Is the big-bullet versus shot-placement debate finally over?
In a typical season, hunters and wildlife managers on the King Ranch in South Texas take about 2,000 deer. Those range from 70-pound yearlings up to the occasional 200-pound buck. The King Ranch’s hunters use virtually every rifle caliber on the market and plenty that aren’t available in your local gun shop. But to King Ranch range and wildlife manager Butch Thompson, they all pretty much do the same thing: kill deer — dead.
Thompson has been working on the vast ranch for 26 years and has seen the results of tens of thousands of shots. It hasn’t taken him that long to come to the conclusion that the size of the bullet makes little difference when it comes to putting down a whitetail.
“I’m a shot-placement guy,” he said. “I believe that nothing matters more than putting the bullet in the right place if you want to make a quick kill on a deer or any game animal. The size of the bullet doesn’t matter.”
Lots of hunters disagree and insist that a big bullet fired from a big gun will compensate for a mediocre shot. The same hunters are convinced that smaller calibers result in more crippled and unrecovered deer.
A study conducted by biologists with the South Carolina Dept. of Natural Resources confirmed Thompson’s views and all but ends the bullet versus placement debate. It examined the results of 603 shots that accounted for the harvest of 493 deer on a 4,500-acre private hunting property in the state’s Lowcountry. To sum up the results: Nothing matters more than shot placement.
Thompson said lots of King Ranch deer are killed with .22 centerfires. Despite tiny bullets and comparatively low energy (just 752 foot-pounds at 100 yards for a 50-grain .222 bullet), .22 centerfire cartridges are highly effective at dropping deer, said Thompson, but only under specific criteria.
The King Ranch requires all .22 centerfire shooters to aim for the neck, although Thompson said he has seen deer drop in their tracks after being shoulder- or chest-shot with those little bullets. He wouldn’t, however, recommend something like a .223 for most hunters, but said he has no problem with those who choose use them — as long as they are skilled shooters.
In some instances, .22 centerfires are legal in South Carolina, but they weren’t included in the study because no one on the study’s property used them, said South Carolina DNR deer project leader Dr. Charles Ruth. Those hunters did, however, use 20 different calibers.
To simplify data, Ruth and his colleagues grouped bullet calibers into five sizes: .243; .25; .270; .284 (which includes the various 7mms); and .30 calibers. They examined how far deer traveled after being shot with the various bullets and also looked at the amount of sign left from deer that went out of sight.
The 36 deer taken with .25 calibers traveled only 14 yards on average before expiring. That distance takes into account all shots, including head, neck, spine, shoulder, lungs, heart and guts. That short distance stood out among all calibers, but Ruth said there is a likely explanation.
“There was a group of guys on this property who were really into precision rifle shooting, and many of them were shooting .25 calibers,” he said. “They were very good shots and very experienced deer hunters, which is one reason why the 36 deer shot with .25-caliber rifles traveled only 14 yards on average.”
The rest of the deer, however, didn’t travel a whole lot farther. Those shot with .243s or 6mms ran just 40 yards, while those hit with a .270 went an average of 31 yards. Whitetails shot with .284-caliber bullets went only 26 yards, while deer hit with .30-caliber bullets traveled 33 yards.
Ruth speculated the smaller calibers were somewhat more effective because shooters tend to flinch with bigger calibers and larger, heavier bullets. Thompson also wonders if shooters who use bigger calibers tend to miss the mark more often because of the natural reaction to the extra kick of a bigger gun.
THE PERFECT SPOT
Although the data showed neck and head shots to be the most effective at dropping deer in their tracks, Ruth doesn’t like neck or head shots because the margin of error is too great. The 25 neck- and head-shot deer in this study traveled a distance of less than 1 yard on average, but a few ran and would likely have gone unrecovered had hunters not used tracking dogs to find them.
“I’ve had some bad experiences with head and neck shots,” Ruth said. “I’ve seen deer shot through the wind pipe, the mandible or even the nose. That’s not a good thing for the deer or the hunter, and I would just prefer not to shoot deer in the neck or head. It might seem like a sure thing, but it’s really not.”
The study also found that spine-shot deer dropped in their tracks. That’s no surprise, of course, but Ruth figures spine shots were more than likely missed shoulder or heart-lung shots, and he doesn’t recommend aiming for the spine, either. Not only does aiming for the spine increase the chance of a miss, it’s also a certain way to ruin the most choice cuts of meat.
The perfect shot? Right though the shoulder.
Hunters on the South Carolina property who aimed (and hit) the shoulder bone did not have to track their deer, which ran an average of just 3 yards. Besides breaking one or both shoulder bones, a bullet entering a deer’s body through the shoulder will likely also hit the heart or lungs.
In his summary of the study, Ruth writes, “... a shot through the scapula damages the brachial plexus, which is the central nervous system, thereby rendering the animal immobile. It knocks the animal out, and the deer never regains consciousness.”
Other shots among all the calibers were also effective, but heart-shot deer, for example, ran an average of 39 yards before expiring. Whitetails shot though the lungs ran slightly farther, an average of 50 yards. Even gut-shot deer hit with various calibers ran an average of only 69 yards before
“I’m talking about the true center-punch through the abdomen, not the flank or intestines,” he said. “Hunters got into trouble when they hit the back legs without breaking any bones or put the bullet through the intestines.”
Thompson said that deer hit in the stomach with a larger caliber tend to lie down faster than those shot similarly with a smaller bullet. However, they end up finding virtually all their hunter-shot deer, no matter where they were hit or what size bullet the hunter was using.
What did matter, Ruth found, was the type of bullet used. Soft-tipped, rapidly expanding bullets like Ballistic Tips, spitzers and even round-nosed bullets were far more effective in stopping deer than harder bullets like partitioned bullets that are designed to control expansion.
Not only did deer cover less distance when shot with the softer bullet — 27 yards compared to 43 yards — they left a much more obvious blood trail.
Twenty-one percent of the deer shot with the controlled-expansion bullets left what researchers called “poor sign,” compared to just 12 percent of those whitetails shot with softer bullets. A larger percentage of deer (58 percent) shot with the rapidly expanding bullets of various calibers fell in their tracks compared to just 49 percent of those taken with harder bullets.
Ruth said he wonders if the harder bullets pass through more often, which means less energy is transferred to the deer, resulting in less shock to internal organs. If that’s the case, it also dispels the myth that a pass-through shot leaves a better blood trail.
THE BOTTOM LINE?
Use a gun you can shoot well instead of a rifle that knocks you on your can when you pull the trigger. You’ll make a better shot and drop more deer in their tracks.
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This article was published in the November 2009 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Subscribe today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.