Too much recoil in a deer gun can make for bad shots, missed game, and sour feelings.
While experienced deer hunters have their preferences pretty firmly set, folks who are preparing for their first deer season in the woods have some choices to make, beginning with a rifle and chambering.
A lot of hunters don't give too much thought to recoil. After all, in the field, they're usually taking one shot at a time, or at the most, three. Almost anything can be tolerated for one or two shots, but that mindset ignores something very important--to get good with a hunting rifle and ammo combo, you have to practice. A lot.
And if your deer rifle kicks like a mule, the last thing you're going to want to do is put a lot of rounds downrange. Plus, if you force yourself to do it anyway, you can develop some bad habits like flinching in anticipation of a walloping kick.
We'll try to strike a balance between seeking out a gun and caliber that has minimal recoil, while also ensuring it is capable of downing a deer efficiently and consistently.
Recoil is Relative & Balance Must Be Struck
Something new deer hunters must understand right off the bat is that felt recoil is largely subjective. Certainly some cartridges produce more actual recoil than others--no one is going to argue that a .300 Win Mag doesn't have more recoil than a .223 Remington. But when it comes to how much kick the shooter feels, aka felt recoil, several factors come into play.
First is the size of the hunter. Generally larger, heavier people are able to soak up more foot pounds of energy from firing a rifle than those who are smaller and lighter. However, they still feel that recoil energy, so it's not a given that a larger person will shoot a hard kicking rifle well, it just won't knock them back on their heels as much. They might feel more stable shooting it because they have more mass to get behind the gun.
Generally, a cartridge with a low bullet weight requires a smaller amount of propellant to get that bullet to travel at an acceptable velocity, which means less recoil. Heavier, large-caliber bullets require a bigger charge to get that big bullet moving fast, so they kick more. However, the mass of the gun firing that bullet can soak up recoil before it ever gets to the shooter's shoulder.
In addition, the weight of the gun matters, too. A cartridge fired from a heavy rifle is going to impart less felt recoil to the shooter than the same cartridge fired from a lightweight rifle. The individual hunter has to decide what's too heavy for their particular style of deer hunting, as well as how much recoil is too much recoil for them.
Also, a semi-auto rifle will generally produce less felt recoil than a bolt-action rifle, lever-action, or break-action gun, since some of the gas and energy from each cartridge is being syphoned off and redirected to cycle the firearm.
This is why intermediate cartridges, like the 6.5 Creedmoor, have become so popular. The 6.5 CM, for example, offers comparatively low recoil while also possessing a high ballistic coefficient (simply, it cuts through he air more easily). That sets the trend for flat shooting, long-range accuracy in a medium- to lightweight rifle.
While there is some debate in the hunting community over whether or not the 6.5 Creedmoor is significant enough for some big game, it is more than adequate for deer-sized game. If you needed a good caliber recommendation that can keep the felt recoil levels down, there you have it.
Comparatively, a medium-weight deer rifle chambered in .308 Winchester has a bit more kick but a similar effective range and objectively mild recoil, though it's not as flat shooting.
Practice Your Form
Form is another big factor in the effects of recoil. If a hunter is firing from a poorly developed shooting stance or position, they can feel recoil more acutely--sometimes, it can even cause injury to the back or shoulder from shooting out of position. In a semi-auto rifle, this can potentially cause cycling problems.
No matter the position, a hunter should attempt to get as much of their body mass directly behind the rifle as possible and they should practice shooting from all positions at the range with their deer gun.
With proper form, proven deer cartridges with moderate recoil like the 6.5 Creedmoor, 6.5 Grendel, .308 Winchester, .30-06, .257 Roberts, 7mm-08 Remington, and the venerable .30-30 are very manageable for most hunters, even in lightweight rifles. That brings us to the next consideration...
Where Are You Hunting?
The exact quarry and hunting grounds have to be factored in as well.
If one is hunting mule deer on the open plains, a heavier bolt-action rifle with many of the characteristics of rifles used by long-range target shooters can be preferable, since most shots will be taken at longer ranges from a tripod, bipod, or shooting sticks. Stability is more important than how heavy the gun is on the sling. Less kick also means faster follow-up shots, which occur more frequently when hunting in wide open spaces.
If someone is chasing whitetails in thick brush or mountainous terrain where a long shot would be 100 yards, a lighter rifle is worth a harder kick.
Why? I like to say that when the whole hunt is uphill, ounces are pounds and pounds are pain. For many, a compact and easy-to-carry lever-action rifle or ultralight bolt gun is the perfect firearm for this kind of hunting.
When combined with modern ammo, like Hornady's LeverEvolution cartridges topped with cutting-edge hunting bullets, the accuracy of a lever-action carbine can be surprising.
Even with more traditional ammo, plenty of deer have fallen over the decades to a .30-30 or .45-70 lever gun.
But you don't have to simply suffer through the pain to use an ultralight deer hunting set up, which brings us to...
Cutting Down Recoil
Say you are committed to lightweight brush gun or you find a rifle and ammo combination that you shoot really well, but it's just beating the crap out of you. There are things you can do to cut down on the pain.
At the muzzle, a compensator or muzzle brake can be added, which redirects the gas from a cartridge to the sides and/or up as the bullet leaves the barrel to reduce felt recoil and fight muzzle rise.
The downside is it makes every shot considerable louder for the shooter and it makes muzzle flashes brighter and larger. This can suck if you don't hunt with quality ear protection, and the people in the stalls next to you at the range will hate you.
Speaking of the range, if you're practicing with a hard-kicking rifle, there's no shame in wearing a recoil pad, sometimes called a shooting pad. Some deer hunters even wear them in the field or wear outerwear that has a recoil pad built in. This will allow you to focus on shot placement and prevent you from developing a flinch, which can be hard to shake and detrimental to first-shot accuracy.
For something that's more a part of the gun, try a significant recoil-absorbing buttpad like those made by Limbsaver. These can make a huge difference in a gun's shootability and the shooter's comfort, plus they are equally functional at the range and in the deer woods.
Just be aware the thickness of the buttpad will add a bit to gun's the overall length of pull.
The Main Takeaway
In the end, just remember: the deer rifle with the least recoil is the one you shoot well and want to practice with, and good shot placement will always be more important than caliber size.
Plenty of hunters have ethically taken deer with a .223 Rem, a cartridge designed for varmint hunting, providing the hunter is close enough and a good enough shot.
If the thought of what happens after you pull the trigger makes you wince every time you even look at your rifle, try something else that you won't mind taking to the range for the necessary trigger time to become proficient with it.