Answering Questions About Guns, Ammo, Deer and Man’s Best Friend

BigBuck1Discussion and debate are great things when it comes to hunting deer because with so many hunters having different experiences the different opinions and insights can sometimes lead to introspection about our previously-held ideas.

The following are the results of a study by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources into guns, ammunition and use of tracking dogs by hunters pursuing whitetail deer. The report is printed verbatim.

By Charles Ruth
Wildlife Biologist
SCDNR Deer/Turkey Project Supervisor

ABSTRACT: Harvest of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) through regulated hunting is the most important tool available to deer resource managers. As wildlife professionals, we are often looked upon as outlets for information concerning not only biological concepts, but hunting in general. The hunting community can pose unique questions and in some instances, hunting related information is not supported by data.

The purpose of this study was to attempt to answer questions most often posed by sportsmen. We attempted to determine; the importance of a trained dog in locating dead and wounded deer, the distance deer traveled when shot, the effects of shot placement, and differences in the effectiveness of various firearms and ammunition. Statistical significance was based on a probability level of P = 0.05.

We determined that on this study site, the mean distance of shots taken at deer was 132 yards and that there was a significant difference between shots that resulted in a deer (127 yds.) and those resulting in a miss (150 yds.). Overall it required 603 shots to harvest 493 deer resulting in 81.7 percent shooting success. There was no difference in shooting success with respect to antlered (81% ) or antlerless deer (83% ). Approximately 50 percent of the 493 deer ran when shot and the mean distance traveled was 62 yards. Antlered and antlerless deer traveled the same distances.

Of the 221 deer that ran when shot and were located dead, 61 left no discernable sign in the vicinity of the shot. An additional 19 deer were wounded by the shot. Using a trained dog expedited the process of recovering these 240 deer.

Deer were assigned to 3 groups depending on how difficult they were to recover. There were significant differences in the distances deer ran depending on whether they would be recovered; (a) easily (46 yds.), (b) with some difficulty (85 yds), or (ac) not recovered without the aid of a dog (147 yds). Overall, a trained dog increased the harvest approximately 20 percent at this site because it almost totally eliminated unrecovered dead deer and crippling loss. We determined that deer shot in the shoulder ran significantly shorted distances (3 yds.) than those shot in the heart (39 yds.), lungs (50 yds.), and abdomen (69 yds.). There were no significant differences in the efficiency of weapons when grouped by caliber. However, deer ran significantly less frequently (42%), less distance (27 yds.) and left sign more often (88%) when struck with soft type bullets than when struck with hard style bullets (60%,43 yds., and 81%).

200inchIowabuckIntroduction

Harvest of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) through regulated hunting is perhaps the most important tool available to deer resource managers. As wildlife professionals, we are often looked upon as outlets for information concerning not only biological concepts, but hunting in general. The hunting community can pose unique questions and in some instances, hunting related information is not supported by data. The purpose of this study was to attempt to answer questions often posed by sportsmen. We attempted to determine; the importance of a trained dog in recovering deer, how deer react versus shot placement, and differences in the effectiveness of various firearms and ammunition.

Objective to determine

  • Importance of trained dog in recovering deer
  • How deer react vs. shot placement
  • Differences in firearms and ammunition

Study Area

Data for this study was collected at the Cedar Knoll Club which is a private hunting club located in the coastal plain of South Carolina. Although Cedar Knoll is a private club it has cooperated in a number of University sponsored white-tailed deer research projects since the late 1980s. The area is typical of the coastal plain of South Carolina with the majority of the area being in some form of intensive timber management. Due to timber management, habitats can best be characterized as being exceptional for deer and for the purposes of this study it cannot be over emphasized how thick habitat components are. An intensive deer management program has been in place since about 1984 and includes various techniques like burning, mowing and fertilization of native vegetation, plantings and direct supplemental feeding.

Study Area

  • Coastal plain of South Carolina
  • 4,500 acre private hunt club
  • Intensively managed

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Methods

Essentially, the bulk of the data for this study was hunt type data. Still hunting was the method employed and hunts were conducted in the morning and evening. Hunters were placed in elevated permanent stands based on wind direction and recent use by deer. All stands were equipped with seats and rails to improve safety and facilitate marksmanship.

