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Saturday, October 27, 2012

Youth Hunters: Choosing the Right Deer Caliber

by Steve Sorensen
(Originally published in the Warren Times Observer, October 27, 2012.)

Hunters remember their first deer like it was yesterday. Mine was a 5-point that dropped in his tracks with a neck shot from my .222. (He also dropped his antlers at the same time, but that’s another story.) The .222 Remington is seldom seen today, but it’s still a great little caliber.

Too little, I think now, for deer. I shot a couple of bucks with that old Savage Model 340, but if I were to counsel a youngster about what gun to start out with, I would not recommend the .222. Many better choices are available.

We have lots exciting calibers available today 
that are great for beginning hunters.

In any discussion of deer calibers, someone always brings up this old argument: “Any caliber will kill a deer with proper shot placement.” I agree completely, but let’s not assume every shooter is unfailingly capable of putting the bullet where it needs to go. I know I’m not, even with decades of experience. Human error – we’re all subject to it.

The .22 centerfires are accurate, but few 12-year olds are, no matter how agile their thumbs from playing video games on their iPhones. Accuracy takes practice, and a few shots from the bench just before hunting season don’t insure an accurate shot on a live target. Most hunters don’t shoot more than a box of shells per year, and that can’t make anyone an expert shot.

When the adrenaline starts pumping, will the inexperienced shooter (and inexperience can come at any age) be able to perform as he did from the bench? What kind of rest will he have for the shot? How far away will the deer be?

A one-hole group in a paper target doesn’t prove an inexperienced hunter knows exactly where to place the shot. Is the buck facing him? Angling toward? Angling away? Broadside? Are his vitals obstructed by a limb? Where exactly is the heart? The lungs? Is a neck shot a good idea?  Where will the bullet exit the deer?  (That’s as important as bullet entry, because it determines what organs the bullet hits on its path through the deer.)

We have lots exciting calibers available today that are great for beginning hunters. For the sake of simplicity and ease of comparison I mention three all derived from the common .308 cartridge – the .243, the .260, and the 7mm-08. And since most deer are shot within 100 yards, I’ll compare energy levels of low-recoiling loads at 100 yards.

The deficiency of the .222 shows up by comparing it to the .243. The little 50 grain bullet that pops out of the muzzle of a .222 at about 3140 feet per second has only 836 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards. A 95 grain bullet from the .243 more than doubles that (1719 foot-pounds).

In addition, the bullet from the .243 will give deeper penetration, and likely give an exit wound that aids in blood trailing if that becomes necessary. It will do more damage on its way through the deer, so even if shot placement isn’t perfect, the odds of recovering the deer are much higher. 

The .260 is less common, but a great choice. Its 120 grain bullet generates 1924 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards. Going a little larger, the 7mm-08 with a 120 grain bullet has 1979 foot-pounds.

What about recoil? Generally, recoil increases as the powder charge and bullets get heavier. Since all three of these cartridges have the same powder capacity, the influence of the powder charge on recoil is virtually the same. They use bullets of different diameters and weights, and bigger bullets usually make larger exit wounds.

Depending on the size of the shooter and his or her sensitivity to recoil, somewhere in this family of cartridges the beginning hunter will find one that’s suitable, but plenty of others with similar ballistics are worth considering.

Though the .222 is seldom seen these days, an even older cartridge is still hanging around and is an excellent choice for youth. It’s the .30-30 Winchester. Don’t laugh. This old-timer is not as glamorous as all the competing whippersnapper whiz-bang cartridges on the market today, but it delivers 1356 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards with a 150 grain bullet. That’s less energy than the .243, but the bigger bullet more than compensates. It has passed through lots of deer and spilled lots of blood.

It's an unchallenged axiom that the .30-30 has killed more deer than any other cartridge. It's still a great starting place for a deer hunter – especially in a safe, dependable bolt action rifle or a lever action with a reliable safety. But the cartridges I've mentioned – and any of the many others that deliver comparable energy – are also great choices for the beginning hunter.


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