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Terminal Ballistics For Hunters

Terminal Ballistics For Hunters

Get it anchored! The difference between celebrating a trophy on the ground and endlessly searching for a blood trail often comes down to how the bullet performed when it impacted.

All serious hunters are concerned with making quick, humane kills on the game they are hunting. This is the main reason that we are all so careful to match just the right caliber and just the right bullet to the animals we are after. What happens when that bullet hits our intended trophy is extremely important and can be the most critical factor towards having a successful hunt.

Bullets kill in one of two ways. The first would be when they impact the central nervous system. A bullet to the critter's brain shuts down the machinery in no time flat. But brain shots are often quite difficult to make on a moving animal and generally can be expected to do serious damage to the trophy. As a general rule, we use brain shots only on dangerous game when the need to stop the animal is more important than what might happen to the horns and skull.

The second way that bullets kill is by impacting the animal's heart, major arteries, or lungs. In short, the bullet causes extreme trauma that shuts down the flow of blood to the brain. When this blood flow is cut off, the brain shuts down and the animal dies. This process can often take much longer than one would expect--sometimes lasting seconds; sometimes lasting several minutes.

Most seasoned hunters know that a heart-shot animal will nearly always give a little jump and then run a ways before it piles up. When the heart-shot critter in question happens to be a Cape buffalo, and he is running in your direction, a reversion to the brain shot might be indicated.

However, where many hunters vary is in just how much penetration they expect from their hunting bullet. One camp believes that the properly selected bullet should have enough force to drive deeply into the animal's vitals. While doing this, it should expand completely so that a maximum amount of tissue and vessel damage is accomplished. But the bullet should not completely exit the animal. In this manner, the bullet expends all of the energy that it is capable of within the animal.

The second view of bullet performance would also have the bullet expand dramatically and cause a good deal of tissue damage and bleeding; however, this school holds that the bullet should exit the animal's body. Having spent a lifetime of hunting, and seeing the effect of bullets on game animals and people, I have to say that this second theory is the one I value most.


When everything goes right and the bullet is placed just so in the thoracic cavity, the animal seldom goes far and is relatively easy to find. Unfortunately, as most experienced hunters know, things don't always work exactly as they should in the field. The animal may move just as we break the shot. Or we just might not be up to our best performance, and we muff the shot in some manner--likely by jerking the trigger or making some other such error. Then we have an animal that is hit with a poorly placed bullet and may go quite a ways before falling. Tracking can be exceedingly difficult.

A few years ago, I had an interesting experience while hunting whitetail in Kansas. I was shooting a scoped Thompson/Center Encore pistol in 7x30 Waters, and I attempted a lung shot on a buck at about 40 yards. At the shot, the buck ran and disappeared in a nearby stand of woods.

Checking out my shot, I searched the snow all around where the buck was standing but didn't find a single drop of blood. Yet at such a close range, I was quite sure I had hit him.

Finally, still not seeing any blood, I walked into the woods in the direction the deer had gone. Not far inside the woods was the remnant of an old fence, and just across the fence was a large pool of blood. Not far beyond that lay my buck, stone dead.

In this case, the Federal 7x30 Waters bullet had expanded and completely exited the buck, but there was not a blood trail. This was undoubtedly due to the fact that some lung tissue had plugged the exit wound and wasn't knocked loose until the buck had jumped the fence. At which point, blood went everywhere.

So the exit wound is important because the animal will generally bleed more from the exit wound than it will from the entrance wound. At any rate, it doubles the number of holes that blood can come out, thus weakening the animal that much quicker.

The late Elmer Keith had another theory regarding exit wounds. He, too, believed that the animal bled more freely when there was an exit wound. And he also believed in the importance of a strong blood trail for tracking wounded game. But Keith also thought that two wounds--an entrance and an exit--allowed more oxygen to enter the thoracic cavity and increase the onset of shock.

Animals being animals, this entire discussion is also critical to the defensive handgunner. An exit wound on an attacking criminal will cause him to weaken just that much quicker. More blood exiting the body can cause the body to experience debilitating shock just that much faster, too. As a result, his vicious attack is more likely to be short lived and a failure.

Obviously, we are always responsible for the impact of our bullets, whether they go through the intended target or not. Attacked in a crowded location, the best first move might be to seek cover and consider firing on your attacker from a kneeling position so that your bullet, if it does exit, will do so in an upward direction and be less likely to hit someone else.

By the same token, the hunter must be concerned with the safety of the other animals that might be behind his intended target. Herd-bound animals, such as pronghorns, the various goats, deer, and buffalo, will often bunch up to such an extent that the hunter should be concerned about an exiting bullet. I am told that it is for this reason that many professional hunters ask clients to fire a softpoint bullet for the first shot on Cape buffalo in hopes that it doesn't over penetrate. Subsequent shots, should they be necessary, are made with solids in order to cause as much penetration and damage as possible.

So it's important that you give some serious thought to terminal bullet performance when you are getting ready for your next hunt. In my view, the lack of an exit wound is not an issue when your shot is good enough to drop the animal in its tracks. But how often do we find that this really occurs? If the animal runs at all, an exit wound is critical to recovering your trophy.

My friend and colleague Terry Wieland and I were recently discussing guns and ammo for dangerous game. Terry made the observation that a dangerous-game

gun was not selected for those times when everything went as planned. A dangerous-game gun and caliber were selected for those times when nothing was going right and life was on the line.

The more I've thought about that statement, the more I think it applies to any of our hunting situations. When everything works just right, you can kill deer with a .22 Long Rifle. However, I use a .30-06 because I know it is very seldom that everything works just right in the hunting fields. Come to think of it, that's the same reason I carry Federal 230-grain Hydra-Shok ammo in my .45 auto. On the street or in the hunting field, I intend to win.

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