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G&A Basics: How to Choose Deer Bullets

by Craig Boddington   |  November 21st, 2013 6

Let’s get serious. For the vast majority of American hunters, “big game” means deer. And that includes me. Nothing gets me more excited than a nice buck. Thanks to a century of great conservation work, our North American deer are the most populous large game animals in the world — more than 30 million whitetails alone. This fall they will be pursued by more than 10 million hunters, by far the largest hunting culture in the world.

Some of those hunters will be successful; others will not. Many of them will gather with their buddies in deer camp or a local diner. They’ll talk about the current season and seasons past, and they’ll argue the merits of their favorite cartridges. This is part of the fun, but the truth is that there are dozens of cartridges well suited for deer hunting. Within broad parameters, the rifle firing those cartridges probably makes more difference than the chamber dimensions, and the shooter behind the rifle is probably the biggest factor of all.

But we must never forget that it’s not the rifle or the cartridge that does the ultimate work. It’s the bullet. Today we are fortunate to have an array of awesome “hunting bullets,” so many that it’s easy to get confused. The good news? There are very few “bad” deer bullets, and there are probably several that provide the performance characteristics you want.

DEER AND MORE DEER
The majority of those 10 million American deer hunters will be pursuing one brand or another of whitetail. But to be honest, deer bullets are deer bullets. Mule deer probably average a bit heavier than whitetails and (also on average) are probably taken at somewhat longer ranges. But big northern whitetails get as big as any mule deer and may be taken across a grain field as big as any far-west canyon you can shoot across. On the other end, desert mule deer are smaller than Midwestern whitetails, and the blacktail is just a small subspecies of mule deer, not much bigger than the many varieties of small-bodied whitetails: Coues deer, Florida whitetails, Columbian whitetails, Carmen Mountain whitetails.

In terms of cartridges, there is a difference in optimum power between a 100-pound Coues deer and a 400-pound Northern whitetail. Or between a 125-pound blacktail and a 400-pound Rocky Mountain mulie. In terms of bullets, the largest deer probably call for heavier-for-caliber bullets — if not more powerful cartridges — and perhaps bullets of tougher construction. But deer are not elk, they are not moose and they are not bears. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that I believe whitetail deer are much tougher than mule deer, but any deer will succumb to a well-placed bullet of adequate weight, caliber and construction. This is not rocket science.

PENETRATION VS. EXPANSION
Although our many “modern” hunting bullets have complicated things a bit, here’s the age-old argument: complete penetration, in and out, so you have a better blood trail to follow vs. a bullet that enters, expands, expends all its energy inside the deer and does not exit. I started in the former school, but for quite some years now I’ve been in the latter. If the former were absolutely true, we would all be shooting nonexpanding bullets like military ball or dangerous-game solids. These are actually illegal in many jurisdictions, and they should be. The effect is like punching a knitting-needle hole, with little immediate internal damage and lots of energy expended in the shrubbery behind the deer.

Bullet expansion is a good thing because it transfers energy, opens a larger wound channel and creates greater disruption to vital functions. So today, I don’t personally care if a bullet exits, especially on deer-size game. I care a lot that it gets into the vitals, and there’s the rub. You don’t want a bullet that expands too fast or, literally, comes apart without entering the vitals. So we don’t shoot frangible varmint bullets at deer any more than we shoot solids designed to penetrate an elephant’s skull. Between those extremes there are lots of options.

Realistically, on more or less broadside shots we recover relatively few bullets from deer. On average, deer just aren’t big enough to stop most hunting bullets. I do get a bit nervous if I don’t get an exit on a true broadside shot, especially with placement behind the shoulder, because that suggests possible lack of penetration if an extreme-angle shot is taken. However, if a bullet is placed reasonably well and expands as it penetrates into the vitals, there should be no reason to follow a blood trail. And the converse: If a bullet is not placed especially well and punches a needle hole without violent internal damage, there still may not be much of a trail, but it’s likely to be a long one!

NOSE SHAPE
Over the years I have become increasingly convinced that bullet energy is one thing and energy transfer is another. These days most of us probably hunt with spitzer bullets of one design or another. This is because they are more aerodynamic, hold velocity and energy better, and thus are the best choices for shooting at longer ranges. But not all of us actually need capability beyond 200 yards (and many of us need less than half that). Despite its very modest energy figures, part of the reason why the great old .30-30 earned its reputation as a “deer getter” is because its traditional flatnose and roundnose bullets transfer energy more quickly and thus deal a heavier initial blow than a sharp-point bullet.

