10 Best Hunting Cartridges for Whitetail Deer

Our shooting expert picks his current top 10 favorite cartridges for hunting whitetails under any conditions.

10 Best Hunting Cartridges for Whitetail Deer
Photograph Courtesy of Mossy Oak

Choosing a list of top 10 favorite deer hunting cartridges is no easy task, particularly since there are so many suitable cartridges that could make the list. But the list that follows isn’t just a knee-jerk reaction. It’s predicated on a lifetime spent hunting whitetails with a wide variety of cartridges. And it’s also the result of being a little older and having time to reflect on why the 10 cartridges I’ve chosen make my list. Let me put this perspective.

Yesterday was my birthday and while it’s a bit early to think about my eulogy, it has given me reason to reflect a bit on life. 

I am lucky; I have done something I love for much of my adult life. I paid a lot of dues to get here, but I have made my living for several decades by writing about guns and hunting. That has opened a lot of doors to opportunity and none more than for hunting America’s favorite big-game animal, the whitetail deer. 

I honestly don’t know how many deer I have shot, but it’s a bunch. I get to hunt a lot and some years I have taken as many 10 or 15 deer. When you multiply that by 30+ years, well, there is a reason my kids didn’t know what beef tasted like when they were growing up. (I also donated a lot of meat. Nothing was ever wasted.)

I don’t even attempt to deny that I am a hard core gun guy and I tried to use as many different guns and cartridges as possible while hunting. I tried all the popular cartridges as well as some well out of the mainstream. I mean, how many guys do you know who have shot deer with a .25 Remington? How many of you have even heard of that cartridge for that matter? No matter, that cartridge won’t make this list, but here are my top 10 current favorite deer hunting rifle cartridges that do. 

1. .30-06 Springfield

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor
The .30-06 is arguably one of the most versatile deer cartridges out there owing to the wide range of bullet choices available in factory loadings.

It’s bland, common and a little boring. For years writers would say that the .30-30 Winchester has taken more deer than any other cartridge. You don’t see that claim much anymore, though. That’s because the .30-06 Springfield has no doubt surpassed the .30-30 Winchester as having taken the most deer. 

This is a cartridge that is well suited to any deer hunting anyplace deer are hunted. The .30-06 is available from Federal and many other manufacturers in a wide range of factory ammo loads that offer a huge selection of bullets. This is one of the most versatile cartridges ever created. 

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor
Taking a trophy whitetail is every hunter’s dream, but we owe it to the game we hunt to use cartridges that deliver sufficient in power downrange to take deer cleanly.

2. .35 Whelen

I have a great affinity for .35-caliber cartridges, so it stands to reason that I would have a .35-caliber rifle cartridge high on my list. Why the Whelen? 

In terms of hunting deer, it may well be the best of the bunch. Recoil is mild, the .35 Whelen’s trajectory allows shooting at ethical hunting distances and it simply gobsmacks deer. (I borrowed that phrase from a PH in Zimbabwe.)

3. .243 Winchester

I was at a gathering of relatives and old friends recently and the talk turned to hunting in the old days. “I remember when you were a big fan of the .243,” my Uncle Butch said to me.

He is right; there was a time when I thought it was a dragon slayer. My response was, “I have gained a lot more experience and knowledge since then.”

The .243 Winchester is not a dragon slayer, but used correctly, it is a viable deer cartridge.  With high-quality big-game bullets it’s adequate for deer while producing very mild recoil, so new hunters shoot it well.

My first centerfire rifle was a .243 Winchester. I handled a lot of hay bales my 13th summer to buy it, so that cartridge will always hold a place in my hunter’s heart. 

4. .280 Remington

Sorry Mr. O’Conner, I just never took to the .270 Winchester. I tried, but my experiences led me down a different path. 

However, I very much like the .280 Remington. My wife gave me my first .280 shortly after we were married, a long time ago. I have lost track of the game it’s helped me tag in the decades since. 

The .280 Remington can handle bullets up to 175 grains making it very versatile.  It shoots flat for long-range work and is an extremely accurate cartridge.  I have a Remington Custom Shop .280 Remington that weighs just six pounds and will group at ½ MOA.  

.30-30 Winchester—A Deer Hunting Classic

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor
Many cartridges easily outperform the .30-30 Winchester, but it remains a proverbial favorite among hunters who love hunting deer with a classic lever-action rifle.

