Text & Photography By Russell Thornberry
One thing I’ve learned in my years as a hunter and outdoors writer is that hunters never agree on a single perfect rifle caliber for whitetails, or anything else for that matter. The truth is that any single choice of caliber for all deer hunting on this planet will suffer somewhere in the whitetail’s diverse world that includes open prairies, densely timbered hardwood swamps, vast mountains, ad infinitum. So, rather than put all my eggs in one basket, I have several picks for whitetails, depending upon the terrain where I intend to hunt. What follows will make a case for but one: the Remington .25-06, my personal favorite for a fairly thick slice of the whitetail hunting pie. But this is not just about a single rifle caliber. It’s about a most deadly match of an outstanding bullet to a wonderful deer cartridge.
Photo Above: The author is shown here with a dandy 10-point buck that fell to his “Beanfield” .25-06 — a Remington Model 700 stainless action, rebarreled with a 26-inch Shilen Premium Match Grade Stainless No. 5 contour barrel with a 1 inch-in-10 twist. The rebarreling job was done by gunsmith Holcomb Kerns of Gun Works in Montgomery, Ala., famous for super accurate custom rifles. The author’s rifle consistently produces three-shot cloverleafs of 1ó2 inch or less at 100 yards with the Nosler 115-grain Partition bullets loaded in Federal Premium factory ammo. The long barrel produces a muzzle velocity around the 3,150 fps mark. No need to handload for this rifle.
About 1975, I read something written by gun writer Bob Hagel about the .25-06. He said that the 115-grain Nosler Partition was unusually devastating when fired from a .25-06. Hagel said this combination in the hands of an experienced hunter who knew how to choose his shots was even enough medicine for elk. I was captivated by Hagel’s comments and decided to give the .25-06 a try. I have never hunted elk with this combination, but I can tell you that countless whitetails and mule deer wish I had never read Mr. Hagel’s words.
Photo: The .25-06 Remington (right), like the .270 Winchester (center), were both achieved by necking down the .30-06 Springfield (left) to .25 and .27 calibers respectively. Both offsprings of the .30-06 are considered beltless magnums because of their ability to reach or exceed 3,000 fps at muzzle.
My first .25-06 was a rebarreled pre-64 Winchester Model 70. It had a 24-inch Douglas Premium barrel with a 1 inch-in-10 twist, ideal for the 115-grain Nosler Partition bullet. With 52.5 grains of IMR 4831 powder (maximum load in this rifle), I achieved a muzzle velocity of 3,160 fps and, at 100 yards, I could consistently achieve three-shot groups of 1ó2 inch or less. So, essentially I had a .25-caliber, tack-driving beltless magnum.
Although the .25-06 was introduced as a wildcat cartridge about 1920 by famed gunsmith A.O. Neidner, by necking the .30-06 case down to .25 caliber, it really didn’t come into its own until after World War II, when slower burning powders became available to handloaders. IMR 4350 boosted velocities without excessive pressures, and then Hodgdon 4831 came along and even eclipsed velocities achieved with IMR 4350. Suddenly, the .25-06 was capable of magnum velocity, substantially exceeding its former rival, the .257 Roberts. In 1970, Remington introduced the .25-06 as a factory cartridge, thus making it available to the entire shooting world.
The .25-06 cartridge had remarkable medium-sized big game shooting potential with any number of bullets, ranging from 100 to 120 grains, but when loaded with Nosler’s 115-grain Partition Spitzer bullet, its performance stepped up to a new dimension. With a ballistic coefficient of .389 and sectional density of .249, Nosler’s 115-grain Partition made the .25-06 incredibly lethal. The penetration performance of the .25 caliber, 115-Nosler Partition bullet seemed to defy logic.
