Best Big Game Bullets
January 01, 2009
Find the best one for you and stick with it.
Recently, while talking with Hornady ballistician Dave Emary, I offered an idea that lead to an eye-opening conversation. "When a bullet's center of gravity is toward the front, it's easily overstabilized. Move the center of gravity to the rear, and you reduce stability." Dave looked at me.
"That's good," he said. "At least, it's good if you want the best accuracy. A bullet that's too stable keeps its yaw longer--doesn't go to sleep as fast. That's not very important in hunting bullets, because the level of accuracy most hunters expect or can deliver isn't very high. Long, hollow noses are popular in match bullets partly because target shooters need more precision and less precession--the off-axis rotation of a bullet's nose in flight."
So how accurate should a big-game bullet be?
"As a ballistician," he continued, "I spend a lot of time figuring out what will make bullets more accurate. In most cases, that's easy. What isn't so easy is making bullets accurate without violating certain rules imposed by hunters."
"Rules?" I asked.
"Like, this .308 bullet can't be longer than 1.213 inches. Or this bullet needs a flat nose and thick jacket. Or this bullet must be a boat-tail with a cannelure, a steep ogive and a box price as close as possible to that of a McDonald's Happy Meal."
"And then there's weight retention. You've heard the rumor that spent bullets should weigh very nearly the same as new bullets. We can make bullets like that. They're called solids. Expanding bullets get rearranged. When you rearrange things, you lose a little. Roll a pie crust sometime."
I allowed that sometime I might.
"Actually, bullets that open reliably in deer can be made to shoot very accurately. Softpoint and hollowpoint bullets, with and without caps and pegs on their noses, can be built compactly because they do not need thick jackets.
"Thin gilding metal jackets and a lead core enable ballisticians like me a lot more freedom in nose design. We can experiment with tapered heels because we're not so constrained by length limits as we would be with thick jackets or solid-copper bullets.
"The more lightweight material you have in a bullet, the longer it will be for its weight. At some point you have to reduce bullet weight to get the design you want--or put up with a bullet that's too long to stabilize in the rifling or must be seated so deep to clear the magazine that you have to reduce your powder charge."
"Then, are lightweight hunting bullets apt to be more accurate?" I asked.
"Heavy bullets can be very accurate. But the heaviest bullets have rounded noses or steep ogives. That makes them less efficient at long range and puts the center of gravity well forward. Remember that a rear-weighted bullet goes to sleep faster. We like that." "Does a boat-tail bullet shoot tighter groups than a flat-base bullet?" was my next question.
"To tell the truth, boat-tails are oversold. They fly flatter because they set up less drag than flat-base bullets, but you won't see much if any difference in trajectory for the first 300 yards.
"As for accuracy, my tests show that flat-base bullets, on average, turn in tighter groups. Making a tapered heel is tricky; you have two angles instead of one, and both must be perfect. Unlike the bullet's nose, which can take a lot of abuse without affecting accuracy, the heel must be cleanly shaped and any taper concentric. Irregularities result in tipping when the bullet leaves the muzzle. Then you kiss accuracy good-bye. On the other hand, match bullets are mostly boat-tails, and some of them print one-hole groups. It's dangerous to generalize," he said.
So I asked, "What's good accuracy in a hunting bullet?"
Dave thought a minute. "I can't say."
Neither can I. At the range the other day a friend fired my Model Seven Remington chambered for the new .300 Remington Short Ultra Mag. A nickel covered all three holes. That's good accuracy. But the .303 British I used for whitetails decades ago never missed a deer that I didn't miss first, and on a good day it managed only two-inch groups. Bullet choice didn't matter. It was at best a two-minute rifle.
It seems to me that accuracy standards are mostly arbitrary. We used to think a rifle that shot into a minute of angle was accurate indeed--until better rifles came along. Now we expect tighter groups. The deer aren't any smaller these days, though, and verily a two-minute rifle will keep all its bullets inside a deer's chest out to 400 yards.
Then too, there's the weak link: Us. We shooters can get half-minute groups from half-minute rifles only under ideal conditions. On the hunt, our wobbling hands scribe such great arcs as we pull the trigger that if we shot laser beams we'd still have groups as big as roasting pans at 100 yards. So accurate bullets don't help us much with big game at ordinary ranges.
