A Bullet In Flight Understanding Ballistics

| Last Updated September 24, 2020

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“I need a box of 30-06s” said the customer, “What kind would you like?” inquired the storekeeper. “Oh, the cheap kind, any brand will do.”

Ever hear that one before? You want to stop the whole conversation and educate the hunter a little bit about ballistics, but you wind up minding your own business. Ballistics, the study of a ball in flight, is something few people really know a lot about, except forensic scientist and extreme sharpshooters. But the everyday hunter could well benefit by just knowing a few basics that could mean the difference between a successful hunt and going home empty handed.

To make things as simple as possible we will just talk about deer hunting ammunition. Depending on your rifle and caliber, you want the best bullet to instantly kill a deer with one shot. There are many variations, but the standards seem to be the best. Then you have the Outdoor Experts on the TV that use what their sponsors tell them to use or test, so it’s hard to get a good evaluation there. Just watch the shot and it will tell you something. If the Buck is hit perfectly but runs across a field and then drops, something is wrong.

Of course they always find it and nobody complains, but it looks more like the inherent properties of bow hunting, than gun hunting to me. It has happened to me, but very few times, so I write it off as just one tough deer. Statistically one deer made it to the 150 yard mark and two made it 50 yards out of 133. Of course some run in a tight circle, or make a 10 yard dash but 95% drop in there tracks.

A good rifle shot on a deer should produce the rear end to collapse and then the head, from rear to front, upon impact. This is the job of a properly constructed bullet, plus good shot placement. So what is a good deer bullet to use? Well I don’t have any ammunition sponsors, but I do know the answer to the question.


First the standard, knock them flat deer rifle is the 30-06 Springfield, and I doubt if any deer could tell the difference in that and a 308 Winchester. With these two cartridges in anything from a light Remington Mountain rifle to an M1 or M-14 with iron sights, Ft Polk Top Gun Sharpshooters consistently hit clay pigeons at the 500 yard mark. In Louisiana chances are you will never see a deer that far away and my average shot is about 30 yards. What you need is to be prepared for the occasional 300 yard shot and be able to deliver enough energy to kill cleanly.

Remember a hunting bullet kills, this is what hunters do at the climax of the hunt, farmers harvest corn, so we need to have a reality check here before we go further. Some how I was never able to generate the same passions for fertilizer as do farmers, so I went hunting. Political correctness is not for the hunting camp or outdoor articles attempting to teach hunter forensics. Such an absolute is not a vicious act, but a serious responsibility of a hunter which requires study, discipline and precision. Further explanation is ridiculous.

It would seem that John Nosler invented the best two hunting bullets for North American hunting, the partition bullet, for big game larger than deer, and the Ballistic Tip bullet for deer hunting.

The Ballistic Tip design is now manufactured and factory loaded by several good ammunition companies who continue to improve on the design; this would include Winchester, Remington, Federal, Hornady and Black Hills. If you shoot factory ammunition these should be tried first in my opinion. This is the bullet type with the colorful plastic tips.

Older Styles

The older type of hunting bullets for deer are just as good, such as the Remington Corloct, Winchester Silvertip and Power Point, Hornady Interlock, and Federal High Shock. These are all lightly constructed and will mushroom or expand quickly when it strikes a deer sized target. The draw back is finding the one with the greatest accuracy potential in your particular firearm. This usually entails more testing than the average hunter is willing to do. From my experience try the Winchester Ballistic Silvertip bullets, I never saw a rifle yet that didn’t shoot them well. They are available for the reloader too, in all calibers and weights. The Winchester Power Point would be next if your gun is experiencing what is known as “The Plastic Pass through.” It has happened to me so it bares mentioning.

The big mistake hunters make is buying a bullet for deer hunting that is designed for Elk, Moose and Big Bears; this would be The X-Bullet, the Partition bullet, A-Frame, and Fail Safe. Now these bullets were intended to shoot through the shoulder blade of big game like Moose and impart knock out energy to the big animal. These will certainly kill deer as well, but have a tendency to shoot through a smaller animal without imparting the kinetic energy required. The more lightly constructed bullets with thinner jackets, already mentioned, do this very well on deer sized game. Now you know why those deer run across the field after a perfect hit. I suspect some companies are more willing to pay for a Deer hunt than a Moose hunt for video analysis.

High Performance Calibers

There are optimum bullet weights for the chosen caliber that produce maximum performance. The 168 grain, 30 caliber bullet has the best performance in the 30-06, or 308 rifles. For the 7mm rifles it’s the 150 grain bullet and for the 270 it is the 140 grain. This means it will retain its striking energy over a longer distance better than lighter or heavier bullets in the same caliber. Of course this may not be your favorite, but worth trying. Notably, my Savage 99 in 308 shoots the 150 grain Ballistic Silvertip so well I never tried the 168 grain. The deer will not be able to tell the difference in this case. Strangely enough however, big wild hogs can. After failing to shoot through several with the 150 grain in another gun, I went to the 168 and never had the problem again.

