What Makes a Good Deer Bullet?

The best deer bullet for all types of hunting scenarios. 

What Makes a Good Deer Bullet?
Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
A lineup of classic deer bullets, in designs both modern and classic.

I remember being just old enough to legally hunt big game in New York State—back then, you had to be 16 to hunt big game—and carrying a classic lever gun, a Winchester Model 94 in .30-30 Winchester. Enamored with this rite of passage, finally being able to join my family for the November deer hunt, I also remember an unquenchable thirst for knowledge regarding the difference in ammunition for that classic cartridge. 

My dad had bought me the rifle for my 15th birthday and gave me a couple boxes of 170-grain Remington Core-Lokt cartridges, along with a couple of boxes of Winchester Silvertip 170-grain cartridges. “Keep those Silvertips for when we go bear hunting up in the Catskills,” he told me. “They penetrate better than normal bullets.”

He was correct in his evaluation of the ammo of that time. The Winchester Silvertips were considered a premium bullet, with an aluminum-alloy tip that helped control expansion, which resulted in deeper penetration. Now, that’s not to say that the Silvertip was a poor choice for the deer hunter, but it might have been a bit more than what was needed. 

That was 30-something years ago. Today there is a mind-boggling number of cartridges and bullets to choose from when it comes to deer hunting. So, let’s talk about what makes a good deer bullet, examining a number of different hunting scenarios, so you can best choose the bullet which will suit your hunting needs. 

The whitetail deer, along with the feral hog, is hunted with a wide and diverse selection of cartridges, bullets and bullet weights. I know hunters who don’t have an opportunity to take a shot longer than 80 or 90 yards, yet insist on using a .300 Weatherby Magnum, and I know guys who will take 250-yard shots across open fields with cartridges as small as the .22-250 Remington. I feel the answer to the “best bullet” question might be somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
Massaro took this mule deer with a 143-grain Hornady ELD X bullet from a 6.5 Creedmoor. The polymer-tipped cup-and-core bullet put the buck down quickly.

A deer isn’t hard to kill, providing you destroy his vital organs. A heavy bullet that doesn’t hit the vitals is useless, and an animal thus struck is going to travel a considerable distance before going down, if it goes down at all. While a lighter bullet that destroys vital tissue can work just fine, then, if the bullet is too light or constructed poorly, it may fail to do sufficient damage. Premature expansion can result in poor penetration, and too little expansion—while giving fantastic penetration—doesn’t do enough damage to the vitals to result in a quick death. Understanding this, then, what you’re after is that balance of expansion and penetration. 

Classic softpoint bullets like the Remington Core-Lokt, Winchester Power Point, Speer Hot-Cor and others, when of suitable weight—say, the middle of the range to the heavier end of the spectrum for a particular and appropriate caliber—work just fine at standard velocities. Beef those velocities to that of the magnum cartridges, however, and you’ll begin to see premature expansion and a whole lot of bloodshot meat. 

These projectiles are of standard cup-and-core construction, a copper jacket around a lead core. John Nosler had an issue with this construction when hunting bull moose with a .300 H&H Magnum in the late 1940s, and that experience was the impetus for the famous Nosler Partition, which uses two lead cores separated by a partition of copper jacket material. That design gave birth to the premium bullet industry. The Partition remains a staple in the industry, as the front core is soft enough to give good expansion, yet the bullet holds together well enough to penetrate a deer from any angle. I like to use them in bear country, when the odds of seeing a bear or deer are equal. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
Sierra GameKing hollowpoint boattail hunting bullets offer match-grade accuracy, and theor thick jacket slows expansion, even in magnum cartridges.

Another option for controlling expansion is to use a thicker copper jacket. This results in better resistance to bullet breakup. Sierra Bullets have long been popular among handloaders for their accuracy and their construction. Sierra offers many designs, including cup-and-core bullets with thicker jackets, which give great performance on any deer. Federal began to load Sierra’s bullets in its Premium line in the 1970s and continues to do so to this day. One of my all-time favorite deer bullets is Sierra’s 165-grain .30-caliber hollowpoint boattail. It’s seriously accurate, opens quickly to transfer energy and has a thick jacket so that premature breakup isn’t an issue. 

There are a good many polymer-tipped bullets on the market today. That design was pioneered by Nosler in its Ballistic Tip bullet, and it makes a sound choice for deer hunting. That tip acts as a wedge to initiate expansion upon impact; Hornady’s SST and ELD X and the Browning’s BXR have a similar design. But, as with a standard cup-and-core bullet, too much velocity upon impact causes these bullets to expand too quickly, resulting in poor penetration. A modern solution for today’s faster cartridges has been to chemically bond the copper jacket to the lead core, resulting in controlled expansion. I like these polymer-tipped bonded bullets in magnum cartridges, where impact velocities can be high, and in lighter cartridges where reaching the vital organs can be a concern. I also prefer them in standard cartridges in those instances where a light-for-caliber is chosen. My 7mm-08 Remington likes the 140-grain Nosler AccuBond load from Federal, and it works wonderfully on deer of any size. 

Image Courtesy of Nosler
The Nosler Ballistic Tip, a sleek, accurate bullet that transfers energy quickly. The polymer tip acts as a wedge to initiate expansion.

While it doesn’t use a polymer tip, Federal’s Fusion has a bonded core and is another great choice for deer of any species. They are both accurate and affordable, and I have really come to enjoy the entire Fusion line. It doesn’t have a ballistic coefficient value that’s off the charts, thanks to its flat base and a bit of a blunt nose, but at average hunting distances it’s a great choice. 

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
The 165-grain Federal Fusion loaded in the .30-06 Springfield is a great choice for an all-around big-game rifle.

A final consideration are the monometal bullets comprised of copper or a copper alloy. The beauty of their design is that there is no core or jacket to separate, and they usually have a hollowpoint or a polymer tip to ensure the bullet expands upon impact. Barnes Bullets pioneered the design, but these days many companies offer a monometal bullet, including Hornady’s GMX, Federal’s Trophy Copper and Nosler’s E-Tip.

Image Courtesy of Phil Massaro
The all-copper Barnes TTSX features a blue polymer tip over a hollowpoint. The tip aids expansion while keeping the meplat consistent.

Like I said, there are many choices available for today’s deer hunter, whether he’s hunting these wonderful animals in the thick cover of the Northeast’s hardwood forests or the wide-open expanses of Midwest agriculture. What you ultimately want with the cartridge you choose for your hunting situation is a bullet that provides rapid energy transfer. Be sure your bullet has either enough weight or a construction strong enough to reliably reach the vital organs from any angle, and you’ll be a happy hunter. 


About the Author: Phil Massaro is a freelance author and editor-in-chief of Gun Digest Annual. He is happiest hunting the wildest places left on earth.

About the Author: Phil Massaro is a freelance author and editor-in-chief of Gun Digest Annual. He is happiest hunting the wildest places left on earth.