Three vital components to any successful deer hunt are your location, rifle, and the cartridges that will bring down your quarry.
The cartridge you use is especially important if you are hunting for mule deer, given that the average “muley” tends to be larger than their eastern relatives. You want to make sure you are packing enough power to bring down a trophy every time, or you will end up chasing your quarry for what could be a miles-long adventure.
The following are the four best mule deer cartridges. While many of these cartridges could rank as the best ammunition for sport shooters, each ranks as one of the best hunters can use to bag a mule deer.
Why Cartridge Type Matters
Mule deer are larger, which means they need a particular type of cartridge, but the role of the terrain is just as crucial in cartridge selection. The natural habitat of the mule deer tends to be mountainous and very open, which means the deer can spot predators like a person from a long way off.
The terrain means cartridges that reflect the following will work the best:
- A flat cartridge that resists gravity and pushing from the wind
- Velocity to ensure bullet expansion through 400 or 500 yards is vital
Those two facts dictate the best ammunition for sport shooters for mule deer hunting and make it easy to narrow your options to just a few possibilities.
Short-action cartridges are also a good choice because they pack as much power as a long-action cartridge but save you a few ounces. That is a small amount of weight, but when you are hauling gear a few miles in and, hopefully, a large deer out, every ounce counts.
Finally, there is the matter of precision. Long-range shooting is affected by many factors, so you do not want recoil to add to the list of ways your shot might not be true. The lighter the recoil, the more likely you will be able to maintain your aim through your shot.
None of these factors are deal killers, but making sure your cartridge choice addresses each can mean the difference between downing a deer, wounding it, or missing it altogether, so why not give yourself every advantage possible?
157 Weatherby Magnum
As a cartridge, it is difficult to beat the 157 Weatherby Magnum. The magnum is engineered for open-range shots and holds over long distances. Its trajectory is extremely flat, especially compared to its competition, and it packs a wallop even when shooting over 100 yards.
At 500 yards, a 100-grain magnum cartridge will only drop about 20 inches and still travel about 2.243 feet per second (fps.) For comparison, a 100-grain .25-06 Remington will drop almost 35 inches and fly over 100 fps slower. The reduced drift also benefits if you shoot in less-than-ideal conditions, where a slight breeze can make a huge difference.
Working against the 157 Weatherby Magnum is its recoil, which tends to be extremely stiff. While most hunters can easily compensate for its 20 ft.-lbs of recoil energy, smaller hunters might find it bruising and difficult to maintain aim through the shot.
Another great choice is the 260 Remington. While it is “old school,” it remains a premier option for mule deer. A typical .260 will fire a 120-grain bullet faster than most of the competition and match its competitors to as far as 500 yards.
Its drift is comparable with the competition. The .260 will drop around 40 inches at 500 yards, which is almost identical to the 6.5 Creedmoor, and it only has about 13 ft.-lbs of recoil energy. The lower recoil makes it a great choice even when using a lightweight maintenance rifle. Those stats add up to this: The .260 Remington will work in almost every mule deer rifle.
The only downside to the .260 is the ballistic coefficient. Adjusting for wind can be a challenge, and when dialing in a shot, you have to understand how to do it accurately, or you can miss your target. For this reason, many hunters opt for a more streamlined bullet with less resistance and, thus, less drift, even in breezy conditions.
If there was ever a cartridge that thrives at longer distances, the 6.5 PRC is it. A higher barrel twist ensures stability, even at long ranges, without sacrificing velocity or the bullet giving into gravity. The cartridge is flat, so the wind is almost a non-factor. Against the 6.5 Creedmoor, the PRC has a drop of almost 6 inches less, but it is also slightly longer than an official short-action.
Falling short on the action rating means it is slightly heavier, but the addition rate of 6.5 should not be that much of a factor unless you are an extremely slight person. The cartridge’s recoil is 17 ft.-lbs, so you must ensure you can handle the higher kickback before hunting. If the recoil is not a factor, then the 6.5 PRC will more than meet your needs.
A classic cartridge, the .308 is not sexy but more than capable. The .308 is the follow-up to the .30-06 Springfield and is one of the market’s most popular short-action big-game cartridges. While ideal for mule deer and whitetail, the .308 can also drop elk and bear, and it has a relatively small drift factor at less than 20 inches.
The other upside to the .308 is its popularity. It is not ubiquitous but is about as common a cartridge as there is. You can find the .308 at almost every gas station, sporting goods store, and hunting establishment. You must pass a background check in places like California, which is the same for most cartridge purchases.
Factoring in drift, recoil, and short-range action, the cartridges on this list will more than meet the challenge of any western hunt. For mule deer, any on this list of best ammunition for sport shooters ensures that if your aim is true, you can bring down just about anything within range and squeeze out a longer shot if necessary.