My 444 Marlin originally came with a 240 grain bullet, while now companies make projectiles all the way up to 330 grains. While reading an NRA ammunition test I discovered the 270 grain Buffalo Bore factory load to receive the highest accuracy rating. I tried them and got 1 inch 3 shot groups at 100 yards, that is terrific for a lever action rifle. This round, in simple terms, crumples deer and the biggest wild hogs, with little meat destruction, as the bullet is only traveling 2200 feet per second. If you don’t need a 300 yard gun the 444 is the way to go.

My most recent update is the Hornady “Leverevalution” ammunition which is really something to try if you are a lever action or big bore user. I think Hornady got it right this time.

Some times bullets have different properties than advertised. In my 325 WSM, Winchester rates the 220 grain Power Point as a CPX-3 for big game, but I have found that this is the perfect deer bullet for this caliber. The big soft point train wrecks small deer on the spot, is deadly accurate so I don’t use anything else.

Bullets are generally of two types, being expanding and non-expanding. Only expanding bullets are used for hunting deer. Non-expanding bullets are used by the military and target shooters and should never be used on game unless you are hunting elephant. Soft points, hollow points, and plastic tip bullets all do about the same thing when they hit, they mushroom to about twice their original diameter and abruptly halt inside the animal transferring an awesome force of kinetic energy. They don’t completely stop however and usually penetrate the entire animal exiting with a larger hole than entry.

If the speed of the bullet is above 2400 feet per second, hydrostatic shock will occur (massive expansion of blood vessels), along with blunt trauma (shock to the nervous system) from the impact, and massive hemorrhage follows. Now there is a good reason for you to have a great respect for safety with firearms. As graphic as this sounds, it is exactly what is supposed to happen for a quick humane kill on a deer, which is the ultimate responsibility of a hunter.

A hunter shooting a 45-70 with a 400 grain bullet traveling at 1900 fps is just as effective as a 257 Weatherby Magnum with a 100 grain bullet at 3600 fps. The difference in layman’s terms is choosing to be hit by a brick that weighs a ton, or being struck by lightning. Those who know how to deal with looping trajectory of the slower bullet are just as effective at long range. The modern ultra high velocity cartridges have their place in the hunting world, as they flatten out this trajectory arch eliminating the need for holdover.

In Louisiana, for example, it is legal to use any center fire cartridge for deer hunting. Yes a 22 Hornet and a 223 will kill a deer, but when the event takes place it may be on someone else’s property or in the middle of a briar patch with no blood trail. These tiny bullets at high speed are designed to hunt nothing larger than coyotes, and penetration at high speed is unlikely, therefore they blow up when striking larger deer sized game. I would recommend at least a 243 and better a 7mm-08 as a standard minimum deer cartridge.

Those of you, including the youth hunters will find that recoil in deer calibers is not the culprit when it comes to poor shooting. Most expert shooters agree it is the muzzle blast, that causes the flinching, so wearing ear protection and practicing a lot with a 22 rifle is the key.

Then we get back to the 30-06 which is pleasant to shoot by most and does every thing you ask it too, from point blank to 300 yards. My secret weapon is the European combination gun over and under, which combines the 30-06 and a 12 gauge shotgun with 000 Buckshot.

The CZ model 584 is the ringer, if you can find one. On an either sex hunt a couple of years ago, a doe came running in directly under the stand, only to be train wrecked with the 000 Buckshot. The unseen buck came in a moment later and stood inquisitively wondering what happened to Nanny. He caught the Ballistic Silvertip and I had to go get help to haul out all the back strap. It was on Thanksgiving Day when my 120th deer, an old flop eared doe in this case, stepped out in a clearing 3 football fields away. Using the same gun, rifle barrel only, I settled the cross hairs just at the hairline of the top of the back and touched off the single set trigger. Once again knowing the ballistic capabilities of the firearm paid off; with fresh back strap along with turkey for Thanksgiving…Pass it on.


My name is Jeff and I have been hunting and fishing for over 40 years. I am an avid archery lover, bass fisherman, and all-around outdoorsman. Currently, I'm obsessed with elk hunting but I'm sure I'll move onto a different favorite soon. You gotta love hunting for that reason :) If you have any questions, or just want chat about your latest hunting score or big catch, you can reach me at admin@biggamelogic.com. Read more about Big Game Logic.