While even the biggest mule deer are quite a bit smaller than elk, they’re not exactly small animals either. Additionally, mule deer often live in big, open, windy, and sometimes very rugged country. For those reasons, the ideal rifle cartridges for mule deer hunting should provide a combination of good accuracy, a relatively flat trajectory, good resistance to wind drift, and hard-hitting performance at extended range.
Long-range shots are not required, or necessarily even extremely common on mule deer. Indeed, some deer also live in places where a 50-yard shot is much more likely than a 500-yard shot. That said, average shots on mule deer are often longer than what most hunters typically encounter on eastern whitetail hunts.
Closing the distance as much as possible is almost always a good idea if doing so is feasible. However, shot opportunities on truly massive mule deer are pretty rare, so it’s best to stack the deck as much in your favor as possible.
Nothing is guaranteed in life, but choosing the appropriate cartridge (and becoming proficient shooting it) will give you some more options on the shots you can ethically take under realistic hunting conditions. So, if you get a shot at the buck of your dreams across a canyon or a sage flat and can’t get any closer, then you’ll be happy you picked a rifle chambered in a cartridge that gives you the ability to reach out a bit.
With those things in mind, my goal with this article is to provide you with a couple of good recommendations on selecting the right caliber for hunting mule deer.
Just like with my previous article on cartridge recommendations for elk, this is not an all-inclusive list. The cartridges below will get the job done for you, but they’re far from the only ones that will work on mule deer.
So, don’t be offended if your favorite cartridge isn’t on this list. However, if you’re looking for a new rifle for hunting mule deer, these 5 cartridges are a good starting point. Even if you don’t end up selecting one of them, you’ll probably still be set up for success if you choose something similar that incorporates a lot of the same principles that make these cartridges good choices.
Ready to get started?
.25-06 Remington (L) vs 6.5 Creedmoor vs .270 Winchester (R)
Descended from the legendary .30-06 Springfield, the wildcat cartridge that would eventually become the .25-06 Remington came on the scene in the 1920s. However, the introduction of powders like IMR-4350 and H-4831 to the civilian hunting and shooting communities after World War II brought the performance of the cartridge to a whole new level.
Using a .30-06 case necked down to shoot smaller and lighter .257” bullets, the high velocity, flat-shooting, and light recoiling cartridge was extremely effective on deer-sized game.
Remington formally standardized the old wildcat cartridge in 1969 as the .25-06 Remington. That same year, the company started producing factory .25-06 ammunition and made the cartridge available as an option in the Remington Model 700 rifle.
Supplied with ample quantities of good factory ammo and available in a popular and well-designed rifle, hunters quickly fell in love with the high velocity, flat-shooting .25-06 cartridge. Modern .25-06 Remington factory loads typically fire a 100gr bullet at velocities in the 3,200-3,300fps range. Hornady also offers a load for the .25-06 as part of their Precision Hunter line firing a 110gr ELD-X bullet at 3,140fps.
Those loads are absolutely deadly on thin-skinned game like mule deer and pronghorn. At the same time, the .25-06 has a trajectory similar to bigger magnum cartridges like the 7mm Remington Magnum and .300 Winchester Magnum, but with noticeably less recoil.
The biggest weak point of the .25-06 is bullet selection.
Unlike the more popular 6.5mm (.264”), 7mm (.284”), and .30 caliber bore diameters, there is not a gigantic selection of very high BC .257” bullets to choose from. While this does undoubtedly hamstring the cartridge to a certain degree, the .25-06 Remington is still capable of delivering the goods out to just about any reasonable range on deer-sized game in the hands of a skilled shooter.
Designed from the start for use by competitive shooters, the 6.5 Creedmoor has also quickly become one of the most popular centerfire rifle cartridges used by big game hunters in recent years.
The 6.5 Creedmoor does not have extremely impressive ballistics on paper. However, it is a very efficient cartridge with mild recoil specifically built to use long, heavy for caliber, high BC bullets that retain energy and resist wind drift exceptionally well. As you’d probably expect considering the competitive shooting roots of the cartridge, the 6.5 Creedmoor is also capable of incredible accuracy in the right hands.
When using bullets like a 127 grain Barnes LRX, a 129 grain Hornady SST, a 135 grain Berger Classic Hunter, or a 143 grain Hornady ELD-X, the 6.5 Creedmoor is extremely effective on mule deer. Indeed, the sweet-shooting and mild recoiling cartridge is also an ideal choice for recoil shy hunters or those who prefer lighter rifles.
