What’s the best deer stalking calibre?

Byron Pace with a .243

Debates will rage until the end of time about the ‘best’ deer-shooting calibre. The truth is, there is no universal winner – it all depends on what you plan to use the rifle for.

If you forced someone to pick their ‘one-rifle’ calibre for UK game, they would be most likely to say the .243 Winchester. It’s legal for all UK deer species and a good choice for foxes too. For the larger deer such as red and sika stags, though, most would recommend something larger – a .270 if not a .308.

On the other hand, if you’re after the occasional trip about, you’ll want a calibre to tackle all UK species and the occasional safari or boar/moose hunt. In that case it’s sensible to go larger again – a 6.5×55 Swedish or .30-06 Springfield.

Along those lines, some may complain that the .300 Winchester Magnum is omitted from the following pages. After all, it is permissible for all UK, European and US game, plus a good choice for all African antelope. For the regular travelling hunter, this calibre would be the perfect one-rifle choice. But it could be considered on the large side for some UK deer species, and Brit hunters may well want something that corresponds more closely to their ‘bread and butter’ stalking. On top of that, one may encounter difficulties obtaining a variation for .300 Win for UK deer, though there are a number of firearms certificate (FAC) holders who do possess a rifle in this calibre for deer.

What follows below is a short history and assessment of four of the calibres most commonly used to shoot deer in the UK. It is obviously not an exhaustive list, but for most UK hunters, it is certainly a good start.

.243 Win

A Kimber rifle in .243

Like a large proportion of UK hunters, my first fullbore rifle was in .243 Win: a second-hand Sako 75 (a joint firearm held between my dad and I). This was to be our primary rifle for several years, before moving on to the 7×57 some years later. The calibre was of limited consideration – I knew little about it and was more concerned about getting a half-decent rifle. I somewhat shunned the default choice of .308 Win and .243 Win, chosen by many to tackle the UK deer spectrum. I saw it as following the herd. Obviously rifle availability was a big part of this, and it was self-fulfilling, as more people made a calibre decision based on off-the-shelf rifle opportunity.

I would say things have changed a bit now, and hunters have become more savvy. Custom rifles have never been so popular, and with that comes a calibre choice as long as time. Having said this, after shooting many rifles and calibres, I have come full circle and returned to the stalwarts of modern UK hunting. My last rifle purchase was a .243 Win Kimber Montana.

The .243 Win takes it parent case from the .308 Win. An efficient, short-action design, the .243 Win was a breakthrough in terms of factory-loaded ammunition. It allowed hunters to shoot one calibre for a large spectrum of quarry, with moderate recoil and excellent down-range trajectory. The 6mm bullet proved accurate and, as we have seen in the likes of the 6mm BR, this was just the beginning of its potential.

Loaded as low as 55 grains, and factory loaded to 105, it makes an excellent foxing calibre while offering good knockdown power for small and medium-sized deer. For hand loaders, tapping into the long-range potential of the 115-grain bullet is available but rarely investigated. Loaded with the lightning-fast, 55-grain varmint bullet, it easily surpasses the performance from a .220 Swift.

I have found the 87-grain bullet an excellent compromise to cover foxes and smaller deer species. Running out at around 3,200fps, you are looking at a 300-yard drop of six inches with under an inch high zero at 100 yards. This excludes one from hunting the bigger UK deer species, in which case you will have to step up to 100 grains. The 105-grain Geco is excellent for this, being a relatively inexpensive choice while still providing good accuracy with suitable carcase performance.

The 95-grain Superformance from Hornady is ballistically fantastic, but sadly can’t be used at home on red deer as a result of legislation on bullet weight. In terms of long-range accuracy, many hunters will be pleasantly surprised by how good the .243 Win is, and my rifle is the most accurate I have ever owned, dropping bullets into less than 2in at 400 yards.

Interestingly, the .243 Win was intended as a long-range varmint cartridge, with barrel twists reflecting this. Soon people realised that the calibre could be used for much more than this, leading to where we are today.

It is tempting to say the .243 Win could be the answer to all, but be cautious. Beyond lightweight foxing loads, bullet selection for quarry type is important. At the top end of the .243 Win capabilities, it is a little underpowered, and placement has to be good. That is why some estates insist on calibres larger than .243 Win when stag season comes around. It does offer tremendous scope, if used with some thought and attention.

