Premium hunting bullets, and discussions of what makes a particular hunting bullet ideal for this or that, are much en vogue. I am not un-guilty; I confess that I have a great weakness for the study and analysis of bullets.
Although I attempt to hide it from my wife and anybody else that loves me, I've been known to eagerly scrabble through reeking offal and foamy, bloodshot membranes in search of projectiles and fragments. Christmas and birthdays? Just give me ballistic test gelatin.
Fact is, all the fervor exists for excellent reason: your bullet is the only true connection between you and the game you hunt. If it fails, you fail.
How Do Bullets Fail?
How do bullets fail? Many ways, but only a few are pertinent to this discussion. For example, an obscenely inaccurate bullet might fail to hit an animal because it struggles to achieve minute-of-dump-truck accuracy, but that's on you because you were too lazy to find a more accurate one. Not relevant.
What is relevant, assuming adequate accuracy to allow you to place your shot exactly where you want it, is on-impact performance. Good big game bullets expand on impact so they wreak havoc on vital organs rather than just poking a knitting-needle size hole.
(Knitting-needle holes don't leak blood, or life, very fast.) Great big game bullets expand big — the accepted optimal expansion is twice the original diameter — yet maintain enough projectile weight to penetrate at least deep enough to kill.
To kill, you must adequately interrupt the operating system. I write "adequately" because if you punch a hole in only one lung, a big bull elk may go two miles before expiring.
Physics tell us that the bigger the expansion the more resistance the bullet will encounter. More resistance means less penetration, so it's necessary to find a balance.
Another factor is retained weight: typically bullets that expand dramatically shed considerable weight while doing so. Reduced weight means reduced mass, inertia, and penetration.
Contrary to an often-encountered opinion, hunting bullets don't expand best when they've "slowed down enough to have time to expand inside the animal." What malarkey. The faster the on-impact velocity, the harder centrifugal and impact forces operate on the bullet and the bigger and faster it expands.
Slower bullets may, however, actually perform better because they aren't torn to shreds during impact. If you find a small exit hole after a close-range, high-velocity impact, it's most likely because the front of the bullet mushroomed dramatically and then the expanded portion sloughed off, leaving only a small section of the shank to penetrate through.
The important side of studying big game bullets, and the advantage you gain by controlling what you stuff into your favorite meat-maker, is that you know what shot presentations you should and shouldn't take, and can predict quite accurately what the projectile will do on impact.
These days we have three primary types of big game bullet:
Soft, Rapidly Expanding Bullets
Most common and least expensive are bullets designed for massive expansion, fragmentation, and maximum tissue damage. Hunters that belong to this school of thought want their bullet to absolutely devastate the internals and stop against the hide on the opposite side.
Such bullets tend to impact relentlessly hard and, when broadside shots are taken, kill with shocking effectiveness. Plus, since they almost invariably are built with thin jackets, they tend to be quite accurate.
On the flip side, the minimal penetration this type of bullet offers — particularly if heavy bone is encountered — cripples its performance in two categories: One, if the animal is steeply quartering, and two, on very large big game such as elk, bison and moose. Taking a raking shot in an attempt to punch through a hip and into vitals, for instance, is risky indeed — even on a little whitetail. Just for the sake of argument, let's say this type of bullet generally offers about 8 to 16 inches of penetration.
Best shot presentations when using this type of bullet are all some variation of broadside. Slight quartering shots are fine, but avoid attempting to punch through the point of a quartering-too bucks' massive shoulder bone, and never take any variation of a "Texas heart shot" (going straight or almost straight away).
Outstanding examples of this type of bullet are Nosler's Ballistic Tip, Sierra's Pro Hunter and GameKing, Hornady's SST, Winchester's Power Point and Deer Season XP, Berger's VLD Hunting, Remington's CoreLokt and CoreLokt Ultra Bonded, and Browning's new BXR.