Photo: © National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc.

Photo: © National Shooting Sports Foundation, Inc.

Deer were harvested with scoped center-fire rifles. After each hunt, participants were picked up at the stand. If a deer was shot and it did not leave the hunters sight, it was removed to the club for processing. If the deer left the hunters sight after the shot, a trained dog was used to determine if it had been hit and to attempt to recover the animal.

For this study all shots at deer were recorded as was an estimate of the range of the shot. The distance the deer traveled and the type or amount of sign was noted. Information concerning the recovery or attempted recover of all deer was recorded as was the involvement of a trail dog. If the deer was recovered it was assigned to one of four categories describing how difficult the animal was to recover. Other data included the caliber of rifle and type of ammunition. Shot placement was determined for all harvested deer when they were processed.

Data Collected

  • Number and distance of shots
  • Trail dog necessary
  • Deer hit, yes or no
  • How far did deer travel
  • Deer recovered, yes or no
  • Weapon and bullet characteristics

As it relates to recovering deer, please keep in mind that there are a number of factors that potentially enter into the likelihood of recovery. Habitat type is one of the key elements affecting how easy recovering deer will be. This particular study area is characterized as being exceptional deer habitat on the basis that most of the land use was in intensive timber management. Southeastern habitats that are under intensively forest management typically are very dense in the under story especially early in the rotation, therefore visibility and accessibility can be greatly limited.

Second, we must consider that the times during the day when deer normally present themselves to the hunter are not times that offer good visibility. Most deer in this study were taken around sunup or sundown. Finally, wildlife openings or food plots tend to be long and narrow. All of these factors combine and lend themselves to situations in which hunters can have trouble determining exactly were a deer was standing and the direction it traveled.

Shot placement

As it relates to recovering deer, please keep in mind that

  • Habitat type affects recovery
  • Deer are often shot in poor light
  • It can be difficult for hunters to determine where the deer was standing and the direction it traveled. Particularly on long, narrow roads or food plots.

Results and Discussion

A total of 493 deer were harvested during the study including 305 antlered deer and 188 antlerless deer. Hunters fired 603 shots to harvest these deer and were therefore, about 82 percent successful with their shooting. There was no statistical difference between shooting percentage depending on the sex of the deer. We feel that this is a pretty good shooting percentage considering the variable experience levels that the hunters had.

Shooting Percentage

Deer type# DeerShotsPercent
Antlered
305
375
81.3
Antlerless
188
227
82.8
Total
493
603
81.7

The mean distance of all shots taken at deer was 132 yards. For shots that resulted in a deer the average was 127 yards. On the other hand, shots that were unsuccessful had a range of 150 yards, significantly further than the distance of successful shots. Intuitively you would assume that marksmanship suffers with increased distance to the target, however, who would have expected a statistical breakpoint between roughly 125 and 150 yards.

How far were shots?

  • Average distance of all shots = 132 yards
  • Shots resulting in a deer = 127 yards
  • Shots resulting in a missed deer = 150 yards
  • Significant difference in distance “deer vs. missed deer”

Of the 493 deer that were harvested, 51 percent dropped when shot and 49 percent ran. If there is no consideration given to shot placement, it would appear that how deer reacted was largely random on this study area.

How did deer react?

  • A total of 493 deer were taken.
  • 253 deer dropped in tracks, 51%.
  • 240 deer ran when shot, 49%.
  • If shot placement is ignored, how deer react is a coin toss.

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Recovering Deer

tracking dogUsing a trained dog to assist in the recover of deer is a technique that has gained in popularity in recent years. Recovering deer in the traditional sense can be inefficient when conditions such as darkness, rain, thick terrain or when wetlands or water bodies exist. Also, a trained dog can almost immediately determine whether a deer is hit which ultimately saves time attempting to recover something that is not there. For this study a dog was used anytime a shot was taken at a deer regardless of what the hunter thought or said about the shot.

