Great Bullets for Long-Range Hunting
July 22, 2016
Whether you agree with the ethics of long-range hunting or not, it is a massive trend, and bullet manufacturers are engineering purpose-designed hunting projectiles to meet the exacting demands of hunters who want to shoot distances that would flabbergast their great-grandpappys.
Why would you need a special bullet for long-range hunting? For three primary performance characteristics:
Accuracy is one. Match-grade bullet consistency is critical if you are attempting to put your first shot squarely through the vitals at distances of a half-mile or more. Typical big game bullets don't offer sufficient levels of consistent accuracy for long-range hunting. We're talking the kind of precision that helps competitive shooters win championships at Camp Perry.
Aerodynamics is another. Typically termed ballistic coefficient (BC), a bullet's ability to flow through the air with minimum friction is critical. A high-BC bullet maintains its speed much longer, resulting in less downrange drop, more downrange energy and less downrange wind drift — all critical to long-range hunting performance.
Last, and most difficult to achieve, is a wide impact performance window. Ideally, a bullet will expand fully and penetrate deeply at very low velocities, making it capable of killing cleanly when long-range hunting, yet won't fragment into nothing and fail to penetrate at very close-range, high-velocity impacts.
Yet such a bullet is very, very difficult to engineer, let alone produce, especially to the levels of consistency that enable match-winning accuracy. Broadening the velocity window within which a bullet will expand yet hold together is every hunting-bullet company's holy grail.
But this article isn't meant to be a philosophical discussion of what makes a great long-range hunting bullet. It's a quick-and-dirty look at four different bullets specifically pegged for long-distant work. As you'll see, each of them posses the three vital characteristics in varying degrees.
In alphabetical order, here are four great purpose-built long-range hunting bullets available today.
The Barnes LRX is a homogeneous bullet, meaning it's made out of one solid material, which happens to be copper. It has only one weakness: Since copper has less mass than lead, LRX bullets are inherently lighter than a lead-cored bullet of the same size, resulting in somewhat lower BCs.
Where the LRX really shines is bullet integrity. It will expand reliably down to 1,600 fps or a bit less and up to, well, however fast you want to shoot it — and that's where the real magic happens. Even if the four copper "petals" that expand outward and roll back into the classic mushroom shape on impact shear off of the main shank, it's impossible to batter that shank too small to penetrate.
It will always drive deep, and even if you only have a .284/7mm-diameter blunt-fronted shank pounding through heavy bone, dense muscle and vital organs, it will penetrate and kill.
Additionally, if some or all of those four petals shear off, they become satellite projectiles and wreak their own share of havoc. In fact, according to Lead Ballistician Thad Stevens, Barnes is intentionally engineering more and more of its hunting bullets to lose petals during penetration.
Personally, this is the only purpose-built long-range hunting bullet I'd trust if I had to shoot a big moose quartering to me at very close range, and count on it to drive through that massive shoulder and go killing-deep into the vitals.
As for accuracy, while it's frankly not a match-grade projectile, the LRX tends to be very forgiving through a broad selection of rifles. I've had Weatherby and multiple custom rifle makers tell me that the Barnes bullet is their go-to when qualifying rifles for an accuracy guarantee. Whether that guarantee is one MOA or a half-MOA (which I've personally seen many LRX loads achieve) that is a resounding accolade to Barnes bullets.
Berger VLD Hunting
The Berger VLD Hunting bullet is, without doubt, the most popular and most controversial "long-range hunting" projectile available. It's also the only one that wasn't originally engineered for long-range hunting. It was originally a match bullet and a very good one. That tells you all you need to know about its accuracy potential, but I'll add this: the VLD Hunting is probably the easiest of all four of the bullets featured here to get to shoot well, meaning it's very tunable and responds exceptionally well to careful handloading.
It's not uncommon for very accomplished, meticulous handloaders to achieve legitimate half-MOA accuracy from their precision rifles (legitimate meaning repeatable; they can produce such groups on demand), but the Berger will occasionally provide consistent quarter-MOA accuracy in a very good rifle. It also offers very good BCs.
The VLD became a long-range hunting bullet when some erudite soul discovered that it absolutely pounds thin-skinned, deer-size game. On impact, the bullet tends to grenade, the nose riveting rearward and the soft lead core blowing out the thin-jacketed base. With little or no shank left to penetrate deeply, the fragments dump 100 percent of the energy carried by the bullet into the wound, turning internals into scrambled eggs. With a good hit, the result tends to be instant lights out.
One weakness plagues the VLD in long-range hunting, and that's the lack of penetration when penetration is really needed. I have three friends, experienced handloaders and hunters, who have gotten into nightmare skirmishes with well-shot animals when their Berger bullet failed to penetrate through a shoulder and into vitals. Big animals with heavy muscle and bone are most liable to such rodeos.
