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The Search for the Ultimate Bullet

by Sam Fadala   |  September 23rd, 2010 1

Big-game bullets are better than ever, but the quest for perfection continues.

Going for the right bullet for the job at hand, the author handloads his .30-06 with 170-grain softnose bullets at .30-30 velocity for close-range brush hunting for whitetail.

In the early days of television the screen was about the size of your navel, and even in the hot desert of Yuma, Arizona, where I lived in my high school days, it was always “snowing” on TV. But it was all we had, so we watched enthusiastically, even the local programming.

I remember one local show that featured an archer pitting his bow against a rifle. He shot into a bucket of sand at point-blank range with a .30-06, dimming studio lights to blackout level. The bullet stopped less than halfway through the metal pail, while an arrow launched from a 50-pound bow punched a broadhead clear through, “proving” the authority of the bow over the rifle. A 500-grain arrow at 200 fps develops only 44 ft-lbs of energy–about half that of a .22 Short. Meanwhile, a .30-06 180-grain missile traveling at 2,700 fps works up more than 2,900 ft-lbs.

Regardless, bullets do not penetrate well in sand (or water). It’s a matter of physics. So are the many pitfalls attending the design and construction of the world’s best big-game bullet.

I’d like to have a seven-passenger hunting vehicle capable of making it over rugged terrain without a hitch while at the same time offering a Cadillac ride on the highway and getting 45 miles to the gallon. The comparison ultimate big-game bullet would be one that is highly accurate. It enjoys integrity in the bore at any velocity while upsetting (mushrooming) perfectly on thin-skinned game such as antelope at any range. At the same time it is capable of penetrating deeply in the largest wild animal on the continent with bone-crunching authority. It also enjoys a high ballistic coefficient for superb terminal velocity and energy. My dream bullet gives up most of its energy in the game while retaining just enough horsepower to create an exit hole on the offside of the target.

I look at a bullet as an object created to do work, not so much in the scientific sense of mass vs. gravity but simply labor performed. A bullet is, after all, an instrument of energy delivery. It is intended to do work, which it does in basically two ways: energy delivery and change of medium (tissue and bone disruption).

Medical doctor Alexander C. Johnson, writing in a 1949 American Rifleman, divided big-game-bullet lethality into “wound factors” and “ballistic factors.” Under the first banner, he listed anatomy of the animal along with physiology. Bullet caliber, weight and sectional density fell under ballistic factors, along with velocity, linear and rotational, plus projectile shape and construction.

Today we have the finest big-game bullets the world has ever known, yet perfection remains elusive. Consider the demands. Add to the doctor’s list that construction must match bullet torture through the bore at high forward and rotational velocity, although not so much heat (even an open-base jacketed bullet does not melt its lead core). A frail projectile can fail before reaching the target. At the same time, the bullet must upset to impart energy (except FMJ) while hanging together to create a wound channel.

Sometimes penetration and bone damage are paramount. As some may recall from an earlier article (“Happy Birthday, .30-06″, May/June), I had official permission to go for a Cape buffalo with a .30-06. A come-apart bullet would be a disaster in this instance. I chose a 220-grain solid cranked up to 2,615 fps from the 26-inch barrel of my rifle. The bullet entered the right temple, stopping under the hide of the left shoulder after more than 40 inches of travel.

That same bullet flying through the chest region of a deer might see the animal run far enough into the woods or thicket to be rendered coyote feed. A basic argument has always been whether a bullet should exit or remain within the big-game animal. W.W. Greener, in his classic book, The Gun, 1910 9th edition, put it this way: “No bullet that goes through an animal can be of much use.” Greener went on to say, “The object should be for the ‘bullet to come to rest within the animal,’ thus ensuring all its energy being used to the best effect.”

In tune with the quest for a high-tech big-game bullet, Lost River Ballistic Technologies offers a special design in various calibers and weights. Shown is the .30-caliber 180-grain J36 hunting bullet in the Idaho firm’s .30-06 ammunition.

I have seen this principal displayed when the .17 Remington meets a western marmot. The tough cousin to the eastern woodchuck stops in its tracks as if time ceased to exist. The tiny bullet delivers all its energy to the target to interrupt physical locomotion instantly from brain to tailbone. If a big-game bullet matched its quarry in the same way, the same thing would happen.

There stands a grizzly. A bullet matching the energy-to-weight ratio of the .17 Remington in the marmot strikes home. The bear instantly goes immobile.

What would it take? I have seen a 405-grain Remington double-cannelure bullet designed for the .45-70 Government literally explode the media in my bullet-testing box when driven at more than 2,400 fps. Would this projectile at .458 Winchester-plus velocity do to a bear what the 25-grain bullet arriving at perhaps 3,500 fps does to a rockchuck? Who has tried it?

