Observations of a Deer Hunter

By Richard Bowlin

This year's deer season is over and I've come to some conclusions based on my 31 years of hunting, mostly for whitetails. First, as we all know, shot placement is by far the most important factor. No caliber or bullet will make up for improper shot placement. Running second is bullet performance, which is determined mostly by impact velocity and bullet construction. Coming in a distant third is caliber. By that, I mean that any reasonably powerful caliber. Basically, .243 and above. I have always enjoyed trying different calibers, looking for that magic combination of caliber and bullet performance that will drop them on the spot every time. Sadly, I have concluded that it does not exist.

I started hunting deer while living in Texas. Wanting to go the simple route and not get too technical, I went with a Marlin .45-70 with open sights. The first deer walked under my tree and dropped right there, with a 405 grain lead bullet between the shoulder blades. The next one was hit through the shoulders and ran! The first of many deer to do that.

My next rifle was a scoped .243 Winchester. From one extreme to the other. A friend of mine had a ranch that he allowed me to hunt on in exchange for culling his deer herd. He wanted the genetically deficient bucks and excess does thinned out. Most years, I shot four deer. I found that the .243 with a 60 grain hollow point was very deadly with lung shots. The deer would just drop out of the scope. The only problem was that these bullets never exited, so would leave no blood trail. I went to 100 grain bullets and got exit holes but the deer usually ran a short distance.

I graduated to a .270 Winchester and shot several deer with similar results. I did not realize it at the time, but those two examples of bullet performance basically represent our choices.

After 10 years living in New Mexico and hunting mule deer, I've lived the past 11 years in Missouri, hunting whitetails again. It seems to me that mule deer are easier to put down than whitetails. That's not scientific at all, just my impression. Also, the Missouri deer are a lot larger than the Texas deer. They seem to be harder to kill or at least to drop on the spot.

For that reason, my wife and I no longer use the .243. We could not get consistent pass-throughs, even with 100 grain bullets. Our smallest deer rifle is now a .260 Rem. It is much better than the 243, in my opinion.

There are at least two schools of thought on bullet performance. Some hunters want a rapidly expanding bullet that does not exit; others prefer a bullet that expands, but will hold together and exit. I prefer the bullet to exit. That way, if the animal does not go down right away, there should be a good blood trail. The down side is that the deer is more likely to run.

I recognize that this argument has some merit, but consider this: If the bullet won't exit on a lung shot, is it strong enough to penetrate the shoulder or the paunch and get to the vitals? That is why I pick a bullet that will assure a pass-through. (The solution, of course, is to use a quick expanding deer bullet and pass up questionable shots. -Ed.)

The standard Sierra, Hornady and Speer bullets have always exited, with lung shots, in all of the calibers I have tried with the exception of the .243. We have used the .260 Rem, .270 Win., 7mm08, 7x57, .308 Win. and 358 Win., in addition to the aforementioned .243 Win. and .45-70.

The plastic tipped bullets, while very accurate, have not given reliable pass-throughs. They come apart on entry or very soon after and only small pieces exit. I would not want to hit a shoulder blade with one. I prefer the pass-through lung shot because it is deadly and it does not waste any meat. The high shoulder shot is also good and may be the best choice late in the day when any tracking might have to be done in the dark.

In a nut shell, shot placement, bullet performance and lastly caliber are the factors in order of importance. If you are like me and enjoy shooting something a little different, work up your own handloads, which increases bullet selection. Any reasonable caliber will do the job if you get the bullet into the right place.

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Copyright 2007 by Richard Bowlin. All rights reserved.