September 25, 2023
Deer aren’t hard to kill. Not like elk, bears and Cape buffalo. However, more deer are shot every year than probably all other ungulate varieties combined, and when a dedicated deer hunter gets a shot opportunity, it is the pinnacle of his or her work; the culmination of a year’s worth of planning, prep and pursuit. It behooves the deer hunter to choose a bullet that can be counted on.
What constitutes a “reliable” deer bullet? One that kills cleanly and dependably from a variety of shot angles, and from any reasonable shot distance. Accuracy helps, too; without good accuracy we hunters can’t place our shots as well, and without good shot placement, no projectile can do its job properly. Except, perhaps, a rocket-propelled grenade.
Bullet performance is greatly influenced by velocity, which is imparted by the cartridge it’s fired from. A 6.5 projectile fired from a 6.5 Weatherby RPM will kill with more authority at 400 yards than it will when fired from a 6.5 Creedmoor. Likewise, a .30-caliber bullet fired from a .300 PRC will impact much harder—at any given range—than that same bullet when fired from the much slower .308 Win. Keep in mind this fact: For best terminal performance, it’s important to match the bullet to the cartridge.
Without further preamble, here—in alphabetical order—is a lineup of a half-dozen of the best, most dependable killers on the rifle-bullet scene.
When it comes to awkward shot angles, no bullet does it better than the TTSX. Day nine hunting monster Saskatchewan bucks, and you finally get a Texas heart shot opportunity on a giant skulking away through the brush? This is the one bullet on this list that can make that shot ethically. Put a TTSX below the tail and you’ll recover it against the brisket.
This bullet features a polymer tip to optimize aerodynamics and ensure reliable expansion on impact. A sleek boat-tail further enhances ballistic coefficient. Grooves around the shank provide a place for the dense copper displaced by the rifling to flow into, to keep pressures and fouling low and accuracy high.
Being all copper, this monometal bullet is legal in lead-restricted areas. You’ll get best performance with zesty velocities. This is an ideal bullet for fast magnums, which will give you the speeds needed to optimize mushrooming and impart system-disrupting shock. My favorite shot placement with this bullet is through the front shoulders, broadside or from any angle. Being monometal, the TTSX does not destroy meat as much as a lead-core bullet. Favorite versions are the 120-grain 6.5mm, 150-grain 7mm, 180-grain .30 caliber and 225-grain .338 caliber (I know, I know. It’s more than what’s needed for deer. But I like that bullet.)
This is probably the most consistent killer on this list—particularly across a wide spread of impact velocities. It will mushroom perfectly, yet hold together whether impacting at 3,200 fps just off the muzzle of your magnum or at 1,600 fps when you take a long shot with your .308.
The rear half of this bullet is solid, and the lead core that makes up the front half is bonded in place. You’ll never have a bullet pancake or grenade on impact and fail to penetrate. A space-age “Slipstream” composite tip maximizes aerodynamics and ensures low-velocity expansion and a generous boat tail helps minimize atmospheric drag.
While this bullet may not group into one hole like the Barnes TTSX and Hornady ELD-X will, it’s plenty accurate, usually averaging sub-MOA in good rifles. And the terminal performance rates an honest 12 on a scale of 1 to 10. There just isn’t a more reliable killer than the Terminal Ascent. Favorite versions are the 130-grain 6.5mm, 155-grain 7mm and 200-grain .30 caliber.
Engineered to produce match-bullet accuracy combined with reliable, clean-killing characteristics at extended range, this just might be the best long-range deer bullet made. Hornady endowed it with a thin, consistency-maximizing jacket; a state-of-the-art composite tip made of erosion-resistant material, a low-drag boat-tail and profile and plenty of weight—all features that optimize aerodynamics.
Because of the thin jackets and composite tips, ELD-X bullets expand dramatically on impact and wreak havoc on vitals. Best shot presentations are broadside, tucked right behind the shoulder. However, thanks to that heavy-for-caliber characteristic, ELD-X bullets have adequate mass to drive through deer-size game on quartering shots as well.
Many of the most impressive, lights-out kills I’ve seen have been with the ELD-X, as well as many of the fastest long-range kills. Custom ammunition loaders tell me that the ELD-X is one of the most accurate bullets they use, and my own handloading experience supports that. Favorite versions are the 143-grain 6.5mm, 145-grain .270-cal., 175-grain 7mm and 200-grain .30-cal.
This bullet rocked the hunting world back in 2003 with its reliable expansion combined with terrific weight retention. Accuracy, too, is stellar—a challenging characteristic to perfect in bonded-core bullets. Typically, bonding creates accuracy-degrading voids in the core, but Nosler perfected the process. Many rifles with premium barrels shoot AccuBonds into half-MOA groups.
Yep, the AccuBond is—as its name suggests—a bonded-core hunting bullet. It utilizes a steeply tapered jacket to arrest expansion once it achieves that perfect mushroom shape, and will never lose its core and grenade on impact. A pointy polymer tip helps the bullet flow through the air with the greatest of ease and reliably initiates expansion on impact.
What sort of use on deer is the AccuBond ideal for? Everything. Except, perhaps, for that Texas heart shot. It will drive deep enough to kill cleanly from any reasonable shot angle and expands huge. Wound channels are catastrophic. This is one of the most versatile hunting bullets ever designed. Favorite versions for use on deer are the 130-grain 6.5mm, 140-grain .270-cal., 140-grain 7mm and 165-grain .30-cal. AccuBonds.
This was the original controlled-expansion hunting bullet and is so good it’s still the benchmark by which all others are measured. John Nosler designed the Partition in 1947 after a mix-up with a giant Alaska-Yukon bull moose that refused to admit it was killed. The traditional cup-and-core bullets John was shooting were breaking up on the bulls’ shoulder and failing to get into the vitals.
Nosler’s Partition features two lead cores—one front and one rear—with a solid copper wall between them. The front core expands with shocking effect, and imparts fast, dramatic kills on small-bodied game such as deer. The rear is protected by the copper wall—the “partition”—and always drives deep, making this bullet a terrific choice for sub-optimum shot angles. It’s the best of both worlds.
The only weakness is that it’s not real aerodynamic. It’s flat base and traditional lead tip don’t provide the high ballistic coefficient desired by many modern hunters. But for use inside 300 yards or so, it’s absolutely outstanding.
Accuracy is generally better than expected, too. It’s not a half-MOA match bullet, but many rifles shoot sub-MOA groups with Partitions.
This is the simplest bullet included in our lineup, but almost certainly has killed more deer than all the others put together. In my not-so-humble opinion, it’s the best of all the basic cup-and-core bullet designs and tends to hold together and produce that “most deadly mushroom in the woods” better than most.
The Core-Lokt features a flat base, lead tip and a thickened ring around the middle of the bullet that mechanically locks the lead core in place. Since it’s not designed for aerodynamics, the Core-Lokt doesn’t hold velocity and energy well at long range; it’s best used inside 300 yards or so depending on cartridge and muzzle velocity.
When fired at standard velocities from classic cartridges ranging from the .30-30 to the .30-06, it works wonderfully on impact. Magnum speeds may cause too much mushrooming and result in a pancaked or fragmented bullet that fails to penetrate deeply. Pick a heavy-for-caliber version to minimize that potential.
A surprise characteristic of the Core-Lokt is that it tends to be far more accurate than it has any right to be. Many rifles will shoot Wal-Mart ammo into sub-MOA groups.
Were I incredibly practical and way too frugal for fun, I’d purchase a .30-06, load it with 180-grain Core-Lokt bullets and hunt anything in the Lower 48 with confidence.