What Your Butcher Knows: Bullets for Deer

To begin learning more about the venison angle of America’s DEERLAND story, last fall I visited with the folks over at Hursh Meat Processing in Poplar, Wisconsin.  If you hunt in northern Wisconsin but don’t process your own deer, I highly recommend them.  They do over 1,000 deer a year, and they really know their stuff.  Their butchers work on one deer at a time.  All the venison you get back is going to be from your own deer.  The place is spotless, they do meticulous work, and they also make some pretty tasty sausages.

This photo is less tasty, but instructive nonetheless.  If you’re not a hunter, and if you find the image and this topic in general to be totally disgusting, please come back later for future posts that have absolutely nothing to do with hunting.  If you’re a hunter and you still find this totally disgusting, please stick around anyway.  You owe it to yourself, your family, and your deer to read this post carefully.

Every now and then, the butchers at Hursh save souvenirs they’ve discovered when skinning and butchering.  Some of the smallest pieces are only found when making ground venison.  The shop’s massive grinder has a feature that’s missing from my smaller one at home—and probably yours, too.  It’s a specially designed trap that uses centrifugal force to capture small metal fragments.

Elsewhere on the internet, you can find more detailed information about lead in venison, and also about how to choose your ammunition carefully so as to avoid the problem.  For starters, there’s the Cornicelli study from Minnesota (not to be confused with the Cornatzer study from North Dakota), the lengthy conversation that took place last winter over at A Mindful Carnivore, and regular updates on the subject at The Hog Blog.  There’s also lots of information out there about choosing bullets and cartridges that can help you kill deer more humanely.  On occasion, these two topics are related in interesting ways.

But sometimes a simple picture really is worth a thousand words.  Although you can’t see them very well in this photo, there are dozens of tiny lead fragments in the bottom of the glass mug.  I believe the general scientific consensus is that they are not good to eat.  Of even greater concern, however, are the invisible, dust-size particles that can be spread over a wide area, often some distance from the main wound channel.  (For more on that, check out the Cornicelli study.)

Toward the lower right, you can see a couple jackets that are totally separated from their missing cores.  (That’s where all those tiny bits of lead came from.)  They’re most likely from thin-jacketed “ballistic tip” bullets designed to expand more easily on impact.  Other bullets in similar calibers, however, are relatively intact—despite showing evidence of having hit bone.  Some are premium bullets, but others are ordinary jacketed soft nose bullets.  Most of the slower, heavier shotgun slugs, handgun bullets, and saboted muzzleloader projectiles are nearly 100% intact. 

I didn’t see any lead-free bullets in this sample.  They may be less popular among local hunters, but there’s also another possible explanation for their absence.  From what I understand, they expand nicely but still tend to penetrate more deeply, usually exiting on the far side of the deer.  They’re more rarely recovered.

Despite all the conspiracy theories floating around out there, I’m not bringing this up because I want to take away your guns and ammo.  In fact, I want you to go buy more ammo right now.  Buy lots more.  When you’re shopping, you may or may not want to buy cartridges loaded with premium, better-performing bullets—some of which happen to be lead-free.  It’s up to you.

The main thing is…  Buy lots of ammo.  Buy an extra box or two for practice, and then buy two or three bricks of .22 rimfire.  While you’re at it, buy a couple more tins of air rifle pellets.  There.  Now go get in some good, careful target practice. 

Because most of the bullets in this photo, as varied as they might be, all had one thing in common.  Nearly all of them were recovered from at least the same general area of the deer for which hunters should be aiming.  That’s how these deer happened to end up at Hursh Meat Processing. 

Other bullets may have mushroomed perfectly, with 100% weight retention.  But we won’t find them for a while.  They’re still out there in the woods, embedded deep in a pine tree somewhere. 

My original plan was to stop with the previous paragraph and end this post on a lighter note.  But let’s face it…  A few of those other bullets also ended up in the wrong part of some poor deer that then died a slow, agonizing death.  No matter how careful your aim, things can go wrong out there.  To make that less likely, now would be a good time to start getting in plenty of slow, methodical target practice. 

