Wake-up calls can come from the strangest places at the strangest times. While attending a gun show in Jackson a few months back, I got a rude awakening from a guy walking the show floor. I was carrying a Remington 700 Mountain Rifle with the detachable magazine, which is no longer made, with the intent to sell or trade it.

A guy walked up to me to inquire about the rifle.

"What have you got there?" he asked.

I told him the model, and handed it to him for his own inspection. I put on my usual sales pitch about it being an ideal rifle for white-tailed deer hunting.

He asked what cartridge the rifle was chambered in. When I replied the .270 Winchester, his comeback floored me.

"Ah, just another vanilla deer rifle," he said. "I only deer hunt with magnums."

In a rarity for me, I had nothing else to say.

Magnum mania

Much later, I pondered the guy's comment. He thought the venerable benchmark, world-famous .270 Winchester rifle cartridge was totally passé for deer hunting. Man, what a slap in the face of Jack O'Connor.

The exchange brought me back again to consider one more time what is an adequate caliber and cartridge to legitimately harvest a whitetail. Certainly what used to be one of the most often selected cartridges for deer hunting - the 30-30 - has been eclipsed by at least a couple dozen other cartridge developments over the years.

My own first deer rifle - a Winchester Model 94 bought for $66 at J.C. Penney in 1970 - was a 30-30. I used it to kill my first deer - a 9-point non-typical buck in Missouri. It worked well for me.

Does that mean the 30-30 is any less effective today than it was for all those years since its introduction in 1895? Are the new classes of magnums the answer?

Does the 7mm Remington Magnum kill a deer any deader than a .270 or a 30-06? What about a .243, which is always mentioned as an ideal deer cartridge for youth and women hunters just starting out? Personally, I consider the .243 puny with its diminutive 100-grain bullets, but still it plainly puts many deer on the ground each season.

On the flip side are those very popular magnums like the Remington Short Action Ultra-Mag or the Winchester WSMs that can generate up to 3,000 foot-pounds of bullet energy at 100 yards. By comparison, the 30-30 maxes out at 1,355 foot-pounds of energy with a 170-grain bullet.

Then, which one can the average deer hunter shoot better with consistent accuracy? Ultimately, bullet placement is the predominant factor in putting down the quarry.

Remember when the hottest thing on the street was the Chevrolet SS with 396 cubes, a four-barrel carb and four on the floor? At 60 mph, it went no faster than that little ol' lady up the street in her 1960 Ford Comet. It used a lot more gas, burned up tires like tissue paper and turned transmissions to mush. But heck boys, it was way cool, wasn't it?

"I mean, show up in deer camp today with an open sighted lever-action rifle in 30-30, and wait for the ribbing to start," says avid hunter Jimmy Harper. "When is the last time you even saw one? Then put one in the hands of a good shooter at a fair range out to 100 yards, and just watch that dude stack in the tenderloins season after season."

Bare minimums

Years ago, when ammunition manufacturer ballistics technicians began to publish reliable information about the performance capabilities of various cartridges used for deer hunting, outdoor writers generated reams of articles on the subject. When all the dust settled, the consensus about the cartridge bare minimums for deer hunting settled on a ballistic parameter of 2,000 feet per second muzzle velocity. That became the "established" minimum.

So long as any cartridge could spit out that kind of bullet velocity, it was assumed the bullet would do its job and cleanly dispatch the deer with a reasonably placed shot in a vital area. Does that criteria sound appropriate to you? It seems way too simplistic and perhaps not very comprehensive in terms of the total capability of any specific cartridge.

I mean plenty of cartridges generate 2,000 fps velocity, but are they suitable for deer hunting? The 17 Remington has a muzzle velocity of 4,250. How about the .22 Hornet, 204 Ruger, 220 Swift, 222 Remington, the .223 or the 22-250? Are those suitable for deer?

There has to be more to the equation. That more is the combination of bullet velocity and the terminal energy of the bullet weight delivered at the target. Bullet construction is also a strong factor as well.

Downrange horsepower

It's a bit subjective no doubt, but just how many foot-pounds of bullet energy on the downrange target are sufficient to dispatch a deer? We all have heard that a deer can be easily killed with a .22 rimfire or a .458 Magnum elephant gun, too. Most of us would readily admit neither of those choices would be considered ideal. Far from it.

So for the pure sake of argument, let's use the minimum of 1,500 foot pounds of energy at a range of at least 100 yards as a standard. The top end of this scale ought to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,200 foot pounds before going exceedingly overboard. Use the cartridges on the lower power end for shorter ranges under 200 yards and the magnums for long ranges.

Incidentally, that would put the .270 Winchester right square on board as a great white-tailed deer cartridge. That makes my Remington rifle quite a commodity, and it exonerates Jack O'Connor at the same time.