If your favorite rifle caliber was human, would it be a hippie, body builder, or someone else? Here are 12 solid answers, backed by ballistic facts.
From the tiny .223 to the new 350 Legend, and the trendy 6.5 Creedmoor to the ancient .30-30 Win, the 12 most popular rifle calibers could all have their own personalities. If they were human, of course. After careful analysis—and feedback from ammunition engineers—we’ve created the final word on your deer rifle’s alter ego. So, with that, don’t get offended. And don’t fall in love. It’s time to meet the boys.
.223 Rem. When I think of the .223, I imagine a fun-loving senior. Maybe the old guy who loves ringing the bell outside the Salvation Army? After all, the .223 has a history as a military cartridge, and it sees the 5.56mm NATO round when it looks in the mirror. It’s definitely a Baby Boomer—a product of the 60s. Might or might not be a skinny little hippy. Weighing in at a mere 120 pounds and sporting a 28-inch waist, it has toothpick arms and legs. Damage isn’t in the description. But fun is. His t-shirt says “Good Time, Charlie” right across the chest.
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Despite its small frame, the .223 is more than capable of handling deer-sized game. This caliber doesn’t pack a huge punch, but it’s fast, produces little recoil, and it’s great for youth and small-framed shooters. It’s also made the AR15 quite popular, as most are chambered in this light caliber. It has a typical weight range of 40 to 70 grains and an average muzzle velocity of 3,200 fps. All said, this is the lightest round I’d use for deer hunting.
Jared Kutney, a product engineer for Federal Premium, knows ammo. He weighed in on many of the top rounds, including the .223 Rem. “This cartridge is hotly debated for practicality on deer-sized animals,” Kutney said. “I have no issue suggesting it if the hunter can place shots where they intend to (and within reasonable distances). Know your limits. Keep shots on target. Avoid heavy bone. And be prepared for a debate at deer camp.”
According to Kutney, this caliber offers good ergonomics, semi-automatic options and the ability to place subsequent shots on targets easier than with larger caliber options. That said, it has a shorter effective range..243 Win. Born in 1955, this cat is aging, but man is it just hitting its prime. It’s that old guy you see running all over town in tank tops and short shorts that look more like boxer briefs. Even wears a headband and a t-shirt that says, “Can a well-rounded individual be flattered.” Has that dry, PG, mid-20th century humor, for sure. But despite its age, it’s still cool to go deer hunting with.
Don’t think of this as a meek, unsophisticated gun just for youth and small-framed shooters, though. It’s more than an entry-level option. I killed my first deer with it, and several since then. It’s accurate and very reliable. Personally, I think this round performs best around that 85- to 100-grain range. At a typical muzzle velocity of 3,250 fps, it scoots, too.
Ben Frank, an ammo engineer for Winchester, gave his thoughts on the .223, and several other calibers, too. “This is one of the few calibers that legitimately works well on both varmints and whitetails,” Frank said. “It’s fast and accurate and has plenty of energy to ethically take whitetails. But this is a great option for folks who are recoil-sensitive.”
He said it is lightweight, though. A 100-grain bullet is often about as heavy as you can find. Thus, penetration can be a concern if you hit dense, hard bone. Again, it’s ethical, but shot placement is more vital than with larger calibers. “Just make sure you sight in your rifle and are comfortable with it,” Frank said. “Accurate bullets with tremendous on-target performance only work if the person pulling the trigger does their job.”.25-06 Rem. The .25-06 wears a pair of dentures now, but with an average load weight of 100 grains and muzzle velocity of 3,350 fps, it bites whitetails and doesn’t let go. It gets mad, barks loud, kicks a little and is wicked fast out of the gate—the perfect deer rifle for hunters who like that sort of stuff. Of course, it’s just trying to live up to daddy’s reputation (the .30-06).
