The .243 Win (Winchester) is a great rifle caliber and bullet for deer. Since it’s development, the .243 has been especially well-received as an entry-level youth and women’s big game cartridge. This is mainly due to the .243 Win’s inherently low recoil which prevents new shooters from developing nasty flinching or other recoil-related bad shooting habits.
The trick with this small but capable cartridge is identifying which of its wide selection of bullet weights is the best deer bullet for .243 Win shooters to use on 150-250 pound, deer-sized animals. And then, getting good at putting that little bullet in the right place on a deer’s body to quickly and cleanly kill it.
So, what’s the best deer bullet for .243 Win? The “best” deer bullet for .243 Win rifles is a 100 grain bullet in a cartridge containing enough powder to propel that bullet/projectile roughly 2900-3000 feet per second (fps). At that bullet weight and projectile velocity, enough kinetic energy is available to make clean reliable kills out to 400 yards.
But this isn’t the entire story. Because there are plenty of .243 Win cartridges and bullet weights that will reliably kill deer. So, after 40 years of deer hunting, and more deer taken by my family with a .243 than I can count, I’ve boiled down your options when hunting deer with .243 ammunition.
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.243 For Deer?
First, let’s get this out of the way right off the bat—a .243 is more than capable of killing any deer-sized big game animal in North America. That includes:
- Mule Deer
- Wild Pig
- Sheep – Yes, I said it…
Having witnessed dozens of clean deer kills and one black bear kill that were the result of well-placed and accurate shots to vital organs, I can tell you that a .243 Winchester will definitely kill both large and small whitetails, antelope, and mule deer.
You’ll notice I said “well-placed and accurate…”. And this is where the .243 and all cartridges and rifle lore and tall tales come into play. You see, deer are tough animals, no matter what size cannon you happen to be shooting at them. If you don’t make a good hit on vital organs, you risk wounding, crippling and/or failing to recover a dead deer.
I’ve helped track wounded, supposedly “well-hit” deer, shot with all manner of magnum cartridges from 7MM to .300 Win Mag, reportedly mortally hit. But at the end of a thin blood trail, never to be seen or recovered again. They were all undoubtedly the results of poor shot placement.
Most of these goose chases left us to wonder if the animal died, as we were unable to find and recover them due to a lack of shooter skill and not cartridge or caliber killing capability.
So, what gives?
The fact is, that the diminutive .22 long rifle cartridge with its little tablet-sized 45-50 grain bullets has no doubt fed more depression-era families venison and more sadly felled more poached deer than any other cartridge.
So why is it that any time a couple men start talking hunting cartridges, the .243 is more often than not, scoffed at as a serious deer round?
My answer, after listening to many a conversation like this, is that lacking the motivation and commitment to proper training, skill development, and practice, most mediocre marksmen decide that more firepower is the answer to their lack of shooting skill and confidence.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
Where to Shoot a Deer with a .243
The title of this section should more appropriately be called, “where to shoot a deer … with any caliber bullet”. Because at the end of the day, and this is just about a universally accepted truth by the “experts”, shot placement is more important than caliber selection.
There are 3 high-odds, shot placement locations on a deer and literally hundreds of miserable-odds-of-a-clean-kill locations on that same animal.
The three highest odds, best places to make a clean, fast kill on a deer with a .243 are:
- Broadside, double-lung shot – The Best
- Broadside, heart shot – Pretty Good but a small target to hit accurately
- Broadside, liver shot – This is usually an accidental “good” shot that happens when a deer steps forward at the most inopportune time.
All other shots, including neck shots, chest shots, the ridiculous head shot, and anything in the rear 2/3s of a deer’s body are all the folly of desperation and lack of patience. These shots occasionally work. However, they usually cause, in my experience, all manner of mayhem to ensue, possibly ending in lost game.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, you can kill a gutshot, one lung shot, or spinal shot deer. But the odds of recovery on those shots are low, while the risk of wounding and failure to recover an animal are high.
Also, because it’s a legitimate question, slightly quartering to or away shots are okay with a .243, but let me tell you a story…
I shot a running whitetail buck—running shots are a whole other conversation—but I shot this little buck right in the shoulder where I was supposed to. Yet after tracking him for hundreds of yards, we could tell something was wrong.
When we finally recovered him down a ravine, we field dressed him out. An investigation into the wound cavity found that the 100 grain, .243 bullet had hit a rib and glanced forward, taking out one lung and lodging in the buck’s windpipe.
How Far to Shoot a Deer with a .243
How far should you shoot at a deer with a .243? The farthest you should expect to reliably and more importantly, ethically shoot and cleanly kill a deer with a .243 is 400 yards.
