I was visiting a popular online hunting forum recently when I came across a discussion that piqued my interest. Members were commenting on the use of .223-caliber rifles for hunting whitetails. About half of participants opined that hunters shouldn’t hunt deer with such a “small” caliber and that doing so constitutes unethical and/or inhumane hunting. The other half said the .223 is plenty lethal to get the job done quickly and responsibly, at least with good shot placement at reasonable ranges.
I then looked at different states’ firearm regulations for deer hunting and found no consistency in which rifle calibers hunters are allowed to use. Some states prohibit the .223 for deer hunting; others allow it and even other .22-caliber centerfire rifles.
As I unraveled this topic, I found that some states make it nearly impossible for deer hunters to discern which firearms are allowed. No surprise there, as it’s no secret that many states make understanding their hunting regulations harder than cleaning the bore of your rifle while standing on your head upside down in a lake.
But perhaps most disconcerting, I discovered that some states that ban the .223 for deer hunting do so based on the assumption that the caliber can’t be used to ethically harvest deer. Take Virginia, for example.
“We could argue ‘til the cows come home, but we err on the conservative side of achieving humane and ethical kills,” said Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Deer Project Coordinator Matt Knox.
Despite Knox’s argument, none of the states I surveyed had conducted any ballistic tests when determining the minimum firearm caliber to allow for deer hunting. And as you’ll see below, their rationale for banning the .223 ranged from the slightly illogical to downright faulty reasoning.
A Case for the .223
Before we dig into states’ firearm regulations, I offer a disclaimer. Nobody trumpets the .223 as the best deer cartridge out there, but this doesn’t mean states should outlaw it without sound reasoning. That’s what anti-gun and anti-hunting groups do daily, and the onslaught against the AR-15 rifle is a glaring example of their work.
Originally developed to fit the action length of the new M16 service rifle, the .223 was made popular in the AR-15 military rifle. The antis argue that civilians shouldn’t be allowed to own AR-15s because “there’s no legitimate use for them,” and “nobody uses them for hunting.” (Well, if they are illegal for deer hunting, that’s a pretty good reason not to hunt with them.) By banning .223-caliber rifles for deer hunting, it’s not a stretch to argue that states have inadvertently helped the antis make their case.
The .223 may be controversial as a deer round, but ammunition experts argue that it is certainly capable of getting the job done quickly and efficiently.
“With good shot placement and bullet selection, I have no doubt in my mind that you can ethically harvest medium-sized game like whitetail deer,” said Jared Kutney, centerfire rifle and pistol development manager for Federal Premium Ammunition. “If you’re a young hunter or sensitive to recoil, using the .223 instills good shooting habits, which will make it easier to obtain good shot placement when hunting.”
Kutney points out that determining the lethality of a firearm isn’t based just on the size of the caliber. How much killing power a firearm has is a function of caliber size and bullet selection.
“Penetration and transfer of energy, or expansion of the bullet, are both critical to achieve a lethal shot,” added Kutney. “They’re just as important as caliber.”
Consider today’s intricately designed, high-power .223 ammunition, like the 55-grain Barnes Triple-Shock and 60-grain Nosler Partition by Federal Cartridge Company. According to Kutney, “Either of those loads will bring down a 300-pound whitetail.”
Let’s look more closely at this issue by reviewing different states’ firearm regulations for deer hunting.
States use a confusing variety of standards when writing firearm regulations for deer hunting. Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, Virginia and Wisconsin indicate the minimum caliber hunters can use. But while Georgia, Michigan, North Dakota and Wisconsin all allow deer hunters to use a .223, states like Colorado, Iowa and Kansas do not.
“We [Colorado] have whitetail and mule deer, and our deer tend to be large, so our firearm regulations reflect the size of the deer we have,” said Randy Hampton, information officer for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. “The regulations help ensure that inexperienced hunters who may not take as good of shots use a firearm of sufficient ballistics and energy.”
This would be true, if we assume that higher-caliber firearms produce good, ethical kills. But we know this isn’t always the case. As Hampton said, shot selection and placement are indeed important—with any caliber. If you shoot a deer with a .270 in the hind quarters, the higher caliber won’t result in a quick and efficient kill.
Even though we know that larger caliber does not automatically equal clean and efficient harvests, that doesn’t stop some states from prohibiting the .223 for deer hunting based on the belief that the caliber is just “too light.”
“If you hit a deer anywhere other than the vitals with a .223, then it’s a wounding weapon,” Knox added. “The more foot pounds of energy you have, the less likely you’ll have to go looking for your deer.”
When I surveyed several states that permit the .223, no one indicated it produces an unusually high number of unrecovered deer compared to other calibers.
“I can’t say I’ve seen or heard of any correlation between the use of the .223 and wounded or wasted game complaints,” said Mike Korn, assistant chief of law enforcement for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Keep in mind that, like Colorado, Montana has mule deer, and the Big Sky State permits the .223.
Some states dictate which rifles may be used for deer hunting based on the amount of kinetic energy they produce. Kinetic energy (Ek) is used to estimate the destructive potential of a firearm or load. It’s measured in foot pounds (ft.-lbs.) and is equal to half the mass times velocity squared (Ek = ½ mv2).
Do you know how many ft.-lbs. your rifle and load combination produces? I’ll bet a lot of hunters don’t, making firearm restrictions based on kinetic energy a bit hard for the average guy to follow. Yet, that doesn’t stop Maryland from requiring that “Rifles used for deer and bear hunting must use ammunition developing a muzzle energy of at least 1,200 foot pounds.” According to Kutney, a 55-grain bullet shot from a .223 produces 1,300 ft.-lbs. at the muzzle, making it a legal deer hunting rifle.
Nebraska makes its firearm regulations even more confusing in that deer hunters can only use rifles that are at least .22 caliber and deliver at least 900 ft.-lbs. at 100 yards. The .223 produces about 900 – 1,000 ft.-lbs. at this distance, so it’s legal in the Cornhusker State.
Interestingly, Pennsylvania allows the use of some .223s, but bans others—.223s with bolt actions are legal, but not semi-automatics like the AR-15.
“The law’s been on the books for a long time,” noted Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission. “But hunters can use semi-automatic shotguns for taking small game and waterfowl.”
Apparently Pennsylvania is concerned about deer hunters “blazing away” with semi-automatic firearms—a concern other states don’t share.
“We receive complaints about shotgun hunters shooting multiple times at deer, but not very many on rifle hunters,” said biologist Dan Hirchert of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “My impression of folks who use smaller calibers is that they are using a firearm that they are very comfortable and proficient with and, in virtually all cases, that trumps bullet size.”
Ultimately, state game agencies certainly do have to consider multiple factors and variables when setting firearms regulations for hunting. Maybe it cannot be a “one-size-fits-all” standard. But considering that virtually all of these agencies want to recruit more hunters, and that .223-caliber AR-15s are among the best-selling, if not the best selling rifles on the market today, maybe it’s time to ask if the .223 really needs to be banned. And it certainly seems sensible, as Kutney said, to consider the .223 for young hunters.
Regardless of caliber, of course, all hunters need to pick their shots carefully, develop good marksmanship skills, and be aware of the ranges over which they can shoot well. These considerations are, and always have been, more important that a few thousandths of an inch of bullet diameter.
“To say across the board that we will not allow certain firearms, I don’t think that’s the way state hunting regulations should be written,” Kutney said.
Neither do legions of deer hunters who live in states where the .223 is banned.