Bullet Choice for Deer Stalking
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- Last updated: 26/04/2019
In my last article, I discussed shot placement, which, all things being equal, was heavily dependent on a good, controlled expanding bullet to execute properly time and time again. For example, a ‘hard’ or poorly expanded projectile through both lungs can give rise to a runner, as the small holes both in and out will close over, keeping the lungs inflated. This happened to me with a with a Norma Oryx in 6.5. It took several hours to find and kill the young fallow buck, which was hiding in a wheat field, just prior to the harvest. The first bullet had entered between the ribs and had exited, having failed to expand much, if at all, after passing through both lungs.
Conversely, I’ve had poor penetration with 129-grain Hornady SSTs in 6.5mm. These give the best accuracy of any bullet I’ve tried in both my rifles, but are so fast expanding that they, on occasion, do not penetrate enough for a clean kill. Included is an image of a fallow doe; the SST hit a rib on the way in, broadside on. A fragment then bounced back out, at an angle, through the skin on the same side; the remaining rear section turned 90º forward and lodged in the lower neck. The doe ran 220m, luckily along a wood edge, or I may have lost her. Such performance does nothing to install confidence and is probably best used on fox or roe, where penetration is not such an issue with these lighter animals.
When I started stalking on my own permissions, I used Nosler Ballistic Tips for 8 years. Again, like SSTs, they were highly accurate, and I always achieved good kills over the 963 deer I shot with them, initially in 120-grain 6.5mm. Those recovered averaged 70 to 76-grains, around 60% retained weight, although some weighed just 47-grains, which is under 40%. I also used a Weatherby Mk 5 for several years in 30-06 using 150-grain Ballistic Tips (BTs), shooting 70 deer with it. I was however getting much meat damage with both the above, i.e. shoulders blown out, blood seepage between the muscles along much of the exit side, even up to the saddle on a heart shot roe. The frangible nature of these bullets, when they hit bone, caused the widespread damage and blood seepage.
There is a school of thought that says that meat damage is secondary to the human dispatch of deer and I would agree, up to a point. Deer must always be killed quickly. But, another school of thought says it is immoral not to make the most of what you harvest. Can you satisfy both positions? If consistent, reliable kills can be made with a somewhat harder bullet, then, yes, you can have both - dead deer and little meat wastage.
The Americans, in typically blunt fashion, call it being able to ‘eat right up to the hole’. My current choice of bullets that fit these criteria are Nosler Partitions and Swift Sciroccos. Both these premium makes always expand reliably, hold together when bone is hit and are accurate in my rifles. They retain a lot more weight than the BTs. Of the relatively few I’ve recovered, they seem to keep about 75 and 85-95% of their mass, respectively.
I think here it’s good to look, very broadly, at bullet design from a hunters’ view point. We all know we need an expanding-type to hunt, but there are a few designs to consider. First, the simple cup and core. A copper bullet is formed, the cup, with a heavy core or filling of lead poured in while molten. The idea being that, at speed, the front of the bullet deforms on impact, the soft lead is pushed back against the harder copper sides and rear, mushrooming, increasing the frontal cross section and causing much more damage than its initial size would suggest. This was the dominant, everyday bullet for many years and undoubtedly put, and still puts, many deer in the chiller.
Then, along came the premium. It was essentially the same idea but addressed some design issues of the cup and core. One major problem was separation. The lead and copper often didn’t stay together, reducing penetration and therefore effectiveness. Premium bullets kept both together by either chemically bonding the lead core with the copper, or physically stopping the separation, by using a skirt internally formed from the copper jacket to hold the lead in place.
Another design has an H shaped copper cross section, lead filling both front and rear sections. This partition prevents the rear lead portion from separation. All these designs work as advertised. Just how well each suits the rifle user is by experimentation; what works for me may not suit another. It is good to hear of others’ experiences, based on numerous deer shot, but how can a given bullet be good for one individual but not another?
A stalker will often reload. Their rifle may shoot best at slower velocity, say around 2400 fps. Meanwhile, another hunter may get best accuracy with speeds around 3000fps. The same bullet at different speeds may give different terminal results. Some expand well right down to around 1600 fps, others become frangible at very high speeds.
Looking some time ahead, at some point we could be forced to explore non-lead bullets by legislation in some areas. Pre-empting this, I did try some 150-grain 308 Barnes TTSX, a monolithic copper hollow pint with a ballistic tip. I wasn’t getting good kills, and were not expanding as well as lead cored, drilling a small hole through the deer, which ran a good way before expiring. I understand they perform well for other hunters but, after some 20 deer, I reverted to the traditional lead and copper.
There are so many variables with hunting that, once you find a reliable and accurate load combination, it’s good to stick with it, one less thing to worry about. A few years ago, bullet components were hard to come by from the States, so I used factory Winchester Super X 150-grain PowerPoints in my .308. These low-tech cup and core bullets shot and killed well on broadside deer, a very respectable and lower cost round! These are my ‘back stop’ ammo, if I ever find myself short or without components. Consider this; While some bullets work well most of the time, it’s my experience that premium bullets work every time!