What Your Butcher Knows: Broadheads for Deer

Here’s that same photo I showed you last time.  But today, never mind the bullets.  Instead, check out those two bits of steel over toward the left, the ones that look like twisted fragments of a razor blade.  They’re from an expanding broadhead.

Over on the far left, you can see four broadheads that were recovered from deer.  Although the arrow shaft is broken or missing on all four, the fixed-blade broadhead is totally intact.  All three of the expanding broadheads have pieces missing.  Sharp pieces.

(Even though I have other photos showing these broadheads more clearly, I decided to go with this one in case anyone is here on their lunch break.  The broadheads had just been set aside, and they unfortunately hadn’t yet been cleaned.)

I myself am not a bowhunter; I may give it a try someday.  But I’ve talked to some real experts, and here’s the deal.  Many bowhunters prefer mechanical broadheads that are designed to expand when they hit a deer.  In theory, because these points have less surface area, they make for more accurate arrow flight than you’d get with conventional “fixed-blade” broadheads.  In theory, after hitting a deer they instantly scissor open to a larger diameter, thus cutting an even larger wound channel than you’d get with ordinary broadheads.

In practice, it doesn’t always work that way.  These points often come apart, especially when they hit bone.  At Hursh, and probably at most processors, there are special blanks on hunters’ check-in forms.  First, “Bow or gun?”  Next, bowhunters are asked to state whether they recovered their broadhead.  No matter what the answer, they’re then asked whether they used an expanding broadhead.  And in either case, they’re also asked to describe exactly where the arrow hit.

On one of my visits to Hursh Meat Processing, I talked with Clyde Hursh, a butcher who’s also a bowhunter himself.  He’s shot dozens of deer with a bow, and every fall he butchers hundreds more for other bowhunters.  He’s seen first-hand what works and what doesn’t.  He told me it would be a kindness to butchers everywhere if fewer bowhunters used expanding broadheads.  Just as important, it would be a kindness to deer. 

All too often, Clyde explained, these expanding broadheads don’t expand as designed.  Even when they do, they often come apart when they hit bone.  They fail to penetrate, or else they pentrate without creating the kind of wound channel that leads to quick, humane kills.  Plus, there are those twisted bits of razor blade that could end up in your steaks or Clyde’s fingers.

Clyde has seen these failures with pretty much every brand of mechanical broadhead out there.  He told me, on the other hand,  that the more reliable fixed-blade broadheads can actually be quite accurate.  He also told me there’s just one word I needed to remember about broadheads: “Muzzy.”  This was apparently an unsolicited, unpaid testimonial for a particular brand.  Since he’s a butcher and a bowhunter, I’ll take his word for it.  But whatever brand you choose, maybe those expanding broadheads aren’t such a great idea after all.

© 2011 Al Cambronne

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


Strawberry Supermax

Every night, all across America, hungry deer tiptoe out into farmer’s fields.  Deer that are especially hungry or bold don’t even wait for nightfall.  Either way, one thing is certain:  We only get the leftovers.

Deer-related agricultural losses are hard to quantify.  But we do know that here in the U.S., each of our 30 million or so deer eats an average of around 3,000 pounds of vegetation per year.  (Depending on its size and appetite, your deer may vary.)  A lot of those deer live in farm country, where crops like soybeans, corn, and alfalfa can make up over 85% of their diet.  The numbers add up.

For most crops, however, deer-proof fences just aren’t affordable or practical.  In the animal Olympics, deer can kick cows’ asses when it comes to the running high jump.  Your basic five-strand barbwire fence isn’t much of an obstacle for them.  To be totally reliable, a deer-proof fence needs to be at least eight feet high.  That’s why you’ll only see them around small-acreage, high-value, deer-candy crops like cranberries, apples, or strawberries.

I recently snapped a couple shots of this eight-foot, outward-leaning electric fence at a U-Pick-‘Em strawberry operation.  While this fence also deters any young humans who start getting ideas about picking a few strawberries after the bars close, it’s mainly there for the deer.  (Although fairly intelligent, deer have not yet learned to use wire cutters with insulated handles.)  A few feet from the fence, I saw deer tracks in the mud.  Apparently a scout had been there the night before, probing for vulnerabilities. 

As I write this, I’m realizing that a large percentage of my recent posts have shared a similar theme, both conceptually and visually.  There was the electrified bear fence at my local transfer station, wolf fladry around the perimeter of a cattle ranch, various deer exclosures, and now this.  By now you could be wondering if I have, like maybe…  “Boundary issues.”  I do not. 

But deer do.

I’m done with fences for now.  Next time, something completely different—and even a short break from deer:  Wolf Genetics, and Why it Suddenly Matters.

© 2011 Al Cambronne