For many years intermediate calibers were the name of the game when it came to selecting the right cartridge for hunting deer, but that is not necessarily the case anymore. Due to improvements in ammunition technology and our understanding of the energy a bullet carries with it, .223 Remington has become a popular deer hunting cartridge. While many hunters have been using .308 Winchester for decades when taking whitetail deer, the growing popularity of the .223 among shooters has made many consider using the smaller projectile for their caliber of choice. Let’s dive in and see if .223 is the best caliber for the job on your next hunt.
For many years, most states required the use of an intermediate cartridge for whitetail deer hunting. There are still some states’ regulations that deem .223 too small, such as Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia to name a few. In states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin, laws have been updated to allow the smaller, faster round to be used.
In contrast, .308 is a caliber that is universally known as a fantastic deer hunting round in places that allow rifles for the sport.
What You Need to Take Whitetail Deer
A common measure is that is used to determine whether a round is powerful enough to take whitetail deer is the energy the bullet delivers. 1,000 ft pounds of energy is often thought of as the minimum power a bullet can carry to ethically take a large game like deer.
Most .223 cartridges designed for hunting use will have over 1,200 foot-pounds of energy when fired from a full-length rifle barrel. This is considering that the projectile is roughly 62 grains or heavier, and the bullet if zipping along at a blazing 3,000 feet per second. By these measurements, the .223 has plenty of power to take down a whitetail deer ethically.
In comparison, a 175-grain projectile from a .308 caliber rifle will deliver over 2,600 foot-pounds of energy when traveling over 2,600 feet per second. While this is more than double the energy of the .223, it is worth noting that increasing bullet weight does not always mean more energy delivered to the target. In fact, with most factory loads, the lighter weight bullets of .308 will usually deliver more energy upon impact.
It is also interesting to note that comparing the effects either of these bullets have in ballistic tests, both rounds have similar penetration depths. The .308, however, creates a wider wound channel.
Why Choose .223
One of the most popular rifles today is the AR-15. One reason for its increased popularity is that the platform is affordable, ergonomic, and lightweight. Another reason is that we have a large population of veterans among us who are familiar with the platform, so they tend to gravitate back to it. Since the .223/5.56 is the most common chambering for the AR-15, it’s no surprise that people would want to use it to hunt with.
.223 is one of the most affordable rifle cartridges available today. This means that it is reasonable to assume that most of us have the propensity to train more with our rifles chambered in the caliber. Part of taking a deer ethically is being able to put a well-aimed shot where we intend to.
Why Choose .308
While .308 ammunition is more expensive than .223, it’s still relatively inexpensive and easy to practice with. Also, there is no doubt that .308 hits much harder than .223. Finally, .308 has a much greater effective range.
With a greater effective range, .308 might be the clear choice if you are hunting whitetail deer in a location where you are expecting to take long-range shots.
What Ranges Could You Take Deer At?
At 200 yards you can expect a .308 bullet to drop about two inches. At the same distance, a typical .223 hunting round will drop about three inches. Both rounds will begin to drop at an increasing rate beyond the 200-yard mark, with heavier .308 bullets dropping slightly more than the lighter .223.
One major concern is that .223 will lose energy much faster than the .308. Beyond 100 yards, .223 will have energy less than 1,000 foot-pounds. This tells us that ethically .223 should be used at ranges of 100 yards or less. For some hunters, this may not be a realistic option, but for many, a lot of those shots you might get at a trophy whitetail are likely to be well within that range.
Whitetail deer are skittish creatures who prefer to live in dense forests where they are well-hidden from predators. If we consider the success that bow hunters have with whitetail deer at ranges of 50 yards and in, suddenly 100 yards seems like a very reasonable range.
You’ll have to determine for yourself if you really think that you are going to need to range out beyond that 100-yard mark to take your deer. This should be done through a two-part process. First, scout your hunting land to understand where the deer are and where your stand will be. Second, make a realistic assessment of how far you think you can hit the small target that is the vital organs of the whitetail deer. Note that the final shooting position will likely be different from the bench rest you might have zeroed your rifle on.
Choosing the Right Bullet
Regardless of the caliber you choose, it’s important to choose the right ammunition for the job. Soft points or hollow points should be used to ethically take a whitetail deer. These bullets are designed to expand upon impact, prevent over-penetration, and cause maximum damage to the vital organs of the game when the shot finds its mark.
Both calibers are up to the challenge of taking a deer home and helping you put venison in the freezer. While .308 is a trusted caliber among deer hunters, .223 is quickly gaining a following among the community when using the right loads. If you aren’t currently using .223, it is at least worth your consideration.