 Next time…  What Your Butcher Knows: Broadheads for Deer.

© 2011 Al Cambronne


Author: alcambronne

Retired photographer, author, and cancer survivor living in northwest Wisconsin.

9 thoughts on “What Your Butcher Knows: Bullets for Deer”

    1. No, I haven’t actually made the switch to unleaded yet. I may do that pretty soon, though. And if I don’t switch to lead-free, I’ll at least try some premium bullets that still have lead in them but are designed to hold together better and keep that lead contained.

      What these guys told me (and I think the Cornicelli study confirms), is that even if you don’t go lead-free, it might at least be good to avoid some of these “ballistic tip” type bullets that are designed for rapid expansion—not as rapid as with varmint bullets, but more rapid than with the usual soft-nose jacketed bullets. In theory, they’re good for deer and antelope. They help avoid the problem of bullets not expanding enough. But apparently they can sometimes break up too much when they hit bone—even if it’s just the shoulder of a small whitetail.

    2. An afterthought… Just remembered, I have at least switched to lead-free muzzleloader bullets. Last year I found some Barnes MZ Expanders. (I believe the exact same bullet is loaded as a saboted shotgun slug in some brands.)

      I haven’t yet had the chance to send one toward a deer—only targets, and then a couple tree stumps when unloading at the end of the day. They do, however, look pretty scary just sitting there in their little sabots. Quite a cavernous hollowpoint, about like a small copper shot glass. I’m pretty sure they’ll work.

  1. Wow, I love that your butcher goes the extra mile to remove lead fragments – very cool!

    You’re totally right about the non-lead: I have never recovered a non-lead bullet because they’ve always gone straight through. I have seen photos, though, where they were recovered – on in particular was lodged tightly into the spine on a deer.

    I shoot lead-free everywhere but the skeet/clays range (where lead is required), and I have no problem with it. But of course, I have it easy – my rifle is a .270 and my shotgun is a 12 gauge, so there are options for me.

    I think the most important thing, like you say, is buy LOTS of them and practice with them. They can shoot differently than lead, so you need to sight them in, and because they’re not leaving a ghastly wound channel, your placement needs to be good – you can’t count on fragments to make up for poor shot placement.

    1. This wasn’t actually my own butcher, just one I interviewed. Unfortunately, I am my own butcher. Being co-author of Gut It, Cut It, Cook It., I don’t want to get caught dropping a deer off for someone else to butcher. I suppose I could always do it under an assumed name, but that would make it even worse if I were discovered. Which is too bad, since the pros can do a great job for an extremely reasonable price. I, on the other hand, do a reasonable job if given a great deal of time.

      Don’t get me wrong. I like doing it myself. It’s a wonderful feeling to be self-reliant and all. But the problem is that my friend and co-author Eric, who was my hunting mentor as I was getting started, was the actual expert. I did the writing and photography. As he was teaching me how, I got this idea for a book project. Then one thing led to another.

      Eric has done hundreds of deer, and so far I’ve done about a dozen. He makes it look really easy, but I definitely do not. I’m kind of hacking away. One example: Finding that ball-and-socket joint and separating the hindquarters from the pelvis. Someone like Eric does it with one jab and one slice. Two seconds total. Me, I’m exploring a while.

      Although I obviously know the basics, I still don’t have that much practice. It takes me a while to do each deer, and at my level the year or so in between is enough time to start getting rusty. (As I was first beginning to “flay solo,” there was actually one time when I quick reviewed key photos and certain chapters of the manuscript before I went out to the garage and set to work.)

      But, as I wrote back then, I guess a person shouldn’t worry if it takes a little longer and the last couple inches of backstrap end up as a mess of scraps and shreds. They’ll be great for fajitas and stir-fries.

  2. I’m actually not concerned about lead poisoning, and the studies suggest that the minute amounts in lead-shot animals could be problematic only for children and pregnant/nursing mothers.

    I am far more concerned about unintentionally killing scavenger animals with lead poisoning. While I don’t believe bald eagles and doves are threatened as a species by lead fragments – which should be the guiding force of regulations on the issue – I want to minimize the potential unintentional harm of my actions.

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