Fact Checker: Can a .50 BMG Kill a Deer Without Hitting It?

Fact Checker: Can a .50 BMG Kill a Deer Without Hitting It?

Myths, lies and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bullsh*t, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor, or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at factchecker@themeateater.com.

Claim The pressure wave produced by a .50 BMG round can kill a whitetail deer without hitting it.

Origin In 2017, Keith Warren, celebrity hunter and host of “The High Road” television show, published a video on YouTube in which he hunts a whitetail doe with a rifle chambered in .50 BMG.

Warren appears to hit the deer in the head, and it drops immediately. In the field, Warren comments on how little damage the 750-grain bullet seemed to inflict. Later, after examining the deer more closely, he claims the bullet never hit the deer.

“The .50 BMG round has so much pressure, so much vacuum, if you will, when it goes past something, it actually sucked the eyes out of that deer and killed it instantaneously,” Warren said.

“A taxidermist and I did a full necropsy of the doe's head, and there was no internal damage to the brain cavity or bone loss to the skull,” he elaborates in a pinned comment. “It was one of the strangest things to ever happen to me afield, and I wanted to share exactly what happened with you in this video.”

The video has garnered more than 5.7 million views on YouTube with 16,000 comments.

Facts The idea that a pressure wave from a bullet can cause remote damage is not new. As we covered in this article on hydrostatic shock, an 1898 New York Times article claimed that fish could be killed by projectile pressure waves moving through water. More recently, researchers have confirmed that an animal struck with a projectile can sustain tissue damage in areas away from the bullet cavity.

Warren’s claim is different, however. He claims the pressure wave killed the doe through the air. According to MIT-trained physicist Michael Courtney, this difference matters—a lot.

“Compared with a bullet passing through water or tissue, the ballistic pressure wave of a bullet passing through air is usually 2,000 times smaller,” he told MeatEater. Courtney estimated the peak pressure of a .50 BMG round passing through the air at between 1 and 5 pounds per square inch.

Without similar studies in the scientific literature or personal access to the deer carcass, Courtney said he can’t rule out Warren’s claim. Scientists don’t often make definite pronouncements based on a video and anecdotal observations of one person. Still, Courtney said Warren’s explanation is “extremely unlikely.”

“I find the hypothesis of a passing ballistic pressure wave in air killing a deer-sized animal extremely unlikely. The pressure wave is simply too small to be a likely cause of a lethal injury,” he said.

Ballistics expert Jayden Quinlan also doesn’t buy Warren’s explanation.

“Do I believe what he’s saying that the bullet had so much of a vacuum that it sucked the eyeballs out? Absolutely not,” Quinlan said. “I don’t think the vacuum theory holds any water whatsoever.”

Quinlan points to the moment in the video when the deer drops to the ground. A puff of material comes from the deer’s head, which Quinlan believes proves that the deer was struck by something.

“It’s undeniable that something hit the deer. From a timeline standpoint, it seems consistent with the shot being fired. The deer reacts physically, it drops, which would be consistent with getting knocked out,” he said.

The leading alternative explanation is that the projectile traveled through the eye sockets of the deer without causing any noticeable damage. Such a shot looks possible in the video, but Quinlan believes the deer’s head would have shown greater signs of trauma.

There is no pathway from one eye socket to the other through which the bullet could have passed without hitting bone. Quinlan also said that on deer he has personally shot in the head, the skull cap usually detaches.

“That wouldn’t be consistent with basic anatomy and physiology or terminal ballistics,” he said of the eye-passthrough theory.

If the bullet hit the deer but didn’t pass through the eyes, how does Quinlan explain the doe’s death?

“Considering the amount of blood that came from the eyes and the mouth, I’m guessing that the bullet glanced the deer’s skull somewhere. A bad enough head impact is going to cause injury like you see there,” he said. “Once you see that puff of stuff coming off the deer’s head, the projectile impacted the deer to some extent. I think you can claim that with certainty.”

A glancing blow, Quinlan believes, could have immediately killed the deer without leaving a noticeable mark on the skull.

The Takeaway Whether or not you buy Quinlan’s explanation, one thing seems clear: the pressure wave vacuum theory is highly improbable.

Even before Warren released his video, other YouTube creators had tested the near-miss .50 BMG myth. In 2016, for example, Matt Carriker of Demolition Ranch shot a .50 BMG through a tower of playing cards, and the tower didn’t collapse. If a pressure wave from a .50 BMG can’t collapse playing cards, it’s hard to imagine how it could kill a deer.

Warren didn’t respond to a request for comment on this article, but I have no reason to believe he’s been dishonest about what he observed during the deer’s necropsy. Weird things happen when bullets and animals interact, and given the video and the physical evidence, Warren’s theory is understandable.

But after speaking with ballisticians and physicists, I’m passing on the pressure wave theory. The eye-passthrough and glancing blow theories might not be correct, but the .50 BMG simply doesn’t produce enough pressure to suck out a doe’s eyeballs.

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