The mad rush for the perfect big-game bullet began in the 1800s. There were numerous designs. Lead projectiles with expanding bases to explosive noses (1840) were tried. They worked well enough because a chunk of relatively pure lead at reasonable velocity is deadly, as proved when Cotton Oswell and others sought fortunes gathering ivory in Africa with muzzleloaders gulping huge black-powder charges behind ponderous lead bullets. Lead has high molecular cohesion, meaning a lead bullet is unlikely to fragment. I have collected round balls from antelope to elk and bison that are flat as tortillas with close to pre-fired weight.

Pure lead bullets were never intended for high velocity, although certain lead bullet alloys fly at considerable speed without failing. My 24-inch-barreled Marlin .30-30 pushes a 170-grain Laser-Cast bullet at more than 2,000 fps with accuracy. My Morrison .30-06 rifle, on the other hand, drives a 180-grain bullet at a chronographed (and witnessed) 3,000 fps from its 26-inch barrel. Lead bullets, even silver enriched, are not ideal for a three-times-a-thousand-fps tear through the barrel.

Lead cores do not melt because of the time factor; the bullet’s ride in the bore is measured in milliseconds, like passing your hand swiftly through the flame of the campfire unburned. Regardless, lead required a protective jacket to survive 2,000-plus and 3,000 velocities. Barnes defies the “envelope” design with all-copper missiles that expand while hanging together for deep penetration.

I have had only one X-Bullet fragment, launched at 3,200 fps from a 7mm Remington Magnum with a heavy dose of IMR-7828. The bullet killed a bull moose in its bed at about 75 yards. The heavy animal did not so much as wiggle. The fellow I was with said, “Shoot again. You missed.” I assured him that my Frank Wells rifle was right on and the bull was dead as King Tut. All other X-Bullets of my experience have behaved per advertisement. Likewise bonded missiles, such as Nosler’s AccuBond.

The aforementioned Morrison .30-06 that I call Mr. Clean Sweep has a perfect record so far, including a Livingstone bull eland that knowing hunters said weighed 1,800 pounds on the hoof. One 180-grain AccuBond entered the shoulder where my little picture text on bullet placement instructed. The eland went nose to the ground, the bonded bullet penetrating deeply into the vitals.

Sometimes bullet design fails. These three bullets were taken from the chest cavity of a sable antelope. The lower example shows an ideal upset (mushroom), while the bullet at top left did not open up at all, and the bullet on the far right seems to have lost its front end. The range, according to the PH, was close for all three shots. The maker of this bullet is in the process of perfecting it as this is written.

Should every big-game bullet be bonded? To bond or not to bond: That is the question. My answer is “Not all the time.” A favorite bullet in Mr. Clean Sweep is the Hornady 180-grain SST. It is wonderfully accurate and shamefully deadly.

A little story: Mr. Clean Sweep has a perfect record of hits with one-shot-to-a-customer results. Two shots were perfect strikes, yet two deer were lost. I know the hits were right because when my brother, Nick, and I hunt together, only one fires on game while the other watches through binoculars. On both deer, Nick was using my fine 15X Swarovski binocular. A mule deer buck angled at 200 yards took a bullet at the back of the rib cage. That bullet, I am confident, exited the front of the rib cage. That buck was in the bag.

Not to be. He made a short dash over the crest of the hill and down into a jumble of boulders and four-foot-high grass, lost in spite of two hours of searching by us plus another stint with our wives helping to look.

The second disaster occurred on a whitetail doe at 125 yards. Nick verified that the bullet struck the rib cage. Without doubt, both lungs were zeroed. The doe dived into a tangle of creek-bottom growth that could hide an elephant.

A search lasting three hours detected nothing. What went wrong? A bullet that proved perfect on heavier game in Africa and back home simply sailed through these two deer without telling effect. I switched to a 180-grain Hornady SST. A whitetail doe dropped instantly at 130 yards to the same hit that lost my first whitetail doe.

I went back to the harder bullet for another shot because we agreed it was “neck shot or no shot.” At a rangefinder-measured 177 yards, a mule deer buck with a smallish 4×4 rack but superior heft hit the deck with one 180-grain bullet through the neck. I salved my soul about the two lost deer by the fact that the area was heavily overpopulated and Mother Earth plus coyotes and even a wolf or two would dine on the lost carcasses. But having previously lost only two animals over about a half-century of hunting, my attempt at reasoning fairly well failed, and what was shaping up as a brilliant hunt was tarnished.

