Fact Checker: Can a .50 BMG kill a deer without hitting it?

Myths, lies and old wives’ tales take center stage in outdoor activities. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating the facts from the nonsense, which is why we created this series to examine fishy stories. If there’s a long-standing belief, rumor, or assumption you’d like us to check, drop us a note at factchecker@themeeater.com.

The pressure wave produced by a .50 BMG round can kill a whitetail deer without hitting it.

In 2017, Keith Warren, celebrity hunter and host of the TV show “The High Road,” posted a video on YouTube of himself hunting a white-tailed doe with a rifle chambered for .50 BMG.

Warren appears to hit the deer on the head and immediately goes down. In the field, Warren comments on how little damage the 750-grain bullet seemed to do. Later, after examining the deer more closely, he claims that the bullet never hit the deer.

“The .50 BMG round has so much pressure, so much vacuum, if you will, when something happens, it actually gouges that deer’s eyes out and kills it instantly,” Warren said.

“A taxidermist and I did a full necropsy on the doe’s head and there was no internal damage to the brain cavity and no bone loss to the skull,” he explains in a pinned comment. “It was one of the strangest things that has ever happened to me on the field, and I wanted to share exactly what happened with you in this video.”

The video has garnered over 5.7 million views on YouTube with 16,000 comments.

The idea that a pressure wave from a bullet can cause remote damage is not new. As we cover in this article on hydrostatic shock, an 1898 New York Times The article claimed that fish could be killed by pressure waves from projectiles moving through the water. More recently, researchers have confirmed that an animal struck by a projectile can sustain tissue damage in areas remote from the bullet cavity.

However, Warren’s claim is different. He claims that the pressure wave killed the doe through the air. According to MIT-trained physicist Michael Courtney, this difference matters a lot.

“Compared to a bullet passing through water or tissue, the ballistic pressure wave of a bullet passing through air is typically 2,000 times smaller,” he told MeatEater. Courtney estimated the maximum pressure of a .50 BMG round passing through the air to be between 1 and 5 pounds per square inch.

Without similar studies in the scientific literature or personal access to the deer carcass, Courtney said she can’t rule out Warren’s claim. Scientists don’t usually make definitive pronouncements based on a video and anecdotal observations from one person. Still, Courtney called Warren’s explanation “extremely unlikely.”

“I think the hypothesis of a passing ballistic pressure wave in the air killing an animal the size of a deer is extremely unlikely. The pressure wave is simply too small to be a likely cause of a lethal injury,” he said.

Ballistics expert Jayden Quinlan also doesn’t believe Warren’s explanation.

“I believe what you are saying that the bullet had so much vacuum that it sucked out the eyeballs? Absolutely not,” Quinlan said. “I don’t think the vacuum theory is valid at all.”

Quinlan points to the moment in the video when the deer falls to the ground. A puff of material comes out of the deer’s head, which Quinlan believes proves the deer was hit by something.

“It is undeniable that something hit the deer. From a timeline point of view, it seems consistent with the shot. The deer reacts physically, falls over, which would be consistent with getting knocked out,” he said.

The main alternative explanation is that the projectile traveled through the deer’s eye sockets without causing any perceptible damage. Such a shot seems possible on video, but Quinlan believes the deer’s head would have shown greater signs of trauma.

There is no path from one eye socket to the other through which the bullet could have passed without hitting bone. Quinlan also said that in deer he has personally shot in the head, the skull cap usually comes off.

“That would not be consistent with basic anatomy and physiology or terminal ballistics,” he said of the eye pass theory.

If the bullet hit the deer but did not go through its eyes, how does Quinlan explain the death of the doe?

“Considering the amount of blood that came out of the eyes and mouth, I’m guessing the bullet went through the deer’s skull somewhere. A bad enough head impact is going to cause injuries like what you see there,” she said. “Once you see that cloud of stuff coming out of the deer’s head, the projectile hit the deer to some extent. I think you can say that with certainty.”

A glancing blow, Quinlan believes, could have immediately killed the deer without leaving a noticeable mark on the skull.

Food to go
Whether or not you accept Quinlan’s explanation, one thing seems clear: the pressure wave vacuum theory is highly unlikely.

Even before Warren released his video, other YouTube creators had put the myth of nearly missing .50 BMG to the test. In 2016, for example, Matt Carriker of Demolition Ranch fired a .50 BMG through a tower of cards and the tower did not collapse. If a pressure wave from a .50 BMG can’t collapse the cards, it’s hard to imagine how it could kill a deer.

Warren did not respond to a request for comment on this article, but I have no reason to believe he was being dishonest about what he observed during the deer necropsy. Strange things happen when bullets and animals interact, and given the video and physical evidence, Warren’s theory is understandable.

But after talking to ballisticians and physicists, I’m passing on the pressure wave theory. The eye pass and glancing blow theories may not be correct, but the .50 BMG simply doesn’t produce enough pressure to suck out a doe’s eyeballs.