Now, there is a subject of high interest and controversy! It is a perennial topic and a mainstay of conversation around the after-dinner campfire on any continent. I am happy to add my thoughts on the subject to the muddy mix, more as a guide for new-chums to think about, rather than seeking to convert experienced hunters to my particular opinion.
It is a big topic, so I will make a start here and add to it over time.
Terrain and Terminal Ballistics for Deer Hunting Calibres
I reckon you can start the selection process by considering the terrain you will be hunting in and the terminal ballistics required for the deer you seek. The terminal ballistics will be determined by the size and physiology of your quarry.
Obviously, if you are looking for one calibre to hunt a range of different deer, then your choice of calibre must be made on the basis of the biggest and most robust deer you intend to hunt.
While a 223 Rem would be a good choice for choice for taking the smallest forest deer at close range, it could not be used for a 300 yard shot at a bull elk. By the same token, a 300 Win Mag would be more than adequate for a diminutive hog deer at 20 yards, and a sensible option for elk at some distance.
So, the starting point for choosing a suitable deer hunting calibre is the question – How much projectile energy do you need at the maximum range you will take a shot at the largest deer you are hunting?
Terminal Ballistics – Projectile Energy and Expansion
In recent decades there seems to be a trend to recommending, if not requiring, more powerful calibres for various forms of deer hunting. I am not necessarily arguing against that but would say that we have never had such a choice of superbly constructed projectiles that deliver excellent terminal ballistic performance.
If you look back, say 50 years or more, there are a couple of good examples to consider from the context of the modern perspective.
How many deer have been shot with the lever-actioned 30/30 on the continent of North America in the last 100 years?
Similarly, during the heydey of the government culling of deer in New Zealand, vast numbers of deer, including Red and Elk, were shot by the cullers with 222 Rem and standard factory soft points.
In the current climate of modern-think, both those calibres would be considered underpowered and their simple soft point lead projectiles inadequate, especially the 222 Rem.
Personally, I have no qualms about using my 223 Rem, with suitable projectiles, for hunting small to medium sized deer. There are a variety of excellent premium projectiles in the 60+ grain weight that offer controlled expansion for optimal shock and penetration on such quarry.
But, once again, your choice of calibre is directed by what you intend using it for.
Trophy or Meat Hunting
One of the determining factors in selecting a suitable calibre for deer hunting is whether your prime interest is in trophy hunting or meat hunting. Trophy hunters will need more powerful calibres which will be more than adequate for meat hunting.
I am not a trophy hunter, but many of my good buddies are, and I have nothing against it. When I hunt for meat, I like to get myself in a position where I can assess a range of animals and then wait for the opportunity to precisely place a bullet where it will deliver an instant kill with the least meat damage. In these circumstances, I would not take a quartering away shot and my 223 Rem loaded with 60 grain Nosler Partitions at 3,100 fps MV is perfectly adequate for the job out to about 200 metres.
For trophy hunters, after that elusive stag with a big rack of antlers, there may only be a brief opportunity for a quick shot at a fleeing animal. That is why a lot of the trophy hunting guys I know use 300 magnums with premium 165 or 180 grain projectiles. That is the type of projectile energy and controlled expansion needed to bring down a fleeing stag, or take a really long shot across a valley at an outstanding trophy.
The bottom line here is that, if you will be using your rifle for trophy hunting then your choice of calibre should be specific to that. Like the discussion about deer size above, whatever calibre is suitable for trophy hunting will be more than adequate for meat hunting.
Next time we will get a bit more specific about calibres and projectile terminal ballistic performance.