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My Favorite Whitetail Cartridge

By Jon R. Sundra

My Favorite Whitetail Cartridge
The author has hunted deer across the U.S. with a variety of cartridges, from the .223 Rem on up. He wants enough gun, but no more than necessary. This philosophy flies in the face of today’s emphasis on magnums and even super magnums.

Anytime you stick your neck out and say that such and such a caliber is “the best,” you’re really crawling out on a limb, but saying it’s your “favorite” kinda lets you off the hook. I mean, there’s no litmus test or the affirmation of others required. To be your favorite, a cartridge need only be . . . well, your favorite, for whatever reasons, even arbitrary ones.

Now, if that sounds like I’m setting the stage for a cop-out, that’s not the case at all. Take whitetail cartridges, for example - assuming for argument’s sake there are such things, just as we assume there are antelope, elk and dangerous-game cartridges. I have a favorite, and my reasons are hardly arbitrary. Rather, they’re based on what I consider to be a cartridge that is the perfect balance of size and power for hunting whitetails under typical hunting conditions.

“Well there ya go,” you may be saying to yourself, “already this guy’s copping out by qualifying his choice as determined by ‘typical hunting conditions.’”

Well, yeah, because it seems to me you have to choose your cartridge — just as you would your rifle and scope — based on how and where you hunt. You can’t base your choice on wanting to cover all scenarios, no matter how extreme — like beanfield shooting or hunting Coues’ deer in the Southwest, where in both cases truly long-range shooting is required.

My Favorite Whitetail CartridgeNo sir, specialized hunting requires specialized equipment, and that’s not within the purview of this discussion. You’ve got to set some sort of reasonable parameters in choosing a cartridge, and my favorite is based on typical hunting conditions in the eastern half of the country.

Now, I’ve hunted deer in all but a handful of states, east and west, and in Canada, so I think I have a fairly good perspective on the subject. Of course, there was a time when whitetail and eastern hunting were virtually synonymous. But in recent years, the much more adaptable whitetail has made serious inroads into the lower elevations and river bottom country of the Rocky Mountain states where mule deer once reigned unchallenged. In fact, last year I shot a 150-plus whitetail on a Montana mule deer hunt! And I saw more whitetails than mule deer!

So what’s my favorite cartridge for hunting white-tailed deer? It’s the 7mm-08 Rem Let me hasten to add, however, that its two closest siblings, the .308 Win and the .260 Rem, which are based on the same case, are so close that if I were limited to any one of the three for the rest of my deer hunting days, I wouldn’t give a hoot. Each has slightly different attributes, but to my mind, any of the three makes a superb deer round. There are also two other members of this cartridge family, the .243 and .358 Win, which like the others, are derived by simply necking the basic .308 Win case up or down with no other changes. Both have justly earned reputations as competent deer rounds, but in truth, neither is as versatile a game cartridge as the other three.

My Favorite Whitetail Cartridge
Shorter than their nearest competitors, the .260 Rem outperforms the 6.5x55 (left), the 7mm-08 Rem bests the 7x57 (center), and the .308 Win come close to the .30-06 (right).

Anyway, I should point out that I arrived at the 7mm-08 not because I’ve slain umpteen deer with the cartridge, but because I’ve slain umpteen deer with many different cartridges, including the 7mm-08, from the .223 Rem to .300 magnums.

My choosing the 7mm-08, with its two siblings just a frog hair or two behind, is obviously not based on absolute power or velocity because all three vie for the lowest rung on the performance ladder in their respective calibers. No, I like this trio because each delivers adequate energy downrange, over flat-enough trajectories, with minimal recoil. And except for the .260, which is chambered only by Remington and Kimber, the 7mm-08 and .308 are available in every action type so as not to exclude anyone regardless of whether they prefer a slide action, pump, semiauto, lever, single shot or bolt gun.

Should anyone think that qualifying my cartridge choice based on eastern hunting involves too much compromising, consider that even the least potent of this trio delivers more than 1,500 foot-pounds of energy at 300 yards. Is that adequate? Well, the .30-30 Win, a cartridge that has undoubtedly accounted for more white-tailed deer than any other in the 111 years it’s been around, doesn’t deliver that much punch at 100 yards (actually, it’s at about 80 yards that the .30-30 drops below that). I don’t know who or how they came up with a minimum of 1,000 foot-pounds as the yardstick for lethality on deer-size game, but would anyone argue that inside 80 yards, the .30-30 is not one lethal deer-harvesting machine?

My Favorite Whitetail Cartridge
The .308 Win, at left, sired four offspring (L to R): .358 Win, .243 Win, .260 Rem and 7mm-08 Rem. All are based on the same case simply necked up or down.

Any doubts as to the capabilities of the 7mm-08 Rem should be dispelled when comparing it to the legendary 7x57 Mauser and the near mystical lethality attributed to it (I’ll spare you the “Karamojo” Bell elephant stories). That formidable reputation was based on a conservative 175-grain round-nose factory load at around 2,450 fps. I say “conservative” because in deference to whatever Model 93 Mausers are still floating around, 7x57 factory ammo has always been loaded to pressure levels that are about 10 percent less than, say, the .308 Win or 7mm-08 Rem.

