Winchester released the .243 in 1955 as a caliber designed to hunt medium and small game. Whitetail deer fell firmly into that category and the result was a revolution in deer hunting.
The .243 became the most popular deer hunting caliber on the market, and it remains so today. If you’re a lever-action fan, the Savage 99 is a great choice in .243.
The .243 came into existence at the Winchester lab when engineers took a .308 shell and necked it down from .308 to .243.
The .308 was only a recent invention, but a popular one, and Winchester hit it out of the park with the newer, high-speed caliber.
Whitetail deer, along with their larger distant cousin the mule deer out west are the two most popular big game animals in North America.
Hunters also use the .243 for pronghorn on the High Plains, but the .243 is a deer hunting success in every aspect.
Aside from deer taken illegally with .22 long rifle cartridges over the last century, the .243 has harvested more deer than any other cartridge.
The 30-06, 7mm, .308, and the .270 are rival cartridges, but they don’t have the tallies the .243 has produced.
Ballistics of the .243
The primary reason they’re popular is found in ballistic charts comparing the performance of the different cartridges. The .243 is a flat shooting cartridge when sighted in at 200 yards.
The official ballistics indicate a 2.7-inch drop with a 95-grain bullet at the 200-yard mark, but once it’s on target at that range the variance is just a couple of inches at 100 or 300 yards.
Since almost every deer taken is harvested at less than 200 yards, it makes the light weight of most .243 rifles a popular one to pack into the woods when stalking deer.
Hunters that claim kills of 600, 800, or even 1,000 yards with other calibers should bring into question just how ethically are they hunting?
It takes a minimum of 1,000-foot pounds to humanely take an animal down.
What is the Maximum Effective Range of a .243?
The .243 loaded with a standard, silver-tipped 95-grain bullet delivers 1,025-foot pounds at 400 yards. At 450 the energy drops below the 1,000 threshold and you should not take a shot at that range, or anything beyond that.
Viewing the chart below you can see that the .243 delivers a tremendous hit when a 95-grain bullet is pushed at the velocities this cartridge is capable of, even in standard, off the shelf loads.
How Far Will a .243 Kill a Deer?
Tying this question into the last section, you can ethically take a deer at ranges up to 400 yards.
The metrics aren’t the size of the bullet, but the foot-pounds of energy the bullet produces on impact.
A smaller grained bullet fire at a high velocity as measured in feet per second can create a shock equal to that of a bullet three times the weight but fired at a much lower velocity.
The wound channel will be different, but the shock in foot-pounds can be very similar.
What Can You Hunt With a Lever Action .243?
In accordance with hunting regulations provided by most state game and fish agencies, a .243 is a legal caliber for all big game animals. No matter the action, a .243 is more than enough for most species.
A lever action has the same punch as bolt action when loaded with identical ammunition.
That means you can hunt whitetail deer, (the most common species hunted with a .243) mule deer, elk, moose, caribou, wild hogs, and black bear.
With close-range game like hogs and black bear, the faster cycle of a lever-action is one area where it can be superior to a bolt-action rifle.
Hunters climbing to dizzying heights in Wyoming and Montana after big horn sheep or Rocky Mountain goats often take a .243 with them.
The cartridge is powerful enough to harvest these animals at distances up to 400 yards, and they’re a lighter weapon to carry, but you won’t find a hunter packing a Marlin or Winchester lever-action up the mountain slopes.
This style of hunting remains firmly in the realm of the bolt-action rifle.
That’s an important consideration when you’re hiking at 12,000 feet elevation, well above the tree line in pursuit of these two high-altitude species.
Bolt action rifles rarely fail in the field, lever-action rifles are almost as reliable, but there is that little bit of doubt in the back of a hunter’s mind when he travels a long distance and doesn’t completely trust the gun.
While the .243 is available by several manufactures in a lever-action model, it hasn’t caught on in a lot of hunting venues.
Why a lever action in .243?
The quick answer is personal preference. There will always be a bit of nostalgia attached to a lever-action rifle.
Kids who grew up on Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, and all the other classic westerns thought the Winchester lever-action rifle was the epitome of sporting arms.
That may be true for television audiences and maybe even the fans of John Ford westerns with John Wayne playing a leading role, but there is a reason the lever-action never caught on with the U.S. military.
The only application of a lever-action by any branch of the US military was a brief one at the end of the 19th century.
The US Army put a handful of Winchester Model 1895 lever action, full-length rifles in .30-40 Krag. It never saw action.
Lever-action rifles equipped with quality scopes shoot just as well as the more familiar bolt action models, they just haven’t made much progress with the hunting community.
The knock on lever-action firearms, which are slightly more popular in shorter carbine versions than full-length rifles is that they don’t hold a scope as well, get hooked on seat covers, shoulder straps, and other common hunting equipment.
In a bit of “why do they think that?” Lever-action rifles are often considered better than a bolt, or the rare pump-action models, in shooting with open sights. No one is sure why that impression exists, but it does.
Perhaps it goes back to Matt Dillon shooting the bad guys from a vantage point in the rocks, or of a buffalo hunter hitting bison from a half-mile away with a lever-action Winchester 73.
My grandfather arrived from Switzerland in 1921 with an ax, a handful of tools, a college education, and a lever-action 1894 Winchester 44-40 rifle.
The gun was a work of art with an octangle barrel, and aged dark wood against burnished brass. He took a lot of deer, and a few elk and moose using open sights with that masterpiece.
The lever-action .243 hasn’t had that long to catch on as a hunting rifle. The caliber was introduced just six decades ago, it caught on in bolt-action hunting varieties, but lever-action rifles remain popular in .30-30, and not many more calibers.
In the world of personal choice, perception is everything.
What is the best lever action .243 for deer?
You have four major choices when looking for a lever-action .243. Marlin, Savage, Winchester, and Henry all offer lever-action-style rifles in .243.
There are a lot of concerns over the Winchester version, many don’t consider it a reliable option.
The Marlin is popular with many hunters and holds a scope well, maybe better than the other competitors.
Henry makes a fantastic-looking lever-action rifle. Henry makes these beauties in calibers from .22 long rifles to the massive .45-70.
They look great, but the jury is out on them as hunting rifles since so few people fire them.
That leaves the Savage 99. When you add Savage’s patented AccuTrigger to the lever-action beauty, you have the class of lever-action hunting options.