Accuracy is one measure of a bullet. Another is ballistic efficiency. An efficient bullet is useful because it delivers a higher percentage of its speed and energy downrange. Put another way, it loses less speed and energy in transit than does an inefficient bullet. Speed retention is the key. A bullet that sheds its velocity slowly flies flatter (because gravity has less time to work on it over any given increment of yardage) and hits harder (because a main component of the energy equation is impact velocity). Bullets with high sectional density (the ratio of a bullet's weight to its diameter squared) and sleek form are said to have a high ballistic coefficient. These long, smoothly-tapered boat-tail bullets are "slippery" in flight, parting the air easily. Drag on the nose, sides and base battles the bullet's forward momentum, but less successfully than if the bullet were short with a flat nose.
Ballistic efficiency puts the bullet closer to your line of sight at all ranges, and not only delivers a big bundle of energy but helps open the bullet at extreme range. The upshot is that you can use a rifle of modest recoil--and thus shoot more comfortably and accurately--than if you were depending on a less efficient bullet to give you the same results.
The third measure of a bullet is its terminal performance. A big-game bullet must open to carve a big wound channel. It must also hang together to penetrate. The jacket and core must be so designed that you'll get a clean kill whether you're shooting a deer at 350 yards or an elk at 26--a tall order! Bullets that open quickly are perfect for the long shot at the deer but may blow apart at high impact speeds on elk. The deep-driving elk bullet may hardly open at all when it strikes a distant deer at low speed. So you pick your bullet for the kind of hunting you do.
In general, it seems to me that hunters diversify too much when it comes to bullet selection. Some have several loads for one rifle, ostensibly to match the game and field conditions. If you're constrained to hunt only with one rifle, say, a .30-06, three loads might not be too many. Still, you'd get along nicely on any game trail with a 165-grain quick-opening softpoint and a 180-grain bullet designed to penetrate.
Use too many bullets, and you may start to doubt your rifle, perhaps changing scope adjustments or using Kentucky windage to compensate for a change in load. It's better to sift out several bullets built for the kind of terminal performance you need most of the time, then test them for accuracy and velocity in various loads. Choose one load, zero your rifle for it and use it for all your hunting. Unless the cartridge is of marginal power (the .257 Roberts for elk, for example), bullet choice won't matter as much as your confidence that the bullet will hit where you aim. Ordinary softpoints kill elk easily from the side; stout bullets that zip through little deer also kill those deer. Recover bullets from game but don't pay too much attention to retained weight. Shrapnel lost in the vitals behaves like grenade fragments, often killing the animal quicker than a bullet that finishes like a catalog specimen.
On the next page are some of the most popular American hunting bullets. When experimenting, split the box with friends so you each have 25 bullets for preliminary load development. You can test more kinds of bullets if you cut costs.
Heavy versions of this solid copper hollowpoint must be seated deep to clear magazine boxes and rifling. But the X drives deep without losing much weight, so you can use a light bullet and get fast flight, a low arc and deep penetration at the same time. X-Bullets don't offer the frontal area of many lead-core bullets after expansion. Reports on accuracy vary. Heed factory tips on seating depth. The XLC Bullet, with a shell of dry lubricant, reduces fouling and adds velocity without boosting pressure.
Less aerodynamic than the X, this old fashioned-looking bullet has earned loyal followings where the game is big and tough and the brush dense. Its lead core delivers a broad mushroom which is controlled by a very thick jacket. You'll find heavier weights in this line (195-grain 7mms, 250-grain .308s) than in most others.
Available as a round-nose, flat-nose or spitzer, Hi-Shok softpoint bullets come standard in Federal's Classic line. It's an unremarkable, traditional, economical softpoint that kills as well as many more costly bullets.
Hornady Spire Points rank among the most accurate softpoints. The Interlock builds on that reputation with an inner belting to hold the core in place during upset for deeper penetration. The trademark cannelure is still there.
A sharp red polymer nose, long ogive and aggressively tapered heel make this Super Shock Tipped bullet a natural for long shooting. It has the internal jacket belt of the Hornady Interlock bullet and a heavier jacket than the similar Nosler Ballistic Tip.
