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Bigger Guns for Bigger Bucks

Hunting cartridges are not equal, and neither are deer. Do today's deer hunters use enough gun?

Bigger Guns for Bigger Bucks

While a magnum may not be necessary for deer, a heavy bullet at a fast velocity provides extra assurance if it is properly placed.  (Photo courtesy of Leupold)

Jerry Moore and I were working a brushy pocket in western South Dakota. There were tracks going in, and the wind was into the cover. Something was bound to happen. Yep, sure did. I was on the downhill side when the buck exploded. A gorgeous four-by-four headed for the skyline but didn’t make it. I dropped him on the open hillside.

An hour later, Terry shot a big-bodied, heavy-antlered three-by-three. We both used familiar rifles built by mutual friend Lex Webernick at Rifles, Inc. Terry’s was in .280 Rem.; mine in .300 Wby. Mag.

Neither shot was far. You could say that Terry’s choice was better than mine. I wouldn’t argue, but regardless of chambering, there is never anything wrong with using a favorite rifle that gives you confidence. I knew that rifle and its cartridge; it gave me confidence. In various rifles, I’ve taken some big deer with Roy Weatherby’s .300.

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Over-gunned, you bet. Seems to me that’s a lesser sin than not enough gun. I had a gorgeous custom rifle in 7 mm Rem. Mag. Although effective and versatile, I never warmed up to the Big Seven … but I loved that rifle. I used it extensively, and it accounted for some fine bucks.

I know what you’re thinking: Oh, boy, now Boddington’s going to tell us we need fast magnums for deer hunting. Not at all. There are numerous 7 mm and .30-caliber “magnums.” Others, such as the Hornady PRC family and Nosler’s namesake line, are not dubbed magnums, but in power and velocity, they certainly are. If you want to use any of them to hunt deer, you’ll take no ribbing from me. They work just fine.

I shot my first deer with a .243 Win. However, I started hunting in the 1960s, when every new cartridge wore a belt and carried the magnum suffix. I soon had a .264 Win. Mag. and thought it was magic. Today, I know that I don’t need a magnum for any of my deer hunting.

Almost nobody needs a magnum for North American deer. Almost, because there is an exception. For me, a long shot is a quarter mile. I’m done long before we get to a half mile. I love to ring steel at distance, but steel targets don’t care how much energy makes them ring. It’s no big deal if a puff of wind blows the bullet to the edge. On game, residual energy and wind drift are big deals.

Many folks are working hard to extend their range envelopes on both targets and game. With the equipment we have today, practical shooting distances have increased. On game, where I set my limit is my business; yours is up to you. Way out there, you want velocity and bullet aerodynamics to overcome wind.

And you need enough bullet weight and energy to cleanly take your game. So, in the context of the distances some of us are now shooting, fast magnums have a place for deer. If you want to use them, be my guest. All that matters is to take your deer efficiently.

DEFINING BIGGER

No one can say how much energy is required to cleanly kill a deer. Col. Townsend Whelen theorized that we want 1,000 foot-pounds of energy at the animal. Good rule of thumb, but if his rule was absolute, then the .44-40 would never have killed a deer. My belief is “enough gun” is a subtle blend of bullet energy, weight, diameter (frontal area) and performance.

mule deer hunter
Though not a good choice for extreme ranges, the .270 Win. is adequate for any deer—including monster muleys—out to significant distances. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

“Minimum” is almost undefinable for three reasons. First, shot placement is everything. Second, no two animals react the same upon receiving a bullet. If a buck is already amped up on adrenaline, surprising things can happen.

A heart or central lung shot is always fatal. Some bucks drop to either shot. Most run a few dozen yards. Sometimes, you track past 100 yards and wonder what you did wrong. Probably nothing.

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Third, deer are not created equal. Mule deer have a larger average size than whitetails, but I believe whitetails are tougher and more tenacious. Both species have multiple subspecies varying in size. Columbian blacktails don’t get as big as Rocky Mountain mule deer. Texas whitetails don’t have the body size of Kansas deer, and the deer on my Kansas farm aren’t as big as the northernmost whitetails.

A Coues deer buck in Arizona weighs about 100 pounds; a big Saskatchewan buck could exceed 300 pounds. The perfect rifle for a 100-pound animal isn’t the same as for an animal three times larger.

