The late Bob Milek once wrote, “You can’t argue with a dead deer.” His point was that a dead deer provides irrefutable proof that the team of rifle, cartridge and bullet did their intended jobs—especially if a deceased deer is found within, say, 50 or 60 yards of where it received the bullet.
This doesn’t happen every time. Sometimes we miss, and sometimes, most regrettably, we wound a deer. If the deer is recovered, we can start pointing fingers at the cause; most of the time a mirror will reveal the culprit. If a wounded deer is lost, it’s impossible to know exactly what went wrong.
Any bullet can fail, but it’s rare. Use common sense in choosing your load, put your projectile in the right place, and you should have that irrefutable proof.
Ideally, we get it immediately—our deer down on the spot. Brain and neck shots can accomplish this, but I prefer the larger target of the heart/lung area. With lung shots it depends on whether the animal has just exhaled or inhaled, and a rutting buck pumped with adrenaline may travel farther than a buck taken unawares.
In the main we will confine this discussion to whitetail deer. Eight million of America’s 10 million deer hunters hunt whitetails. One consideration here is size. A big northern buck weighing 300 pounds is a different animal than a Florida buck, and does are much smaller than bucks.
Importantly, within its size class, the whitetail is a tough customer. We see this in how aggressively bucks fight—sometimes to the death. A whitetail deer must be hit hard and right and with a bullet that penetrates into the vitals and does damage.
This does not require heavy artillery. Hunting big mature bucks calls for a bit more caliber, bullet weight and energy than when hunting for young bucks or does for the freezer. I remain nervous about .22 centerfires, especially for hunting larger bucks. Realistically, the .243 with a bullet 90 grains and up is plenty for any whitetail—and so easy to shoot well.
We all have our favorite deer cartridges, and we debate them endlessly. The 6mms, .25s and mild 6.5mms are effective low-recoiling choices. The .270s and 7mms are also excellent. I use .30 calibers, but I’m not certain .30 calibers are essential for deer hunting, and larger calibers are generally unnecessary.
Good deer cartridges are legion, but it’s always the bullet that does the work. In this age of “designer” bullets, there are so many choices it’s easy to get confused. What we want is a bullet that shoots reasonably well in the rifle, will absolutely penetrate to the vitals on a shoulder shot, and then will expand and disrupt the cardio-pulmonary systems.
Absent brain or spine shots, it’s bullet expansion that causes a deer to drop on the spot, so I want it to be radical and violent—with enough weight retention and penetration to reach the vitals. I used to want through-and-through penetration, under the theory that exit wounds provide better blood trails. This is true, but if the bullet expands and expends its energy in the chest cavity, trailing is generally not necessary.
Today I don’t care about exit wounds. However, on broadside behind-the-shoulder shots—no heavy bones encountered—I find most bullets designed as hunting bullets will exit. Bullets that expand rapidly may not exit on direct-on-shoulder shots, and that’s fine.
Just as there are many great deer cartridges, there are plenty of bullets that work well on deer. You should always use a bullet that gives you confidence, but to find good deer bullets, you really don’t need to look all that far and you don’t need to spend an arm and a leg.
This is why the cup-and-core bullet is still king. One of our Kansas “house guns” is Dad’s old Model 70 in .308 Win., and a few guests use it every season. I doubt the rifle has ever had a premium bullet down its barrel, and I keep 150-grain cup-and-core bullets on hand for it. I don’t think it has ever missed or wounded a buck.
Sure, traditional lead-core bullets with exposed lead tips get battered in the magazine. So? Flatten some lead tips with a hammer and shoot some groups. It doesn’t matter at typical ranges. Old-fashioned cup-and-core bullets tend to shoot well, expand nicely, are inexpensive and kill deer very dead.
We are talking famous names: Federal Power-Shok (formerly Hi-Shok), Hornady InterLock, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra GameKing, Winchester Power-Point. Can you imagine how many millions of deer have been killed with these bullets?
Typically, expansion is retarded by the thickness of the jacket and the amount of lead exposed at the tip. Core-Lokt and InterLock have mechanical features that lock core to jacket, but all these bullets will usually shed some weight and not be as “pretty” upon recovery as more modern (and expensive) designs. This doesn't matter. If you recover a bullet from a deer, you have irrefutable proof the bullet did its job.
Introduced in 1938, the Core-Lokt is probably the oldest hunting bullet design in continuous production, and it’s still a great deer bullet. Most recovered Core-Lokts are not pretty, depending on velocity and how much bone was encountered. But so what?
Hornady’s American Whitetail series features its InterLock bullet. It’s inexpensive ammo that shoots straight, and the InterLock bullet is a perennial favorite. We shoot a lot of InterLocks: 130 grains in .270; 140 grains in 7x57 and 7mm-08; and 180 grains in various .30 calibers.