This caliber is a classic inspired by the .25 Nadier during the World Wars. Hunters took notice of it as a legitimate deer hunting round, and Remington launched the .25-06 Rem in 1969. It was an immediate hit. “The .25-06 Rem is flat-shooting, high-velocity cartridge, but comes with a bit of recoil penalty,” Kutney said. “It’s a good cartridge for deer as long as snappy recoil isn’t too much of an inhibition.”
However, it doesn’t rank well in every category. “It has lower ballistic coefficient yields and more wind drift than other popular deer cartridges,” Kutney said.
He does like common bullet designs for this caliber, though. “Heavy-for-cartridge, sleek bullets are great in .25-06,” Kutney said. “Bonded for good toughness on close shots, but sleek and tipped allowing for higher velocity and energy for longer-distance opportunities.”
6.5 Creedmoor. It might be a millennial, but it doesn’t act like one. On the weekends, it’s an aviator-wearing, man-bun-sporting, wacky-tobaccy-smokin’ hippie. (Can we say that?) But when it comes down to business, it’s a no-nonsense cartridge that works hard and earns its keep. It doesn’t sit in momma’s basement and play Call Of Duty all day. But it’d kick some butt if it did. Not everyone likes its cliché beard, though.
Regardless of alter egos and stereotypes, when it’s time to perform, this cat makes things happen. With an average weight of 140 grains and muzzle velocity of 2,700 fps, it delivers the goods. “It’s a shootable, long-range cartridge,” Kutney said. “High ballistic coefficient bullet offerings help reduce the wind factor. Generally, it’s a very accurate cartridge which gives confidence to the hunter.”
Sure, this is the new kid on the block. Born in 2007, it isn’t an old ammo option. But it’s certainly climbed up the caliber ladder in short order. It has significant long-range capabilities. It’s perfect for rifles with high twist-rate ratios, it’s shockingly accurate and very aerodynamic. It also offers minimal recoil with a larger bullet. This makes it perfect for small and new hunters alike.
“It’s at the top of my list for cartridges I’m considering for my daughter’s first rifle that she will use after graduating from the youth model 7mm-08 Rem she currently uses,” Kutney said. Recoil is very manageable, and it has a growing selection of great hunting bullets that match the cartridge’s capability. It’s hard to think of reasons not to embrace the 6.5 Creedmoor.”
But like with any bullet, there are some cons. “There are fewer factory-loaded bullet offerings specific to 6.5 Creedmoor than other cartridges,” Kutney said. “Barrel life is potentially less than other cartridges as well, but we are getting pretty picky at this point. Just understand your ammunition and its capabilities. The 6.5 Creedmoor is a great long-range cartridge.” .270 Win. You call it the .270, but its middle name is Trusty. With a muscular frame, it definitely wears tight-fitting clothes to show off those rock-hard curves. But try as it might, even though it’s been around longer, some believe it’ll always be little brother to the .280 Rem. It just doesn’t realize it.
All said, the .270 has been around awhile. Made famous by Jack O’Connor, it’s beloved by many today. Big game hunters have gone afield with it for 94 years. That’s heritage. And it’s most certainly proven itself. It’s a smaller-diameter bullet that scoots downrange in a hurry with truly impressive speeds and energy. The average weight is 150 grains and typical muzzle velocity is 2,850 fps.
“The .270 Win was actually the first rifle I ever purchased,” Frank said. “I did that because I wanted something that would work for both deer and larger game with flat trajectory and lots of ammunition available. Beyond 200 yards, this caliber has as much or more energy than a 30-06 (assuming similar bullet designs).”
While most calibers have at least one or two downfalls, this one really doesn’t. “From a deer hunting perspective, I really don’t see a lot of cons with .270 Win,” Frank said. “It truly is an ideal cartridge for taking whitetails. It has enough energy out to 500-plus yards to take whitetails.” .280 Rem. The .280 alter ego likely wears tight-fitting muscle shirts and pants. Even slicks its hair back with Dapper Dan. But thanks to the popularity of the former caliber, it has insecurity issues and rarely comes out in the light of day. Despite its potential, the world likes the .270 better. Still, the .280 and .270 will likely fight over who’s better for decades to come. But one thing is certain—they both still call .30-06 “Daddy.” It’s older, stronger and tougher, but more on that later.
