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Loaded for Deer: Lead-Core Bullets Remain Best Choice

The best deer bullets don't have to be fancy. Here are four excellent options that anchor deer quickly.

Loaded for Deer: Lead-Core Bullets Remain Best Choice

Although these four loads are vastly different, the terminal performance their bullets deliver on deer is similar in that it’s primarily driven by high energy transfer. (Photo by Richard Mann)

Some years ago I participated in a cull hunt for whitetail deer on a large property in Texas. The other hunters and I were shooting Remington R-25 rifles chambered in .308 Win., and we were provided with 168-grain Barnes VOR-TX ammunition. This was more than enough gun for 70- to 170-pound deer, but the first day of shooting was disastrous. Most of the deer were hit well but ran 100-plus yards into thick brush that was polluted with rattlesnakes.

One hunter suggested the Barnes bullets were not expanding, but I knew that was not the case. Mono-metal bullets like those loaded in the VOR-TX ammo expand after passing though only a couple inches of ballistic gelatin.

We needed to make a change, and fortunately one hunter had a case of 168-grain Hornady Zombie Max ammo. The Z-Max bullets used in this load were a conventional cup-and-core design with a lead core and polymer tip. I suggested we make the switch, and when we did, we started dropping deer instantly. The ones that ran after the shot made it only 15 to 30 yards. Both bullets killed deer, but the lead-core Z-Max bullets put them down faster.

The following year I was conducting bullet experiments at the Barnes facility and ran a test. Various bullets were fired into an 8-inch block of ballistic gelatin at a range of 100 yards, and the amount of energy deposited inside the block was calculated by measuring the bullet’s velocity as it exited the offside of the block. On average, mono-metal bullets like the Barnes TSX dumped about 50 percent of their energy inside the gel block. Cup-and-core bullets dumped 70 percent or more of their energy.

The mono-metal bullets had about the same recovered diameter as the lead-core bullets, but they did not shed any weight. They penetrated about 40 percent deeper than lead-core bullets. In contrast, the lead-core bullets lost about 30 percent to 50 percent of their weight and created more impressive wound cavities due to the material transfer. That’s why we were able to put deer down quicker on that cull hunt with the lead-core Zombie Max ammunition.

When you cull more than 100 deer in three days, and then back it up with empirical testing, you learn stuff. You can have either deep penetration or massive tissue damage, but not both. When deer hunters use high-velocity big-game cartridges with muzzle velocities below 3,000 fps—cartridges like the .243 Win. and .308 Win. or the 6.5 Creedmoor and 7mm-08 Rem.—they are better served with lead-core bullets that expand widely, dump lots of energy and create profound wound cavities through material transfer. Ammo manufacturers know this, too, and its why we now have an assortment of loads that have been ideally adapted for deer hunting.

Mono-metal or bonded bullets make sense for deer hunting if you’re using a cartridge that produces an extremely high velocity, like the .300 Win. Mag., or a small-caliber cartridge like the .223 Rem. High impact velocities necessitate bullets that hold together, and small-diameter, lightweight bullets need to retain their weight to facilitate necessary penetration. (Of course, another reason to use mono-metal bullets for deer is if you’re hunting in a state or area that mandates non-lead projectiles.) For most of the common deer-hunting cartridges, turn to the deer-specific, cup-and-core loads for the best performance.

Here’s a look at four loads that have all been crafted to deliver in the deer woods. One is new, two have been with us for a few years, and another is likely older than you are. Regardless of their age, all these loads have one thing in common. They are designed to drop deer through the application of dynamic lead-core expansion, which results in significant amounts of intensive energy transfer.

Norma Whitetail

Loaded for Deer
Norma Whitetail. (Photo by Richard Mann)

Norma has a storied reputation when it comes to manufacturing precision ammunition, and the company’s bonded Oryx bullet is a legendary worldwide big-game bullet. Now Norma offers a line of ammunition specifically intended for whitetail deer, and it utilizes a bullet of traditional construction with a lead core encased in a thin jacket. This allows the bullet to deliver maximum energy transfer. Inside 100 yards, expect about 16 inches of penetration and double-diameter expansion with around 60 percent weight retention. This is ideal terminal performance to put deer down and keep them there.

Winchester Deer Season XP

Loaded for Deer
Winchester Deer Season XP. (Photo by Richard Mann)

The Deer Season XP line from Winchester delivers terminal performance very similar to that of the Norma Whitetail line. But Winchester gets that performance a bit differently. The Extreme Point bullet has a large polymer tip to help initiate dramatic expansion and improve downrange flight characteristics. Behind that tip is an alloyed lead core surrounded by a tapered jacket. These bullets deliver massive wound cavities, extreme energy dump and moderate penetration, which is just what deer hunters need.


Hornady American Whitetail

Loaded for Deer
Hornady American Whitetail. (Photo by Richard Mann)

These deer-specific loads use the InterLock bullet that made Hornady famous. The InterLock has a one-piece lead core that’s locked into the tapered jacket via a raised, internal ring. Penetration is on the moderate side and wound cavities are large due to generous expansion. At woods ranges, InterLock bullets will retain 65 percent to 70 percent of their weight and dump 70 percent to 75 percent of their energy during the first 8 inches of penetration, while pushing to about double that depth.

Remington Core-Lokt

Loaded for Deer
Remington Core-Lokt. (Photo by Richard Mann)

The Remington Core-Lokt has been a go-to deer bullet for more than 80 years. It’s often called “the deadliest mushroom in the woods” for a reason. The bullet’s cup-and-core design has a soft lead core that expands wide, sheds material and transfers as much as 75 percent of its energy through only 8 inches of penetration. There’s nothing new about the Core-Lokt and there doesn’t need to be. While it may not sound as sexy as some of the more modern loads, it’s been dropping deer for almost a century.

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