Hey, I generally hunt in more open country, and even on my Kansas place, which is mostly heavy oak ridges, I’ve got a couple of key spots where 300-yard shots are possible. So I rarely have a choice — go with sharp-point bullets. But if you are hunting where short range is the norm and a 200-yard shot is almost unthinkable, forget the spitzers and load up with good-old roundnoses. The difference they make in effect on game is amazing.

PRETTY IS AS PRETTY DOES
As a market, we are almost impossible to deal with. We expect a bullet to enter an animal, penetrate into the vitals and wreck them as it expands, then come to rest against the hide on the far side so that we can recover it, admire the pristine perfection of its mushroom, then weigh it so we can gloat about its high retention. Like most American hunters, I wait for the broadside shot when possible, and I consciously shoot for the crease, right behind the shoulder, because that’s the largest target and, as body shots go, destroys the least meat.

Few bullets will be recovered from average-size deer shot in that fashion. So most of the bullets recovered from deer entered from angles that required a lot more penetration, hit heavy bone or both. Sometimes, rarely, you’ll recover a textbook-perfect mushroomed bullet, but most bullets recovered from deer-size game are distorted, bent, misshapen and downright ugly. Although the angle of penetration and the wound channel are worth examining, this doesn’t bother me as much as it used to on deer-size game. Those of us who demand beautiful recovered bullets to show our friends may not agree, but before you conclude that a recovered bullet “failed,” keep in mind that you did recover the bullet. So you should ask yourself this: “At exactly what point in the death of the animal did the bullet fail?”

I wish this was my line, but it comes from Chub Eastman, long retired from Nosler, as a favorite question he asked customers when they called to complain about weight retention or deformation in bullets recovered from game. To put it another way, pretty is as pretty does. If the deer expired quickly and was easily recovered — within sensible limits — who cares what the bullet looks like?

Common complaints include too much fragmentation and weight loss, and, with conventional cup-and-core bullets, jacket and core separation. As to the former, it depends on where this happens. On the outside, that’s bad. If the bullet penetrated into the chest cavity before it came unglued, then it probably dropped the animal quickly. With our modern bonded bullets, jacket and core separation is almost impossible. So when, as is fairly common, we find a jacket against the hide on the far side but no lead core, we view that as a bad thing. Maybe, but if the bullet actually penetrated clear through the animal it probably held together until about that point. I have often found separated cores and jackets together, near the hide on the far side, and it’s my opinion that this separation generally occurs at the very limit of penetration, after the bullet has expended most of its energy, slows down and starts to tumble before coming to rest. As long as this happens in the last bit of penetration, it’s not a big deal.

PLAIN OLD BULLETS
Advertising hype is marvelous, but deer are still deer. While premium bullets may (or may not) provide greater accuracy in your rifle and (if you believe in them) may give you greater confidence to make the shot (which is invaluable), bullets for deer-size game do not require magical properties. It’s OK to spend more money to gain more confidence, but the great old plain-vanilla bullets perfected over decades are still pretty darned good. There may be better bullets for larger, tougher game, and there may be bullets with better aerodynamics and perhaps improved accuracy (though some rifles will dispute this). But for great performance on deer, it’s still pretty hard to beat tried-and-true favorites such as Federal Hi-Shok, Hornady InterLock, Nosler Solid Base, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra GameKing and Winchester Power Point. Although each has slightly different design features, these are all conventional cup-and-core bullets with exposed lead tips that tend to shoot straight, expand well and, despite all the many brave new bullets we must sort through, can be relied upon to knock the stuffing out of deer-size game. You just need to match the caliber and bullet weight to your size of deer, and you really can’t go wrong.