We were able to estimate the importance of a dog in recovering deer by assigning each animal to one of 4 classes based on how difficult it was to recover. Certainly, assigning deer to these classes was subjective and depended largely on our experience. However, tangible considerations were important in this process and included the distance the deer traveled, the amount of sign where the deer was shot and the type of habitat that the deer entered after leaving the vicinity of the shot. Also, the general feeling from the hunter concerning where the deer was standing, the direction it traveled and their confidence level concerning the outcome.

Recovery data

  • Class 1 – didn’t leave sight, no dog required.
  • Class 2 – ran short distance, left good sign.
  • Class 3 – longer distance, poor/no sign, rough habitat.
  • Class 4 – judged unrecoverable without dog, considering all factors: distance, sign, habitat.

If we look at the data in table form, it appears that assigning deer to the classes based on difficulty of recovery worked well. Note that dramatically fewer and fewer deer were assigned to the classes which represent the more difficult recoveries. Similarly, the average distance deer traveled varied between each class with deer traveling progressively and significantly further as recoveries became more difficult.

Recovering deer

Class# DeerYards Traveled
Class 1
253
<5
Class 2
155
46
Class 3
61
83
Class 4
24
152

If we keep the distance data in mind and look at the more subjective characteristics it seems that the Classes make pretty good sense. Deer that were assigned to Class 1 either did not run or did not leave the hunter’s sight, therefore, a dog was not necessary. Obviously, anyone would recover deer assigned to this class. Deer that were assigned to Class 2 would have also been recovered very easily. These deer ran short distances, often into relatively open habitat and they left very good sign. The average hunter would have no trouble recovering Class 2 deer if an attempt was made.

Class 3 deer on the other hand, ran significantly longer distances than Class 2 deer and these deer left little or no evidence that they were hit particularly near the area where they were standing. Also, Class 3 deer generally entered thick terrain were visibility and access was restricted. The average hunter would get his buddies and struggle to locate Class 3 deer without a dog. It is our opinion that many Class 3 deer would not have been recovered without a dog, however they were assigned to Class 3 rather than Class 4 based on the criteria.

Class 4 deer were judged unrecoverable without the use of a dog. It turned out that only 24 deer were assigned to this class which represents about 5 percent of the animals harvested on the study area. Deer in this Class traveled significantly further than Class 1, 2, or 3 deer. There was no evidence that the deer was hit where it was standing and generally, any sign that was discovered before the deer was recovered was sign that was located by the dog. In addition to significantly longer distances, Class 4 deer traveled into extremely thick habitat that often included wetlands or water.

Importance of a trained dog in recovering dead deer

  • Class 1 deer did not run or did not leave hunter’s sight. Dog not necessary, anyone would recover deer.
  • Class 2 deer ran short distances, left good sign and good visibility in habitat. If an attempt to recover deer was made it would have been located easily without a dog.
  • Class 3 deer ran significantly further than Class 1 or Class 2 and left little or no evidence of hit. Trailing condition involved heavy cover, wetlands, etc. The average hunter would get a friend and struggle to recover deer without a dog.
  • Class 4 deer were judged to be unrecoverable without use of a dog. These 24 deer traveled significantly further than Class 1, 2 & 3 deer. If sign was found it was always well away from the scene and typically this sign was found by the dog. Recovery involved extremely thick habitat, wetlands, water, etc.

Thus far we have discussed the characteristics of recovering deer that were found dead. However, during this study an additional 19 deer that were not dead but had been wounded by the shot were recovered using a trained dog. Deer that were still alive typically had suffered a wound to one or more of its legs, a wound to the lower most abdomen or flank or some other significant wound did not involve major organ systems. As with Class 3 and 4 deer, these deer traveled into extremely thick habitats that often involved wetlands or water. Normally the dog located the deer bedded in dense cover. In some cases the dog would bay the deer which would allow us to determine where the deer was and we would be able to work our way to the location and dispatch the animal. In other cases, the deer would run after being located by the dog and travel some distance before bedding again. This process was repeated until the deer would hold at bay allowing us to determine were it was, traverse to the location and dispatch the deer. Distance determination was not possible for these deer because they traveled too far and erratically.

Overall we feel that a trained dog accounted for 15-20 percent of the deer harvest during this study. This can be determined by recognizing that the dog was responsible for many of the 61 Class 3 deer that left little or no evidence of being hit, all 24 of the Class 4 deer that were determined to be unrecoverable without a dog, and 19 deer that were still alive and had been wounded by the shot. Also, by using a dog every time a shot was fired, the efficiency in recovering deer and differentiating deer that are hit from those that are not was greatly increased.