Maybe you hunt deer in your area only. OK, but what kind of deer are you looking for? Venison for the freezer? Monster buck? There are extra-large does but, on average, mature does and young bucks are similar in size (whatever size that is locally). From 3 1/2 years and onward until decline, bucks increase in body mass.

A grown-up buck is probably twice as heavy as the average doe. Let’s say 200 pounds versus 100 pounds. Is this enough difference to alter your cartridge selection? Maybe not, but there’s more. Bucks fight for breeding rights. They are athletes, strong and powerful … and always keyed up.

To me, “bigger deer,” means bigger bucks. Buck hunting takes a different mindset. When I want a doe on my Kansas farm, I can take my time and pick my shot; I get that opportunity almost any morning or evening. We get just one buck. Those chances don’t come every day. And what if that one buck is the buck of a lifetime? Big antlers get us excited, and the opportunity is fleeting. You take the best shot you have, try to place it well, and trust that you have that correct subtle mix of energy, bullet weight, frontal area and bullet performance to do the job.

hunting rifle and ammunition
The .270 Win. has often been criticized for a lack of accuracy, but well-made .270 rifles shoot just fine. (Photo by Craig Boddington)
RACE TO THE BOTTOM

Early on, I was brainwashed by the First Magnum Craze. Loved my .264. By 1970, friends had gone to 7 mm or .300 magnums. We were all over-gunned. In his later years, Professor Jack O’Connor was a lone voice in the wilderness, insisting his beloved .270 was all he needed.

By the ’90s, I’d matured. O’Connor’s old .270 was my go-to for deer. Then it happened all over again with the Second Magnum Craze, 1998 to 2007. In that decade, we took off our belts as we were shown 15 unbelted magnums: RUMs, WSMs, RSAUMs, WSSMs, RCMs. All did what they were supposed to do, but this was too many, too fast. Only the .300 WSM achieved significant popularity.

By 2010 the dust had settled, and other dynamics were in play. Historically, .22 centerfires were illegal for deer in most jurisdictions. The widespread popularity of the AR platform changed this. Today, .22 centerfires are generally legal for deer. So, if a .223 Rem. is adequate, then anything bigger must be plenty big.

A second dynamic is long-range shooting. It’s much more pleasant to shoot prone without getting kicked into next week. We can’t escape recoil, but we can cheat a bit with bullet aerodynamics. Enter today’s low-drag bullets with ballistic coefficients once thought impossible.

In the 1890s, 6.5 mm cartridges were developed for military use, with long, heavy-for-caliber bullets. Although low-drag bullets didn’t exist, this 6.5 mm advantage has always been present. Consistently popular in Europe, only recently have Americans accepted the 6.5 mm. Winchester’s .264 eventually flopped. The 6.5 mm Rem. Mag. never left the starting gate.

2 deer hunters
Ruger collector Lee Newton took this Kansas buck with a Ruger No. 1 chambered for .280 Ackley Improved. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

In 1998 Remington introduced the .260 Rem., essentially a .308 Win. case necked down for a .264 bullet. Good cartridge, but it didn’t burn up the world. Both my daughters took their first game with .260s. I gave up on it because in the rifles I was messing with, I wasn’t getting the accuracy I wanted.

A decade later, Hornady introduced the 6.5 Creedmoor. Shorter case, but ballistically identical to the .260, which is ballistically identical to 1894’s 6.5x55 mm Swedish Mauser. The Creedmoor was designed as a target cartridge, enabling effective long-range performance with minimal recoil. At first, and as expected, sales were modest.

About 2013 the Creedmoor took off like a rocket. It’s still ascending, the most amazing cartridge phenomenon I’ve seen. Super popular, over time it has become imbued with near-magical powers. No longer is the Creedmoor just a long-range target cartridge; many consider it a long-range hunting cartridge, effective on deer and larger game.

Remember today’s new dynamic: If the .223 with a 60-grain bullet is adequate, then a 6.5x55, .260 Rem., or 6.5 Creedmoor with 140-grain bullet must be a cannon, right?

deer hunter
The author took this Georgia whitetail with the .264 Win. Mag., an effective 6.5 mm cartridge that is nearing obsolence. Nonetheless, it can exceed 3,000 fps with 140-grain bullets. (Photo by Craig Boddington)
WHAT’S ENOUGH GUN?

