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Best Old and New Deer Cartridges

Take a look at some classic deer bullets alongside some new designs.

Best Old and New Deer Cartridges

Best Old and New Deer Cartridges (RifleShooter photo)

It was Saturday morning, the second week of Kansas rifle season. Buck movement was tapering off, but I wasn’t worried because most hunters had filled their tags, except for Tim Baugh. He was using open sights, which is not much different from bowhunting in our thick timber, where darkness stays late and comes early. He was on a stand that hadn’t produced, but it should have. Tim had seen bucks, so I encouraged him to hold his ground.

A shot nearly jolted me out of my own stand. I was pretty sure it was Tim, and indeed it was. He’d taken a fine buck cleanly with an old Mannlicher-Schoenauer, complete with full stock, rotary magazine and butter-knife bolt handle—and chambered to 6.5x54 MS. I’m always curious to see what rifles and cartridges hunters bring to deer camps, especially to my Kansas camp. It’s usually a variety. Out of a dozen-plus hunters at my place, I can count on some of the usual suspects. Somebody will have a .308, .270 Win. and .30-06. Today, I can count on a 6.5 Creedmoor to be in camp. Beyond that, it’s all over the map.

Our 2021 deer season was more varied than usual, with a healthy scattering of old classics. Sam Vona brought a Tikka 6.5x55, and Bill Umbstead had a 7x57 on a ’98 Mauser action. My vote for top coolness factor went to Tim Baugh’s Mannlicher, purchased new by his dad in 1950. Let’s note right now that all three hunters, using their tired old cartridges, dropped their bucks cleanly and decisively with one shot each. Ever since its introduction in 1894, the 6.5x55 has done pretty much what the 6.5 Creedmoor does today. Tim’s 6.5x54 MS runs a bit slower. Once popular but uncommon today, the 6.5x54 was legendary for penetration and was used by early hunters with solids for elephant. It did a fine job on Tim’s big-bodied buck.

The 7x57 Mauser needs little introduction, but it is much the same as the more modern 7mm-08 Rem. We didn’t have a 7mm-08 among our hunters in Kansas last year, but our step-granddaughter Ava used one in Texas to take her first whitetail. I’ll give myself credit for the most eccentric cartridge. I spent the Kansas season with Uberti’s Courteney Stalking Rifle, which is chambered to .303 British. It’s a great little rifle, and the .303 is still a fine old cartridge. The most common remaining load is a 174-grain bullet rated at 2,440 fps.


So far, I haven’t gotten my hands on any factory ammo. My handloads with the 174-grain Hornady roundnose run about 100 fps slower than that. Unfortunately, when I was getting into a stand in the dark the scope’s elevation turret got spun (to the point it was off the paper at 50 yards, I later learned), and I missed a buck. A week later, it worked just fine. The 6.5 Creedmoor is so popular right now that in most camps somebody is likely to have one. It’s a good fit for our close-range shooting, although it’s silly to suggest it’s better than the older 6.5s. Counting me, we had 13 hunters, plus two friends who camped with us but hunted 30 miles north. Out of 15, three hunters used 6.5 Creedmoors, a strong showing.


Classic Deer Cartridges
Left to right: 6.5x54 MS, 6.5x55 Swedish Mauser, 7x57 Mauser, .303 British. These classics have 525 years of cartridge history combined, and they’re still good today. (RifleShooter photo)

Nobody brought a 6.5 PRC to Kansas this year. That sort of makes sense to me. We don’t have long-range situations, so the flat-shooting capabilities and greater downrange energy of fast cartridges isn’t essential. However, I’ve seen evidence elsewhere that the 6.5 PRC is catching on. A month before our Kansas season, buddy John Stucker and I hunted at Zack Aultman’s pine forest in southern Georgia. Sounds like timber shooting, but often it is not. Zack has some long food plots tucked away in the pines, and his place is bisected by a broad, endless powerline, where shots can stretch a long way. Also, Zack is a rifle freak, with an insatiable addiction to the latest and most accurate. John shot his buck with a new Springfield Waypoint in 6.5 PRC, and it went down in its tracks. The last couple of days I used a Bergara in 6.5 PRC, my first opportunity to try that excellent rifle. I didn’t get a deer with it, but at dark on the last evening, I flattened a hog at the far end of a long food plot.