A wall of jacket material between front and rear core sections of this bullet stops expansion, ensuring that the shank will penetrate. Partition jackets were once machined from solid stock; now they're impact-extruded, resulting in closer tolerances and better accuracy. Some loss of nose material is normal. Developed by John Nosler in 1947, the Partition was tested by many of his hunting buddies.
Nosler Ballistic Tip
Color-coded by caliber, the polycarbonate tip of this bullet serves as a wedge to initiate expansion. Ballistic Tip bullets are noted for fine accuracy and flat flight, and as trendsetters. The .338 Ballistic Tip bullets have thicker jackets than .270s, 7mms and .30s, which are not recommended for heavy game.
The flagship bullet in Remington ammunition for years, the Core-Lokt has an internal lip to hold the lead in place during upset. It's known for both a broad mushroom and reliable penetration. Round and pointed noses are available.
Remington Bronze Point
A bronze nose peg initiates violent expansion in this bullet, whose sleek form makes it a favorite of hunters shooting thin-skinned game at long range. It is not widely available in Remington factory ammunition, having been supplanted by Nosler Ballistic Tips.
Sierra bullets are quick-openers with a reputation for top-level accuracy. Both the GameKing and hunting-style hollowpoint bullets kill deer-size game like lightning. The 250-grain .338 and 300-grain .375s have heavier jackets for animals like elk and moose.
Traditional softnose construction put Hot-Cor bullets in the same class as Federal Hi-Shoks, Hornady Spire Points and Winchester Power Points. They shoot as well and kill as cleanly-and are available in different weights (285-grain .375) and calibers (9.3mm or .366).
Speer Grand Slam
A dual-core bullet, the Grand Slam has a hard lead heel (five percent antimony) held by an internal jacket lip. The nose core is softer, for quick upset. Grand Slam jackets are four percent thicker than those on Speer's Hot-Cor bullets.
A bonded core plus a mid-section wall of jacket material deliver deep penetration and keep the bullet nose from coming apart. The A-Frame mushroom looks like a mushroom, and plows a broad wound channel, often retaining more than 90 percent of its weight.
Combining the sleek form and polymer tip of Nosler's Ballistic Tip bullet with the ductile copper jacket and bonded core of the Swift A-Frame, the Scirocco boasts flat flight with controlled expansion. Expect over 70 percent weight retention, even at strike speeds over 3,000 fps. Sciroccos mushroom at impact velocities as low as 1,440 fps.
Trophy Bonded Bear Claw
Designed by Jack Carter, this lead-core bullet features a thick, ductile copper jacket whose heel section extends to near the mid-point of the bullet. During and after upset, the big nose rarely loses more than 10 percent of its weight. Like the Swift A-Frame and Speer Grand Slam, the Bear Claw has a long ogive behind a flat bullet tip.
This softpoint has no special features except the signature nose notches on its tapered jacket. It's a fast-opening bullet that nonetheless will drive through the vitals of a quartering elk. Stepped-up loads in Winchester Power-Point Plus ammo carry moly-coated bullets.
The company's heavy-duty game bullet for decades, the Silvertip was given a new nosecap in the 1960s. It now opens more quickly, performing more like the Winchester Power-Point than a controlled-expansion bullet.
Winchester Ballistic Silvertip
This Combined Technology bullet is a cosmetic variant of Nosler's Ballistic Tip. Winchester and Nosler joined forces to produce it (and the Partition Gold). It is an accurate bullet by most accounts, and fast-opening. The black exterior is not molybdenum disulfide.
Winchester Fail Safe
A steel cup keeps the lead heel core from ballooning upon impact behind a hollow nose of copper alloy, notched for four-petal upset. Weight retention often approaches 100 percent. Pass-throughs are the rule, even on elk-size game.
Winchester Partition Gold
The Partition Gold evolved from recent collaboration between Nosler and Winchester. Compared to original Partition bullets, the partition is farther forward, to put more weight in the heel for deeper penetration. There's a steel heel cup and black oxide finish, as on Winchester's Fail Safe bullet.