I normally avoid running shots, especially when the target is the south end of an animal heading north. But I confess that I took this shot recently on a buck antelope. While antelope reside in my backyard (literally), and while my season is a full month long, other duties must be attended to. So I allowed myself only three days searching for a reasonable pronghorn.

No luck until the third afternoon. A buck with three does stood on a hill a half-mile away looking at me. Seldom does a two-legged hunter get the visual drop on these animals. I had an ace up my sleeve, however, in the form of a long draw that led to the foursome. I backed away first, detoured out of sight, then worked my way up the draw. I eased carefully upward to the point where I last saw the buck and his girlfriends.

Swift’s popular A-Frame bullet is seen here in cutaway, unfired and expanded after being fired into the author’s test medium, Sam’s Bullet Box.

Normally, the antelope would be a hill over when I arrived, but not this time. As the tiptop of my orange hat came into sight, a doe’s big eyes caught sight of it, and the four galloped off in a cloud of dust lacking only the “Hi-Ho Silver, away!” I always stalk with scope on low power. Almost by instinct, the crosswire found the retreating buck. Crack. Down he went, another one-shot affair for Mr. Clean Sweep.

He moved not at all from the spot. I rangefind every shot, either before or after the fact, and this buck and the bullet met at 124 yards. The 180-grain SST did not exit. However, it traveled from the right hip to the foremost of the left shoulder. The jacket I found; the lead core was gone. So what? Penetration and energy delivery were ideal.

It reminded me of another bullet, a 250-grain Barnes Original, which also gave up its lead core doing its duty on a stallion zebra in South Africa. I had loaned Mr. Clean Sweep to Bob Hodgdon, chiding that my .30-06 was deadlier than his .300 Winchester Magnum. He accepted the challenge, dropping the zebra with one bullet that penetrated the full breadth of the stallion, regardless that the lead core was no longer integral to the jacket. Another one-shot for Mr. Clean Sweep with a non-bonded bullet.

I have similar results with non-bonded Sierra bullets, whose accuracy ensures proper placement on game. The bullet enters the target area, front end collapsing to create the mushroom effect. It is this bullet upset that in part creates the wound channel with a forward-thrusting energy surge–a shock wave, if you will–that moves in front of the driving missile.

It is easy to believe that the bullet has a shock wave in front of it. How many times is there a two-inch exit hole in the offside hide of a buck? Did a .30-caliber projectile expand to a diameter of tw
o full inches? Not likely. The shock wave punched that big hole. Often, the bullet is trapped beneath the hide. One afternoon I watched my son stalk a buck antelope with his .30-06 rifle. I concentrated on the pronghorn with a 20X spotting scope. At the shot, the offside hide of the animal ballooned out as if made of rubber, instantly slamming back in place. There was an exit hole half the size of my fist but also a trapped bullet beneath the hide.

There are many ways to design a big-game bullet, including the partition style, popular in Germany in the early 20th century and brought to perfection by Mr. Nosler. Thickness of jacket is but one option. A jacket can also be designed to hold only a narrow lead core, for example, while the ogive section has a thinner jacket to encourage expansion. There is also the all-copper projectile that counts on integrity due to its single-element composition–no jacket and core to part ways from each other, but with expansion capability.

By special permission after a shoulder injury, the author was allowed to hunt Cape buffalo with his Mr. Clean Sweep .30-06 in Zimbabwe. The bull fell to one 220-grain Barnes Solid bullet, a highly developed projectile for special big-game applications.

Also prominent when ultimate penetration and bone crushing are required, as when hunting some dangerous game, is the true solid, as exemplified in the Barnes Solid that Sam used to take his Cape buffalo in Africa. These traits encompass only a small portion of the possible designs that cause a projectile to perform in various ways on different big game.

In spite of how good our big-game bullets are today, there remains a mad run to perfection that began when the envelope bullet, as jacketed projectiles were sometimes named, came on the scene more than 100 years ago.

Over time the most outrageous big-game bullet designs have come and gone, only to come again. In the Greener text, there is the Hebler-Krnka Tubular Bullet with a hole running its entire length. This hole is labeled an “air passage,” as, indeed, air must pass through from nose to base. Invented circa 1900 by Mr. Krnka, the design was further developed by Professor Hebler. Of course, a “shoe” or sabot was required to form a base seal, lest expanding gases simply blow through the bullet without shoving on the base.

Greener asserted that “the theory advanced on behalf of the tubular projectile is that the resistance offered by the air to the bullet is caused by the condensation or compression of air strata immediately in front of the bullet.” Not gravity but rather the atmosphere causes the greater loss of velocity, so this bullet with the hole was designed to thwart the ravages of what one writer likened to shooting underwater.

