Erik and I committed to hunting with non-lead bullets this year. His Kimber 84M 308 weighs all of six and a half pounds so I loaded a 130 grain Barnes TSX over enough IMR3031 for an estimated 2700 fps. As I was essentially creating my own managed recoil ammunition - but with a non-lead bullet - I needed charge weights below the usual minimums for 308 Winchester ammunition. I settled on 300 Savage loading data, which has similar case capacity but a lower operating pressure thus less velocity. The special recipe worked fined; too fine, actually.
Earlier this fall I set up my Remington 243 and 30-06* rifles in their youth length stocks for my cousin's kids to use (but they never got around to borrowing them - one bagged a buck in a pre-season youth hunt and his older sister chose to hunt with stick and string this year). My other 30-06, a Clifton-Gunsite 1903 pseudo-scout was in the middle of an adventure in scope ring replacement. Mjolnir was ready for action, but our shots these past couple years have been mostly first light or last light terminations of relaxed deer eating their last meal. A .458 350 grain flat nose soft at 1800 fps seemed needlessly energetic for the freezer doe I would likely drop the hammer on. [Yes, the Hornady InterLock is a lead bullet but the data suggest a bullet at that velocity does not shed nearly so many, if any, lead particles.] I decided to try my custom 223 Sako L461 again. I used it to take an adult whitetail doe in North Dakota eight or nine years back, but that time it was loaded with Winchester 64 grain PowerPoints, their smallest big game bullet. This time I wanted a non-lead slug and settled on the Hornady GMX 50 grain hollow point. I loaded it over a case-filling maximum charge of IMR3031 for an estimated 3200 fps. It was an inch or so high at 100 yards and range the gong just below center at 200. I was good to go.
Then the deer didn't show up. The population is down and the feed plots we usually hunt over had not been planted. Usually a fella gets a glimpse or two of deer in the distance or fawns frittering the day away while mom and the aunts remain carefully hidden. Not this time. It was like Waiting for Godot...With Guns. I saw nothing all day but trees, melting snow, dirt, and sky. I read C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity - a gift from a friend, sipped Gatorade, nibbled on salty crunchy snacks, peed into Gatorade bottles, and took intermittent cat naps, all day long.
Late afternoon on Saturday I heard a shot from the direction of Erik's stand. He confirmed via text message (we still get two bars all of ten miles from the Canadian border) that, yes indeed, a doe had made his acquaintance much to her terminal regret. Erik's 2012 doe, a yearling, came nosing around his stand and stood for her broadside all of 10 meters distant. The doe made a short dash and expired. The TSX passed through both shoulders without hitting bone, took out the ribs on either side, did in both lungs, and slashed off the top of the heart. While the bullet hit no shoulder bones, blood had ruined the stew meat by the time we got round to skinning her forequarters the next day.
As I field dressed my 2012 venison I determined that the bullet hit the left shoulder, blew a two inch hole in the ribs, ruined the top half of the left lung, destroyed the top half of the heart - both atria and great vessels alike, damaged the bottom half of the right lung, pierced the diaphragm, shredded a path through the liver, penetrated the diaphragm back into the chest cavity again before exiting between the last couple ribs on right side.
The grisly detail is offered because the 223 Remington, the civilian version of the U.S. military's 5.56x45mm, is not usually regarded as a big game cartridge. In this case the monometal GMX hollow point did everything a bullet traveling on the same path might be expected to do. I've used bullets from 357, 44, and 45 pistols, 223, 243, 270, 308, 30-06, and 45-70 rifles, and .54 and .62 caliber flintlocks, from 80-405 grains, at velocities from 900-3200 feet per second, to inflict essentially the same wounds with essentially the same effects. That said, the blood trail was non-existent to begin with and sparse even toward the end, a shortcoming I've encountered several times when using the 243 and on one occasion with 30-06 managed recoil ammunition, so this is probably not a round to use in the rain or at the end of the day unless your game is out in the open. Frankly, I had wondered a little how effectively the wee pinhole of a hollow point would help the solid gilding metal spitzer open up. I needn't t have worried. The cone-shaped wave of destruction caused by this well-engineered pill blew out two ribs on the way into the chest. If anything, Hornady's 55 grain GMX (or even their 70 grain, if it will stabilize in my Sako's Shilen 1:9 twist barrel) arriving with less impact velocity might have expanded a little less violently on the near quarter and cost me less meat. Still, it's hard to argue with success.
So, can the 223 Remington be successfully used by whitetail hunters? I vote Yes, if the correct bullet is used and the hunter can put it where it counts. In addition to Hornady's fine little GMX there are other .224 bullets intended for use on deer-sized game. Barnes offers their TSX all-copper bullet in this caliber, in six different weights no less. If you're not averse to sprinkling your stew meat with lead Nosler makes a 60 grain Partition (which I never had any luck getting to shoot accurately). The Winchester 64 grain PowerPoint is both affordable and accurate. Are any of these the right bullet to use on the south end of a north bound monster buck? No, but when did that sort of shot get to be a good idea anyway? Should it be used to bag that doe at the other end of the quarter? No, but I've noticed the hunters who bag their deer reliably tend to do so with shots this side of the 100 yard line anyway. As for putting the bullet in the right spot, a younger, smaller, or newer hunter might practice more with a rifle that offers only the lightest nudge of recoil and costs but a fraction of larger, noisier, harder-kicking rounds. More trigger time per dollar and more fun at the range might just result in more success and more new hunters in the woods.
Sometimes just enough is just right.
PS I am reminded that the Soviet-era 7.62x39mm shares many of the same attributes when looking for a light-kicking, deer-capable cartridge that is cheap to shoot. If anything, its similarity to the 30 WCF make it a better choice. Unfortunately, other than the SKS carbine, affordable and accurate rifles chambered for it are harder to come by.
*UPDATE This weekend my niece Kyra is going hunting in Wisconsin. She's going to use the short-stocked 30-06 Remington and handloaded 130 grain Barnes TSX, again at an estimated 2700 fps. The day before she tried lighter loads in a rifle that fit she had shot her boyfriend's 30-06 with full power loads and a 243 youth model rifle. She thought these just enough loads in just the right rifle kicked less than the 243.