Yep, it’s all about the bullet. Your hunt hinges on a puny little chunk of copper or lead that weighs less than a half-ounce. So it pays to know and understand big-game bullets. They are not created equal.
Before we explain these projectiles, consider what you expect them to do:
• Fly straight and to the same point of aim every time.
• Land with enough energy to penetrate an animal.
• Expand to rip through more vital tissue.
• Penetrate bones and muscles to reach vital tissue.
• Continue penetrating to the offside skin or right through it to enhance blood trailing.
That’s asking a lot of a small pebble. How does it manage? Let’s dig deeper.
Accuracy is a product of balance. A bullet can have a thicker wall on one side than another, throwing it off balance. It can have a bubble in its lead core — off-balance again. You can’t see these things, but they’ll show up when target shooting from a steady position, such as a bench rest.
Often bullets can be inherently accurate, but the rifle throwing them isn’t. Some rifles “like” some bullets or particular loads better than others, so experiment. A rifle that parks hunting bullets into two Minutes of Angle (MOA) is accurate enough for deer hunting out to 300 yards, where they should land inside a 6-inch circle or no farther than 3 inches from the point of aim. A one-MOA rifle (all bullets land inside a 1-inch circle at 100 yards) should keep all bullets inside a 3-inch circle at 300 yards or no more than 1 1/2 inches from point of aim.
Big-game hunting bullets fall into five basic types, each performing slightly differently to achieve the same end — a sure, quick kill.
These consist of a copper or gilding metal (copper with 5 percent zinc added) cup (the jacket) filled with a lead core. The lead can be soft or hardened with a bit of tin. It can be poured in hot or inserted as a length of cable and squeezed into the final shape.
It can be flat-nosed, round-nosed or sharply pointed with the lead flush with the jacket, protruding beyond the jacket, covered with a metal cap or tipped with a tiny point of plastic.
Jackets can be uniformly thick or tapered, usually thin at the nose growing thicker toward the shank. The base of the jacket can also vary in thickness. A cannelure (notched ring) can be pressed around the shank. This squeezes the jacket and core together and provides a groove for crimping the brass cartridge case to the bullet for a secure hold.
Regardless their nose shape, cup-and-core bullets generally mushroom easily, sometimes excessively, upon striking soft tissue. The greater the expansion, the less the penetration.
They can break into two or more pieces after striking bones. Jackets often separate from cores. The resulting lighter weight of each piece also reduces penetration, but the pieces can disperse to hit or miss more vital tissue.
Cup-and-cores with thin jackets are engineered to break up, sometimes dramatically. Known as frangible varmint bullets, they are generally not recommended for big game, but if they enter the chest cavity near the heart, they can disperse fragments and kinetic energy dramatically for quick, humane kills.
Hollow point bullets are often frangible, but they can be designed with thick jackets and harder lead cores to mushroom quickly while staying in one piece.
Examples of cup-and-core bullets include Winchester Power Point, Remington Core-Lokt, Federal Soft Point, Sierra GameKing, Hornady SST, Speer Hot-Core and Berger VLC Hunting.
Bonded bullets are similar to cup-and-cores except the jacket and core are “welded” so that they bond at the molecular level. The jacket and core can erode against bone and muscle but cannot separate. The heavier retained weight means deeper penetration. Nose shapes, exposed lead tips, flat tips and polymer tips are all variations.
Examples include: Swift Scirocco, Remington Core-Lokt Ultra, Winchester Power Max, Nosler Accubond, Federal Fusion, Hornady Interbond, Speer Deep Curl.
The idea here is to maintain the fast-expanding lead nose of a typical cup-and-core, but insert a wall of jacket material in the middle to lock the lead within the shank.
Nosler’s Partition is the original. Swift’s A-Frame is another. The A-Frame has a bonded nose, Partition doesn’t.
These are made of one material, either all copper or a copper alloy, so there aren’t any different metals to separate.
Expansion is achieved via a hollow cavity in the nose. When body tissue or fluid enters this hollow area, hydrodynamic pressure forces the nose to peel back like a banana. Some nose hollows are internally notched to break along seams, creating from four to six distinct petals. The depth of the hollow determines how far expansion continues. Petals can rip off, but sufficient mass remains in the shank of these bullets to maintain significant inertia.
Monolithics often shoot completely through animals standing broadside.
Examples include: Barnes TSX, TTSX, LRX; Nosler E-Tip, Hornady GMX, NormaUSA Kalahari, Winchester Power Core, Federal Trophy Copper.
Hybrids can be any combination of the above features, e.g. all-copper shank with a bonded lead nose or a hollow copper nose with a lead core shank. Examples include: Federal Bonded Tip and Bonded Bear Claw.
Any of the bullet types can be fitted with a polymer tip, often mistakenly called a ballistic tip. That phrase is Nosler’s copyrighted term for its poly-tipped bullet. These tips, if sharply pointed, slightly improve a bullet’s aerodynamics but are mainly designed to eliminate the tip deformation common to exposed-lead tips.
Poly tips also drive back into lead cores to initiate expansion.
Boat tails on a bullet’s base improve aerodynamics. Combined with long, sharply tapered and pointed noses, boat tails can reduce bullet drag enough to decrease drop and wind deflection by several inches at long range, but inside of 300 yards hardly make enough difference to matter.
PICK A WINNER
Hunters should choose bullets based on the velocity their cartridges/rifles put out and the size/bulk of game they’re targeting. The higher the impact velocity, the harder the bullet should be.
Smaller, thin-skinned game can be addressed with softer, wider mushrooming bullets since deep penetration isn’t essential.
Elk, moose and big bears call for tougher, harder, controlled-expansion bullets designed to retain more mass and penetrate deeply.
Sleek, pointy bullet shapes reduce air drag, which translates into more energy, less drop and less wind drift downrange.
At extreme range, bullet speed and energy drop dramatically from muzzle velocity. The right bullet at 350 yards might be the wrong bullet at 50 yards.
Finally, keep in mind that bullet placement beats materials, construction and shape every time.
Park your bullet in the right spot, and its performance will be optimum.
Ron Spomer is one of Idaho’s most prolific outdoors writers, as well as a photographer, television host and author. His encyclopedic “Everything Whitetail” app for iOS and Android smartphones is loaded with how-to information on hunting tactics, whitetail history, weapons and more. The Boise freelancer has spent decades hunting in Idaho and around the world. Go to ronspomeroutdoors.com.