We all know about the effectiveness of the .30-30 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield, .308 Winchester and the .270 Winchester—the youngest of which has been around since the early 1950s—in the deer woods, but looking up and down the cartridge lists there is definitely much more to choose from. And while the 7mm Remington Magnum and .300 Winchester Magnum certainly see a lot of use, they seem to be on the heavy side. More recently, the 6.5 Creedmoor has been marketed as the best-thing-since-sliced-bread, and though it is a very effective design, there are other equally effective choices when it comes to hunting deer.
Looking through the gun shop’s racks, you may find a sweet used rifle in a cartridge you may not be familiar with, or perhaps you’re the kind of hunter who enjoys using the more obscure cartridges (there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that). Let’s take a look at what I consider to be the top five underrated deer cartridges, those designs that work very well but just don’t get the recognition they should.
1. 6.5x55 Swedish The recent surge of 6.5mm cartridges—the early 1960s saw the .264 Winchester Magnum and 6.5mm Remington Magnum—owes a debt of gratitude to the 6.5x55 Swedish, Sweden’s military cartridge dating back to the 1890s. Equipped with a 1:9ʺ twist—which allowed bullets of up to 160 grains to be properly stabilized—and a 25-degree shoulder, the rimless 6.5x55 Swedish has been getting the job done for a century and a quarter. It’s a popular choice for game as large as moose in Scandinavia, so our deer species are handled neatly by the old cartridge. The 6.5x55 is easy on the shoulder, and like the rest of the 6.5mm family, it uses bullets of excellent Sectional Density and, as of recently, good ballistic coefficient. It has always been highly popular in Europe, but suffered from the U.S.’s “we-hate-metric” syndrome. If you want an efficient hunting cartridge and aren’t overly concerned about it fitting in the AR platform, take a good look at the Swede.
2. 7mm-08 Remington Big Green legitimized the 7mm-308 wildcat in 1980, giving the populous a very well-balanced cartridge, which just may be one of the finest deer cartridges ever to grace the field. With a fine selection of bullet weights and designs, the 7mm-08 Remington is pleasant to shoot while delivering enough energy to make it a solid choice for an all-around cartridge, let alone one helluva deer gun. Like its father, it lacks the look of reach, but when you examine the trajectory tables, you find it makes a wonderful choice—perfectly suitable for any deer that ever walked. It’s been overlooked of late, for reasons I can’t quite explain, as it makes an excellent choice for a lightweight rifle and is wonderfully accurate. If you spend some time with a good 7mm-08 in the deer woods, you’ll invariably become a fan.
3. .250-3000 Savage Savage’s quarter-bore was the first commercial cartridge to break the 3000 fps mark with a light 87-grain bullet. Speed aside, the .250-3000 is a great deer cartridge, giving enough power to cleanly kill while being easy on the shoulder. It can be a wonderfully accurate cartridge, and modern loads—like the Hornady Custom 100-grain Interlock load—take full advantage of limited case capacity. Designed for use in the Savage Model 99, it has been chambered in other popular rifles, like the Winchester Model 70 and Remington Model 700. No reason to pass on a good deer rifle in this caliber.
4. .338 Federal The youngest on this list, the .338 Federal is a flexible, hard-hitting cartridge that will work as well on deer as it does on larger game. The .338-inch bore diameter is admittedly on the heavy side for a deer gun, but not unlike the .35 Whelen or .45-70 Government, the .338 Federal is mild enough not to destroy meat on either side of the equation. I like the Federal 185-grain Barnes TSX load, cruising along a 2750 fps, as it will handle both deer and black bear (for those of us who live in areas where those species share the woods) equally well without breaking the bank. The .338 Federal doesn’t recoil much harder than the parent .308 Winchester, yet gives a greater frontal diameter and heavier bullet weights for those who like just a little more punch. Like its older brother, the .358 Winchester, this cartridge seems to sit on the sidelines, overlooked and unloved, and that’s a shame. Its accuracy is inspiring at the bench, and its field performance excellent; I've used it to take small-bodied Texas whitetail does without excessive meat damage, yet the cartridge takes elk, moose and even grizzlies without issue.
5. .257 Roberts Ned Roberts did the hunting world a favor when he took the 7x57mm Mauser case and necked it down to hold .257-inch diameter bullets; Remington slightly modified his design and made it a commercial cartridge in 1934. While the original loading—using a 117-grain round-nose bullet—didn’t really give shooters much more than the smaller-cased .250-3000 Savage did, the +P loading brought the cartridge into its own. Modern rifles have been offered by Ruger, Remington, Winchester, Kimber, Howa and others, and when mated with a good bullet—like the Hornady 117-grain SST in the Superformance line or Nosler’s 110-grain AccuBond load—the Roberts cartridge becomes a wonderful deer choice. Both of those loads I mentioned run between 2900 and 3000 fps, yet the .257 Roberts remains a pleasure to shoot, and handles any deer very well. Should you find a rifle you like in .257 Roberts, don’t hesitate to take it to your stand.