What Makes an Ideal Whitetail Hunting Bullet?

What Makes an Ideal Whitetail Hunting Bullet?

Whether seeking accuracy, penetration, violent expansion, or maximum effective range, experienced hunters know what kind of performance they want out of a deer bullet and stockpile that ammo with unwavering confidence. For new hunters, or those looking to squeeze out every ounce of performance in their new deer rifle, bullet selection can go a long way. Study the characteristics of different bullet designs and choose the one that best suits your rifle and typical shot opportunity.

Penetration vs. Maximum Expansion

Consider your typical hunting environment; how far do you realistically need to shoot? Do you want the ability to take steep quartering shots? Will your rifle and bullet selection serve double duty on a western hunt, where stretched-out shot opportunities may present a new variable? These are all factors to consider when selecting a new deer bullet. Fellow outdoor writer and host of the Backcountry Hunting Podcast, Joseph von Benedikt, knows a thing or two about bullet performance.

“A great deer bullet must expand dramatically. Penetration is important but secondary,” von Benedikt said. “Deer don’t have the massive bones and dense muscle of elk, nor the sheer body size. Big holes leak life fast. Some hunters prefer a bullet that stays inside, therefore dumping every available ounce of energy into the deer for maximum shock. Others like a bullet that penetrates fully, unloading almost all energy and then just barely exiting, because exit holes bleed exponentially more than entrance wounds. Finally, a few savvy hunters like bullets that penetrate fully and exit with lots of remaining energy, because they tend to blow big exits that provide maximum blood-trail drainage.”

Bullet design, bullet weight, and impact velocity all affect bullet expansion and penetrating ability. The faster a bullet impacts an object, the more violent the bullet upset and expansion. Bullet weight also plays a factor in the penetration equation. All things being equal, a heavier bullet retains more inertia when impacting muscle or bone, allowing for greater penetration than a lighter bullet of the same caliber. However, the most influential performance factor is the internal design of the bullet.

Soft Bullets

Soft bullets from various manufacturers are designed to offer easy expansion, regardless of whether dense bone or muscle is encountered on impact, which typically aids in bullet expansion. If you want a bullet likely to drop a deer in its tracks, you want a soft bullet with a lead-filled core. These bullets usually have thin copper jackets and a tip designed to collapse and quickly disrupt the profile of the bullet. Bullets designed for rapid expansion don’t always exhibit exit wounds, trading penetration for shedding every foot pound of energy inside the deer’s body cavity. Because of the thin jackets and soft lead cores, these bullets conform to your gun barrel and tend to be very accurate from most rifles. Examples of soft rapid expansion bullets are the Nosler Ballistic tip, Hornady SST, Berger Bullets, the classic Remington Core-Lokt, and a variety of other cup and core soft point designs. An added benefit of these simple bullet designs is that they tend to be the most affordable bullets on the market.

Controlled Expansion Bullets

Hunters who are proponents of pass-throughs and a bullet that can be relied upon from any shot angle prefer bullets with an internal design that controls expansion and keeps the bullet mostly intact upon impact. Controlled expansion bullets offer weight retention anywhere from 60 to 95%. These bullets are ideal for close shot opportunities whereas a soft bullet can darn near grenade upon impacting bone.

If you like the idea of one bullet for any game, up to and including elk and moose, a controlled expansion bullet is your poison. Each manufacturer has their own mechanism, designed to keep the bullet from coming apart. Hornady bullets, such as the popular ELD-X, feature a thicker copper jacket shank and an Interlock Ring designed to mechanically attach the jacket to the lead core. Various other bullets use a bonding process to chemically attach the lead core to the exterior jacket. Bonded bullets like the Nosler Accubond and Federal Terminal Ascent also feature polymer tips designed for accuracy and to initiate bullet expansion. Other bullets such as the Swift A-frame and Nosler Partition feature lead noses and shanks, divided by a partition within the jacket that prevents the tip from expanding beyond the internal copper partition.

Lead vs. Copper

Copper, or monolithic, bullets are gaining in popularity among big game hunters. Though lighter than lead core bullets of the same caliber, copper bullets tend to penetrate outside of their weight class. This is because monolithic bullets sport near 100% weight retention.

“All-copper bullets offer great penetration, but they need to be traveling fast enough on impact to expand properly,” Meateater’s resident gun guru, Jordan Sillars said. “Sometimes full expansion can be an issue, especially at longer ranges and lower terminal velocities. If this happens, the bullet can pass through an animal without causing as much internal damage.”

Last Shot

"Whitetails are thin-skinned and relatively small big game animals, so there's a wide range of good bullet choices available. Virtually any big game hunting bullet will get the job done,” Sillars said. “The traditional cup-and-core has probably taken more whitetail than any other kind of bullet, and it'll drop a deer in its tracks at short and medium distances. If you think you'll be taking a long-range shot, a bonded or partition bullet is the way to go. They'll also penetrate deeper at any velocity and do a better job smashing through bone. At the end of the day, as long as you stay away from bullets that say they're for 'competition' or 'target practice,' you'll be fine.”

But choosing the right bullet doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a good shot.

“Shot placement will always be king, so don't obsess too much about bullet choice,” Sillars said. “Instead, spend that time at the range practicing at various distances from different field positions. That'll pay dividends no matter which bullet you use."

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