Tip: if you simply must use a soft bullet on elk or moose, pick the heaviest bullet you can find. A 180-grain Ballistic Tip from your .308 will retain more weight and penetrate more deeply than a 150-grain version.
Hard, Controlled-Expansion Bullets
Typically termed "premium" big game bullets, these are designed to expand, but less dramatically than soft bullets, and to then slow or stop expansion in order to maximize weight retention.
Lesser expansion and greater weight makes for much deeper penetration, which — depending on caliber and projectile weight — tends to be at least 18 inches and more often 30 to 40 inches, depending on how much bone is encountered.
Hunters that prefer this type of bullet want the better blood trails that exit wounds provide, so they don't want their projectile to stop under the hide on the off side of the animal.
Plus, they want to be able to shoot a deer, elk, or moose from any ethical angle, including steeply raking shots sure to encounter heavy bone. This last advantage, my friends, can make a very big difference when it's the final evening of a hunt and the buck of your dreams is sneaking away, steeply quartered, into heavy brush 70 yards distant.
Another advantage of this type of bullet is that it doesn't damage nearly as much meat as do soft, rapidly expanding bullets. Also, they perform far better on elk and Clydesdale-size moose or bison, where 30 inches of penetration will barely get you through a broadside presentation.
To achieve such toughness, bullet makers employ various construction elements such as very heavy jackets, antimony-hardened cores, bonding, monolithic (all copper or gilding metal) construction, and "H"-shaped jackets with a core inserted front and rear and divided by an inner section of copper (the front core expands, the rear is protected).
Proponents of controlled-expansion bullets will point out that they enable hunters to step down in cartridge and shoot a milder-recoiling load with adequate effectiveness. For example, a premium "hard" bullet makes a .270 Winchester a legitimate elk cartridge — and many hunters shoot a .270 Winchester more accurately than a .300 magnum.
Great examples of controlled-expansion bullets are Swift's Scirocco II and A-Frame, Nosler's Partition, Barnes Bullets TTSX and LRX, Hornady's GMX, and perhaps the greatest of them all — Federal's Trophy Bonded Tip.
Tip: depending on make and type, these bullets often perform best from speedy cartridges, whether from a .25-06 Rem. or a .300 WBY. If using in a slower cartridge such as a .308 go with the soft-nosed Nosler Partition, or a lighter projectile such as the 150-grain Barnes TTSX so as to increase muzzle velocity to usable levels.
Of course, you don't absolutely need to get off on one side of the hard vs. soft argument. Several companies offer bullets that attempt — with varying degrees of success — to achieve both dramatic expansion and at least moderately deep penetration.
Since the two factors are opposing forces in terms of physics, each performance feature has to give at least a little, and usually quite a lot. But in some cases, the result is a beautifully balanced bullet.
Typically, projectile companies utilize thicker jackets, which control expansion, and often bonding (where the jacket is soldered or fused to the core by one method or another). Sometimes protected tips, where only a little bit of lead is visible in a robustly jacketed tip, are employed.
If they encounter heavy shoulder or pelvic bone, such bullets perform moderately better than typical soft bullets, enabling hunters to take raking shots on deer-size game. I still wouldn't take a raking shot on elk or moose unless I had a heavy-for-caliber version such as Nosler's superb 200-grain 30-caliber AccuBond. Most of these bullets perform yeoman's duty on broadside shots on game up to and including moose.
Penetration with these balanced bullets varies wildly, depending on the individual model and what sort of construction it features. I hesitate to assign any performance factors at all, but for the sake of discussion let's call it between 14 and 36 inches depending on what is encountered during impact.
Some wonderful bullets are in this category. One is Hornady's ELD-X, which has the added benefit of being extremely aerodynamic and suitable for use on big game at extended distances.
Another is Federal's Fusion line, which is a bit tougher and more accurate than it has any right to be. A long-time favorite, and arguably the finest all-around bullet available for non-dangerous game is Nosler's AccuBond.
Tip: shooting heavy-for-caliber versions of these balanced bullets turns them into really effective elk medicine.