My first hunt with my .25-06 was in northern California for Columbia blacktails. On the last evening of my hunt, I spotted a handsome buck on a mountainside across a wide draw. The buck was standing above me, facing downhill. There was some brush covering his chest, so only his neck and head were in view. I estimated his range at 300 yards. I lay down and took a careful rest, placing my horizontal crosshair on the top of his antlers and the vertical crosshair centered between his eyes. When I touched off the shot, the buck virtually dissolved from my view. It was almost dark when I got to him. The shot hit him between the eyes, exited out the back of his skull, then entered his spine between his shoulder blades and traveled the full length of his spine, exiting at the base of his tail. In other words, the incredible little 115-grain Nosler bullet had traveled the full length of the deer — through bone — and still exited! I was astounded. So was the buck, which dropped in his tracks. Over the next 10 years, I experienced similar results on deer of all sizes, including a number of large Alberta whitetails.
Photo: Federal Cartridge Company offers the exceptional 115-grain Nosler Partition bullet as a factory load for the .25-06 in their Premium Cartridge line.
In those days, I was still in the guiding and outfitting business in Alberta. On one occasion, I was tracking a wounded buck in the snow. One of my hunters had made a bad shot, and the buck was traveling on three legs. I walked up on the buck and jumped him out of his bed at about 30 yards. The big-bodied deer lunged straight away from me as he boiled out of his bed. I swung my .25-06 to my shoulder and shot him going straight away on his second bound. He folded up like a scalded spider.
When I skinned the buck, which weighed 255 pounds field-dressed, I made a startling discovery. Just opposite of the episode with the California blacktail, the bullet entered the buck at the base of his tail and smashed forward through his spine, neck and skull, finally coming to rest under the tender black skin on the tip of his nose. It was one of two .25-caliber, 115-grain Nosler Partition bullets I have recovered from deer-sized game. I estimate that I have shot more than 100 deer with this bullet/caliber combination, and, in all but two cases, the bullet drove through and exited.
Some will argue that the ultimate bullet performance occurs when the bullet stacks up under the hide on the offside of the animal. My experience tells me something different. I tried other bullets in my .25-06, and some expanded to the classic mushroom and came to rest under the hide on the offside of the animal. While these shots were ultimately fatal, the game would run 50 to 100 yards before dropping. In most cases, these were broadside, center lung shots. Similar shots with the 115-grain Nosler Partition would drop the animals in their tracks, and, in every case, the bullet would exit the offside.
On both whitetails and mule deer, I distinctly remember making center lung shots and watching the deer jump straight up in the air upon bullet impact, only to come down in a heap without taking a single step. Unusual devastation, to say the least. I can’t explain how or why it happens, but I can say, from much experience, that it’s a common response. This bullet/caliber combination is just plain awesome. I have taken game from point-blank range, all the way out to 400 yards, with this combo. The results are always devastating!
Photo: In open country like crop fields and prairies, the author considers the .25-06 Remington potent medicine for whitetails, mule deer, blacktails and antelope.
In the early 1980s, my .25-06 heyday, Nosler decided to discontinue the .25-caliber, 115-grain Partition bullet, much to my horror. I immediately notified all my regular hunting clients and had them buy all the bullets they could find. Happily, I ended up with a lifetime’s supply of those precious little bullets. Then, a few years later, the Nosler folks came back to their senses and began manufacturing them again. Then, in the late ’90s, the .25-caliber, 115-grain Partition bullets started showing up in factory loads. Remington and Federal now offer the 115-grain Partition as factory fodder for the .25-06.
Today, the .25-06 benefits from post World War II powders that produce magnum velocities within acceptable pressure tolerances, and the 115-grain Nosler Partition bullet is available in several factory loads. The bottom line is that you can now shoot this incredible rifle/bullet combination without even having to handload. And if recoil is an issue to you, you’ll be delighted at how mild this caliber is to shoot. Women and kids can shoot it, too, without excess recoil punishment.
Like its big brother, the Winchester .270, and some of the real zippy, light caliber, belted magnums, the .25-06 is not a brush buster. Save that job for bigger, slower bullets. But for open shots from zero to 400 yards, the .25-06 is my deer rifle of choice — as long as it’s loaded with Nosler’s incredible 115-grain Partition bullet.
– Russell Thornberry