Searching For Your Ideal Big Game Hunting Load
June 14, 2018
A reader recently posed an interesting question. Paraphrased, it was: "With all the different reloading powders and bullets available, how do you pick a place to start?" I begin with the projectile, typically choosing two or three different bullets suitable for the task intended. Then I research and pick a few powders to try.
Bullet selection comes down to purpose, and in this column I'm going to tackle big game hunting. In many ways it's the biggest challenge because, depending on your goals, you may need a bullet that provides appropriate terminal performance for a wide range of scenarios. Deer at close range? Deer at long range? Elk? Moose? Moose in grizzly country?
Let's create a theoretical example, using the .280 Rem. cartridge—a well- balanced, efficient 7mm known for forgiving accuracy. The first decision is: What are we going to use it for? How about predominantly deer-size game: whitetails, mule deer and pronghorn antelope, with the occasional elk and black bear thrown in.
At this point we could go one of two ways. We could develop two different loads: one pushing a light, fast-expanding "soft" bullet for deer-size game and one pushing a heavier, tougher bullet for work on elk and bear. Or we could work up one load suitable for both. The choice is yours.
For the purposes of this article, let's assume you want just a versatile, capable load you can use on anything. Because we want to shoot elk with our .280, extremely soft and/or light-for-caliber projectiles are out—as are hard and/or heavily constructed bullets. Here we want to look for versatile middle-ground bullets that feature fast but controlled expansion and enough weight to provide deep penetration for quartering shots on elk and black bear.
So we make a list. Here are three good examples, ones I would start with: the Nosler 160-grain AccuBond, a bonded-core, boattailed, polymer-tipped bullet that offers quite-good aerodynamics and has a reputation for accuracy; the Hornady 175-grain ELD-X, an accurate bullet with an extremely high ballistic coefficient that's outstanding for extended-range work; and the Barnes 145-grain LRX, a monolithic, boattailed, polymer-tipped bullet known for accuracy and extremely good penetration.
This last bullet is lighter than the previous options and has a lesser BC, but it can be driven to admirable velocities and doesn't lose much if any weight on impact, enabling it to drive deep. (As an aside, if moose or bison are on the menu, and if your .280 has a fast enough rifling twist, consider the 168-grain version.)
At this point in the process, I'd do a subjective ranking of the three and start with the one I want to use the most. In this case I'm going to pick Nosler's 160-grain AccuBond as my top choice. Research and personal experience have shown it tends to be forgivingly accurate, offers outstanding terminal performance and is a great combination of enough weight and enough velocity with a respectable BC. In the right rifle/optic combination, it's a solid choice for shooting big game at 400 yards and even a bit more.
As for bullet choice No. 2, the twist rate in my rifle will help me with that. If it's a relatively common 1:9 twist, I'll lean toward the lighter 145-grain Barnes LRX. If it's rifled with one of the faster twist rates becoming popular—say 1:8.5 or faster—I'll opt for the 175-grain Hornady ELD-X.
The next step is to pick two or three appropriate powders. This is a little easier than picking a bullet, because the cartridge capacity/bore diameter relationship dictates what burn-rate propellants are suitable. Still, there are several different acceptable powders from several different manufacturers. How to pick?
Research, research, research—and a healthy dose of experience helps. I begin with picking a powder manufacturer and type. If I want ultimate velocity, I typically go right to Alliant's Reloder line. These Scandinavian-made propellants not only offer speed but also they're easy to achieve superb accuracy with.
Their only downside is they aren't as consistent across extremes in temperature as some competing powders. Velocity can increase in hot weather and decrease in extreme cold. This is not a big deal to 300 yards or so, but if you hunt where conditions can vary widely—such as elk in the Rockies—and if you like to shoot farther than 300 yards, temperature consistency is a consideration.
For outstanding consistency across temperature extremes, I prefer Hodgdon's Extreme line. Made in Australia, it is the world standard for consistency, but since it's complex to import, the more popular versions (such as H4350) can be hard to find.
Another great option is IMR's Enduron line, which is made in Canada and is available on a much more consistent basis. Also engineered for temperature stability, it's said to be as consistent across drastic temperature swings as Hodgdon's Extreme line, and my own tests have indicated that claim is true.
In our example, I'm going to decide temperature stability is more important than speed. Experience and reloading manuals by Hodgdon and Nosler would guide me to H1000, H4831SC and IMR 7977 Enduron. Hodgdon's manual indicates that, of the three, H4831SC will potentially produce the least velocity, so you'd think I'd start with H1000 or IMR 7977 and try H4831SC third. However, here's where a bit of arbitrary decision-making based on experience comes in. I've had such outstanding luck with H4831SC it's my first choice.
Since all three are great propellants, I'll almost surely get pleasing results no matter which I start with. But it's nice to have backup options just in case.
With a projectile and propellant picked, I shoot two ladder tests at 400 yards. (Ed. note: If you're not familiar with the ladder test method, visit Rifle
ShooterMag.com and search "ladder test.") I run the first ladder in increments of 0.2 to 0.5 grains of powder, depending on cartridge case capacity, in order to find a velocity node that favors accuracy near maximum charge.
The second ladder test is conducted with the powder charge from the first test, seating bullets in .005-inch increments off the rifling. If shooting a "soft" bullet, I start with the first bullet lightly engraving on the rifling leade. If shooting a denser "hard" bullet that needs a bit of jump to the rifling in order to avoid potential pressure spikes, I start with the first bullet 0.020 inch off the leade.
By combining the best powder charge node and the best seating depth node (again, if you don't know what a "node" is, refer to the ladder test article on our website), I usually find a good, accurate load that provides the velocity I want. If not, I switch powder type and start again. If I don't get good results with all three powder types, I conclude that my rifle just doesn't like that bullet and move on to my second projectile choice.
Thankfully, it rarely goes that far. Usually, a good bullet and a good propellant, chosen by sound research, will result in an accurate and capable load that meets your needs.