Dawn broke crisply over the high elevation desert, chasing night’s shadow across sagebrush draws and sandstone outcroppings. A small brushy flat wrapped over the rim of a nearby canyon, fingers of sunshine just beginning to feel their way between sage and scrub oak. Sweeping the flat with my field glasses, I spotted a big buck, antlers towering above the sage. I ranged the distance, dialed my turret and settled in behind the scope. This was the moment I’d planned and prepared for months to meet.
A mature mule deer buck is considered one of the hardest animals in North America to harvest. To successfully find and kill a big buck you’ll need skill, the determination of a pit bull and good equipment. Shots in the wide-open arid country mule deer call home are commonly long, so you’ll need to hunt with something that can “reach out and touch ‘em.” Translated, you should hunt with a cartridge that’s accurate and maintains downrange energy well beyond “average” shot distances.
Mule deer are not hard to kill, but they are prone to soak up punishment from small(ish) calibers, acting undisturbed until they suddenly fall over dead. For that reason, I’ve left cartridges like the .243 Winchester off this list in favor of rounds that impact with more authority. Similarly, I’ve left away bigger calibers that deliver more recoil but don’t offer the ability to make a mule deer any more dead. Choose any of the cartridges featured below and you’ll be set to hunt mule deer anywhere they reside.
1. 6.5 PRC
For a dedicated deer-hunting cartridge, in my opinion, it’s pretty hard to top the 6.5 Precision Rifle Cartridge (PRC). Recoil is mild, accuracy is generally superb and retained downrange energy is outstanding. I have killed a handful of big muley bucks with the 6.5 PRC (including the one featured in the beginning of this article) and experienced impressive results every time. Shooting a .264-inch diameter bullet weighing in the 125- to 150-grain range and starting out around 2960 fps, the cartridge isn’t built to take out Sherman tanks, but rather to kill with accurate finesse.
2. .280 Ackley Improved
Were I to choose the ideal all-around cartridge for hunting Western big game it would be the .280 Ackley Improved. Why? Because it hits hard enough for moose but not too hard for deer and pronghorn, is very aerodynamic, sports a slender case that enables good magazine capacity, and owns the panache of James Bond. Recoil is firmer than the 6.5 cartridges but less than the 7mm Rem. Mag.
The .280 Ackley sends a .284-inch diameter 140- to 175-grain projectile downrange at velocities ranging from 2850 to 3150 fps. While it used to be a wildcat cartridge, Nosler, Hornady and Federal now build factory .280 Ackley Improved ammo. My personal widest mule deer fell to a rifle chambered in .280 AI; a beautiful buck sporting double cheater points that stretch his spread to just north of 34 inches.
3. 6.8 Western
The .270 Winchester should have been on this list, you say? You’ve got a point; the venerable .270 is an awesome mule deer cartridge. However, barrel twist rate is generally slow, necessitating light-for-caliber projectiles that smoke downrange at first, but lose steam later. Not to worry; the 6.8 Western will tag into the fray in its behalf. The “Western” shoots the exact same diameter bullet (.277-inch) as the .270 Win., but is designed to stabilize long, heavy-for-caliber projectiles that offer superb long-range performance.
Brand-new on the hunting cartridge scene, the 6.8 Western is rapidly gaining popularity in the hunting field. It’s new enough that I personally have not killed a muley buck with it, though I have harvested a great bull elk and watched a buddy harvest a beautiful Coues deer buck, both at extended distances. I am comfortable in opining that the 6.8 Western will build a reputation as a fantastic mule deer and all-around Western hunting cartridge. Bullet weights will average 165 to 175 grains, with velocities ranging from 2800 fps and up.
4. 7mm Remington Magnum
The “Seven Mag” has maintained a reputation as a great mule deer cartridge for half a century, and the modern long-range shooting movement has enabled the 7mm Remington Magnum to become a headline cartridge. It seamlessly transitioned from shooting light, fast projectiles to shooting heavy-for-caliber, aerodynamic bullets, and is now considered to be one of the finest long-range hunting cartridges available. One of my favorite big muley bucks fell to my 7mm Rem. Mag.; a massive old warrior with huge, bladed brow tines and 13 inches of forked drop tine. I still feel giddy when I think about that buck.
5. 6.5 Creedmoor
This list would be incomplete without a mule deer cartridge dedicated to our ladies and youth. While many of them can shoot the above-listed cartridges with ease, some are recoil sensitive and benefit from a hunting round that is a bit more friendly on the shoulder. In my opinion, the 6.5 Creedmoor is an awesome mule deer round, and while it lacks a little of the punch offered by the afore-mentioned cartridges, it still possess deadly oomph out to ranges beyond the distance most hunters have any business shooting. My wife and oldest daughter have shot handfuls of mule deer with the Creedmoor—many of them great bucks—with awesome results. It shoots the same projectiles as the 6.5 PRC, but starts them out about 200 to 250 fps slower. It’s supremely accurate, boasts excellent aerodynamics and is beautifully comfortable to shoot.
Dozens of cartridges that didn’t make this list are great mule deer killers. I had a particularly hard time leaving the legendary .30-06 Springfield off, but this article is about the best mule deer hunting cartridges. The ones listed here are, in my opinion, the best of the best when climbing sage slopes and stalking rocky crags in search of mule deer. Choose a premium bullet, settle your crosshairs and squeeze the trigger well. If you’re shooting one of these cartridges, it won’t let you down.