.270 Win 

I have to admit from the off: I have never been a big fan of the .270 Win. I always saw it as a lot of fuss and bluster for what it offered down-range. My first experience of the calibre was in the infancy of my fullbore rifle career, shooting a number of rifles on one cold range day. Among these were some of the original Mannlichers that were made so famous by historic African expeditions, along with an old .375 H&H, a well-used .222 Rem BSA, and a Parker Hale .270 Win. I came away from that day with no affection towards the .270 Win. There are some calibres, such as the 7×57 and the 6.5×55, that are immediately endearing. You feel like you want to shoot them more, just to feel the explosive combination of gunpowder, brass and lead again. The .270 Win just did not do that for me. I couldn’t see why it was so popular.

Today, it still isn’t a calibre I would readily add to the gun collection – but I have certainly learned a lot since that first experience. Turn the clock back as far as 1925, when Winchester launched the 130-grain .270 Win to the hunting public, and we see the beginning of a story that is anything but the success the calibre became. Instead of taking the industry by storm as expected, the calibre soon went quiet, more than likely owing to the popularity and availability of sporterised .30-06 Springfield rifles on the market.

Then, from the ashes, in a way I doubt any gun writer has ever done since, the famous Jack O’Connor rescued the calibre. It has always been unclear to me whether O’Connor was actually working with Winchester, but either way I am sure the company did what they could to encourage his promotion of the .270 Win. It is hard to deny that its early rise in popularity can be almost solely attributed to one man.

O’Connor went on to take a large spectrum of game from around the world with the .270 Win, although his wife, who was also an avid hunter, used a 7×57. During those years more and more hunters chose the calibre as a good all-round solution to North American game.

But as time wore on, we began to see cracks in the.270 Win. Most of these came in the form of excessive meat and skin damage owing to the high-velocity nature of the calibre. Some hunters began to note that although O’Connor had successfully used the calibre on big American game, it was far more suited to open range country on lighter game. Indeed the 130-grain bullet was woefully inadequate in the cold light of day when it came to efficiently hunting bigger species. Velocity was only going to count for so much. There is a certain point when you need bullet weight to penetrate and kill.

You cannot deny that the .270 Win has proved incredibly successful, and to this very day, even in the UK we see .270 Win chambered rifles leaving gun shops on a regular basis. The Forestry Commission, certainly for a time, used it as its calibre of choice, and it was the ‘go-to’ calibre of the hill stalker for many years. That said, I doubt it would have been elevated to such heights without the help of Jack O’Connor. Certainly if we compare it to other calibres available today, I would suggest that the day of the .270 Win has probably passed; even a 150-grain .308 Win offers superior down-range energy. I have hunted with the calibre, fairly extensively in Africa, and I would take a slower, heavier calibre over it every time. That said, each to their own.

 .308 Win

As most people are aware, the .308 Win we use for sporting purposes leads a Jekyll and Hyde existence. On one hand we put lead down-range in pursuit of game, and target shooters make use of the excellent accuracy to punch paper at some impressive ranges. On the other, the 7.62 NATO arms our allies and our enemies the world over. There has certainly been a lot of bloodshed using the .308 Win in military theatres.

The history of the calibre is complex. It began life as a research request from the American government to the Frankfort Arsenal. They wanted to achieve similar power and range capabilities to their already established .30-06 Springfield, but in a smaller, more compact case. Reportedly some 10,000 prototypes were made before settling on the ‘T65’, which itself went through modifications over a number years before the final case design was agreed in 1949. Further testing continued until 1954 before the cartridge was standardised as the 7.62×51 NATO.

Pressure from the commercial world, and speculated leaks in case design, saw the chief of ordinance give Winchester the permission to use the cartridge in its rifles, and hence the .308 Win was born. But Winchester was not riding solely on the back of research completed for the government-funded contract. Indeed, in the preceding years they had begun their own development, testing the .30-80 WCF in the early 1950s. Standing these cartridges together, it would be hard to see the difference, and by all accounts it was a successful project chambered initially in Winchester’s Model 80 rifles. However, from the limited information available, the calibre ceased to be a concern about the same time as Winchester was given permission to brand the .308 Win. It seems that having taken it to the concluding phases, it was easier, and one assumes more cost-effective, to run with a design that had been through years of development and testing, with the backing of the American government. The plus side was that the availability of ammo and rifles in the future, owing to its military application, would help propel the cartridge to heights they could only have dreamt of otherwise.

