Until recently, Kansas was a .24 caliber-minimum state for deer hunting, often written as “.23-caliber minimum.” Cartridges in .23 caliber being nonexistent, the intent was to eliminate the use of .22 caliber (and smaller) cartridges and, de facto, render 6mm the legal minimum. There was considerable debate in the Kansas legislature before the change was made to remove this provision. A primary political motivation was to support the AR community, and of course, the .223 Rem. is, by far, the most popular chambering in the wildly popular AR platform.
Today 34 of 50 states allow .22 centerfires for deer. Some of the remainder are “shotgun only” states, so that’s a pretty good majority, and it’s expressed in a variety of ways. Minnesota reads “.220 and up,” while Nevada reads “.22 centerfires and up.” Hawaii requires 1,200 ft.-lbs. of muzzle energy, while Nebraska requires 900 ft.-lbs. at 100 yards.
Both criteria seem to follow Townsend Whelen’s long-quoted theory about 1,000 ft.-lbs. at impact being minimal for deer. Both the .223 and the .204 Ruger make the grade, but the .22 Hornet and the .17s are excluded. However, many of those 34 states, including Kansas, simply say “centerfire,” and Maine, uniquely, allows “.22 magnum rimfire and up.”
I don’t particularly care for the “centerfire” wording because it obviously allows use of the .17s, .20s and mild .22s like the .22 Hornet and the old .218 Bee. I think these are below the line because sensible bullet weight and/or power and/or penetration just aren’t there.
That said, with good shot placement amazing things can be done. This magazine’s founder, Bob Petersen, loved the .22 Hornet. He shot a lot of deer with various Hornets, and customarily included one in his African battery for smaller antelope. I’ve used the Hornet over there and have had good results—actually, better than I’ve had with .17s simply because, even on small antelopes, I’ve found penetration with .17s to be sketchy.
It really doesn’t matter how the regs are written; some amount of common sense needs to be exercised. A .24 caliber minimum excludes all the .22 centerfires with heavy bullets designed for deer but allows the .25-20 and .32-20 (well under 400 ft.-lbs. at impact). These mild old cartridges will kill deer, but you’d better be close and careful. The “any centerfire” rule allows .17, .20 and .22 caliber centerfires—along with the .25-20 and .32-20—but technically, it also allows woefully inadequate handgun cartridges such as the .25 ACP, .32 Auto and .32 S&W.
However, this discussion isn’t about sensible minimums for deer. It’s about the .22 centerfires and, more specifically, the .223 Rem./5.56mm, since it is by far the most popular and thus the .22 centerfire most frequently taken to the deer woods. While this article is focused on deer, based on size one could probably include pronghorns. And based on shooting distances, hunting techniques and the fact that they are often considered pests, we could extrapolate to wild hogs. Using .22 centerfires for elk and black bear is a different subject—and another place where, legal or not, common sense should be applied.
When I first got this assignment, I asked for more time because I wanted some fresh experience where I hunt deer in Kansas. That said, using a .22 centerfire for deer isn’t a new thing for me.
Back in the 1980s I spent a lot of time hunting deer in Texas. While most of the bucks I took there came via conventional deer cartridges, I shot a lot of does and a number of “cull bucks” with .22 centerfires. This was before heavy .22 caliber bullets designed for deer-size game were readily available and before standard rifling twists would stabilize them.
I shot a number of deer with the .22-250 but more with the .223. The rise of the AR-15 had not yet occurred, and I used a Kimber (the old “mini Mauser”) and a Rod Herrett-stocked XP-100, both in .223. Typically, I shot 55-grain bullets because, at the time, they were the heaviest readily available. Mostly I concentrated on head and neck shots, generally not my forte but fairly easy with an accurate .22 centerfire and a good scope.
My alternate was a lung shot, preferably quartering away so I could slip the bullet behind the shoulder and into the boiler room. With its higher velocity, the .22-250 was devastating; every single lung-shot deer was down on the spot. Deer hit similarly with the .223 might take a few steps, but usually not many. There was this one buck, however, that I shot with the XP-100 and a broadside lung shot that took some tracking, despite the bullet going where I intended.
Times certainly have changed since then. As my 2016 season approached, I topped my left-hand Rock River AR with a Leupold VX6 2-12X and sighted it in with Hornady’s new ELD Match 73-grain bullet. It was not specifically designed as a deer bullet, but it’s a polymer-tipped expanding bullet, and with that much weight, it’s almost certain some folks are going to use it for deer. It’s also a long bullet, the longest bullet Hornady can load in a .223 case and still have it function in an AR.
On the opening day of Kansas’s deer season, I climbed into a ladder stand and waited. Dawn came and went, and another hour passed before I heard crashing in the thick carpet of oak leaves. A doe approached from my left rear, but that much noise meant more than one deer. She was followed by an eight-pointer, then another, and then another.