The Hornady ELD-X is the newest of all the bullet designs, and it is very good indeed. Hornady holds ELD-X accuracy standards to the same high level as its superbly accurate A-Max match bullet. I've shot my best-ever groups at 200 yards and at 1,000 yards with the 175-grain 7mm version.
Interestingly, when a polymer-tipped, high-BC bullet is fired at high velocities — let's say over 2,800 fps — it builds excessive heat in its tip, and the tip begins to erode. Aerodynamics suffer. (Standard-BC bullets don't experience the phenomenon because they don't maintain super speeds long enough.) Hornady researched and implemented a new, thermally resistant "Heat Shield" tip on the ELD-X and generated superbly accurate BCs via Doppler radar.
So, accuracy is superb, and BC numbers are both enviable and dependable. What about impact performance?
Hornady is actually rather modest and advertises a velocity performance window ranging from 1,600 fps to 3,000 fps. The ELD-X's core is not bonded to the jacket, because engineers couldn't achieve satisfactory levels of accuracy when they began bonding prototypes. Rather, the core is of a relatively strong lead/antimony alloy to prevent excess fragmentation, and it is mechanically locked to the jacket via Hornady's traditional Interlock system.
At close range, especially from magnums, it tends to lose a lot of weight and sometimes the core and jacket separate at the end of the penetration path. However, it still penetrates adequately, and it always kills quickly. When using it for long-range hunting, it opens with absolute perfection.
Nosler AccuBond Long Range
No company is better at core-to-jacket bonding than Nosler, and the AccuBond Long Range is a bonded bullet. To bond a bullet, typically the core must be pure lead or a quite-soft alloy, so the ABLR's core is soft and may "smear" off the front of the expanding mushroom-shape but it will never separate from the jacket.
The ABLR also features a thick jacket base. It's worth noting that the thicker a bullets jacket is, the more difficult it is to produce consistently.
Advertised BC numbers for the ABLR are high. Very high. Candidly, they're optimistic, but even after knocking them down a bit while shooting long-distance trajectory-validation tests, they're still fairly high.
My twin brother's custom .300 Winchester Magnum and a good buddy's Desert Tech .260 Remington love the bullet. They both achieve half-MOA accuracy. However, I've personally struggled to achieve that level of accuracy in the handloading I've done, and I've tried a lot.
It's just a theory, but I believe that Nosler's engineers maximized aerodynamics to the point where forgiveness is low, knowing that most long-range shooters are OCD enough to finesse handloads this way and that until they achieve precision. Plus bonding — being another step in the bullet-building process — unavoidably introduces variation.
Finally, the difficulty in manufacturing thick jackets with perfect consistency also challenges accuracy. Without doubt, the bullets will shoot superbly out of the right rifle/handload combination, but for me the ABLR is not an easy-accuracy projectile.
Nosler suggests that the ABLR will perform all the way from 1,300 fps up to 3,200 fps. My take is this: It will certainly kill anywhere within that range, but I'd expect minimal expansion up to about 1,600 fps and almost complete bullet fragmentation at 3,200 fps. Still, that's pretty admirable performance for a long-range hunting bullet.
Me, I'm happiest when my long-range hunting bullet impacts at somewhere between 2,000 fps and 2,800 fps. At those speeds, I know that any one of the bullets featured here will expand dramatically and cause massive internal hemorrhaging, yet will maintain enough weight to penetrate at least through a broadside elk.
Which bullet do I pick? Depends on the situation.
If moose is on the menu, without question the Barnes LRX. If I'm using a cartridge that is of marginal size/energy for the game at hand (for instance big bull elk with a 6.5 Creedmoor), the Barnes is also the way to go.
If I want sub-half-MOA accuracy and extremely high BCs for maximum reach, the Hornady ELD-X or Berger VLD Hunting.
If I want a long-range hunting bullet that will provide adequate, predictable terminal performance from 10 yards to 1,000 yards, the Hornady ELD-X or Nosler AccuBond, whichever shoots better through my rifle.
As for me, my opinions are the result of thousands of handloads built and fired, commonly to distances of 1,200 yards or more. I regularly compete (successfully, for the most part) out to 600 and 1,000 yards in CMP-type service-rifle matches and long-range cross-country competitions.
Although I typically disagree with long-range hunting ethics, I've shot game at extreme distances because, as an investigative journalist in the shooting and hunting field, I believe that it's my responsibility to know personally the subjects of which I write.
My creed is to be the best rifleman I possibly can, so that I can ethically make long, challenging shots when called upon. That said, I also strive to be the best hunter I possibly can, so that I can stalk close and am never forced to shoot long.
Surely, there will be those that disagree with me and who can provide anecdotal tales to support their opinions on long-range hunting. Please share your experiences and knowledge!