The hunting world owes a lot to the development of this cartridge, which was one of the first that really went for compact efficiency. Previously, the focus tended to be on packing more powder in bigger cases, and little time had been spent trying to achieve similar performance from a smaller cartridge. The .308 Win led the way with this ethos, and more than 50 years on, we see the same push in modern calibre designs.

Personally I have always shied away from the .308 Win. I saw it as the default no-imagination choice of so many hunters, although I would take nothing away from its capabilities. Time has morphed my view, however, partly as a result of testing so many .308 Win rifles for Sporting Rifle. The ease of use, ammo availability, undeniable accuracy, and sheer choice with regard to rifles and reloading makes the .308 Win hard to ignore, especially when considering the scope of game that can be taken with it. Certainly in the UK, there is nothing it cannot handle, and for the most part, loaded with the correct bullet weight and type, the calibre will tackle most game around the world.

.30-06

More 7.62mm – or .308 – bullets have been fired than probably any other calibre. Not only is it used currently by the US military in the 7.62x51mm NATO round, it was also used in the .30-06 Springfield service rifles adopted in 1906 for many combat roles, including long-range sniping. During World War Two America also supplied arms and ammo in .30-06 to many Allied countries, including Great Britain.

As far as sporting calibres go, the .308 is one of the most popular of all, leading to a vast array of bullet weights and designs. The .30-06, however, has been left behind in the modern world of calibre choice. Seen as dated and less effective compared to modern Magnums, this hugely successful calibre deserves serious consideration from hunters in every country, including the UK. Indeed, the usefulness of the calibre is reflected in the fact that every major manufacturer offers rifles chambered in .30-06.

The extensive history and reloading options for the .30-06 make this an exciting calibre to tinker with. Seen by Frank C. Barnes as “undoubtedly the most flexible, useful, all-round big game cartridge available to the American hunter”, its hunting credentials extend back to its introduction via a bolt action rifle, the Remington model 30, in 1921.

Seen for decades as the standard by which all other big game cartridges should be judged, it’s perhaps surprising to find that it performs very well even when pitted against more modern rounds.

The .30-06 can cover all bases for the UK hunter

For all antelope, deer, goats, sheep, black and brown bear, the 180-grain guise of the .30-06 is judged by experienced hunters to be able to cope with virtually any hunting conditions. In the past it was used for dangerous game in Africa, including lion, buffalo, and leopard, on a regular basis (although a 220-grain bullet was more widely used for the biggest and most dangerous game). Despite this, many countries ban its use on big game today – probably a sensible move for all but the most experienced hunter.

A 175-yard zero proves the most useful for the 180-grain bullet, equating to a 1.4in-high zero at 100 yards. Coincidentally, this is also the zenith (highest point) of the trajectory above line-of-sight (using Federal ammo with a Nosler partition bullet). According to Federal, this drops a 200-yard shot 1.2in below the aim point, with all shots out to that range within a 2.6in kill zone. This is very respectable.

Available trajectory data also shows virtual mirroring of the 150-grain .30-06 and .308 Win out to 200 yards, with the 06 falling less rapidly beyond the zero range, gaining 1.6in on the .308 at the 400-yard mark. On top of that, a super-fast (3,400fps) 110-grain bullet compares well to similar bullet loads from other calibres. Running it alongside the.270 Win shows that the .30-06 only starts to noticeably drop off from the .270 after about 300 yards – this despite the .270 packing an extra 100fps muzzle velocity.

So what use is the .30-06 to the modern-day UK hunter? Well, albeit at a stretch, it covers all bases. It is a little heavy for foxing, and can’t boast the laser straight trajectory of a .220 Swift, but on other hand you can’t hunt a bear with a 50-grain bullet, not if you want to stay alive. The 110-grain bullet will adequately take care of any deer in the UK, while heavier options give you scope for varying conditions, foreign travel and wild boar.

It doesn’t do anything the .308 Win can’t do cheaper, and in some cases more accurately. For hunting, however, this is largely irrelevant. So if you don’t want to follow the crowd, and don’t mind paying a little extra for the ammo, then embrace an old favourite with a long shooting heritage, and choose the .30-06.  Byron Pace

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