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All That's Old

All That's Old

Old bullet designs never die. They come back as new bullet designs.

Tie-dyed bell-bottoms and the Manson killings aside, the 1960s were truly the age of arrogance. With the coming of the space age, there was a general feeling abroad in the land that everything old was not only passé and boring, it was also useless. The Beatles vanquished Frank Sinatra, the (new) Jets trounced the (old) Colts, and Hunter S. Thompson made his first forays into journalism.

With the intense visual acuity of hindsight, one now realizes that the 1960s marked both the high point for bad taste and the low point for good sense. Exhibit A: bullet design.

There was a widespread view among manufacturers, most handloaders and all wildcatters that the beloved artifacts of the 19th and early 20th centuries were hopelessly out of date and simply had no place in modern shooting. Benchrest was invented, and the great target disciplines of the past were forgotten.

Well, benchrest wasn't really invented--it was resumed. The activities of Bob Wallack, Warren Page, et al, after the Second World War, were really just a resumption of black powder "rest" shooting (as opposed to offhand), which was popular in the 1890s.

One major difference was the calibers used. Modern benchrest tended more to smaller bullets, finally settling on the .224 and 6mm, while C.W. Rowland and the other luminaries of the 1890s preferred .32, .33 and occasionally .28 caliber.

Magazines of the 1960s had a tendency to treat each new development in benchrest shooting as a revolutionary breakthrough. In fact, though, many of these "new" developments had already been tried and proven 75 years earlier.


Benchresters "discovered" that bullets that were seated out farther, gently touching the lands, gave better consistency. Then someone thought of reaming case necks so the bullet fit snugly but was not tightly gripped. These were seated very far out so that as the bolt was closed the lands would gently push the bullet deeper into the neck but firmly (and uniformly) in contact with the lands. All of these techniques were presented as the height of sophistication; in reality, all were merely variations on methods of achieving accuracy first used around 1900.

Today, we are seeing a cascade of new bullet designs and configurations, and some look eerily familiar to anyone who spends time browsing through old bullet catalogs.

The latest iteration of the Barnes X--the Triple Shock--sports three driving bands, with grooves in between. Barnes' copper bullets are long for their weight compared to bullets containing lead, so there is greater friction and resistance between bore and bullet. This, of course, leads to higher pressures and more fouling.

The bands reduce contact and resistance while still providing an effective gas seal and allowing the lands to grip the bullet. Cast lead bullets used exactly the same technique, except that they filled the grooves between the driving bands with lubricant to reduce lead fouling and help cope with black powder residues.

One of the most lauded cast-bullet patterns ever designed was the series of bullets by H. Guy Loverin.

Loverin believed that best accuracy could be achieved by a bullet that was long, with a relatively short nose, such as a 195-grain .32. Naturally, this meant more contact between the bullet shank and the barrel wall. To reduce this, Loverin used six to 10 narrow driving bands, instead of the usual three or four, with equally narrow grease grooves in between. Loverin's bullets were soon setting accuracy records.

Federal Cartridge has just announced a redesign of its much-admired Trophy Bonded bullets in calibers from .270 to .338. The original Trophy Bonded Bear Claw had a pure lead core bonded inside a pure copper jacket, with a square base and what would now be called a "protected point." In other words, not a spitzer.

This is fine for large bullets for dangerous game, where the action is in close and neither ballistic coefficient nor trajectory and flight characteristics matter at all. Shooters of smaller caliber rifles, however, want long-range performance; a square-base, flat-nose bullet just does not cut it when the action is 300 or 400 yards out.

Federal has given the smaller-caliber Bear Claws a boattail and two driving bands, and added a polymer spitzer tip. The result--the Trophy Tip--is a bullet that both looks high-performance in every respect and still retains the terminal characteristics of the original Bear Claw: high retained weight, perfect mushrooming and deep penetration.

Were C.W. Rowland and Harry Pope to come back today for a look around, they would find the internet baffling but our bullet designs eerily familiar. What's next? How about a "revolutionary" flat-nosed bullet? I wouldn't rule it out.

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