Good jacketed bullets were available to shooters by 1895 when the .30-30 and its little sister, the .25-35, burst on the scene, the first sporting cartridges to burn smokeless powder with velocities at twice the speed of sound. Previous full-metal-jacketed bullets for the 8mm Lebel and .30-40 Krag were fine for military application, but Winchester, along with rival companies of the era, had to come up with projectiles capable of withstanding smokeless-powder speed while at the same time imparting more energy to the target than the landscape behind it. The mad dash to a perfect big-game bullet preceded Winchester’s smokeless cartridges, but the higher-velocity round of the era marked the search for a perfect modern big-game bullet.

When velocities escalated another grand, designers were forced to their drawing boards for new designs. Typically American, every company advertised its bullet as ideal for big game. If you had 90 cents in your pocket in 1894, you could buy a box of 20 .30 U.S. Army (.30-40 Krag) cartridges with a “steel jacketed bullet.” Not long after, there were plenty of “softnose” jacketed bullets available for that and other ammo.

By 1916 the .30 Winchester Smokeless (.30-30) had several bullet choices, including a 170 grain with plenty of lead exposed at the nose. The .30 Gov’t Model of 1903 (.30-03 Springfield) had a 220-grain softpoint bullet, while the .30 Gov’t Model 1906 (.30-06 Springfield) was offered by Winchester with a 180-grain Full Patch bullet or a 220-grain softnose in that year’s catalog.

The best big-game bullets are accurate as well as effective in penetration and energy delivery. This three-shot 100-yard group was produced by the author’s Morrison Precision rifle firing Nosler AccuBond bullets.

Sophistication rules today. Most new designs have some sort of non-lead tip, reminiscent of the Remington Bronze Point but not metal. Lost River Ballistic Technologies, located in Arco, Idaho, has its J-36 High Ballistic Coefficient Big Game Hunting Bullet the company calls state of the art. Promised to retain 80 percent of its original weight “even during high-velocity impacts of more than 4,000 fps,” this bullet also boasts that it “expands reliably at the lower velocities of long-range impacts.” It also “expands to 11?2 to two times the original bullet diameter.” And if that is not enough, the J-36 is also “the most accurate hunting bullet ever made.”

I have yet to drop a beast with a J-36, but I have launched this missile downrange at paper, and it proved extremely accurate. Mr. Clean Sweep typically prints half-inch three-shot groups at 100 yards, and the J-36 was no exception. Be prepared to lay down about two dollars per bullet for the J-36 180-grain .30 caliber. But what’s the cost of a bullet compared to the rest of the hunt?

I heard a tale of two new bullets coming on the market, one Remington, the other Winchester. I envisioned each before seeing either. Both would be streamlined to buck the atmosphere. They would have generous shanks but significantly pointed noses. There would be no lead exposed–rather, each would have a polymer tip. Remington sent its bullet first–rocket-ship shape, of course; a polymer tip with a space-age name: Premier Accutip. No surprises here. Mr. Clean Sweep produced half-inch hundred-yard three-shot clusters.

Winchester’s newest child also came as loaded ammo, .30-06, 180 grain. The Morrison Precision cut-rifled barrel again put three shots into a half-inch at a hundred. The company calls this one its Supreme Elite to distinguish from its Supreme brand. The new bullet is dubbed the XP3 and has a small red polymer tip, Lubalox coated to reduce bore fouling. Prideful Winchester engineers promise, “The XP3 comes closer to perfection than any other rifle bullet ever developed.”

Big-game bullet development is ongoing and will be as long as cartridges are made. The study is fascinating. Sam’s Bullet Box, my simple tool for testing bullet behavior, has placed myriad projectiles on trial, all of them a
t least hinting at, if not overtly declaring, to be the best big-game bullet hunters of planet Earth. Some were decided failures in proving their lofty claims; others snapped at the heels of ideal.

Perhaps there can be no perfect big-game bullet for all big game everywhere under all circumstances. A bullet that penetrates the full breadth of a moose may pass through a whitetail like a red-hot knife through a quarter pound of butter and with little telling effect. I have learned, and relearned, the truth of this. That is why I always walk up to the point where I, or anyone with me, take a shot on a big-game animal. I look for any telltale sign of a hit, right down to a clipped piece of hair. Had I not investigated, there would have been a number of fine big-game animals left in the field as predator food.

Not that I mind feeding the coyotes and now the wolves that live just down the road from me, but being selfish, I prefer to secure the meat for myself.

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