Everyday Hunter: The “Best” Deer Cartridge is about Physics and Biology

Steve Sorensen
Contributing Writer, Steve Sorensen

The cartridge you hunt with drops deer in their tracks every time, like Thor’s mythological hammer. So it’s the best. Right?

You might not like me telling you this, but no, that’s not right. The best cartridge isn’t the one that pounds the deer to the ground every time. Why? Because no gun, no cartridge, no bullet does that.

If you killed a deer this season stone-cold dead in his tracks, it’s not because you used the right cartridge. And if you shot a deer but had a hard time recovering it, you probably shouldn’t blame the cartridge either. In fact, if you knock every deer down dead with the cartridge you’re using, the guy you recommend that cartridge to probably won’t.

That’s because when we shoot any cartridge at a deer, too many variables are in play to guarantee perfection. How far was the shot? What bullet was fired from the cartridge? Where did the bullet hit the deer? At what angle was the deer standing?
Despite what fans of various cartridges say, no bullet fired from any popular rifle will drop a deer in its tracks every time no matter where you hit the deer. The bullet must hit the right spot. And when a deer runs after being hit it’s not usually because a better cartridge should have been used. It’s not about the cartridge. So “What’s the Best Cartridge?” is the wrong question.

If you’re going to ask the right question, you need to break it down to at least two questions — a biology question and a physics question. Where did the bullet hit the deer? And did the bullet deliver enough energy and penetration? When you apply these questions to a wide range of cartridges, dozens will do the job very well.

Let’s consider the physics question first. Is your cartridge powerful enough?

The .243 Winchester (many consider it the minimum for deer) fires a 100 grain bullet, producing 1,570 foot-pounds of energy at 100 yards. The .30-06 Springfield generates a lot more energy — 2,470 foot-pounds at 100 yards, using a 165 grain bullet.

The reason I’ve chosen one of the lightest and one of the most common heavier calibers has to do with the part about biology. Each one, firing a bullet that hits the deer high in the shoulder, will almost always drop the deer in its tracks. And each one, putting a hole through both lungs, will probably allow the deer to run about 50 to 100 yards before expiring.

The author shot this buck a few years ago with a 7mm-08. The 139 grain bullet hit the deer high in the shoulder, and it dropped in its tracks.
The author shot this buck a few years ago with a 7mm-08. The 139 grain bullet hit the deer high in the shoulder, and it dropped in its tracks.

That doesn’t make both cartridges equally effective if the shooter doesn’t do his part. A deer is a stubborn animal, and a marginal hit no matter what cartridge you use will not mean instant lights-out for the deer. The benefit of the bigger bullet is that when the hit is marginal, it can do more damage to the deer’s biological functions and will increase your odds of recovering him.
Other factors of physics come into play as well, including distance, bullet construction, penetration, and more, but every cartridge that delivers adequate terminal ballistics to the proper place on the animal will drop the deer in his tracks.

So the question isn’t about the cartridge. The question isn’t even about the energy, although a certain minimum is required. The question is about properly placing a bullet designed for deer. Some hunters are capable of precise bullet placement. Others may need more practice.

What’s important is to choose a cartridge and rifle combination you can shoot accurately, and take shots you know you can make. If you hit a deer high in the shoulder, his biology will almost always end where he’s standing.

When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.