What's deer camp without a good argument over the best whitetail cartridge? Never one to hide my opinion, I'll get things started. Here are the five best cartridges for whitetails, hands down. You can disagree all you want, but that doesn't make you right.
.30-06 Springfield The .30-06 Springfield was so far ahead of its time that even at 108 years old, it may have still not peaked.
The "Aught Six" was successful because it brought hunters into the modern world. When it was introduced in 1906, big-game hunting was dominated by lever-action rifles and blackpowder-era cartridges. The first successful "modern" smokeless powder, high-velocity hunting cartridge was the .30-30 Winchester, and in 1906 it was still considered one of the cutting-edge designs. But the .30-06 blew it so far out of the water that it couldn't see the lake.
With velocity approaching 3,000 fps and pointed aerodynamic bullets, the .30-06 launched a revolution. Calling the .30-30 Winchester "a modern, high-velocity cartridge" suddenly seemed a bit silly.
Even today, the .30-06 is the cartridge all others are compared with.
.30-30 Winchester It's ridiculously outdated, and its performance is pathetic by today's standards (see above). Many modern "experts" consider it underpowered even for deer. The .30-30 Winchester is a relic from another time, a 19th century artifact that refuses to accept its fate.
But the old "Dirty Gertie" (as my grandfather liked to call it) is doing just fine. In fact, it's perpetually on the top 10 list of bestselling centerfire rifle cartridges, and it still kills more deer every year than a dozen other popular cartridges combined.
.35 Whelen Neck up the .30-06 to take a .35-caliber bullet, and you have the .35 Whelen—my all-time favorite whitetail cartridge.
Sadly, like any of the .35-caliber rifle cartridges, the .35 Whelen never caught the fancy of most American hunters. That shows they have not been paying attention. With a 200-grain bullet the .35 Whelen shoots a bit flatter than the .30-06 with a 180-grain bullet, so it's not the "close-range, brush gun" that so many wrongly believe. The .35 Whelen is accurate, hits hard, penetrates deep, shoots flat and will absolutely smack a whitetail silly.
Why deer hunters ignore it remains a mystery to me.
.280 Remington The .280 Remington fills the gap between the .270 Winchester and the .30-06 Springfield. In many respects the .280 Remington is a better cartridge than the .270 Winchester it's often compared with. There is no denying the .280 handles heavy bullets much better than the .270, and that alone increases its versatility.
I can continue with a long and boring dissertation on the technical aspects of why the .280 is a better cartridge, but why bother? I like what I like, and it's the .280 Remington.
.300 Winchester Magnum There have been many pretenders to the throne, but for reaching out to long-range whitetails, the .300 Winchester Magnum is still the king. This is one of the most universally useful hunting cartridges ever conceived, and it is capable of taking any critter in North America.
Overkill on whitetails? Not when you have to reach out across hundreds of yards of windswept prairie or, for that matter, smack down a huge, winter-hardened Canadian buck up close.
The thing is, while this is one of the great long-range cartridges, anything it can do at long distance, it does even better at shorter ranges. When it comes to deer hunting, if it wasn't so awkward to say, "versatility" might well be this cartridge's middle name.