270 Winchester Short Magnum/.270 Winchester
270 Winchester Short Magnum (L) vs .270 Winchester (R)
First introduced back in 1925, the .270 Winchester is another famous rifle cartridge closely related to .30-06. With a case very similar (but not identical) to the .30-06 that’s necked down to shoot .277” bullets, the .270 Winchester pushes those lighter and smaller diameter bullets at a much higher velocity.
As is the case with the .25-06, the .270 Winchester has a flatter trajectory and less recoil than the .30-06. However, the .270 Winchester performed much closer to full potential with the powders available in the 1920s than the .25-06 and was thus a much bigger commercial success from the start.
Popularized by the great Jack O’Connor, the .270 Winchester is incredibly effective on thin-skinned game from deer to bighorn sheep. With ballistics suitable for use at extended range and a mild recoil that facilitates good shot placement, the sweet-shooting, high velocity .270 Winchester is equally at home in the wide-open spaces out west, up in the mountains, and in the thicker timber east of the Mississippi. With all that in mind, the .270 Winchester is arguably the best caliber for deer in North America.
The 270 Winchester Short Magnum (270 WSM) fires the same .277” diameter projectiles as the .270 Winchester, but the 270 WSM has a shorter and fatter case that can hold a little more powder. As a result, the 270 WSM can shoot the same weight bullet about 200-300fps faster. This results in an even flatter trajectory, more resistance to wind drift, and more retained energy at longer range.
So, while the .270 Winchester is an excellent all-around cartridge for mule deer hunting, the 270 WSM is also an outstanding choice, especially for hunters who want a little better performance at longer range.
300 Remington Ultra Mag
Let’s be clear here: you don’t necessarily need a .30 caliber magnum for hunting mule deer.
However, I also don’t believe in being “overgunned” as long as you’re getting an appreciable increase in performance by stepping up to a bigger and more powerful cartridge.
Well, the .300 Remington Ultra Mag is a cartridge that certainly makes sense under certain conditions. Let’s say you drew a really tough to get mule deer tag, like for the Henry Mountains in Utah or the Arizona Strip. Both of those hunts potentially offer the opportunity to take a truly once in a lifetime buck, but it’s also very unlikely that you’ll draw either tag more than once.
Would you want to do everything possible to increase your odds of success if you drew one of those tags?
Well, stepping up to a more powerful cartridge with better extended range performance that is more forgiving of range or wind estimation errors is one way of doing just that.
Also known as the .300 Ultra Mag or the 300 RUM, the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum is the very definition of a fire breathing magnum. It uses the same .308” diameter projectiles as the .300 Win Mag, but the .300 RUM can shoot same weight bullet about 300fps faster. This results in even better performance at longer range than the .300 Win Mag, which is no slouch itself.
That performance comes at the expense of quite a bit more recoil and muzzle blast though. In fact, the cartridge has more recoil than many hunters can effectively handle, so it’s certainly not for everybody.
However, the .300 Ultra Mag offers a substantial ballistic advantage over the other cartridges on this list for shooters who can handle the cartridge and shoot it accurately. This makes it a cartridge that’s certainly worth considering for hunters who want as much reach as possible on a mule deer hunt.
The .300 Ultra Mag is by no means the only choice for hunters looking for good performance at longer range either. The .300 Weatherby Magnum, the .30-378 Weatherby Magnum, the .300 PRC, and to a lesser extent, the .300 Winchester Magnum, the 300 WSM, and the 7mm Remington Magnum have good longer range ballistics and are certainly worth considering as well.
As long as you make a realistic assessment of your ability to handle recoil and learn to shoot it well, then any of those cartridges will serve you well afield.
Honorable Mention: 7mm-08 Remington
243 Winchester (L) vs 7mm-08 Remington vs .308 Winchester (R)
7mm bullets fall in that sweet spot where it’s easier to find very aerodynamic projectiles with a high sectional density that deliver great ballistics, devasting terminal performance, and manageable recoil. Built by necking a .308 Winchester cartridge down to 7mm (.284”), the 7mm-08 Remington is a sweet-shooting cartridge that offers a balance of good external ballistics with hard-hitting power on deer-sized game.
It’s also a short action cartridge that’s perfect for use in smaller and easier to handle rifles, but still has very manageable recoil. If it sounds like I’m describing the same sort of characteristics that make the 6.5 Creedmoor such a good choice for mule deer, then you’re right. The two cartridges have very similar ballistics at typical hunting ranges, but the 7mm-08 uses a slightly larger diameter bullet that’s typically a little bit heavier.
If the 6.5 Creedmoor is more your cup of tea, then by all means hunt with it. However, don’t overlook the 7mm-08, which is also an excellent all-around deer hunting cartridge.