What’s the Best Dual Purpose Whitetail-Pronghorn Cartridge?
A reader, Jake J., recently asked this:
Ron, keep up the good work! I appreciate all that you do. I would like your opinion on what a good all-around caliber might be for mainly hunting Antelope and Whitetail deer?
Good news, Jake: you have lots of options.
Bad news, Jake: you have lots of options!
Best news, Jake: Here in the U.S.A. we have the freedom to exercise these options! No bureaucrat is going to make you choose among the 243 Win., 6.5×55 Swede and 270 Win. (I hear that actually happens in some countries.)
Four Main Considerations for Best Whitetail-Pronghorn Cartridge
So now… you have to figure it all out. I like to approach cartridge choice for any kind of hunting by considering four things:
1. Terminal performance. How the bullet “reduces game to possession,” as they say in the Fish & Game regulations.
2. Ballistic performance. How the bullet flies. Trajectory. Things like drop, wind deflection and retained energy.
3. Accuracy potential. Don’t fret this. Cartridges contribute almost nothing to so-called “inherent accuracy.” It’s the concentricity and balance of the rifle action, barrel, cartridge and bullet that determine accuracy. Mostly it’s the barrel and bullet.
4. Your preferred hunting style/tactics. (If you like to crawl within 50 yards of your game, a little 25-20 Winchester lever-action would suffice. If you hope to hit from 300 yards, better keep shopping.)
I’m guessing you’re like most of us 21st century hunters. You have neither the time nor excess dollars to burn seeking game within slapping distance. You want to make the most of your rare chances afield. It’s nice to shoulder a rifle that will handle long shots if necessary. But you probably don’t want to mess with 28-inch barrels, 25X scopes, anemometers and digital calculators for extreme range shooting, either. You probably want to make open-country shots out to 400 yards, maximum, yet make those 20-yard shots in heavy cover without fear your bullet is going to disintegrate on the first twig.
Top Two Considerations
We’ve got the perfect cartridge for you. But first, let’s get back to our first two considerations:
- Terminal performance. Any legal cartridge can handle this. The bullet you choose will have a much, much greater impact (pun intended) than the cartridge/caliber anyway. Both whitetails and pronghorns (plus mule deer, sheep, mountain goats, caribou) are thin-skinned and “lightly constructed.” All have been terminated with rimfire 22 Long Rifles. You don’t need the punch of an Abrams tank. The right bullet in the right place is key, and that takes us to your most important consideration…
- Ballistic performance. You want a bullet that flies flat, minimizes wind deflection and retains maximum kinetic energy. All these are addressed by the same two things: muzzle velocity and Ballistic Coefficient. Of these, B.C. is arguably the most significant. Regardless of launch speed, a blunt, squat, low B.C. projectile will soon be reduced to a plodding chunk of metal. Sleek, drag-resistant shape is what you want, and you get it with long, sharply-pointed, boattail bullets. These are offered in most calibers, but the one that seems to best maximize B.C. while minimizing heavy recoil is .264”, more commonly known as 6.5mm.
And the Best Whitetail-Pronghorn Cartridge Is…
As I see it, the 6.5 Creedmoor, 260 Remington, 6.5×55 Swede and 6.5-284 Norma offer the ideal blend of velocity, mild recoil and ballistic performance for whitetails and pronghorns. I wouldn’t hesitate to use them on anything else in N.A. — including moose! — with the right bullet and proper placement. Among these, the Creedmoor is the current darling and likely to be the most successful in the marketplace. It, the 260 Rem. and 6.5 Swede all push 140-grain bullets about 2,700 fps. The 6.5-284 Norma will boost that to 2,950 fps. My personal pick is the 6.5-284 Norma because I handload and can load it down to 6.5 Creedmoor speeds or nudge it up closer to 2,950 fps.
One knock on the 6.5-284 Norma and 6.5mm Swede are their overall cartridge length — just a bit long for easy fit in a true short action rifle magazines. The 260 Rem. and 6.5mm Creedmoor are tailored to perfectly fit short actions.
Ammo options for all these 6.5s are less than for more popular rounds like 243 Win., 270 Win., 30-06 and 7mm Rem. Mag. Prices are likely to be higher, too. If you handload you’re golden. As a handloader, I’d go with a 6.5-284 Norma, as outlined in this blog. You can load it to full potential for superb long range performance, load it down in power for less recoil. Shoot 95- or 100-grain bullets for varmints and coyotes, 120-grain for nearly anything and high B.C. 140s for least wind deflection and most retained energy. With the right bullet I wouldn’t hesitate to use the 6.5-284 Norma on elk and even moose. My more pragmatic pick of this litter would be the 6.5 Creedmoor. This little gem is THE 6.5mm round gaining adherents. It’s the most likely to survive in the long term.
So there’s my pick, Jake. If you don’t like the “oddball” 6.5mm bore size, no problem. The good old 270 Winchester, 280 Remington, 7mm-08 Remington and similar rounds are so close that you’ll never notice the difference out to 300 yards, probably 400 yards. Neither will the deer and antelope you engage.
Forget Brush Busting
By the way, you needn’t be too concerned about “brush busting” bullets. Like “knockdown power,” this is much ado about nothing. Any and all bullets will be deflected by intervening brush. Plowing through in a straight line to the target is mostly a matter of luck. Besides, few hunters these days even try to shoot through brush. We pick our shots carefully, as we should. In some 50 years of hunting, I can recall brush ruining just one of my shots, and that was a thicket at 300 yards with an oryx standing well beyond it. Stupid shot to take. No bullet can fix stupid. Besides, you can always handload heavy-for-caliber, round- or flat-nose bullets atop most cartridges if you think that gives you a brush busting advantage. I believe Hornady still sells a 160-gr. Round Nose in .264.
Here’s Magnum Option
If you’re wondering about the magnums, this blog compares the two most popular https://ronspomeroutdoors.com/blog/7mm-rem-mag-vs-300-win-mag/. This article https://ronspomeroutdoors.com/shooting/ballistics/magnum-madness/ dives even deeper into magnum cartridge performance. There’s nothing wrong with magnums if you can handle the recoil, but there’s nothing magic about them, either.
Sorry about this long, detailed answer, Jake, but we “gun nuts” like to delve into the intricacies of ballistics. That’s what makes guns and ammunition so interesting.