Importance of a trained dog in recovering live deer

  • An additional 19 live/wounded deer were recovered using a dog.
  • These deer suffered wounds to various body parts including legs, mandible, lower abdomen, etc.
  • Thick terrain, wetlands and/or water involved in recovery.
  • Deer traveled too far and erratic routes for distance determination.

What about unrecovered deer?

There were 15 unrecovered deer:

  • Superficial wounds
  • In many cases this was determined only by the reaction of the dog.
  • Dog trailed an average of 297 yards.

Importance of a trained dog in recovering deer – bottom line.

  • Dog accounted for many of the 61 Class 3 deer, all 24 Class 4 deer and all 19 live/wounded deer.
  • This represents approximately 75 -100 of the 493 deer harvested on the property, i.e. 15 –20%.

Shot Placement

In this study we were also interested in documenting the importance of shot placement because this is often a point of debate among sportsmen. We have already seen that deer run nearly 50 percent of the time when they are mortally wounded. Certainly, shot placement is the most important factor related to how deer react after being shot. Several types of trauma can lead to the rapid death of an animal that is struck by a bullet. Significant trauma to the central nervous system, the respiratory system or the circulatory system will all prove effective.

buck3For the purposes of this study, bullet placement consisted of neck, spine shoulder, heart, lungs and abdomen. Since animals that were hit in the extremities or hit superficially were still alive they were eliminated from this particular analysis in favor of more traditional bullet placement locations. In this study deer shot in the neck and spine were immediately rendered immobile and succumbed quickly. Deer that were shot broadside in the shoulder ran a mean distance of 3 yards while animals hit in the heart, lungs or abdomen traveled 39, 50 and 69 yards respectfully.

So what shot placement is the best. Neck shots worked well in this study, but they can be problematic because the target area is very small and there is a risk of wounding associated with the target. Potential problems include a shot to the esophagus or mandible. Also, spine shots can be ruled out as a recommenced shot because few shots are consciously directed at the spine. In other words, most spine shots result from shots that miss their mark high and incidentally hit the spine.

Based on the data collected in this study we feel that the best shot placement for deer is the broadside shot directed at the shoulder. Traveling an average of only 3 yards, deer shot in the shoulder traveled significantly less distance than deer shot in the heart, lungs, or abdomen. Also, with such a short distance of travel, deer shot squarely in the shoulder did not generally leave the hunter’s sight. In this study, the broadside shoulder shot essentially gave results similar to what most hunters expect from a neck shot. Presumably the broadside shoulder shot works well because it strikes part of the heart and or lungs which itself is a mortal blow. However, a shot through the scapula damages the brachial plexus which is part of the central nervous system thereby rendering the animal immobile. It knocks the animal out and it never regains consciousness. Also, the shoulder is a very large target offering room for error; a high shot hits the spine, a low shot the heart and a shot to the rear hits the lungs.

Effects of shot placement

Shot Location# DeerYards Traveled
Neck
25
<1
Spine
27
<1
Shoulder
170
3
Heart
14
39
Lungs
152
50
Abdomen
58
69

Firearms and Ammunition

Hunters are often very opinionated with respect to firearms and ammunition and similarly, there are many misconceptions related to the subject. It is still common for hunters to place more emphasis on their firearms and ammunition than on shot placement. The old saying “I use this magnum because you can hit them in the butt and blow their head off’ is still common. Also apparent are skeptical remarks implying that smaller caliber center-fire firearms are less effective and result in deer running further and increased crippling rates.

target ammoDuring this study there were in excess of 20 different center-fire cartridges used to harvest deer. To reduce variability the various cartridges were group by their respective caliber. This resulted in the delineation of 5 caliber groups; .243 cal., .25 cal., .270 cal., .284 cal., and .30 cal.

In order to gain some objective measure of how these calibers performed on deer, we looked at the distance deer traveled. This included all animals regardless of whether they died in their tracks or ran. We found no significant difference in the performance of these caliber groups when comparing how deer reacted. Mean distances deer traveled varied between 14 and 40 yards but there was no apparent relationship with increasing or decreasing caliber size or the inherent differences in velocity or energy that is related to the different caliber groups.

