Choosing a Deer Cartridge
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, Warren, PA, Jan. 20, 2007.)
"Hit him in the butt with the .222 and you'll rupture the blood vessels in his head."
Whatever your choice, never allow power to
substitute for shot placement. Choose a
cartridge and rifle combination that's comfortable
to shoot, and shoot as much as you can.
Those were the words of a hunter I respected, back when I was a teenager trying to understand deer rifles, cartridges and ballistics. I had just chosen the .222 and I suppose he was trying to assure me I had made a great choice. But that comment was way beyond exaggeration. Nevertheless, the venerable "three deuces" is a very good round.
Early in my hunting career I shot a couple of deer with the .222, chambered in a Savage Model 340. Today my .222 is an old Remington Model 788. The barrel looks like it was hacksawed to 18 inches. My speckled black paint job is badly in need of a facelift. Despite being an ugly gun, it's a terrific shooter. To make me willing to trade it you'd probably have to point your own trade bait at me.
I'm stuck on the .222, but not because of its power. The newer .223 is more powerful, as are many late model .22 caliber centerfires. Despite my friend's opinion, it won't rupture the blood vessels farther than a couple of inches from the bullet's point of impact. But it's one of the most deadly accurate little rounds ever made -- great for critters from groundhogs to coyotes. It can also be effective for the non-purist who approves rifles on fall butterballs.
The .222 can do the job on deer, but it's the cartridge that proves the rule that shot placement is everything. A copper-jacketed lead pill that weighs only 50 grains will never perform like a pill weighing 150 grains.
The point? In choosing a deer cartridge, bullet energy is nearly everything. That means the .222 will never deliver the punch that a.243 will. The .243 will not be as effective as the .257. The .257 is beaten by the.270, and so on, until you get to the centenarian .30-06.
Each of these calibers raises the stakes on the deer you shoot it with, delivering more energy and thus greater killing power. There are only two ways of delivering more energy. Use a heavier bullet, or send it to the target at greater velocity.
But that doesn't make it easy to settle the argument over what the best deer caliber is. Personal taste has a lot to do with it. But, simply put, within a certain range any caliber will do a good job. I think the .243 with a 100-grain bullet is pushing the bottom edge of the envelope. A better bottom limit, I think, is a .25 caliber 115-grain bullet. On the upper end, I reckon anything more powerful than the .30-06 with a 180-grain bullet is overkill.
Anything under 1500 foot-pounds of energy with a 100-grain bullet is marginally effective when shot placement is poor, and anything over 2500 foot-pounds with a 180-grain bullet is overkill on whitetail deer.
Beyond the .30-06 you don't need speed. That's why the exceptions to my rule are on the heavy end of the cartridge spectrum. And there are several. Heavy bullets that lumber along at speeds that are almost visible can be deadly. These slowpokes include the .35 Remington (around 1300 foot-pounds at 100 yards) and the .44 Magnum (1000 foot-pounds). Think long and hard before toting such old-timers as the .32-20 or the .25-20 into the deer woods. Both produce less than 300 foot pounds of energy and are among the least powerful centerfire cartridges.
I don't intend to demean these relics. I myself carried a .25-20 briefly as a kid, but that was before everyday hunters thought much about ballistics. Most merely relied on the advice of those who had gone before, and some of those hyphenated holdovers from black powder cartridge days were still in use. Today, most of them are retired to the back of the gun cabinet.
Whatever your choice, never allow power to substitute for shot placement. Choose a cartridge and rifle combination that's comfortable to shoot, and shoot as much as you can. Every practice shot will make you more confident, add to your skill level, and increase your odds when the crosshairs are on your next buck.