The “Best” Whitetail Cartridge

A question that is fiercely debated on the Internet, but really is seldom given a second thought in the field, is the matter of the “best” or “ideal” cartridge for a given purpose.

I’d have to imagine that deer hunting is the most common hunting purpose. The truth of the matter is that often one hunts with what one shoots best and fits the legal hunting rules. Much of the time rules or money or lack of preparation is what determines what gets taken afield, and to be sure, a good shot with a sub-optimal cartridge will be far more effective than a poor shot with the “perfect” cartridge.


The 30-30 Winchester–the perfect deer cartridge–in my mind at least. Top: factory loaded Hornady 150 Grain Interlock bullet. Middle: 170 grain Speer# 2041 with an impressive B.C. of .298. And below, an empty case to demonstrate the relatively long neck of 30-30. 

I’ve read a great deal of books written by expert hunters. The problem is that most of them are rather contradictory, or their recommendations simply don’t apply to me or my circumstances. For example, Jack O’Connor, perhaps the most storied American gun-writer and hunting-writer, was enamored with the 270 Winchester, which is simply a 30-’06 necked down to .270”. Compared to its parent, it offers better effective range and a flatter trajectory. I would counter that 30-’06 offers more than enough of both in the Eastern United States for all but the most skilled hunters, and double counter that Indiana doesn’t allow one to hunt deer with a .270. The truth is that most medium caliber (.244” to .358”) high-powered rifle cartridges have similar practical performance.

Below are three high power rifle cartridges from the small, medium, and large ends of the medium caliber range, which are appropriate for deer hunting: 6.5×55 Swedish, 30-‘06, and 358 Winchester. These cartridges are mostly going to be found in bolt-action rifles. Keep in mind that as far as hunting performance goes, much more than a half foot of drop becomes difficult to estimate holdover. Ideally, you want the trajectory to result in a point of impact only inches below the point of aim. Also keep in mind the killing power at a given range. There can been too little and too much (excessive meat damage). I have found the Hornady H.I.T.S. calculator to be very good for estimating. Keep in mind, deer are considered medium sized game, with an ideal H.I.T.S. score between 501-900. Obviously, larger deer should be at the upper end of the range, but much beyond 900 and excessive meat damage may be observed.


The effective range of 6.5×55 is 250 yards; beyond this there is too much drop but plenty of power with a H.I.T.S. score of 884. At ranges inside 100 yards the score is over 1100!



The effective range of 30-’06 is 250 yards; beyond this there is too much drop but plenty of power with a H.I.T.S. score of 814. At ranges inside 100 yards the score is over 900.


The effective range of 358 Win is 200 yards; beyond this there is too much drop but plenty of power with a H.I.T.S. score of 916. At ranges inside 100 yards the score is over 1000. 

Now we see a couple interesting things here. One is that for the intended species of game, the ideal range for the high powered cartridges is over 200 yards, where a minority of the the opportunities are going to present themselves. It is far more common to have opportunities inside 100 yards, yet at these ranges there is borderline excessive power. Another interesting observation is that the performance is not much different. Yes, the smaller diameter 6.5×55 is better out at 250 yards and beyond. So what? Those are going to be rare shots and possibly hazardous.

Now, the case for the intermediate power 30-30. Take at look at its performance envelope. It is almost perfectly tailored for Eastern Whitetails!


The effective range of the 30-30 is the same as the much more powerful 358, around 200 yards, and at that range it still retains a H.I.T.S. score of 740. Inside 100 yards it is not overkill, with a H.I.T.S. score of 827. 

What isn’t immediately appreciated by these charts are the numerous ancillary advantages of 30-30. It is ubiquitous and less expensive to buy than the other cartridges here, and it is usually chambered in less expensive, lighter, and faster handling lever action rifles, though it can be found in bolt actions and single shots, too. It recoils less. It isn’t as loud, and the faster propellants in it burn up within a 20″ barrel, while the slower powders in 6.5×55, etc. produce fireballs in this barrel length.

It doesn’t look like much, but in my opinion the 30-30 is the “perfect” Whitetail cartridge, and for a whole bunch of reasons. Don’t let anyone put it down or put into your mind it is “inferior” or other nonsense. Its raw performance for on Eastern deer is perhaps optimal, in fact.

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