Over the years I’ve also used a lot of cup-and-core bullets from Federal, Sierra and Winchester. These are all great deer bullets.
Here’s another great deer bullet: the good ol’ roundnose. Part of the legendary effectiveness of the .30-30 as a deer-killing machine is its traditional blunt-nosed bullets, which are necessary for safety in tubular magazines.
Roundnose or flat-tipped bullets tend to impart more energy upon impact than pointed bullets, and they initiate expansion more rapidly. The disadvantage is blunt-nosed bullets shed velocity quickly and thus don’t shoot as flat. Only you know what shooting distance you must prepare for.
When I hunted whitetails in Peru, I was given a scoped Model 70 loaded with 150-grain Winchester Power-Point roundnose bullets to use. At about 200 yards we waited endlessly on a bedded buck. Eventually, he stood, turned and offered a shot. The roundnose flattened him.
What if you want to step up to more modern designs? Bonded-core bullets will lose less weight and be prettier when recovered. Core bonding is a complicated process that increases price, and if you want a bonded bullet, use it if it makes you happier. But you don’t need it for deer—unless you are using too-light calibers or very fast cartridges at short range.
Not all bonded bullets are created equal. Federal’s Fusion uses a less expensive electrochemical process to bond jacket to core, so it’s not as costly. It can be a great deer bullet, although I’ve found it’s often not quite as accurate as cup-and-core bullets.
Tipped bullets go back to Remington’s Bronze Point, which Jack O’Connor loved. Today polymer tips are most common, but the principle is unchanged. The tip precludes battering in the magazine. Upon impact, the tip is driven down into the bullet, initiating expansion. Absent other features, such as core bonding, tipped bullets with lead cores expand very quickly.
Because we’re not talking about extreme long range in this article, I’m going to stick to more traditional tipped offerings—as opposed to the cutting-edge tipped bullets meant for extreme (at least to me) distances.
Nosler’s Ballistic Tip was the first modern polymer-tipped bullet. When it was brand new, I saw Chub Eastman shoot a mule deer frontally, and the buck went down so hard it bounced. We quickly learned those first Ballistic Tips sometimes expanded too fast, and Nosler redesigned the bullet, creating one style for big game and one for varmints.
Today’s Ballistic Tips, Ballistic Silvertips and Hornady’s SST are similar, although the SST incorporates Hornady’s InterLock feature. All are polymer-tipped cup-and-core bullets that expand rapidly and often kill deer with dramatic effect.
These bullets tend to be extremely accurate and are not “premium” in terms of price. When recovered, they are often not pretty, but it’s been years since I’ve seen one expand prematurely and fail to penetrate adequately. My only caution: If you insist on using them in fast magnums at close range, expect meat damage.
I was on a Kansas stand last season when a classic cull buck came out: four points on one side, crab-fork on the other. I knew this buck, so I didn’t hesitate. I was shooting a Dakota .257 Roberts with the 117-grain SST. When he quartered slightly to me at 150 yards, I shot him on the point of the shoulder. The buck went straight down. These bullets work, but if you like recovered bullets that are pretty or object to a bit of meat damage, they may not be for you.
Hornady’s FTX (Flex Tip Expanding) bullet in its LeverEvolution line have flattened the trajectories of traditional lever-action cartridges. I haven’t taken enough game with them to compare the initial impact of the FTX against the old roundnose bullets, but the polymer tip principle applies here.
Copper/copper alloy bullets are a major category today. Choices include: Barnes X, TSX, TTSX and LRX; Federal Trophy Copper; Hornady GMX and Monoflex; Norma Eco-Strike; Nosler E-Tip and Ballistic Tip Lead Free; Winchester Copper Impact; and more.
The all-copper construction limits expansion, so while some expand more than others, these are all penetrating bullets. Performance is consistent, and when recovered—which is rare on deer—they tend to be pretty. However, for my taste these bullets are tougher than needed for deer, but it’s your confidence that counts.
Of course, if you hunt in an area where lead-free projectiles are required, these are for you. They will absolutely penetrate—usually exiting—plus they will hold together and retain much weight, but expansion is not radical.
With these bullets, if you want a deer to drop on the spot, forget the meat-saving behind-the-shoulder lung shot that we American hunters revere. Instead, go for the center-of-shoulder shot African hunters prefer on their “extra tough” game. Broadside, go up the center of the on-foreleg, one-third up from the belly line. This shot will take out the top of the heart or the major vessels above the heart. A homogeneous-alloy bullet will certainly penetrate the on-shoulder and often will penetrate the off-shoulder and exit.
When it comes to deer bullets, hunters have more choices than ever before. Don’t overthink it. Consider your hunting environment and choose accordingly, and remember you don’t necessarily need to spend a fortune for the latest and greatest.