October 01, 2018
When the massive bull moose moved ponderously from the scrub pines and into view, he was 611 yards away. Daylight was fading fast, and it was the last of a 10-day hunt.
A nearby rock offered an ideal rest, and there wasn’t a breath of wind. As I focused our spotting scope on the bull, Neal Emery dialed the turret on his Leupold VX-6HD scope, nestled in, and squeezed the trigger, sending a 175-grain 7mm Hornady ELD-X across a third of a mile and precisely into the bull’s vitals.
Heavy hide, dense shoulder muscle, and rib bone crushed the bullet's nose into a classic mushroom shape, expanding it to almost double its original diameter before the bullet’s strongly tapered copper jacket halted expansion. Lungs offered less resistance, and the bullet — still traveling more than 2,300 fps — blew a fist-sized hole cleanly through the thoracic cavity.
Rippling waves created by hydraulic shock compressed, fractured, and deeply hemorrhaged the lungs around it. More rib bone and heavy muscle shredded lead from the mushroomed ELD-X as it passed through the far shoulder, reducing its remaining weight to 116.7 grains — about 67 percent of its original mass. Job accomplished, the bullet came to rest against the hide.
Building a hunting bullet that consistently shoots tiny groups, slices through the air with a minimum of velocity-robbing friction, and expands dramatically on impact at extreme range yet holds together adequately during close-range high-speed impact is very, very difficult.
Why? Because several of these desirable characteristics tend to cancel each other out. Engineering them all into a single projectile is the holy grail of hunting-bullet design.
Of all those available on the market today, Hornady’s ELD-X (Extremely Low Drag Expanding) bullet comes closest to achieving perfection.
At first glance, the ELD-X
appears to simply be a stretched-out, streamlined version of a typical boat-tailed, polymer-tipped deer bullet such as Nosler’s Ballistic Tip or Hornady’s own SST
. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
ELD-X Accuracy & Aerodynamics
For starters, the ELD-X is held to a shocking level of accuracy. Being intended for use at extended ranges, it has to be. Its QC standard is half-MOA 10-shot groups at 200 yards — equal to that of most match bullets.
As an interesting aside, Hornady’s original plan was to bond the ELD-X’s lead core to its jacket in order to provide ultimate integrity, but the bonding process introduced too many accuracy-affecting variables. Unwilling to compromise accuracy, Hornady chose to re-engineer the bullet with other integrity-supporting elements and forego the bonding process.
In a long-range bullet, extremely good aerodynamics are just as important as accuracy. However, massaging a bullet’s profile to flow through air molecules with minimum resistance is different from finessing it to take rifling with extreme consistency, and combining the two elements can be tricky. Not to worry: ELD-X bullets offer best-in-class ballistic coefficients (BC), which is a measure of a projectile’s ability to shrug off air friction and hold on to velocity, and shoot very accurately out of about 80 percent of the rifles I’ve handloaded them for.
Now we come to the really difficult design elements. Namely, creating a bullet that expands reliably at the low-impact velocities of long range yet won’t tear to shreds at the high velocities of close-range impacts.
To accomplish the first issue, Hornady’s engineers incorporated a mechanical expansion-initiating device in the relationship between the composite tip and the jacket mouth. It’s a bit of a trade secret so I can’t provide specifics, but I can state this: It works. On impact, the composite tip drives rearward, edges sheer off and the bulk of the tip acts as a wedge to initiate massive, dramatic expansion.
As an important aside, the tip itself is made of a high-tech material Hornady calls Heat Shield. It’s not the standard Delrin polymer used for most tipped bullets. Extensive testing and analysis via Doppler Radar indicated to Hornady’s engineers that when fit to a high-BC bullet and fired at velocities approaching 3,000 fps and higher, Delrin erodes slightly during flight, resulting in a blunter tip shape. Erosion is minuscule, but it’s enough to adversely affect aerodynamics and consistency. To overcome the issue, Hornady researched and employed a heat-resistant material for ELD-X tips.
However, Heat Shield material has one disadvantage when compared to Delrin polymer. Air friction during flight causes Delrin to heat and take on a rubber-like consistency, which acts hydraulically on impact and initiates expansion reliably and consistently. Heat Shield material doesn’t do this, and as a result expansion consistency suffered until Hornady’s R&D wizards engineered the afore-mentioned expansion-initiating mechanical interaction between tip and jacket.
ELD-X Impact Characteristics
Bullets with very thin jackets take rifling more consistently than thick-jacketed bullets, which is why every traditional match bullet available has a thin jacket. However, thin jackets have almost no integrity on impact. They simply fragment and allow the soft lead core contained within to get torn to shreds. Being a hunting bullet, the ELD-X had to have a jacket thick enough to slow expansion and retain shape and penetrating weight.
This proved to be such a challenge that the ELD-X’s launch date was shifted back a full year. Technicians took prototypes to Africa and shot over 80 plains game animals at ranges from very close to almost 1,000 yards, then returned home and continued finessing jacket thickness and taper. New tooling and machines finally resulted in a strong tapered jacket consistent enough to meet demanding accuracy standards. Thin at the front, it curls back into the ideal mushroom shape at unprecedented low speeds. Thick at the rear, it hangs together to retain enough weight for adequate penetration up to quite-fast impact speeds.
When the bullet finally came to market, it offered an extremely broad velocity/expansion window, conservatively from 1,600 fps to 3,000 fps.
At speeds slower than that, the ELD-X may not expand. Higher impact velocities—such as firing a handloaded 178-grain ELD-X at 3,300 fps from your .300 Ultra Mag into the ribs of a bull elk in thick timber — can result in a shredded bullet, although fast, dramatic kills still usually result.
Field reports and my own observations have shown that at long range the ELD-X typically mushrooms perfectly. At close-range sub-3,000 fps impacts, it tends to mushroom violently, kill extremely effectively, and penetrate to the off-side hide, where the jacket and core are often discovered separated but only an inch or two apart. My theory is that they stay together until they encounter the trampoline-like affect of the hide, and separate during the rebound.
ELD-X Practical Application
Hornady’s ELD-X bullet has rapidly gained a well-deserved reputation as arguably the single most versatile big-game projectile available today. For non-dangerous game to distances exceeding a half-mile, it performs splendidly.
When should you not choose an ELD-X? Don’t use it for dangerous game. Don’t intentionally pick it for close-range hunting with fast magnum cartridges. And don’t use it on big, heavy-boned animals out of a cartridge's traditional weight class (i.e. don’t pick an ELD-X in your .243 Winchester and try to kill a bison with it.)
Hornady is continually adding bullet weights and diameters to the ELD-X line. Currently they range from a 103-grain .243 version up to a 270-grain .338 version, and all perform beautifully.
Three stand out in my experience. For the uber-popular 6.5 Creedmoor, there is no better all-around bullet for deer-size game and the occasional elk than the 143-grain ELD-X. In 7mm Magnums, the 175-grain ELD-X is shockingly accurate and effective to startling distances. And a 200-grain ELD-X from your .300 Win. Mag. wallops bull elk in spectacular fashion.
Until recently, BC, extreme accuracy, and broad-velocity-spectrum impact performance was not critical to hunters because nobody could place shots consistently enough past 400 or perhaps 500 yards to make shooting game way out there ethical. Laser rangefinders, super-accurate hunting-weight rifles, and feature-rich, consistent riflescopes changed that landscape entirely and created a need for hunting bullets of an entirely different breed — hunting bullets that get the job done effectively and reliably from the muzzle to 1,000 yards.
There are a number of excellent bullets on today’s market, but for this particular niche, Hornady’s ELD-X edges every one of them out.