Once our ammo makers got around to loading lighter and more versatile spitzer bullets in the 7x57, typical 140-grain factory loads exited around 2,660 fps, but that’s still at the lower pressure limit. The 7mm-08, on the other hand, sends that same 140-grain bullet anywhere from 2,770 to 2,860 fps. Bottom line: Whatever the 7x57 can do ballistically, the 7mm-08 can match. Again, though, that’s comparing factory loads. The fact that the volume of the Mauser case is virtually identical to that of the .308 Win means that handloaders can equal 7mm-08 performance if using the same pressure levels, which is safe to do in any modern bolt-action rifle.

The most popular and best-suited deer load among the 7mm-08 factory offerings are the various 140-grain polycarbonate-tipped bullets, which is what I’d normally use in a handload. Exiting at a realistic 2,800 fps (22-inch barrel) and zeroed dead-on at 200 yards, my point of impact at 250 yards is minus 3 inches. At 300 yards, POI is minus 7.3 inches, retained energy is a hefty 1,600 foot-pounds, and retained velocity is still an impressive 2,300 fps.

My Favorite Whitetail Cartridge
The author believes the .260 Rem deserves to be more popular among deer hunters. Only Remington and Kimber chamber for it. At left are its only competitors, the 6.5x55 Swedish and the .264 Win Mag.

That’s at 300 yards! Even cutting that back to 250, how many whitetails east of the Mississippi are taken at ranges in excess of that? And remember, we’re not including beanfield hunters who deliberately post themselves on stands where they’re actually hoping for a 300- or 400-yard shot. I wish I had some statistical data to back me up, but I’ll bet that more than 95 percent of all eastern whitetails harvested are taken inside 250 yards. And at that distance, the 7mm-08 is more than enough gun. It’s also flat-shooting enough that hitting out to that range is no problem ... on paper anyway. The real world is something else again. You need a real steady rest to make a 250-yard shot, and bench-steady shooting platforms are scarce in deer country!

Aside from its more than adequate ballistics, I like the 7mm-08 because the typical guns chambered for it are carbines. Since it has ballistics to spare, the loss of a few feet per second in exchange for a 20- or 22-inch barrel is no big thing. I’m not a fan of ultralight rifles, but for deer hunting I can appreciate a short, fast-handling rig that with scope, sling and a full magazine weighs around 81/2 pounds. As such, I’m looking at 14.7 foot-pounds of recoil. Putting that in a relative context, a same weight .30-06 backs up to the tune of nearly 20 foot-pounds, pushing a 165-grain bullet.

Now, I’m not particularly recoil-shy - in my line of work, I can’t afford to be - but after a couple hundred-thousand rounds, you come to appreciate cartridges that are efficient, i.e., have all the performance needed to get the job done under any likely circumstance, without subjecting one to unnecessary recoil. In that respect, I’m like a silhouette shooter. I want a cartridge that will reliably knock down that most distant target with a minimum of recoil. Trust me on this: The less recoil, the better one can shoot ... under any circumstance.

I have seen far too many hunters using .300 magnums out of stands where they can’t see more than 75 yards, to shoot an animal that on the hoof weighs less than they do. They often choose such guns on the chance that at some point in the distant future, they may or may not make that elk hunt they’ve been dreaming about. Meanwhile, deer season after deer season, they subject themselves to 30 foot-pounds of recoil when a rifle that generates half that will do the job swimmingly.

Or they choose a .300 magnum on the chance they’ll see a buck at a distance that actually warrants a .300 magnum. My answer to that is: Why choose a stand or blind, or hunt the kind of country where a shot may present itself that stretches or is beyond the capabilities of the rifle you’re using? I like to post myself where I can command a good view of the surrounding terrain and where I have at least one long-range shooting lane, but I never knowingly put myself in a position where I’m likely to be presented with a shot I shouldn’t take. It’s just common sense.

Virtually everything I’ve said about why I like the 7mm-08 applies to the .260 Rem and the .308 Win While I like the 7mm version best, like I said before, I wouldn’t lose any sleep if I had to use either of the other two. A 120-grain bullet out of the .260, and a 165 out of the .308, is what I prefer. The .260 provides virtually the same trajectory and energy figures as the 7mm-08. For youngsters, women or otherwise recoil-shy shooters, 12.6 foot-pounds of recoil (8.5-pound rifle) make this round pleasant enough that anyone can shoot it well.

It’s pretty much the same story with the .308. It has a slightly less-flat trajectory and a tad more retained energy, but not enough to change anything. With a 165-grain bullet, an 81/2-pound rifle delivers about 17.2 foot-pounds of recoil, enough more than the other two that it could be an issue for someone who’s recoil sensitive, but otherwise not.

Subscribe Today!It’s interesting to note that in comparing the .260 with its nearest commercial rival, the 6.5x55 Swedish, the latter accounts for more moose (an animal that weighs five times the average whitetail) in the Scandinavian countries than any other caliber by far. And in any handloading scenario, the .260 would have a slight edge because it has a tad more case capacity.

As for the .308 Win and its nearest rival, the .30-06, when pushing the same-weight bullet, the .308 arrives at 300 yards with 92 percent the energy of the ‘06, and impacts only a half inch lower. To put in another way, the .308 is at 285 yards what the .30-06 is at 300, no more, no less.

So there you have it: my rationale for the 7mm-08 being my favorite whitetail cartridge, and why, if I couldn’t have it, I’d choose one of its siblings.

Reprinted from the July 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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