Again, in my lexicon, bigger deer equals bigger bucks. Heavy bullets aren’t necessary to head-shoot meat deer with an accurate .22 centerfire, but we don’t head-shoot big bucks. That changes the game.

The deer in my area of Kansas are medium-sized as whitetails go. On body shots, I am unimpressed by .22 centerfires, even with heavy bullets. With good chest hits, I typically see minimal reaction. Dead is dead, but the problem is finding dead deer. The entrance wound is tiny; exit wounds are rare. If the shot is good, deer don’t go far, but we fumble around in thick woods with little blood to follow. Velocity matters, because it brings more energy. The .22-250 Rem. is more impressive than the .223, but it brings the issue of ensuring penetration at its higher speed.

In my day, the .243 Win. was the standard starter rifle, and it’s still a good one. My first bucks were modest mule deer, effectively dropped with a .243. Since then, I’ve had little experience observing big deer taken with 6 mms. Of the 100-plus buck hunters we’ve hosted in Kansas, none have brought 6 mms (or .22s). Majority opinion has value: For the size of deer that folks come to Kansas hoping for, larger cartridges are near universal.

Tastes in deer rifles are somewhat regional. On the California coast, the .243 is easily the most common choice, and it’s perfect for the area’s small-bodied blacktails. In Texas, the .25-06 Rem. is the hot gun and plenty powerful for modest-sized Texas whitetails. Fast and flat-shooting, it’s also ideal for the long senderos (cutlines) so common in Texas deer country.

We have seen various .25s in Kansas. The fastest I’ve seen a Kansas buck drop was with a .257 Roberts, firing a 117-grain Hornady SST, at 90 yards. Quartering slightly away, the buck dropped so fast it seemed to bounce. I have no experience with using .25s on larger deer. Wyoming gunwriter Bob Milek swore by both the .257 Roberts and .25-06. I agree: Faster .25s are adequate.

“Faster” is an operative word, and that’s where I start having trouble with the 6.5 mm cartridges. Bullet speed brings energy, because the equation for deriving foot-pounds squares velocity. Despite mystical properties, the 6.5 Creedmoor is not fast, its 140-grain bullet impacting at no more than 2,700 fps. It is a great deer cartridge—at moderate distances. Because of its popularity, the Creedmoor is almost inescapable. I have one. I haven’t seen it drop deer like lightning but, with good shot placement, they usually don’t go far.

ammunition for deer hunting
Although the 6.5 Creedmoor (left) is wildly popular, the author believes it is on the edge for big deer. Other 6.5 mm cartridges that produce 250 to 300 fps more velocity and yield more energy, such as the 6.5-284 Norma (second from left), .264 Win. Mag. and 6.5 PRC give him more confidence. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

On the other hand, I’ve seen anomalies. A buddy of mine shot a nice 8-point on my farm. I wasn’t far away and heard him shoot, twice. David was on the Creek Stand, shooting south across the creek, at a range of 60 yards. He felt good about both shots but told us the buck “walked away.” John Sonne and I arrived with an hour of light. We could find no blood, and it got dark. Shame on us, we questioned the shots and came back in the morning. We found the deer easily. One shot was on the right shoulder, the other was behind the right shoulder. Both were good, but no exits and not a drop of blood.

That’s one of those weird exceptions. A cartridge or bullet can’t be judged from a small sampling, but, after a decade of popularity, many are questioning the Creedmoor on bigger deer. At one of the She Hunts camps run by my daughter Brittany, I met a lady from Colorado who had property in Nebraska. She and her husband were both shooting the Creedmoor, and they sold the rifles because they weren’t happy with killing power on either Colorado mule deer or Nebraska whitetails.

If you want to use a 6.5 mm, consider a faster cartridge. I’m still happy with the .264 Win. Mag. and its 140-grain bullet at nearly 3,000 fps, which is a significant increase in energy over the Creedmoor. The .264 is pretty much a dead duck, but the 6.5 PRC is identical, the 6.5-.284 Norma almost as fast. For performance on bigger deer, I believe 3,000 fps is the sweet spot, and recoil is tolerable.