TIPPED OR UNTIPPED?
Polymer-tip bullets are all the rage, with the actual tips now available in almost every color of the rainbow. At modern velocities, an exposed lead tip will usually burn off and can also distort in the magazine. A polymer tip remains in place until impact and is practically impervious to battering. Upon impact, it initiates expansion as it is driven down into the nose of the bullet. The concept isn’t new; the old Remington Bronze Point, Winchester’s original Silvertip and the Canadian Saber Tip were much the same, but the polymer tips are more durable and consistent. The original of this type, Nosler’s Ballistic Tip, was indeed accurate, but also extremely volatile. It was great at moderate velocity, but at higher velocities it sometimes came unglued and was damned by many hunters.

A thicker jacket generally fixed this, and today I consider the Ballistic Tip a very fine deer bullet. They usually won’t exit, and although results can be like lightning striking, they usually aren’t very pretty when recovered. Hornady’s SST is much the same, volatile and effective, but similar polymer tips are now used on all manner of “tougher” bullets: bonded-core bullets like the Federal Trophy Tip Bonded, Hornady InterBond, Nosler AccuBond and Swift Scirocco; and homogenous-alloy bullets such as Barnes TTSX, Hornady GMX and Nosler E-Tip. I like the tipped bullets, but just remember that the tip is there partly for looks, but also to initiate expansion, so if you want expansion controlled so that you can recover pretty bullets, you need additional design features that will retard or limit expansion.

A BONDING EXPERIENCE
One of the ways to do this is to chemically bond the core to the jacket so that as the jacket peels back, the lead core sticks to the copper. This can be done with a polymer tip to initiate expansion (AccuBond, InterBond, Scirocco, and Trophy Tip Bonded) or without (Swift’s A-Frame, Remington’s Core-Lokt Ultra, Winchester’s Power Bond). Core-bonding works. It increases weight retention and allows dramatic expansion without the bullet coming apart. In other words, it tends to yield bullets that, when you recover them, are downright gorgeous. The bonding is an extra step, so bonded-core bullets will always be a bit more expensive, but they work. But unless you are hunting with extremely fast cartridges and might get a close-range shot, or you’re hunting with a cartridge and bullet a bit on the light side, you don’t absolutely need such bullets for deer hunting.

HOW ABOUT HOMOGENOUS ALLOY?
Ditto for the homogenous-alloy bullets. They will absolutely penetrate and will lose almost no weight. But as a function of design they don’t expand a great deal. So they are better at penetrating than expanding, and in my view they really come into their own on larger game. However, there are more and more “lead free” zones around the country, so the choices in this type of bullet are increasing and more deer hunters are using them. I spend much of my time in the “condor zone” of Central California, where lead-free bullets are mandatory. Some hunters love them, and a lot of my friends there hate them. They will penetrate, especially on our small coastal deer, and will almost always pass right through.

The bigger the animal, the better these bullets work. Last fall in Alberta I shot the biggest-bodied mule deer I’ve ever seen. I was using a Kimber Ascent in .270, and of the ammo I had available at the time, this rifle really liked Barnes’ 130-grain TSX, so that’s what I used. The shot was fairly close, quartering away. The bullet entered behind the right shoulder and exited the left shoulder. The buck made about three jumps and sank into the sagebrush. That is far from the only buck I’ve taken with the homogenous-alloy expanding bullets, and they certainly work. If you want to use them — or are required to — they work best if you change your shot placement slightly and go for the shoulder rather than behind the shoulder. Penetration is not a problem, and because expansion is limited, meat loss is minimal.

IN THEIR TRACKS?
There are a lot of great bullets I haven’t mentioned. The Nosler Partition, although 65 years old, isn’t yet ready for retirement. It remains a fine choice. Although weight retention is modest by today’s standards, it offers a combination of penetration and expansion that only current “tipped and bonded” bullets can match. Berger’s VLD is a great deer bullet combining rapid expansion with legendary accuracy. But here’s the question: If I wanted the very best odds of dropping a buck in its tracks, what would I choose?

The guys in the big woods often use big hammers: .35 Remington, .444 Marlin, .45-70. Their big, bluntnose bullets transfer a lot of energy quickly and are hard to beat up close. The problem is that they are limited in range, so for general use I’d suggest a fairly fast-opening bullet, maybe one of the traditional cup-and-core bullets we’ve been using for decades. If that’s too old-fashioned for you, then go for one of the polymer-tip bullets.

Just remember that you really don’t need the toughest bullets for deer, and, on deer, the tougher the bullet, the longer your tracking job is likely to be.

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