South Carolina DNR Game Study

In the mid-1990s, Charles Ruth of the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources conducted a study of whitetail deer killed on a 4500 acre intensively managed hunting area owned by the Cedar Knoll Club on the South Carolina coastal plain. The terrain varied, but included swampland and very thick brush. All deer were killed with centerfire rifles using telescopic sights by hunters sitting in elevated stands. The sample size is such that definite trends are apparent.

A total of 493 deer were killed in 602 shots, for a one-shot success rate of 81.9 %. Of these 305 were antlered, requiring 375 shots (81.3 %) to kill, and 188 were antlerless, requiring 227 shots (82.8 %), indicating that there was no significant difference between the kill rates for these two populations.

Roughly half of the deer shot (253 of 493, or 51.3 %) traveled less than 3 yards after being hit or simply dropped in their tracks. Of the instant incapacitation kills, 87.7 % (222/253) were definitely attributable to spinal or shoulder shots. Hit location is not known for the remaining 31 kills. Among the known hit locations, the mean distance traveled for clear spinal hits (52/222, or 23.4 %) was less than 1 yard. For shots that struck the shoulder (170/222, or 76.6 %), the mean distance traveled was 3 yards. Since the scapula lies directly over the neck / back junction it would be all but impossible to hit the shoulder without causing a paralyzing trauma to the spine (despite not directly damaging it) and the probability of causing serious trauma directly to the spine would be very high.

Roughly half the deer shot (240 of 493, or 48.7 %) ran a significant distance after being hit. Nearly all of these deer (221/240 or 92.1 %) were found dead; however 19 were discovered to be still alive, suffering from inadequate wounds (shot in the abdomen, legs, neck, etc.) and dispatched (a trained tracking dog was required to locate all of these deer). The distance traveled for those found dead was recorded, but no record was attempted for those which remained living since they pursued evasive paths in their escape. The mean distance traveled by deer that ran when hit (neglecting the 19) was 59 yards. No shot placement is known for 16 of the 240 kills that ran when hit. Those hit in the heart (14/224, or 6.3 %) traveled an average of 39 yards, those hit in the lungs (152/224, or 67.9 %) ran an average of 50 yards, and those struck in the abdomen (presumably hitting an artery or the liver, as opposed to only stomach and intestines) (58/224, or 25.9 %) ran an average of 69 yards.

Although no cross-correlation is available between trailing sign and hit location, most of the deer (155/240, or 64.6 %) left a good blood trail and traveled a mean distance of 46 yards, permitting easy recovery. A further quarter of those that ran (61/240, or 25.4 %) left relatively poor sign, little or no blood at the point where the deer was hit by the bullet, and only a weak blood trail that in many instances had to be found by the dog. These deer traveled an average of 83 yards. Five of those that ran (2.1 %) gave no indication that they had been hit by the bullet, left no sign whatsoever, and traveled an average distance of 152 yards; yet each was discovered dead.

Some information is known regarding the weapon used in 444 of the 493 kills. The weapons used are grouped by caliber against the mean distance traveled for all kills (including instantaneous kills). In general, trends by caliber are weak, as might be expected. However, there are differences that must be considered significant, statistically speaking (if in no other sense). The smallest bore, .243 (6 mm) caliber, accounted for 10.8 % (48/444) of the documented kills, with an average distance traveled of 40 yards. This compares with 31 yards for .277 caliber (84/444, or 18.9 %), 26 yards for .284 (7 mm) caliber (160/444, or 36.0 %), and 33 yards for .308 caliber (116/444, or 26.1 %). Clearly, there is a slight increase in the mean travel distance for the .243 bore. Surprisingly, there is also a significant (statistically) difference between the .284 caliber and the .277 and .308 calibers, which are essentially the same. I am at a loss to explain this, particularly given the sample size. Even more striking is the case of the kills involving the .257 caliber, which make up only 8.1 % (36/444) and which have a mean travel distance of a mere 14 yards! Now to a certain extent this can be attributed to the small sample size. But it also clearly reflects some bias of behavior by the shooters or the weapons used in this caliber. Unfortunately, no further information is available on specific cartridges used or cross-correlations between calibers and hit locations.

The bullets used were loosely grouped into "soft" (e.g., Ballistic-Tip, Bronze Point, or light for caliber bullets) and "hard" (Partition, Grand Slam, X-Bullet, or heavy for caliber bullets) categories. There is a bit of a problem here because testing has demonstrated that the Nosler Partition is certainly not a hard bullet and produces very expansive wounds. Nevertheless, some trends are evident. Soft bullets, as defined, were used in 81.1 % of kills (360/444) and resulted in instantaneous kills 58 % of the time, with a mean travel distance (including instantaneous kills) of 27 yards. Hard bullets were used in 18.9 % of kills (84/444) and dropped the deer in its tracks only 40 % of the time, for a mean travel distance for all kills of 43 yards. Extracting the instantaneous kills from the total, the mean distances traveled by deer which ran when shot are 61 yards in the case of soft bullets and 70 yards for hard bullets. In other words, the soft bullets produced expansive wounds with a 50 % greater probability of dropping the game instantly, but if it ran the bigger wounds reduced the distance only by 13 %. Southern whitetails are not the appropriate game for the use of controlled expansion bullets. I have gotten complete penetration with Ballistic Tips on shots through the shoulder and spine at close range. Nothing more robust is called for.


  • Sex does not affect the toughness of deer
  • Bullet shot placement has a far more profound influence on terminal effect than does bullet caliber or style
  • Trauma to the spine anchors deer instantly; all other wounds allow some reaction
  • Deer shot well in the throracic cavity will drop within 50 yards or less, on average
  • Fully 1-in-4 deer will give little or no sign of being shot and will travel roughly twice as far as well hit deer
  • "Soft", expansive bullets are more likely to drop a deer instantly given a hit proximal to the spine, but only slightly reduce distances for deer that run
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