Start-Up Choices

By Brian Lovett

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cartridges being removed from their packaging

New deer hunters approaching their first season face many questions, from the best areas to find a buck to handling the excitement of a close encounter. But one of the more confusing considerations involves choosing an ideal cartridge and bullet.

Veteran hunters can offer plenty of advice, of course. And newbies can find reams of ballistics info online. Often, however, all that talk about muzzle velocity, downrange energy and other terms only adds more questions. Ultimately, new hunters—and folks mentoring them—must consider what’s truly important when selecting a cartridge and bullet from the scores of available options.

First Steps

“You can debate endlessly about the perfect deer caliber—and some people certainly do. But for the most part it’s like Ford versus Chevy,” says Eric Miller, Federal’s product manager for rifle ammunition. “The truth is you can find an application for many cartridges, depending on your rifle and how well you set it up. The choice is not easy, but we don’t need to make it really difficult, either.”

Miller says his first consideration is a basic tenet of rifle shooting: accuracy.

female hunter looking down the scope of her rifle

“You want to make a good shot—a solid hit in the vitals,” he says. “You can go down the rabbit hole of placement, whether it’s at the shoulder or behind the shoulder, but a good, solid vitals hit is the first part of it.”

To accomplish this, Miller says he favors mid-range rifle calibers for new deer hunters, including tried-and-true favorites such as 243 Win., 308 Win., 260 Rem., 280 Rem. and 7mm-08 Rem., and relative newcomers such as 6mm Creedmoor and 6.5mm Creedmoor.

“Whether it’s a first-time hunter or a youth, you don’t want them to be recoil sensitive, so they probably don’t need to be shooting a 7mm Mag. or .300 Win. Mag., where they’re basically waiting on the recoil and not concentrating on the shot,” he says.

The Bullet

Miller says he prefers cartridges in those calibers loaded with 140- to 150-grain bullets. Because deer aren’t built particularly tough and new hunters likely won’t be taking shots at long ranges, they’ll do well with any well-constructed bullet and don’t require high-end projectiles.

“Shoot within your capability, obviously,” he says. “Federal Terminal Ascent is the best bullet we make, but it’s in a premium lineup and probably not what a first-time shooter or youth is shooting. For most instances, my first choice would be Fusion. To this day, it’s one of my favorites. It’s molecularly bonded—which means the bullet’s lead core and copper jacket can’t separate—and has really high weight retention. You want that bullet to transfer all its energy. Inside of 400 yards, that Fusion bullet is probably one of the best we make.”

Federal Fusion cartridges and packaging laying on a table in front of a blurry orange hunter hat

Some shooters worry about terrain and cover when selecting a bullet — debating “brush” calibers or open-field calibers—but Miller says he doesn’t figure that into the equation and recommends newcomers don’t either.

“If you’re specifically talking about a new shooter or youth, they’re not going to be—and really shouldn’t be—shooting very long distances,” he says. “I’m more about placing the bullet, and if you hit a twig, you hit a twig. I put more thought into just making sure your rifle’s accurate and you’re placing a good shot every time.”

Miller emphasized that finding the best cartridge and bullet is a process. Shooters should try several ammo types and bullet weights to see which one their gun shoots best.

“If I’m shooting a .243, my gun might shoot Power-Shoks well, or it might shoot Fusions well—or something altogether different,” he says. “If one stands out, and it’s a good bullet with good construction, go with it.”


Time at the range also provides another benefit that’s especially important to new shooters: practice. “No cartridge can make up for bad shooting, and you can’t replace range time,” he says. “It’s all new to them. I think a lot of what you practice at the range tends to kick in at the moment of truth. A new shooter might have to concentrate on breathing, squeezing the trigger and calming their nerves, depending on how much they’ve hunted. Just practice the basics. Don’t take a shot you’re not comfortable with, and don’t rush it.”

For information on rifle ammunition, sight-in steps, bullet trajectories and more, check out our Rifle Basics guide.