6.5mm

A month after our Kansas rifle season, I did a mule deer hunt in far West Texas with the Federal folks. Cartridge choices are occasionally regional, and Texas deer hunters love the .25-06. Maybe—but not in that camp. Among five hunters and three guides, six of eight rifles were 6.5mms, evenly divided between Creedmoor and PRC. Texas’ desert deer aren’t as big-bodied as northern mule deer, but the country is big and open. All three guides had good 6.5s from Mesa Precision Arms, well scoped and tuned to dial the range. Two of our mule deer, and one aoudad at long range, were taken with the Mesa 6.5s. The Creedmoor’s popularity is unassailable, but with a 140-grain bullet 300 fps faster—3,000 fps versus 2,700—the 6.5 PRC is a lot more gun. The 6.5 PRC is excellent at longer ranges, and my bet is it’s here to stay.

.280 Ackley Improved

Classic Deer Cartridges
Left to right: .250 Savage AI, 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 PRC, .280 AI. These Ackley Improved rounds are two of Ackley’s best, and the Creedmoor is a current favorite for many. The 6.5 PRC is definitely an up-and-comer. (RifleShooter photo)

Among my Kansas deer hunters, there was an interesting anomaly. Lee Newton and Ryan Paul both brought rifles in .280 Ackley Improved. Lee, an avid Ruger collector, carried a No. 1 with gorgeous wood. A part-time riflesmith, Ryan built his .280 AI on a modern bolt action. Lee’s buck, cleanly dropped, was a big, heavy eight-pointer, probably the best buck of our Kansas season. A week later, Ryan used his .280 AI to take our second-best buck, a fine 10-pointer taken with a brilliant shot from a high tree stand. That wasn’t the end of the .280 AI deer. Kevin Perry saw Lee’s No. 1 and decided to borrow my .280 AI. He shot a fine buck with it. Late in the season, I carried the same .280 AI on stands where I wasn’t certain either the .303 or its small scope had the capability. In the final analysis, the .280 Ackley Improved accounted for a quarter of our Kansas bucks last year, more than any other cartridge.

Wildcatted by Parker Ackley a generation ago, the .280 AI is far from new, but it is new as a factory cartridge. It was first loaded by Nosler—and now by Hornady as well—and chambered to several production rifles. It produces near-7mm Rem. Mag. ballistics in an unbelted, sharp-shouldered case, with more compact ammo and greater magazine capacity. Like all of Ackley’s improved cartridges, ammo of the parent cartridge—the .280 Rem., in this case—can be safely used. I’ve seen the .280 AI in other camps, and I used it for the first time on a Coues deer hunt in 2020. Despite its strong showing in our ’21 Kansas camp, it may be a stretch to say it’s getting popular.




But we’re still not done with Mr. Ackley. Ryan Paul’s father, distinguished high-power competitor Clayton Paul, was also with us. His rifle probably gets the nod for 2021’s most unusual cartridge. He also carried a hand-built bolt action—in this case, one chambered to .250 Savage Ackley Improved. Not all of Ackley’s myriad wildcats achieve significant gain over the parent cartridge, but the .250 AI and .280 AI are among his best. The .250 AI equals the .257 Roberts in velocity, but it can be housed in short actions with plenty of room to seat bullets out. Clayton took his buck cleanly with the little .250, then dropped a few does in their tracks. Among these brave new and esoteric cartridges, some of us still cling to tried-and-true favorites. Steve Bennett made a nice shot with a .30-06, and Ryan Murray literally flattened his buck with a .308. Perhaps you’ve heard of those cartridges.

.308 Winchester

The hard-hitting .308 is nearly perfect for whitetails at modest shooting distances. Ryan’s buck was the only one taken with this cartridge in 2021, but it’s a perennial favorite at my camp. As I’ve written, I prefer the .30-06 because of higher velocity, but both remain excellent. In fact, on the Federal Texas hunt I referenced earlier, J.J. Reich used a Savage .30-06 with a 175-grain Terminal Ascent to take a buck on a tough shot as it moved in and out of thick cacti. Never as popular as it has deserved, 1957’s .280 Rem. is a classic cartridge. Partly just to be contrarian, John Stucker chose the Browning A-Bolt .280. In November we did a weekend hunt on the edge of the Texas Hill Country. I didn’t get a buck, but on Saturday morning, Stucker’s .280 accounted for an awesome 10-pointer, his best buck in 20-plus years on that lease.

