Quartering toward me, the white-tailed buck was no more than 75 metres away when I squeezed the trigger on my .270 Winchester. To hit the vitals and ensure a quick kill, I aimed low on the animal’s shoulder, hoping for a heart shot. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as cleanly as planned, with the bullet’s impact pulverizing flesh and shattering bone. Plus, the shockwave forced blood in all directions, leaving it pooled in the flesh under the skin. Trimming away this heavily bruised, jelly-like meat—known as “bloodshot”—added to the waste.
In the end, I relegated 1½ kilograms of precious venison to the scrap bucket. A typical boned-out deer yields 20 to 40 kilograms of meat, and while it may not seem like much, spoiling even five per cent of the total with a gunshot wound means a big loss of venison.
Bullets cause incredible shock to an animal’s nervous system. Sometimes, it’s enough to drop the animal in its tracks; otherwise, it usually dies quickly from blood loss. Of course, bullets are designed to punch a wound channel, and this inevitably damages meat. But how much damage they actually cause depends on shot placement, impact velocity, bullet construction and cartridge design.
Ask any hunter to name the best cartridge and bullet combination for big-game animals and you’ll get dozens of different answers. But by understanding what happens when a bullet impacts your quarry, you can make your own informed choice. Here’s what to consider when your aim is to preserve as much venison as possible.
The simplest way to avoid meat damage is to shoot the animal where it doesn’t have much meat. At close range, it’s tempting to aim for the head. A brain shot will kill instantly, but it’s a small target and ungulates never hold still for long. Deer typically feed for a few seconds, then lift their head to watch and listen for predators. Aiming for the head, therefore, could lead to a miss or, worse, a badly wounded deer.
Neck shots are difficult, too, as the position of the spine within the neck is hard to pinpoint. And because the spine is also relatively small, there’s not much room for error. Plus, mature bucks and bulls in the rut have heavy neck muscles, so bullets with light jackets may not penetrate both the muscle and spine.
Also keep in mind that the neck has a lot of good meat, which can be ground into burger or cut into pot roasts. In fact, slow-roasting neck meat transforms the collagen into gelatin, creating a juicy and tender piece of venison. You don’t want to risk ruining that with an errant neck shot.
Minimizing exposure to disease is another reason to avoid aiming for the head or spine. Chronic wasting disease (CWD) attacks the nervous system in deer and elk, infecting the brain, spinal cord, eyes, spleen and lymph nodes. New research opens the possibility it could be transmissible to humans, and wildlife departments recommend not cutting through the spine on animals from areas affected by CWD.
In hunter education, we’re taught to make one-shot kills. To do this, it’s best to wait for an animal to turn broadside, exposing its vitals. As luck would have it, the heart and lung area offers the largest target on big game. However, the meaty front shoulder covers a large portion of the vitals, so aiming behind the shoulder is often preferable. It’s a smaller target, but you will still hit the vitals, while only shattering a few ribs.
If the deer is not standing broadside, however, don’t take this shot—you run the risk of penetrating the diaphragm and perforating the gut. When meat such as the tenderloin is covered in gut contents, it takes on an awful flavour unless the contaminants are immediately and thoroughly removed. Gut bacteria can also accelerate meat spoilage in warm weather.
As a rule, the slower the bullet, the less meat it damages. Take, for example, a traditional muzzleloader. Using black powder, a soft lead ball travelling at 1,200 feet per second (fps) punches a hole in a deer’s body with minimal meat loss. As legendary firearms writer and innovator Elmer Keith once remarked, “You could eat right up to the hole.” Indeed, muzzleloader and shotgun hunters using standard-velocity loads will enjoy the most meat from their deer.
At the other end of the spectrum are today’s ultra-fast magnum cartridges, some of which have muzzle velocities of more than 3,200 fps. At 400 yards out, these bullets are still flying faster than a .308 Win. bullet does when it leaves the muzzle. High velocities flatten a bullet’s path, which benefits longer-range shots. But at close distances, they turn meat to mush. Even cartridges with a muzzle velocity less than 3,000 fps can make a mess at close range. More than once I’ve shot a deer at less than 50 metres, and without time to lose velocity in the air, the bullets caused massive damage.
Impact velocity accounts for some meat damage, but you also need to consider bullet construction. Soft-point bullets may disintegrate, for example, sending lead and jacket components in different directions. I’ve even found bullet jackets lodged in a deer’s hind leg muscles from a close-quarter broadside shot.
So, how do you choose a bullet to preserve the most meat? It can be complicated, given the wide range of choices, including advanced new bullet designs. That said, hunting bullets for centrefire cartridges come in three basic types: soft-point, bonded and monolithic.
Traditional soft-point bullets are the most common. Using a thin copper jacket and soft lead core, these bullets are designed for rapid expansion to create a wide wound channel. They work best at velocities under 2,800 fps, as higher impact velocities flatten these bullets, reducing penetration. In the worst case, the bullet can break apart, though quality bullets are designed to remain intact on impact. Popular soft-point bullets include Federal’s Power-Shok, Winchester’s Power-Point and Sierra’s GameKing.
As for bonded bullets, they have a lead core chemically bonded to the jacket, so they don’t separate. These bullets retain more weight and therefore penetrate deeper. In theory, bonded bullets should cause less tissue damage because they don’t shed as much lead shrapnel as soft-point bullets. In practice, though, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference in meat damage.
Although bonded bullets cost more, they have the advantage of not breaking apart at higher velocities—something worth considering, especially for large game like elk and moose. Manufacturers can vary the amount of bullet expansion by using thinner or thicker jackets. Two premium choices are Federal’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Swift’s Scirocco.
Lastly, monolithic bullets have no jacket and they’re made from just one material, often a copper alloy. They may expand or remain solid. Unlike the other two types, monolithic bullets don’t disintegrate, even when they hit heavy bone. As a result, meat loss is reduced. In addition, there’s been some recent discussion about the possible health risks from eating venison shot with a traditional lead-core bullet. All the major manufacturers make a monolithic bullet as a non-toxic option, but Barnes is synonymous with this style, being the first out the gate in 1989 with the X Bullet.
Hunters are passionate about which cartridge is best. When looking for the best cartridge for your type of hunting, remember that meat loss has less to do with calibre and more to do with bullet construction and velocity. For example, the .30-30 Win. and .300 Win. Mag. both have .308-calibre bullets, but they’re very different cartridges. Also note that lower-velocity cartridges do less damage than high-velocity cartridges. A speedy .243 Win., for example, will cause more meat damage than a slow-moving .45-70 Gov’t.
Manufacturers tend to load bullets in the cartridge sizes most commonly used for certain types of game. For example, it’s hard to find a controlled-expansion bullet suitable for elk in .243 Win., since that calibre is considered too small. Similarly, you rarely see a suitable bullet to take a pronghorn with a .375 H&H Magnum, which is considered too large.
To further narrow down your choices, read the manufacturers’ guidelines for recommended bullet-to-game pairings. Ultimately, cartridge selection comes down to personal preference. But for the meat hunter, I think the best choice is a standard-velocity cartridge shooting in the 2,600 to 2,900 fps range, such as the .30-06 Springfield or 7mm-08 Rem., paired with an appropriate bullet.
First and foremost, ethical hunters strive for one-shot kills. They also have a moral obligation not to waste game meat. By considering shot placement, impact velocity, bullet construction and cartridge design, you can readily achieve both. The only downside will be for your dog, which will be disappointed to see a lot less meat tossed into the scrap bucket this fall.