5 Common Cartridges I’ll Never Hunt Deer With

by Braxton Taylor

One of the great things about whitetail hunting is that it isn’t hard to find a suitable cartridge. Whitetail are America’s most popular big game animal, and ammo makers have developed dozens of options for that specific pursuit. Plus, as a Class 2 critter (according to Chuck Hawk’s categorization system), they’re relatively easy to bring down with a firearm.

But that doesn’t mean you should pick up the first box of ammo you find at the store and hit the woods. Some cartridges are more suitable than others, and some are downright bad ideas, especially given the wide variety of great deer cartridges on the market.

That’s something to keep in mind for those of you itching to comment that your daddy’s brother’s so-and-so took whitetail all his life with such-and-such cartridge. This isn’t a list of cartridges incapable of taking a deer. You could kill a deer with a slingshot if you wanted to (though it might not be legal). This is a list of common cartridges I’ll never hunt deer with because there are so many better choices.

The .22 LR is cheap and easy to find, but it’s underpowered for deer.

A .223 Remington, which is considered by many to be the smallest deer-appropriate rifle cartridge, produces 1280 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle with a 60-grain bullet going 3,100 feet-per-second (fps). A .22 LR, on the other hand, produces 128 ft.-lbs. of energy with a 40-grain bullet traveling 1200 fps.

Energy isn’t everything when it comes to bringing home venison, but it sure doesn’t hurt. A .22 LR has ten times less energy than a .223 Rem., which should give any hunter pause.

The limited velocity of the double-deuce and its stubby, non-aerodynamic bullets also force hunters to correct for windage and elevation at relatively close distances. With a 50-yard zero, the .22 LR mentioned above drops 21 inches at 150 yards–well outside the vital area of a deer. A 10 MPH cross breeze will push the bullet an additional 11 inches, turning a chip shot for most cartridges into a ghoulish ballistics nightmare.

Can you kill a deer with a .22? Sure, just ask your friendly neighborhood poacher. But is it a great idea when you can get .223 Rem. or .243 Win. just as easily? Nope.

I’m man enough to admit that I don’t like recoil. I can shoot the big boys without flinching (usually), but if I can choose between a rifle that doesn’t pound my shoulder and a rifle that does, I’m going with the former. And since the .300 Win. Mag. produces 36% more recoil than the .308 Win., 47% more recoil than the 6.5 Creedmoor, and 88% more recoil than the .30-30 Win., there are a lot of cartridges to get through before I’ll force myself to shoot the magnum.

Many hunters love the .300 Win. Mag. because it’s a do-it-all cartridge. It can step up to moose without breaking a sweat and hit long-range shots in sheep country. Maybe if you’re planning on taking a long poke at a big buck on the plains of Nebraska, you might consider the Win. Mag.

But I’d wager that for most whitetail hunters, the Win. Mag. is overkill. I don’t mean it’ll damage more meat than other cartridges (as long as I make a clean vital hit). I just mean the rifle and cartridge are more than most people need. With so many milder, lighter options on the market, I don’t see myself ever hunting a deer with a .300 Win. Mag.

Hunting whitetail with handgun cartridges combines the fun of gun hunting with the up-close-and-personal strategy of archery hunting. But not all handgun cartridges are created equal. The 9mm Luger occupies space in millions of gun safes and thousands of law enforcement duty belts. But is it a good deer cartridge? Not by most metrics.

While the 9mm produces three times the muzzle energy of the .22 LR (374 ft.-lbs.), it still can’t hold a candle to some of the most popular handgun hunting cartridges. The .357 Magnum, for example, produces nearly 583 ft.-lbs. of energy at the muzzle while the .44 Rem. Mag hits with 900 ft.-lbs.

It also runs into the same trajectory problems as the .22. Even with a 50 yard zero, a 124-grain 9mm will have dropped over seven inches at 100 yards, which will require a slight elevation adjustment on the hunter’s part. A .44 Rem. Mag. will have dropped less than six.

Again, none of this is to say that a 9mm can’t kill a deer. An AR-type carbine chambered in 9mm could be an effective deer gun at archery ranges, especially with a souped-up +P bullet. If you want to challenge yourself during rifle season, go for it. But I need all the help I can get, so I’ll stick with something that gives me a better chance of success.

The .280 Rem. isn’t on this list because it’s a bad deer cartridge. On the contrary. It can push a 140-grain bullet nearly 3,000 fps while still producing manageable recoil. It probably deserves inclusion in a list of the most underrated deer cartridges, and I’m sure it has dozens of fans who have taken hundreds of deer with it.

The reason I’ll never hunt deer with the .280 Rem. is simply because I’ll never own a rifle chambered in .280 Rem. And if I did, I’d have trouble finding ammo to feed it.

The .280 Rem. has been around for a whopping 66 years, but it’s never really managed to catch on. The result is that you may or may not find it in your local sporting goods store. You can find some options online, but they might not be what you need for your next hunt.

Midway USA, for example, has 17 options on tap but as of this writing, only two are in stock. Federal, Winchester, Remington, and Nosler all make the .280 Rem., but each only offers two or three varieties and you’ll pay at least $45 per box.

Rifle availability is much the same. Sportsman’s Warehouse offers a grand total of two rifles chambered in .280 Remington (both out of stock) but a whopping 146 chambered in .270 Winchester. Scheels doesn’t offer a single rifle chambered in the .280.

The .280 Rem. has hung around long enough to be considered common, but ammo availability–or lack thereof–makes this cartridge a no-go for me.

I can imagine someone living in a shotgun-only zone considering a buckshot cartridge for whitetail. It is called buckshot, after all, which seems to describe what we’re going for when we hunt deer. But contrary to what the name suggests, buckshot is one of the worst ways to bring down a whitetail.

A 12GA buckshot shell contains between eight and 24 pellets, depending on the length of the shell and the size of pellets. It seems like most hunters prefer #00 buckshot, which contains nine pellets. When those pellets leave the shotgun, they immediately start to spread out. Even at 10 yards away from the muzzle, the spread has grown to 8 to 10 inches. At 20 yards that pattern has doubled in size and beyond that, it’s well outside a whitetail’s vital zone.

Blasting away at a deer from 30 or 40 yards will probably kill it–one of those pellets is bound to hit something important. But it’s unlikely to be a clean kill, and you’ll probably tear up some otherwise delicious meat. And, as with every other cartridge on this list, there are better options available. Slugs are more accurate and precise even at close ranges, and can reach out to 80 yards or more in shotgun-only zones. If you’re going to hunt deer with a shotgun, why not use the most effective tool available to you?

Hunters have killed deer–many deer, in fact–with every cartridge on this list. But if you’re a new or aspiring whitetail hunter looking to join the Orange Army in 2023, pick something else. Anything between a .243 Win. and a .308 Win. offers more than enough power to take home venison without dislocating a shoulder or introducing unacceptable inaccuracy/unreliability. I’ll never use any of these cartridges to hunt deer, and I’m not sure why anyone else would, either.

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