There are other classic deer cartridges. Earlier I mentioned the 7x57, and last year I took a nice Texas buck with one in a Dakota Model 10 single shot. Another old-time classic you might have heard of is the .270 Win. For the Texas mule deer hunt with Federal, I chose a gorgeous old .270, built decades ago by gunmaking great Joe Balickie on an unusual left-hand Carl Gustav action. The rifle grouped well enough with Federal’s 136-grain Terminal Ascent to take a fine old buck at 325 yards.

Recommended


Magnums

On the other end of the spectrum, hunters will often bring 7mm or .300 magnums to our place. They work, but I’m not convinced magnums are essential for deer. Unusually, of five deer camps I hunted in last fall, I saw only two “titled” magnums. In Kansas, Steven Eber took his buck handily with a .257 Wby. Mag. And my son-in-law used his pet 7mm WSM, his favorite for deer-size game, on a Texas deer. Of course, “magnum” is just a word. The 6.5 PRC is an untitled magnum, a ballistic twin to the old .264 Win. Mag. I took a Georgia buck last year with an AllTerra in .300 PRC, also an untitled magnum ballistically identical to the .300 Win. Mag. but with a modern case design. The buck wasn’t much over 100 yards when I shot him with a 212-grain Hornady ELD-X. The buck went over backwards.

Mesa Precision 6.5 PRC
How much do our choices really matter? An ultra-modern Mesa Precision 6.5 PRC (top) and Boddington’s vintage-action .270 Win. both got the job done in West Texas. (RifleShooter photo)

On another Texas hunt last year I spent time with the new Ruger-Marlin .45-70 and used it on both deer and hogs. Nobody’s magnum, the .45-70 is a big gun. It’s dramatically effective but is limited in range by both trajectory and most common sighting equipment. My “shot of the season” nod goes to my Kansas neighbor Bobby Dierks. Hunting open country north of us, Dierks took a spectacular buck that was chasing a doe across a grassy ridge 200 yards above his stand. He was using his Henry .45-70 with a Leupold reflex sight. It was his best-ever buck, and considering the distance, caliber and sight system, it was a wonderful shot.

These rounds are all polar opposites to the .22 centerfires that seemed a major fad a decade ago. You can do it, but there are so much better tools. This seems to have died down. I haven’t seen a caliber below 6mm in a deer camp in years. Between diameter .243 and diameter .458 are dozens of great choices. At day’s end, bullet placement and construction are more important than caliber and cartridge. Our shot placement will always be better with a rifle and cartridge we enjoy using and have confidence in. I’ve seen milder 6mms, .25s and 6.5mms drop deer-size game like lightning, and today there is a new trend toward milder, lighter-recoiling cartridges. They are easier to shoot, and on deer-size game at moderate ranges, they perform well if the shot is good.

I’d be the first to say I was overgunned using a .300 PRC on that Georgia whitetail at close range, and when it comes to deer cartridges, the term “adequate” covers a lot of ground. It’s impossible to say exactly how much bullet weight, velocity and energy are required to cleanly take game. In fact, this cannot be precisely measured because it depends too heavily on bullet placement and performance—and the animal itself. I’d rather be a bit overgunned than undergunned, so I gravitate toward time-proven cartridges or new cartridges that emulate proven formulas. On deer-size game, my preferences haven’t changed much in decades. When I place the shot well, good things happen. When I don’t, trouble is likely.

On the Federal Texas hunt I mentioned a few times, the several mule deer and one aoudad were all were killed at some distance. The only animal taken cleanly with a single bullet fell to my .270. My old rifle with vintage scope was not the most accurate in camp, and in no way was I the best shooter in camp. Maybe I had more luck than my buddies. But in case I needed validation, it appeared I made a pretty good choice. New cartridges work well, but so do the classics. All required their bullets to be steered correctly.

Cartridge Comparison

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