In the firearms community, the discussions of hunting rifles, calibers, and bullet types takes on a religious fervor. There are lots of opinions and anecdotes, but precious little agreed-upon data. However, I discovered a relatively controlled study of deer hunting by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. They collected data on a private range under observation using hunters of varying skill levels targeting white-tail deer. I found their methodology and data quite interesting. It seems their primary interest was in the utility of tracking dogs after the shot, but they collected data across the board.
As far as distance vs. results:
We determined that on this study site, the mean distance of shots taken at deer was 132 yards and that there was a significant difference between shots that resulted in a deer (127 yds.) and those resulting in a miss (150 yds.).
It almost goes without saying that you don’t need a sub-MOA sniper rifle to take out a deer at 150 yards, or even a particularly impressive optic. Even a simple red dot optic sighted at 100 yards would suffice (I sight mine in for 200 yards to easily cover the intermediate ranges). The study bore this out by finding no difference at all in the success rate using stock factory rifles vs. customized rifles. That’s something to consider when you’re shopping for a hunting rifle. Unless you are an accomplished marksman shooting at over 300 yards, don’t blow your cash on a super-customized, sub-MOA rifle. I’ve consistently nailed silhouettes at 400 meters shooting offhand with a stock 5.56mm H&K G36 mounted with a simple red dot optic. It isn’t rocket science, but rather a matter of practice. Spend the difference on practice ammo and range time, and you’ll be more effective in the field.
BTW, this also means that it makes no difference if you use a bolt-action or semi-automatic rifle, though the latter will enable faster follow-up shots for the average shooter. Make sure that you follow your local hunting laws for semi-automatic rifles if you go that route.
The department looked at ammunition as well. They found that all calibers between .243 and .30 were statistically equally effective. So much for the caliber wars. Further, they found that low-tech soft-point ammunition to be more effective than the more expensive controlled-expansion rounds like “Partitions, Grand Slams, Barnes X, and various types of solids.” Looks like you can save money on ammo as well. Note that the department included “too much bullet” in the same category with the high-tech rounds.
This indirectly addresses the usefulness of magnum rifle calibers. I see people pushing .300 WinMag in particular for all sorts of stuff. Unless one is shooting mountain sheep across the valleys in Colorado at 500 yards, or big game in Africa, one rarely needs anything bigger than a .308 in North America, and that includes moose and elk. Any rifle ammo that ends in “magnum” is overkill and you’ll likely not practice with it much because of the recoil and ammo costs. Don’t fall for the bogus theory that, as the SCDNR study put it, “I use this magnum because you can hit them in the butt and blow their head off”. Only in the movies.
Lastly, and most importantly, is shot placement. This is always the most critical element of shooting game. As is sometimes said, a hit with a .223 is better than a miss with a .50 BMG. The study showed that the most effective hits were in the neck and shoulders. All others, including the heart and lungs, trailed in effectively dropping the deer where it stood.
Bottom line – buy a comfortable factory rifle in a moderate caliber. Use a good soft-point hunting bullet and practice until you can reliably place your shots within about a 4″ circle at 100 yards. Shoot the deer broadside in the shoulder if possible. You don’t need to be a sniper, just consistent as just described. You’ll be filling your freezer in no time with money left over for practice ammo to stay proficient.