This caliber boasts a typical muzzle velocity of 2,900 fps and an average weight of 165 grains. Velocity and energy are up, while recoil is down. There are fewer factory offerings out there, though.
Not all people love it as much as some hunters, though. “This may not be the answer you’re looking for, but what comes to mind is, why not a 7mm Rem Mag or .280 Ackley Improved?” Kutney said. “If because of recoil, why not 7mm-08 Rem?”7mm-08 Rem. It heard its name. Its ears were burning. And like a dog panting with tongue out, it came running. Born in 1980, it curls dumbbells, gives the rock-out hand signal to everyone, and blasts some White Snake every chance it gets. It wears a shirt that says “PPB: Plenty of Powder to Burn.”
This caliber is impressive, though. It offers the light recoil of a .243 or .25-06 and the versatility of a .308. With an approximate .280-diameter bullet and lots of powder to burn behind it, it also has a very flat trajectory, especially out to several hundred yards. Typical weight is 140 grains and muzzle velocity is usually around 2,850. Another reason it’s so popular—it has much less recoil than that of a .308 Win or .300 Win Mag.
“This gun is a steppingstone with potential to be a cornerstone,” Kutney said. “Of my children old enough to hunt deer in Minnesota, all of them have used the youth model Remington 700 in 7mm-08 Rem that I bought when my oldest was ready to hunt. As they graduate from the youth model rifle and hand it down to the next sibling in line, they get their own rifle to keep. The youth model Remington 700 is the steppingstone, but for my oldest daughter, the 7mm-08 Rem cartridge has become her cornerstone.”
“If you had to pick on it at all, you could say it’s not a long-range cartridge,” Kutney continued “But it is certainly sufficient for deer at practical ranges for most hunters.”.30-30 Win. This guy is old, fat, heavy and slow. Like, real old and fat. Nearly 125 years old, he carries a walking cane everywhere he goes. Looks like the fellow who hangs out outside the local stock pen with a beer gut and a piece of barley hanging out of his mouth. Or, the war veteran who hangs out and plays cards at the local hangout. Don’t let him fool you, though, he’s tough as a brahma bull and meaner than a cottonmouth snake.
This caliber has likely killed more whitetails than any other, too. Sure, with a 150-grain bullet loping at 2,400 fps, you won’t take this gun to the open prairies or ag fields. But it’s most certainly capable in wooded-timber settings, and solid inside of 150 yards.
“It’s an oldie but goodie,” Frank said. “This one has been a trusted caliber in deer camps for generations. Lever guns have nostalgia, too. If lever guns aren’t your thing, then a 30-30 probably isn’t for you. It will continue to be a part of gun communities for generations to come, though. It has very little recoil.”
Since this round is associated with fast-cycling lever actions, and its heavy-bullet design, some refer to it as the ultimate brush gun. It might be a little more forgiving if you nick a limb that’s close to the deer. That said, don’t purposely shoot through cover with any caliber..308 Win. This bad boy eats creatine and supplements for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If it had an alter ego, it’d be popular, and it’d go to the clubs with a woman on each arm. That makes sense, being that it was voted “Mr. Popularity” in high school … in the late 60s. Now in its 70s, there’s some salt and pepper up top, but it still stands tall, stocky and proud.
This caliber offers the best of all worlds—knockdown power without the heavy recoil. It has an average muzzle velocity of 2,800 fps and typical weight of 150 grains. “A rifle in this caliber gives you the capability to take whitetails and larger game,” Frank said. “Additionally, the .308 Win has some great options for folks interested in long-range shooting. This short-action platform is highly accurate and match-grade bullet options have been available for quite some time.”
It’s easy to find on shelves, too. “It’s accurate with lots of bullet options (designs, weights, capabilities),” Frank said. “This is one of the rare big-game hunting calibers that has FMJ offerings available for practice.”