Firearms and ammunition

Caliber# DeerYards Traveled
.243 (6mm)
48
40
.25
36
14
.270
84
31
.284
160
26
.30
116
33

Custom versus Factory

Recently there has been an increasing interest among hunters related to custom firearms and the super accurate shooting that accompanies these weapons. Questions often arise concerning potential differences between factory made and custom made equipment. Since we recorded the type of firearm and ammunition, we were able to check for differences between factory made and custom made firearms. Once again, the distance deer traveled was used as the determining factor and there was no statistical difference between custom and factory firearms. Regardless of the weapons make, deer traveled about 30 yards.

Firearms and ammunition – Factory rifles vs. custom rifles

Make# DeerYards Traveled
Factory
164
29
Custom
169
29

Ammunition

The final question that we addressed in this study dealt with differences in the performance of different bullet types. With the popularity of hand loading and super accurate shooting sportsmen often debate the merits of different bullet types. For the purposes of this study and because there are so many different bullet types, we placed bullets into 2 categories. Group 1 consisted of softer type bullets. In other words, bullets that are designed to rapidly expand on impact. Bullets falling into that group included ballistic tips, bronze points or any other soft point bullet that is of the appropriate weight for the caliber, for southeastern sized deer. For example, a 150 grain ballistic tip bullet in a .30 caliber rather than a 200 grain bullet in the same caliber.

Group 2 bullets were just the opposite and included some of the premium types of ammunition loaded with controlled expansion bullets including Partitions, Grand Slams, Barnes X, and various types of solids. Also, bullets that are generally accepted as being too heavy for southeastern sized deer were placed in this group. For example, a 200 grain bullet in a .30 caliber weapon is generally considered too much for southeastern deer. Overall, Group I bullets could be characterized as being explosive on impact, where as Group 2 bullets were controlled in the manner they expand.

Firearms and ammunition – Bullet types

  • Group 1 – Rapidly expanding bullets such as Ballistic Tips, bronze points, etc. Any soft point bullet of appropriate weight for a particular caliber for southeastern deer.
  • Group 2 – Harder or more controlled expansion bullets such as Partitions, Grand Slams, Barnes X, etc. Any bullet that is heavier for a particular caliber than is generally recommended for southeastern deer.

Again, using the distance that deer traveled as a measure of performance we found that deer struck with the more explosive type bullets traveled a mean distance of about 27 yards while those struck with hard or heavy bullets traveled an average of approximately 43 yards. This represents a significant difference with deer struck by hard bullets traveling further. The second method of monitoring bullet performance dealt with the percentage of deer that were dropped in their tracks by the respective bullet groups. Again, explosive type bullets significantly outperformed the hard/heavy bullets with 58 percent knock downs compared to 40 percent.

Finally, and more subjectively, we looked at the percentage of deer that ran and left poor sign. Again we found a significant difference between the two groups indicating that deer struck with more expanding type bullets left poor sign only about 12 percent of the time compared to over 21 percent for the hard/heavy group.

Firearms and ammunition – Bullet type results

Type# DeerYards traveled% Dropped% Poor sign
Soft
360
27
58%
12%
Hard
84
43
49%
21%

Conclusions

  • Shooting percentages about 82%.
  • The farther the shot, the lower the chance of getting the deer.
  • Deer ran about 62 yards on average.
  • Shot placement is determining factor. All things considered, broadside shoulder shot worked best compared to others.
  • About 50:50, deer run vs. deer don’t run.
  • Trained dog expedited recovery of all deer that ran.
  • Dog very important in recovering 61 deer that left poor/no sign, 24 deer judged unrecoverable, and 19 live/wounded deer.
  • Dog accounted for approximately 15 – 20% of total harvest on hunting area, i.e. 75 – 100 deer.
  • No difference in effectiveness of various calibers.
  • No difference between factory vs. custom firearms.
  • Significant difference between bullet types. This study indicates that rapidly expanding bullets lead to deer running less often and less distance and when they run they leave better sign.

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