I also believe in frontal area. Larger wound channel, more energy transferred on impact … but it’s impossible to say how much more is needed for a noticeable difference. After I gave up on the .260 Rem with my daughters, I shifted them to the 7 mm-08. Still a 140-grain bullet at about 2,800 fps, so no increase in recoil or bullet energy. With better bullet aerodynamics, the mild 6.5s are better long-range target cartridges. However, I’m convinced the 7 mm-08 hits harder than the mild 6.5s. The only significant difference is frontal area: .264 inch to .284 inch. It’s only .020 inch, but I’m certain it makes a difference. Both my daughters have taken piles of game, some animals larger than deer, with their 7 mm-08 rifles.

deer ammo
Five excellent deer cartridges include (left to right): the 7 mm-08, 7x57 mm, .270 Win., .280 Rem. and .280 Ackley Improved. All are powerful enough for the biggest whitetail, blacktail and mule deer, although effective ranges vary among them. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

Being a bit old-fashioned, I prefer the old 7x57 mm, which has the same ballistics as the 7 mm-08. Neither are fast, so I don’t use them in open country. Instead, for general-purpose use on bigger deer, I circle right back to Professor O’Connor and use his tired, old .270. Maybe the greater frontal area (.264 to .277) makes a difference. Maybe not, but the .270 Win. is much faster, pushing a 130-grain bullet at nearly 3,100 fps and a 140-grain bullet up to 3,000. On deer, take your pick. Much more energy delivered. The largest-bodied deer I ever shot was an Alberta monster. It was quartering away, and after one 130-grain Barnes from a Kimber .270 hit it behind the shoulder, the deer took two faltering steps and went down.

As with the 7 mm-08, the .270 Win is not a long-range target cartridge, nor is it an extreme-range cartridge for any purpose. Because of its traditional 1:10-inch rifling twist, the .270 is denied the long, heavy-for-caliber bullets that make 6.5s and 7 mms sing. It is a hunting cartridge, but a good one for the largest deer. My wife Donna uses the .270 almost exclusively. It has more recoil than a Creedmoor, but it’s sustainable.

Craig Boddington deer hunter
The author used a Springfield Armory Waypoint in 6.5 PRC to drop this buck. He believes the higher velocity and greater energy of the PRC make it a better choice for big deer. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

I have taken deer with the .270 well beyond 400 yards with no problems. Traditional .270s (.270 Win., Wby. Mag., WSM, all with 1:10 twists) cannot digest longer bullets that are clearly superior at extreme ranges. Thing is, I don’t shoot game past the .270 Win.’s capability, so for me it’s a moot point. The last buck I took with a .270 was a desert mule deer, facing me at 300 yards, tough shot. One 136-grain Terminal Ascent hit the buck in the center of its chest, and four bounds later it was down.

For deer of any size, the old .270 is hard to beat, and it’s still one of our best non-magnum choices. It is not alone. Although not as popular, the .280 Rem. is a wonderful deer cartridge. Propelling a 140-grain bullet to 3,000 fps, the .280 is much faster than my beloved 7x57 or the 7 mm-08. Coming on as a new “cult cartridge,” the .280 Ackley Improved is awesome, beating its parent .280 by 100 fps and treading into magnum territory.

deer ammunition
For big-bodied bucks at extended ranges, turn to cartridges that offer magnum performance. Good choices include (left to right): the 6.8 Western, .270 WSM, .270 Wby. Mag., .27 Nosler, 7 mm Rem. Mag., 7 mm PRC and .28 Nosler. (Photo by Craig Boddington)

As with magnums, .30-caliber bullet weight and recoil are not truly essential for even the largest deer. However, it’s tough to leave out the .308 Win. and .30-06. Both are strong medicine for the biggest bucks. Not fast, the .308 is accurate and hits hard, awesome to at least medium range. There’s never anything wrong with hunting deer with the all-American .30-06. Faster, it offers a bit more practical range than the .308, and it’s a thumper on both ends. My first big mule deer was taken with a .30-06 well past 400 yards. It’s a cartridge I’ve circled back to many times. The .30-06 is effective, but it’s needlessly powerful for deer.

Now, if you’re among the many hunters today who have the rage for range, let’s be honest. You can’t shoot way out there without some pain. Classic belted magnums from Remington, Weatherby and Winchester will give you the reach you seek. And so will the new class of magnums that aren’t called magnums: the PRCs, Nosler cartridges and 6.8 Western, all with fast-twist barrels that support bullets that offer maximum range. There’s no shame in hunting big deer with any cartridge that offers enough reach and power for your shooting distances, provided the rifle gives you the confidence to place your shots where they belong.




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