It does have a couple drawbacks, though. “This cartridge has less velocity than some other whitetail and big-game cartridges, and thus, has more drop than cartridges like the .270 Win or 30-06,” Frank said. “Additionally, it has less energy compared to those cartridges. I think this really only comes into play on larger game.” .30-06 SPRG. The .30-06 sports a bit of a dad bod, and proudly walks around with a twinkling eye and sly grin asking everyone, “Who’s your daddy?” But, now over 100 years old, it’s more like, “Who’s your great, great, great granddaddy.”
Some say the .30-06 is almost dead. But to others, it’s another favorite. Of course, it’s still among the most-sold calibers in the country and a great all-around gun that can do just about whatever you ask it to (within reason). Its average, 2,800-fps muzzle velocity and typical 150-grain bullet can do a lot.
“It’s a staple,” Kutney said. “It’s a cartridge that is versatile and good for a wide variety of hunting. There is a tremendous number of offerings for this cartridge. The 30-06 was my choice for my first deer rifle because it has withstood the test of time, was sufficient for North American big game hunting, and I knew I could find ammo for it no matter where I was. With the wide variety of ammo available, try a few top choices to see if there is one your rifle likes best. Sometimes, rifles have favorites, too.”
This caliber does have limitations, though. “Lower velocities—compared to magnum 30-caliber cartridges—limit the range for this cartridge,” Kutney said. “However, advancements in projectile technology available in bullets are making this cartridge capable at ranges not realized in the past.”.300 Win Mag. If any of the alter egos on this list were Mtn Ops men, it’d be this guy. The .300 Win Mag spends its entire paycheck on vitamins, proteins and meal replacements. Probably goes to the gym and says “Brah” ever other word, too. Even puts #Gains on every social media post. But he is a tough guy, throws a nasty roundhouse kick, and doesn’t take any crap.
Humor aside, this thing rocks a shoulder. It’s a surefire rifle, though. You don’t always get a pass-through, but with 3,250-fps speeds and a 150-grain bullet, the energy transfer inside the body cavity is astounding.
“This is the gun for folks who always want to have enough gun,” Frank said. “It’s capable of killing deer at long range. Has tons of energy. This is another cartridge that works on everything from whitetails to elk. Lots of bullet options. The price paid for the terminal long-range performance of this cartridge is recoil and ammo price. It’s often around $10/box more than previous options.”
At times, it can be overkill, though. “This cartridge will create some massive tissue damage on short shots,” Frank said. “Most bullets in this cartridge are designed for taking game at longer distances. The velocity and energy are extremely high at close range.” .350 Legend. This guy is reminiscent of the 30-30 … without a neck. You’ve seen them—people without a neck. They’re all head and shoulders. But it doesn’t care. Confidence is its middle name, and it knows nothing about humility. After all, Legend is in the name. It talks the talk and walks the walk, so we’ll give it a pass.
Being brand new in 2019, some might say it shouldn’t make the “best” list. But it’s just that good, and we feel it has a place here. With a 150-grain bullet and muzzle velocity of 2,300 fps, it arguably ousts the .450 Bushmaster as the king of straight-wall options. That’s huge for states like Ohio.
“It’s fun and affordable—perfect for the beginner and recoil-sensitive deer hunter,” Frank said. “It’s straight-wall compliant, accurate and deadly out to 250 yards. This is one of the few deer-capable cartridges with affordable FMJ practice ammo. Similarly priced to .223, someone can get a box of 20 for under $10. Nothing else on this list can say that.”
This is not a long-range cartridge, though. It drops dramatically and energy is significantly lower past 250 yards. That’s really the only negative things you can say about it. But again, it reigns in the land of straight-wall calibers.
“If you have not shot a .350 Legend, you need to,” Frank said. “With the lack of recoil and other benefits of this cartridge, I think you will quickly fall in love with it.”