Of course, deer have been taken with a .243 at farther distances, but those cases are the exception to the rule. So when we are talking about average ability marksmen and hunters, 400 yards is a good benchmark to stay below.
Luckily we have some rules of thumb and plenty of opinions and controversy to pick from in our research here.
Col. Townsend Whelen, decades ago, put forth a rule of thumb that it takes roughly a minimum of 1,000 ft.-lbs. kinetic energy to effectively kill deer at a given distance. Since we have pretty accurate modern ballistics charts and trajectory tables, we know what kinetic energy is left after a given bullet travels a set distance.
For a .243, that distance is about 400 yards before a 100 grain .243 bullet drops below that 1,000 ft.-lb. kinetic energy threshold.
In my experience, this range bears out as I’ve seen several big-bodied mule deer go down hard or walk several yards and tip over after being hit in the vitals by a .243 at ranges out to 350 yards.
Beyond 400 yards, you’re playing too long of odds that you’ll make a clean kill and easy recovery on a deer with a .243.
Craig Boddington goes into detail about other factors beyond kinetic energy that affect quick, clean kills and why you might want to consider them. That article is in-depth and may confuse the beginner, but it’s got some good information and a detailed perspective on the issue.
What Grain .243 for Deer
Yet in reading that article above, I realized when writing these articles, that once you get past the minimum benchmark to get the job done with an individual cartridge, caliber or bullet weight, everything’s opinion, mine included. So always at the risk of disagreement, it’s my opinion that anything less than 95 grain bullets for hunting deer with a .243 is “non-optimal”.
And if you look at the available factory ammunition offerings for .243 deer cartridges, major factory ammunition manufacturers agree, because this is what grain .243 bullets for deer are the most popular and widely available:
- 100 grain .243
- 95 grain .243
- 105 grain .243
Just about right in that order of preference.
I’m writing an article on how and why different rifles “like” different ammunition, but the fact is they do. Only testing different brands, bullet grain weights, and bullet construction types will tell you what your .243 prefers to shoot accurately.
And this is why it’s so hard to make specific ammunition recommendations. And also why any article or anyone who tells you this or that ammunition is “best” is only telling you their experience with a different rifle than yours.
For instance, my daughter’s Savage Axis .243 Muddy Girl rifle shoots factory Federal Power-Shok .243 Winchester 100 Grain Soft Point ammunition like it was firing the most expensive and meticulously hand-loaded cartridges.
That Federal .243 ammunition, by the way, is some of the most mass-produced, inexpensive, and widely available ammo you can get for the .243.
And out to 300 yards, proven with kills on numerous whitetails and a black bear in Washington, that rifle paired with that 100 grain .243 ammunition is simply deadly.
And in contrast we tried some more expensive brands and different grains of ammunition including 95 and 105 grain bullets, and none of them performed as well or grouped and good as those affordable Federals did.
Now that’s not to say that a 95 or 105 grain bullet from another manufacturer won’t get the job done, because they will. But we test several different factory loads of varying bullet weight and construction on all of our rifles before finding the “one” that matches a rifle barrel’s preference. And believe me, they all fly with different impact points and accuracy.
A .243 for Mule Deer?
Now, this is a common statement, “Well, that .243 might be good for Iowa whitetails, but these Western mule deer are a different story.”
First, in the woods of Northeast Washington, Iowa and any other state that has stout healthy whitetails, a huge whitetail buck can top 250-300 pounds. So the argument that a .243 Win is species specific isn’t valid. What those folks are really talking about is animal size and weight.
Don’t get me wrong, a 300 pound deer of any species is a tough animal for any of many calibers to bring down. But once again, we are talking about several factors that come into play when cleanly killing mule deer.
- Shooter ability – Accuracy and experience
- Shot placement – Deer Anatomy
- Distance – Kinetic energy capabilities
- Cartridge type – Bullet weight and construction
Get all those right and a mule deer will go down the same as a whitetail … or antelope for that matter.
I shot a 4×3, medium-sized muley in Washington at 190 yards that walked a few steps and tipped over in the brush. That deer weighed close to 225 pounds. But a shot behind the shoulder through both lungs is a game ender no matter the caliber.
Best .243 Bullet for Deer Summary
As I mentioned, the best deer bullet for a .243 Win may in fact be that Federal 100 grain soft point that my daughter’s rifle likes. However, you’ll need to test fire several different brands and bullet grain weights to find the one that your rifle “likes”.
Start with 100, 95, and 105 grain factory ammunition first, and if you can’t find anything in those 3, switch ammunition brands and try again. It’s really the best way to figure your own rifle out.
But as for the question of whether or not a .243 will cleanly kill deer-sized game? As any Minnesota whitetail hunter will tell you if you ask them, “You betcha!”