A Deer Camp Debate
by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, November 28, 2009.)
“What’s the best rifle caliber for Pennsylvania whitetails?” It’s an open question at every deer camp every season, and a debate no one ever wins.
Far more rifle calibers than can be mentioned here
will be toted on opening day,
and most are well suited to deer hunting.
Plenty of calibers are contenders. Without a doubt, the .30-30 has killed more whitetails than any other round. The reasons are many. It started life in the days of black powder, so it has had a long, long career.
It was chambered in rifles that had a huge following -- the Winchester 94 and the Marlin 336 -- short, fast handling lever actions, as well as a variety of inexpensive bolt action rifles. It has made so many comebacks, we could call it the George Foreman of deer calibers. I once looked down on the cartridge, thinking it was slow, inaccurate and ugly. I ended up taking it hunting last year, and it did very well.
Supporters of the .30-06 always make a strong argument for its superiority. A deer killer for more than a hundred years, it benefited from its birth as a military cartridge. Lots of veterans were familiar with it and they passed it down to their children and grandchildren. I’ve taken many deer with a couple of different .30-06 rifles, so I can attest to its effectiveness. It will kill any deer cleanly.
The .30-06 has a distinguished family. Its offspring include the .270, the .280, and the .25-06. All are designed from the .30-06 case, and each has its following. The .270 is certainly the most widely accepted offspring of the .30-06, and was touted by the late Jack O’Connor, shooting editor of Outdoor Life magazine. He left his earthly goods behind more than 30 years ago, but his devotion to the .270 created a lasting following for the cartridge.
Were it not for O’Connor, the .280 might be considered the better cartridge. It will do everything a .270 will do, and more, because it’s available in a greater variety of bullet weights. Speed loving riflemen will argue that the .25-06 will do with velocity all that any bigger bullet will do with weight. Although it’s not widely used, it’s another well-respected member of the .30-06 family.
A distant cousin to the old “ought-six” is the .308 Winchester. The .308 is another military veteran, shorter than the .30-06 but with the same girth. It’s only a slightly weaker performer than the ’06, but still more than enough for whitetails and most other game animals in the United States.
Like the .30-06, the .308 has spawned its own children. At the lighter end of the scale, the .243 Winchester reigns supreme. Low recoil makes it popular among young people getting started in deer hunting, but it will serve a hunter well at any age. With 90 or 100 grain bullets, it delivers plenty of energy to a deer’s vitals. Proof enough for me is the fact that all the deer I’ve shot with a .243 didn’t go far.
Far more rifle calibers than can be mentioned here will be toted on opening day, and most are well suited to deer hunting.
I have my opinion, but rather than talk in terms of the “best,” I’d rather simply state my favorite. It’s another child of the .308 conceived in the late 1950s and born commercially in 1980 -- the .308 cartridge necked down to .284, or 7mm.
It’s called the 7mm-08, and it’s a great compromise between the modest .243 and the popular .308. With bigger bullets, it hits harder than the .243, and almost as hard as the .308. In fact, at ranges beyond 200 yards, the .7mm-08 outperforms the .308 with higher velocity and more punch.
Recoil is mild, especially with lighter bullets, so it’s a good choice for recoil sensitive hunters. It’s a flat shooter, easy to handload, is suitable for any medium sized game, and is at home in dense woods or in the plains.
I could go on to mention more calibers. I’ve said nothing about the .257 Roberts, the .250-3000, the 6.5 x 55, the .300 Savage, anything bigger than .30 caliber, or any of the magnums. But at least I’ve said enough to fuel some arguments at this year’s deer camp. Have at it, but keep ’em friendly.