They kept getting bigger, and the fourth buck chasing that beleaguered doe looked really good. He was also an eight-pointer, but tall, wide and heavy. We have better bucks in our woods, but when he stopped at about 70 yards with an open window in the shoulder area, I made up my mind to take him. I shot very carefully and was pleased with the mild report and the absence of recoil. Except absolutely nothing happened, no reaction whatsoever. The buck remained standing, stock-still. Before I could fire again, he took a step and was hidden, and then he took two more steps, wobbled, and fell over.
Body-wise he was a good-size whitetail for our area. The shoulder was penetrated and the lungs were scrambled, but the bullet did not exit and was not recovered. Perhaps it came unglued, as a match bullet at that range should. I’ve done too much of this stuff to read a lot into one animal’s reaction, but the total lack thereof was unusual.
Well, Kansas is a one-buck state, but we have antlerless tags. So I rezeroed the rifle with what is unquestionably a .223 caliber deer bullet: a 62-grain Barnes TSX loaded by Black Hills. Since these are “my” deer, I’m careful with the doe shooting. I look for mature does without fawns. For this project, I wanted a good body shot. We all know head and neck shots are deadly, and it doesn’t matter too much what bullet or cartridge you use provided you place the shot right.
I got into a different stand and didn’t see anything all day until just before dark when a big, lone doe approached cautiously. She wasn’t 50 yards away and I could have taken the head or the neck shot a dozen times, but that wasn’t the game I was playing. Her body stayed covered, and the light was going fast. Finally, she stood clear, quartering to me. Perfect. I shot her on the point of the on-shoulder.
This reaction was totally normal. She whirled and ran left, toward the property line. I found her 40 yards away on the fence line, stone dead. The bullet was recovered on the far flank, absent all petals. It is worthy of note that neither the buck nor the doe shed a single drop of blood.
Other than my little experiment in Kansas, most of my use of .22 centerfires on deer has been meat hunting or culling—situations where I could pick my shots but where I wasn’t looking for the best buck I could find.
Hunting for a big buck usually means you can’t count on a perfect shot presentation. This changes the game. Back when heavy .22 caliber bullets intended for deer were new, I shot a big axis deer with a 60-grain Trophy Bonded Bearclaw. My first shot wasn’t perfect, and although the bullet held together and penetrated well, results weren’t dramatic.
To some extent the results of a deer shot with a .22 centerfire depends on your luck. A friend and I went desert mule deer hunting in Mexico about 15 years ago. Our rifles didn’t arrive, so we started the hunt with “camp rifles.” I was issued a well-worn CZ in .222 Rem., hardly my concept of a mule deer rifle.
That first day I hoped I wouldn’t see a buck I couldn’t pass, but of course I did. Early in the afternoon a buck crossed a low saddle at 100 yards. My Mexican guide was hissing “muy grande,” and the buck looked great.
Not knowing the rifle well enough to risk a neck shot, I defaulted to the lung shot, believing I could kill the deer. After all, these Mexican cowboys were among the best trackers in the world. I took the shot, and the buck fell over. It was one of few mule deer I’ve taken with a spread over the magical 30-inch mark.
Okay, it worked—but that doesn’t make it an ideal situation. I am totally convinced that, even with heavy bullets, the .223 and other .22 centerfires are not ideal for body shots on deer-size game. Heavy bullets designed for deer are far better than varmint bullets on body shots. They will penetrate and they will kill deer, but you still have the problem of a small entrance wound, limited likelihood of an exit and a sparse blood trail to follow.
Shot placement obviously counts, but so does the country. My corner of Kansas is thick oak woods, much like the Ozarks. Most deer shot at are out of sight almost immediately. Snow is rare, so blood trails are important.
On the other hand, it depends on your goals and circumstances. If you’re hunting from stands, you control the range, and provided good venison is the primary goal, you can pick your shots.
In our wide world of whitetail hunting, there are many self-avowed meat hunters who “always” take head or neck shots. An accurate .223 is a marvelous tool for this specialized situation. And, for these shots, it doesn’t matter much what bullet you use so long as it’s accurate in your rifle. In fact, if you’re serious about picking your shots, you’ll do just fine with a .17 Rem. or .204 Ruger in an “any centerfire” state.
This mindset is further self-limiting in that no ethical hunter would consider trying a head or neck shot at distance. But, hey, you’re on your deer stand. You know the range, your rifle is zeroed, and you have the accuracy. Pick your shot and take it.
How resistant are you to temptation? You’re hoping for a nice, fat doe, and you’re going to plunk her behind the ear at 80 yards. Instead, the biggest buck you’ve ever seen cruises the edge of the woods, and he’s farther, more shadowed, moving through patchy cover. Can you resist?
In this case, I am convinced your .223 is no longer an ideal tool. However, if you’ve hedged your bet with a heavy bullet designed for deer, you will get the penetration, and if you have placed the shot well, you will kill the buck. But results are unlikely to be dramatic, and it may take a while to find him in the darkening woods.