and with the different types of rounds and bullet weights it can be suited for just about any hunting situation and is a very effective round for clean and efficient kills. Not to mention the ammo is pretty easy to find and normally doesn’t carry a ridiculous price tag.
So, I guess there is no one caliber that could be awarded the absolute “best caliber for deer hunting” or that could win every argument. Everyone has an opinion on what they believe is the best caliber and that’s what makes this such a long-debated topic. No one opinion is better than the other. The thing that matters the most is that you are using the best caliber for you. The bottom line is that if someone is trying to buy a deer rifle and has questions on which caliber to choose, we as fellow sportsmen and women should do our parts to help others form an educated opinion of their own. I have spoken with a lot of new comers to the sport that have said they get frustrated and overwhelmed with some of the arguments that take place over hunting, especially on social media. I really enjoy getting new people into this wonderful sport and the last thing I want when they ask me a question is to have them walk away discouraged and having a change of heart.