By Jeff Johnston
Rest easy folks, for I’ve gone and figured out the perfect whitetail cartridge. Of course, this revelation could change after the 6.5 Creedmoor proves it’s more than a fad, or if Hornady, Federal, Winchester or Remington come out with something else that strikes deer down like a recoil-less laser beam, but for now I’m sold on one caliber: the 7mm-08 Remington. Here’s why.
To even become a candidate, a caliber must have plenty of punch to kill deer—that means that in most shot scenarios, it should go all the way through the beast from almost any angle—but not too much power so that the rifle unnecessarily kills my shoulder. Light-kicking rifles are so much more pleasant to shoot, and easy to shoot well, even if you switch to your left shoulder when a big buck stalls out at the 4 o’clock position behind your tree. Everyone knows a .338 Winchester Magnum will do everything a .243 Winchester will and plenty more, but is it really necessary? Of course not. We are talking perfection here, not one-gun-for everything, so let’s focus on what exactly we need for the whitetail whacking at hand.
Most white-tailed deer weigh between 75 and 250 pounds on the hoof—with about 150 being the average—and most shots are less than 400 yards. The average shot, just guessing based on all the places I’ve hunted, is likely only about 75 yards. Sure, I’m aware that occasionally a corn fed Canuck whitetail might tip the scale at 350 pounds, so if you think you might shoot a 350-pounder, don’t hesitate to use a bigger gun. Point is, I’m throwing out the extremes—such Florida’s tiny Key deer, 99-percentile obese deer, ridiculously long shots and deer doggin’ scenarios where close-range running shots are as well served with a .30-30 lever-action or buckshot than anything. If you’re a Western dude who routinely shoots across canyons, I might sub the 7mm-08 Rem. for a faster .280 Ackley Improved, 7mm Rem. Mag., 257 Wby. Mag., 6.5 PRC, .264 Win. Mag. or the venerable .270 Winchester, if you want perfection, but were aren’t talking mule deer.
The ultimate whitetail cartridge must be prolific, meaning it can be easily purchased; it must be inherently accurate and it must be available with premium, commercially loaded bullets. I prefer a short action, just because like the majority of American deer hunters, I usually hunt out of treestands where lightweight, compact rifles are coveted. The short actions shine here. (See, I told you I was going to be picky, as I’m fully aware that the half-inch longer action of a .30-06 Springfield will never be noticed.) Now, you might say, how could I not choose wonderful short-action cartridges like the .308 Winchester, .260 Remington, 7x57mm Mauser or about a half-dozen choices more that perfectly fit my criteria?
Well, truth be told, I have a hard time not making the .308 my No. 1. It’s a short action with more energy than a standard 7mm-08 at 2629 fps with a 150-grain bullet, yet it still has friendly recoil at around 18 ft.-lbs. of free energy in a 7.5 pound rifle. Its popularity extends worldwide and may in fact be the most prolific round anywhere, thanks to its adoption by NATO, so it’s got that going for it. It’s inherently accurate, efficient, deadly, and I’ve killed more whitetails with a .308 Winchester than with anything else. Put a Barnes X, Hornady GMX or old Failsafe bullet in it and there’s hardly anything it can’t do, even on elk-sized game. Any deer hit reasonably well with it is dead, but it’s a .30 caliber, which I quite subjectively feel is in the upper size spectrum for deer. That said, you can’t go wrong with an ‘08, and I will be the first to defend your choice.
The .260 Remington is basically a .308 case necked down even further to a .264 caliber bullet. As such, it’s a perfect caliber for deer with its 120-grain bullet traveling 2930 fps for 2459 ft.-lbs. energy and recoil around 13 pounds in a 7.5 pound rifle. Even so, I consider it on the low-perfect caliber spectrum for whitetails, just because I like to shade on the side of overkill, but this is a wonderful round to everyone unless you happen to be a buck.
So, what is the perfect caliber (not cartridge), since we’ve danced all around it? Probably a .277. Indeed a short action, theoretical .270-08 might be the cat’s meow, but I suspect that it’s not available because it’s so close to a faster .270 Win. and a slightly larger diameter 7mm-08 Rem. that a .270-08 has never been assumed to be commercially viable. So, that leaves me with the .284 short-action calibers that are readily available, and man, do I love a 7mm.
Frankly, the only reason I’m not choosing the venerable 7x57mm Mauser round as my No. 1 is due to my blind American pride—that, and because its popularity over here now which has afforded it more loading options. The 7mm-08 Rem., despite its metric-system name, was made in 1980 by the Remington Arms Co. by necking down .308 brass. It’s my No. 1 pick for a pure whitetail rifle, and here’s why.
Academically, the 7mm-08 fires a 140-grain, .284-inch diameter pill at 2800 fps, resulting in 2,400 ft.-lbs. of energy, although many newer factory loads such Hornady’s Superformance produce around 2950 fps for 2650 ME. That is plenty of speed and energy for deer at any distance. It’s also a comparatively light-kicking round. It yields only about 17 pounds of recoil in my featherweight, 6 pound Remington Model Seven (in standard loadings) and much less than that—around 13 pounds—in a more typical 7.5 pound rifle. Its trajectory, thanks to its high B.C. bullets and velocity, is flatter than a .308 Win. and .30-06 Sprg.
As for power, I’ve routinely used a 20-inch-barreled Remington Model Seven in 7mm-08 Rem. on 200- to 300-pound wild boars on my land in Oklahoma, and as long as the bullet is a premium, controlled expansion type, I have no problem dropping them where they stand, including when shot through their armored shoulders. That tells me right there that I’ll never be under-gunned for whitetails, even on long shots through the shoulders or quartering heavily away.
From all the guns I’ve ever shot in it, it’s accurate—which of course is more a product of the gun and chamber/barrel mating than the caliber itself—but nonetheless, the 7mm-08 Rem. has always delivered tight groups for me. For long range, here’s the scoop: at 500 yards it still has around 1,000-ft.-lbs. energy and 1,300 ft.-lbs. in magnum (2900 fps) loadings.
In sum, the 7mm-08 Remington is a deadly round for whitetails, but it’s also pleasant to shoot, carry and handle while in a cramped treestand due to the fact that it’s commonly available in some of the niftiest little rifles. I don’t think there’s a better round going for the average, but I’m always up for a good debate.