It’s a question that comes up regularly in deer camps, in coffee shops, at sporting goods outlets and at dinner tables: "What is the best cartridge for Arkansas deer hunting?"
In place of the word cartridge, the term used may be bullet, load, round or ammunition. That’s fine. Deer hunters know what is meant.
The cartridge is a second priority in effective deer hunting. First is the ability to shoot accurately under hunting conditions, to put the bullet where it will take down a deer. Good shooters are made, not born, although some obtain that "good" status more readily than others.
A long-standing statement on deer ammunition is "more deer have been killed in Arkansas with the .30-30 than any other load." This is probably true but is unverifiable. No records are kept on what is used to take deer, no surveys that we know of have been made. But it’s a good guess. The .30-30 is tops, and the .30-06 is likely close behind with maybe the 12-gauge slug in third place.
But things seem to be shifting. Today’s deer hunter is likely to use a telescopic sight on his or her rifle. The hunter is likely to prefer a flatter shooting cartridge even if this ballistics factor isn’t readily known to the hunter.
If daddy or granddaddy used a .30-30, today’s hunter may use a .243.
Yes, the .243 is one of today’s more popular cartridges in spite of some folks calling it a kid’s load or a woman’s load. It is a good deer killer – again with shooting ability the top issue.
The .243 is made on the .308 pattern but with a smaller diameter. The .308 is sometimes called the NATO load, as it was a favored military cartridge until the arrival of the lighter ammo, the .223. The .308 replaced the .30-06 in American military firearms because it was shorter, meaning more suitable for automatic weapons, and had only a little less power and velocity.
Another popular cartridge in Arkansas deer hunting is the .270, a relative of the .30-06 that is and usually slightly flatter shooting, slightly less punch than the venerable .30-06, which is now more than a century old. Not as common but also well liked by some hunters is the .25-06, another .30-06 offspring.
The .7mm-08 has its fans. This is an offspring of the .308. The .308 family is a little shorter than the .30-06 types, a difference of little effect in deer hunting.
Today’s Arkansas deer hunting ranks include many who believe that bigger is better, meaning the magnum cartridges give them an advantage. The magnums include the 7mm Magnum, the .300 Magnum, the .338 Magnum. Yes, they are powerful, and yes, they deliver some punishment to the shooter’s shoulder.
After World War II, when the Arkansas deer restoration was getting off the ground, surplus military rifles from all over the world were sold here and were used here. The various Mausers, the Lee-Enfields and others were usually in the .30 caliber neighborhood and were effective on deer.
In recent times, other and more modern military rifles have come to prominence but in shorter, lighter cartridges. Most common is the 7.62X39 used in the Kalashnikovs (AK-47) and SKS, weapons of Russian and Chinese heritage. These cartridges are roughly equivalent to the .30-30 in velocity and power.
Among deer hunters, the "little" cartridges may be gaining in popularity. These are the .22 caliber types, with the military background .223 the leader.
The bullets are light compared to all those .30 caliber loads, even light compared to the .243. But the .223 types are high in velocity, meaning flat shooting, and they take quite a few Arkansas deer. Recoil is gentler.
Ammunition is readily available for the .223 user and is often noticeably cheaper than the larger calibers.
A point for argument on the .223 rifles is magazines. Many can be fitted with 20-round,.30-round, 40-round magazines, even 75- and 100-round magazines. It encourages spraying the woods with lead, detractors say, since the rifles are autoloaders.
Best cartridge? Still a campfire topic and still secondary to marksmanship.
Joe Mosby is the retired news editor of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission and Arkansas’ best known outdoor writer. His work is distributed by the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.