I watched the big Texas buck quick-step on the trail of a hot doe. Nose to the ground like a hunting dog, he had only one thing on his mind. He stopped to urinate and my scope’s crosshairs settled on his chest. He never knew what hit him.
Alabama in November can be hot—muggy hot. Sitting in a shooting tower, I tried to stay alert. Back home in Saskatchewan, I’d been slogging in snow up to my knees. Here, I was sweating and watching a little green lizard hunt insects on the window sill. Suddenly, the clacking of antlers brought me back to the hunt as two bucks tested each other only a short distance behind my perch. The fighting went on for some time, increasing in intensity. After several minutes, they lurched into the green field, and I decided one buck was slightly bigger. The shot came easy.
“You’re going to get swarmed with bucks!” said my Saskatchewan outfitter buddy Brian Hoffart. “Take your time and you’ll see some good ones.” Before the sound of Brian’s ATV vanished, I saw movement and heard a low grunt. A doe raced across a small clearing, followed closely by a big, burley 5x5 buck with dark-stained antlers. The two animals stood motionless only 50 yards away. Then, from another direction, I heard the familiar grunting of another love-struck buck. Before the day was over, I saw no less than 15 bucks. Some readers might think I’m crazy, but I hunted that spot for 3 days and never fired a shot. I had “monster” on my mind because Brian swore he’d seen a 180-class buck in the area.
Three memorable whitetail hunts, but consider the size difference in the animals: The Texas buck field dressed at 135 pounds, the Alabama buck weighed 115 pounds and those big Saskatchewan bucks often weigh more than 250 pounds. The difference in size begs the question: Is there an ideal bullet for whitetails?
The answer is a definite “maybe.”
Through the years, I’ve developed some theories about optimum whitetail bullets, and I’ve discussed the topic with many deer hunters and guides. For many hunters, the ideal whitetail bullet is whatever happens to be loaded in the least-expensive ammo at the local big-box store. This generally means Federal Power-Shok, Winchester Power-Point or Remington Core-Lokt ammo. Fact is, some of these hunters don’t bother much with sighting-in or shooting practice prior to the deer season. Instead, pursuing whitetails is more of a social activity that results in some venison. Fortunately, the factories produce wonderfully effective low-priced ammo intended for these deer hunters.
Sharing the whitetail woods with these hunters are those who try a variety of factory brands and bullet weights in their rifles to obtain the best accuracy. These hardcore hunters stay with their favorite ammo with great loyalty. Some progress into reloading to further fine-tune the performance of their rifles and loads. Reloading offers a wider choice of bullet brands, weights and styles in ammo tailored specifically for one’s rifle. Having said that, I must mention that ammo companies have been very quick to offer some of the finest bullets available to hunters who don’t have the time or desire to reload. The bottom line is whitetail hunters have never had it so good in terms of bullet choice.
The Survey Says …
I’ve tested virtually every brand of bullet commonly available in many popular whitetail cartridges. Bullet testing can be frustrating because the only test medium that really counts is a live deer. Ballistic gel, water, clay, wet or dry newspapers or phone books and other media are used with varying degrees of success. The problem is there are so many variables to overcome when a bullet is fired at a deer; impact velocity and entrance/ exit location are two primary concerns. We must also add the body position of the animal relative to the flight path of the bullet. Is the deer “adrenalized” or at rest, and are there major bones in the internal path of the bullet? The good news is ammo manufacturers have somehow managed to offer bullet designs that handle these variables very effectively.
Consider what constitutes good vs. bad bullet performance: Good-performing bullets retain a significant percentage of their original weight and mass, they travel in a straight line after impact, and their frontal diameter increases significantly (doubling in many instances) so energy is dumped quickly. Large frontal diameters are the key to energy release. That’s why I like to see the traditional mushroom appearance when I recover a bullet. Whether a bullet exits is dependent on the bullet impact velocity, the bones/tissue it hits and bullet design.
Should a bullet dump all of its energy in the critter or should it exit? There are gun gurus on each side of this fence. Exit holes frequently result in better blood trails—no doubt about it. Even so, I like to find my bullet under the hide on the off-side of the critter because I know the bullet has mushroomed fully and transferred all of its energy into the animal. But I also like a good-sized exit hole, so perhaps the optimum performance is what North American Hunter Managing Editor Dave Maas describes as “finding the mushroomed bullet at the feet of the dead buck.”
All hunters, regardless of whether you prefer exit holes or not, should be concerned if a bullet’s jacket and core separate, which drastically drops retained weight. Another problem would be disintegration of the bullet, which again minimizes penetration. The opposite also occurs: Some bullets fail to mushroom, so penetration is deep but energy is not transferred effectively. Such bullets would tend to pass through without dumping much of their energy or creating significant-sized exits.
I have a somewhat simplistic method of identifying bullet performance: I use average retained weights in 10 percent or 20 percent increments. Here is how it works: I expect 95-plus percent retained weight from some of the premium bullets such as the Swift A-Frame, the various Barnes styles and Winchester Fail Safe and E-Tips. Next would be the 80-90 percent bullets such as the Trophy Bonded, Swift Scirocco, Winchester XP3, Hornady Interlock and Remington bonded Core-Lokt Ultra. Then, we have the 60-80 percent bullets such as the Nosler Partition and Accubond, Speer Grand Slam and Federal Fusion. The final group would be 40-60 percent bullets, which include most of the low-priced factory-loaded bullets and the standard-grade hunting bullets from Nosler, Sierra, Hornady and Speer.
Making The Best Choice
When I’m going deer hunting, I consider the size of the critter and the type of shooting I’m likely to encounter, then I decide on an appropriate bullet. For most whitetails, I prefer to stay with bullets that retain 40-60 percent or 60-80 percent of their weight. I want my bullets to open quickly and to dump their energy inside the deer. I also want a decent blood trail, so good-sized entry and exits are desirable. Locating mushroomed bullets is always interesting but not as important as recovering the critter.
The bottom line for selecting a good whitetail bullet is the fact that deer aren’t heavily built, thick animals like elk or moose. You need quick-opening bullets such as the Winchester Ballistic Silvertip or Sierra Game King to ensure fast kills, and I believe any of the factory “Plain Jane” bullets are excellent choices. Unless you’re shooting heavy-bodied bucks, you probably don’t need the expensive bonded bullets that retain a higher percentage of their weight.