Come on, I can’t leave this out! For a lot of years, I disdained this cartridge. Well before the internet made it popular to do so, I focused on the .30-30’s failures rather than its successes.

Even though it’s old and an obsolete design, and despite the fact that fewer and fewer rifles are sold chambered for the cartridge, the .30-30 still tops ammo sales charts year after year. There must be a reason.

Sometime in my forties I decided that no true gun guy can claim the title and not own a Model 94 in .30-30. I bought one made a year before I was born and took it hunting. A bunch of deer later I changed my mind. What I was not seeing in my youthful arrogance was that my problem with the .30-30 was the hunter’s failures; not the cartridge. If you do it right, this cartridge will put deer on the game pole.

Also, there is a satisfaction in using a “retro” rifle and cartridge and realizing that maybe the old guys did know a thing or two about deer hunting.

5. .280 Ackley Improved

Photograph Courtesy of Hornady Manufacturing Company
Now that Hornady is making ammo for the .280 AI, and others are beginning to chamber rifles for it, expect to see a big rise in this cartridge's popularity.

This more powerful version of the .280 Remington would never have made my list a year ago, because it was too obscure. It’s a great cartridge that provides near magnum performance without all the magnum baggage, such as more recoil and less magazine capacity. Previously the .280 AI required that a shooter make the cases and handload the ammo. Now it’s starting to go mainstream. 

Nosler and Hornady have factory ammo. Nosler, Kimber and probably others have rifles, too. And I have it on good authority that a major gun maker will be offering .280 AI rifles soon. I predict that will open the floodgates and in a few years most gun makers will offer this cartridge.

6. .338 Federal

I was lucky enough to be on some of the test hunts when this cartridge was being developed. It absolutely performed on everything we hunted, including deer, black bear and even some big stuff, like elk and moose. 

If you are inclined to use an AR rifle for hunting, this is the best choice you can make for big game. 

7. .45-70 Government

It might be an old design (1873) but it’s still a modern deer hunting cartridge and a personal favorite. Particularly with new ammo like that offered by Barnes and Hornady. 

For those hunters living in former shotgun-only states where straight-walled rifle cartridges are now being allowed, this is one of the best choices. 

It’s what I’ll be using in Iowa this fall. 

8. .300 Winchester Magnum

Photograph Courtesy of Vista Outdoor
If the author could hunt deer with only one cartridge, he would choose the .300 Win. Mag. because it delivers excellent energy to the target at short or long range.

If I could only own one rifle to hunt deer with in North America, it would probably be the .300 Winchester. 

This cartridge has owned a lot of long-range shooting records and it’s one of the top picks for long-range hunting. Unlike a lot of the popular cartridges of the day, it delivers good energy to the target. Everything the .300 Win. Mag. can do at long range it does even better up close. 

It’s also a great choice for the big body, winter tough northern deer. It’s more than just “adequate,” the .300 Win. provides an insurance policy when hunting trophy deer. 

9. .300 Savage

There was a time when the .300 Savage was the cartridge of choice with smart deer hunters. Its performance has only gotten better with advances in propellants and bullets. It’s fun to use a gun and cartridge that was popular when our grandfathers or even great-grandfathers were young and chasing deer. 

I have several classic rifles, like the Remington Model 722 and Model 760, chambered in .300 Savage. I also have the parent rifle for this cartridge, a Savage Model 99. All of them go hunting with me often. 

10. .257 Weatherby Magnum

Long-range hunting is all the rage right now. I am not sure I agree with the ethics of that endeavor, but if you want to reach out and touch something beyond the curvature of the earth, this cartridge does it nicely. It will also put the smack down on any other deer in the woods. It’s never going to break the top 10 in popularity, but it would easily make the list if performance were the only criteria. 

If you’ve read this far you can see my clear bias leans toward large, powerful cartridges for hunting. Don’t assume I have not tried all the others, I have. In fact, you would be hard pressed to name a cartridge I have not shot a deer with. Still, I have left out some that are very popular. I can’t list them all here and a lot of those not on the list are true deer hunting cartridges. Some are left off by design. It’s that experience and knowledge thing shining through. 

About The Author: Bryce M. Towsley has been writing about guns for 36 years and has published thousands of articles in most of the major firearms magazines. He has hunted all over the world and is a competition shooter in several disciplines. Towsley has several books available on guns, shooting and hunting as well as an adventure novel, The 14th Reinstated. Signed books are available on his website