Who doesn’t love a good cartridge debate? Whether it's sitting around a campfire in the cold autumn woods or typing furiously back and forth on internet forums, we seem to revel in the pros and cons of different approaches to hunting. I’ve sat through several of these types of debates and prepared some thoughts for today’s topic: Is a .223 Remington suitable for hunting deer?

The .223 Remington


.223 Ammo
There are plenty of options when it comes to .223 ammo, but not all of them are the best for deer hunting. Hunters should shy away from FMJ options and choose soft-point or bonded bullets specifically designed for hunting deer instead. (Photo: Paul Peterson/Guns.com)

The .223 has been around for a long time now, and it has seen use in nearly every shooting application people can find. The small-case Remington shoots .223-caliber bullets typically in weights between 40 and 75 grains, though recent bullet developments have broadened that spectrum to include bullets as large as 90 grains as well. 

Many rifles chambered in .223 Remington feature a 1:9 twist, which allows for shooting most bullets that fit in the traditional 40 to 69-grain category. Many of the newer rifles chambered the round offer faster twists like 1:8 or 1:7, which allows you to shoot 75- and 80-grain bullets. The more specialized bullets with 80+ grains likely need barrels with a 1:6.5 twist in order to stabilize the long and heavy-for-caliber bullets.

.223 Rifle
There are plenty of .223 rifles out there these days as well. (Photo: Jeff Wood/Guns.com)

The .223 has enjoyed a great deal of attention in the varmint, predator, and small game hunting circles. Shooting the typical 50- to 55-grain bullets, they achieve fantastic velocities in the neighborhood of 3,200 to 3,400 fps depending on the load. As bullet weight increases, the velocity decreases – generally speaking. But the larger and more efficient bullets often carry their energy better and further. These heavier bullets are ideal for shooting further and delivering higher energy on the target. (Remember that, we’ll come back to it later.)

Deer Hunting

.223 Rifle
There are some considerations to take into account before you go out to bag a deer with .223. (Photo: Jeff Wood/Guns.com)

Perhaps the oldest and most celebrated American hobby is pursuing deer to feed families. Every year, we all prepare with excitement for the annual event. Even as I type this, there is dried deer blood on the backs of my hand from earlier this morning. 

The smaller members of the deer family typically pursued by American hunters consist almost entirely of the two most prolific species found in North America – the mule deer and the whitetail deer. Even a large deer of either species can be handily put down if enough energy is put in the right place, countless deer have been killed by a diminutive .22 LR to the head (though I wouldn’t recommend it).

.308 and .223 Ammo
Most deer-hunting calibers offer heavier bullets, like the .308, but that doesn’t exclude .223. Still, the size difference between .308 and .223 is substantial. (Photo: Eric Jezierski/Guns.com)

RELATED: .308 vs .223 for Hunting Whitetail Deer

Deer are typically targeted in their vital organs, which are mainly the heart, lungs, and liver as a distant third. Deer are certainly not bulletproof, and even the meatiest and big-boned deer can be penetrated by modern bullets fired at reasonable velocities. The bone structure surrounding their vital organs can either be perforated by powerful bullet impacts or circumvented by cunning shot placement.

Where the Metal Meets the Meat


.223 Ammo
There are plenty of choices when it comes to .223 Rem ammo, including various hunting options. As a general rule, however, you want to get as much mass to deliver as much energy as you can on larger game. (Photo: Paul Peterson/Guns.com)

Hunting either of the two deer species mentioned can be done with the .223 Remington, but it should be done with a little more diligent preparation. If you bought the most common box of .223 ammunition off the shelf at your local store, it would likely be a better fit for other shooting activities such as varmint hunting or range plinking. Full-metal-jacket and varmint-type bullets are not great options for taking down a deer. Sure, it can be done, but a diligent deer hunter would use something more appropriate for the animal they are hunting.

.223 Rifle
The .223 round offers accuracy, with sub-MOA groups in the cards with the right load, and you may be surprised by how well it can take down a deer with the right round. (Photo: Jeff Wood/Guns.com)

Proper bullet selection is perhaps the most important equipment consideration when it comes to hunting deer with a .223. Varmint bullets like the Hornady V-Max are excellent bullets for small game, but their explosive expansion upon impact may not allow the bullet to penetrate into the vital organs of a larger animal like a deer. FMJ bullets will likely penetrate better, but their lack of expansion could do insufficient damage where you want it.

Hornady Varmint .223 Ammo
Lightweight, fast-expanding bullets like this Hornady varmint bullet are great on small game, but they may not be the best choice for deer. (Photo: Paul Peterson/Guns.com)

Expanding bullets, preferably of a larger size, will do a much better job of breaking bones and damaging the vital organs of your prey. Good examples of heavier bullets for deer would be something like the 64-grain soft-point ammo from Winchester. I have watched many bucks fold from a Sierra 69-grain Match King, and my personal favorite for deer-sized animals is the Hornady 75-grain ELDM. These bullets aren’t typically marketed as hunting bullets, but in my experience, they have performed exceptionally.

The larger mass of these bullets carries additional weight and energy to the target. Even if they shed some weight on impact, there is still enough remaining mass to damage the vital organs sufficiently.

Shot Placement

Deer after a hunt
Deer aren't bullet proof, so .223 can get the job done, but there is not substitute for shot placement. (Photo: Jeff Wood/Guns.com)

Regardless of the cartridge used, good shot placement is key to a clean and humane kill. When shooting a small cartridge like the .223, it is even more important. With less mass and weight due to the bullet’s smaller size, it is key to make sure the bullet’s energy is spent in the right place. If a bullet has to pass through two feet of tissue and green stuff, there will be little energy left to damage the vitals. 

Hitting the center of a deer’s shoulder will likely use a good portion of the bullet’s energy to get through the shoulder, reducing the remaining energy as it passes through the rib cage. Shifting your point of impact a few inches and avoiding the shoulder itself could greatly improve the bullet’s energy as it passes through the vital zone.

Final Words

Over the years, I and those I hunt with have managed to take quite a few deer and antelope using the .223 Remington. It may not be ideal for certain applications, but it is certainly useful as long as you use proper bullets and can shoot them accurately enough to hit the right spot. Economy and recoil are two added benefits that give the little cartridge an advantage, making it a great choice for new or smaller shooters.

Check your local regulations, as some states have minimum caliber restrictions. But if you’ve ever considered the .223 Remington for a deer cartridge, give it a try and you may be pleasantly surprised with how easy it can be done.

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