Picking a good deer rifle isn’t completely straightforward. It’s important to know what calibers are legal for hunting deer, as well as effective.
Any of the following calibers work well for deer: .223, .243, .270, .308, 30-06, 30-30, and their comparable metric calibers. I’m sure there are others, and I’ll admit I’m not very knowledgable about metric calibers.
Nebraska deer regulations state that a rifle has to be at least .22 caliber, and deliver 900 foot pounds of energy at 100 yards. This is actually pretty generous, because the general consensus in the hunting community is that you want at least 1000 ft/lbs of energy when the bullet hits the deer. But your garden variety .22 caliber rifle doesn’t have the knockdown power that is both ethically and legally required.
Let me repeat that: even though the minimum legal caliber for deer hunting in Nebraska is .22, the standard .22LR caliber does NOT meet the force requirements. A legal caliber meets both the size AND force conditions.
To put that in perspective, even my beloved .45 Glock (a formidable handgun and caliber) doesn’t make the cut! Handgun rounds go by a different standard, needing just 400 foot pounds of energy at 50 yards. Presumably, this is because you’re not going to be taking 300 yard shots with your Ruger Blackhawk. Still, the only pistol calibers that produce enough force are the .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, and larger calibers.
On the other hand, a modest .243 rifle using 100 grain bullets meets the caliber requirement and delivers over 1600 ft/lbs of energy at 100 yards – well above the legal limit. And to up the ante even more, a 180-grain 30-06 round will deliver the same punch at over three times that distance!
The more expert you become, the more you might start to care about ballistics. If you actually have the ability to make a 300 yard shot, something like a 30-06 might make the difference between a clean kill and a miss. Or worse yet, a clean kill and an injured animal that you have to chase down. For my money, it’s worth feeling like you just got punched in the shoulder if it means being able to reliably shoot almost anything I can spot.
However, if you’re new to long-distance shooting, smaller calibers will definitely get the job done. A .243 has a very mild kick to it, which is great for smaller shooters or newer hunters who aren’t used to a lot of recoil. These are very accurate (to within a couple inches) out to a couple hundred yards. If you’re anything other than a very experienced shooter, the gun will definitely be more accurate than you! Newer shooters will necessarily need to stick to shorter-distance shots, where the .243 excels.
The downside of weaker calibers like the .243 is that you have to be more careful about shot placement. Depending on your distance and accuracy, a .243 might not take the deer down on the first shot. On the other hand, if you’re hunting in closer quarters with a decent amount of practice under your belt, the .243 also does less damage to the meat. I once shot a deer in the shoulder with a 30-06, and it rendered the shoulder unusable.
In the Nebraska Sandhills, however, you’re going to have the opportunity to take longer shots. You’re in the open hills where you can often see for 300-400 yards, and getting closer isn’t easy. Deer are much better at spotting you, than you are at spotting them.
Some people do use shotguns for deer hunting. If you’re wondering if you can use a shotgun in the Nebraska Sandhills, the answer is probably “no”. It takes an expert to get close enough to a deer, and have the necessary accuracy, to even have a chance. The Nebraska National Forest has a lot of Nebraska, but very little Forest. Shotguns are best left to experienced shooters in close quarters, like wooded areas.