Thinking back several decades, I remember one of my early visits to a gun shop. I was hoping to buy some ammunition for a new hunting rifle. Leaning over the gun counter, I was confused. Subconsciously scratching my head, I wasn't sure what to do next. I scanned from left to right, then back and forth several times. The first thing I noticed was the labeling.
"Fine," I thought to myself, "I'll start with a popular brand."
Names like Winchester, Federal, and Remington were familiar. As a neophyte hunter, it was all so new and, frankly, a bit overwhelming.
"A bullet is a bullet," I thought to myself, "why are there so many different ones on the shelf?"
Fast forward over 25 years, and the decisions are even more daunting today. Specialized ammunition is tailor-made for specific applications. I frequently enter into discussions with new, and even experienced, hunters about how to go about choosing a hunting bullet. I've watched guys do exactly what I did so many years ago; they stand at the counter with a blank look in their eye wondering how in the world they'll make the right decision. Rest assured, while choosing a bullet can be a dizzying endeavor, there are some basic academics that can help you in narrowing your choices.
If you're a new hunter, it often starts like this. You just bought that shiny new 270 WSM deer rifle you've been dreaming about but now you have to decide which ammunition to shoot. Do you go with a 150 grain Winchester Supreme Elite XP3, a 130 grain Federal Trophy Bonded bullet in their Vital Shok line, or perhaps a 130 grain Remington Core-Lokt PSP bullet? Then suddenly, as you continue to gaze across the shelves, that the choices are virtually endless. How in the world does a person make sense of it all?
Few hunters have a clear understanding of the immense range of bullets on the market today. Terminology like X-bullet, Partition, Ballistic Tip, Bonded, Core-Lokt, A-Frame, Fail Safe, Soft Point, Solid Point and a lot more are common in today's ammunition marketplace. Frankly it makes my head spin just thinking about it. The decision always comes down to which one is best suited for you? Most importantly consider application, caliber, design, and weight, then ultimately - how it performs.
Ballisticians favor certain terminology when describing bullet performance. For most of us that terminology can be confusing. In lay terms, bullets are designed for specific applications. Some are made to minimize dispersion (retain their mass). Others are made to maximize speed. Still others are designed to minimize cross wind sensitivity and others are designed to minimize ballistic drop, retain kinetic energy, or maximize penetration. In my ongoing quest for the perfect bullet, I've learned that no single manufacturer has been able to design a bullet that optimizes all of these parameters equally. The trick lies in finding the best-matched bullet with an acceptable balance of these attributes.
High tech is the name of the game these days and if you have the patience to wade through the facts you'll eventually end up with a bullet that will serve you well. The key is to determine which parameters are most important to you.
Application & Caliber
If you're hunting medium to larger-sized North American game like elk, moose, or big bears look for a bullet that retains a maximum amount of energy and therefore maximizes penetration; but also look for one that offers the most expansion. A bullet like the Barnes X for instance is designed to drive deep upon impact without losing much weight. With this configuration you can sometimes get away with going lighter to capitalize on speed, minimal arc and good penetration.
At the opposite end of the spectrum for smaller game like coyotes, you'll want a bullet that expands quickly and fragments on impact. Soft Point and Semi-Soft Point bullets are ideal for smaller game where minimizing damage to the hide is essential.
Another class of hunting bullet is known as solids. These are intended for hunting the largest and toughest game animals like elephants, rhinos, buffalo and hippos. Typically flat-tip or round-nose bullets, they are made for maximum penetration. This type of bullet is generally not used to hunt North American game.
All of the major manufacturers have their own versions of what works best. Companies like Barnes, Federal, Winchester, Remington, and Hornady have unique and sometimes shared designs on the shelf. By no means exhaustive, the following are among the more common expanding bullets for medium to large-sized North American game. As you consider what will work best for you and your rifle, remember to consider ballistic specifications like velocity, energy retention, and expansion.
Barnes X - This bullet has a reputation for deep penetration while retaining its weight after impact; particularly good characteristics when body mass is large and you want to maximize hemorrhaging.
Nosler Partition - A great choice for hunting most big game. Partition bullets have just that - a partition of material between the front and rear core sections of the bullet. This partition serves to stop expansion and enhance penetration.
Nosler Ballistic Tip - Spitzer projectiles, these popular bullets use colored plastic tips to cause rapid expansion of their lead alloy cores.
Remington Core-Lokt - A venerable bullet with Remington ammunition, the Core-Lokt boasts an internal lip that serves to hold the lead in place. This bullet has a reputation for consistent penetration and mushrooming after impact.
Sierra Game King - This bullet is known for its accuracy and quick expansion. It is one of the preferred bullets among deer hunters.
Swift A-Frame - This bullet has a bonded core and a wall of jacket material designed into its mid-section to keep the nose from coming apart after impact. It is known for punching a broad hole upon impact, retaining almost all of its weight and a consistent mushroom.
Trophy Bonded Bear Claw - A lead-core bullet, the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw has a reputation for retaining almost 90 per cent of its weight.
Winchester Accubond - This design combines the ballistic tip concept with a bonded core lead alloy core and is known to retain 60-70 per cent of its weight after upset. The Winchester Accubond is a great choice for medium-to-larger-sized North American big game.
Bullet Weight and Personal Favorites
Once you've decided on a bullet design you then need to choose the bullet weight. Within any given caliber, the lighter bullets are often designed for the smaller game suitable for that caliber. Likewise, the heavier bullets are generally designed for use on the larger species. But this isn't always the case. Depending on the load, a lighter bullet may outperform a heavier bullet, depending on energy retention, subsequent penetration and expansion characteristics.
Without getting too confusing, a more practical example of bullet choices might be as follows. For the sake of illustration, while a smaller caliber rifle like a .223 and lighter bullet would ideally be chosen to hunt varmints, if you were to use a larger caliber such as a 30-06 instead, a 125 grain soft point might be a practical bullet choice. Conversely, a heavier 180 grain Nosler Partition bullet would be more practically suited to hunting elk, moose or larger bears. A 165 grain in the same bullet might be a more appropriate choice for deer. I'll again qualify these explanations with a suggestion that lighter or heavier grain bullets might be more ideally chosen based on performance characteristics.
I've tried several different bullet types over the years and have settled on a few as personal favorite factory loads. For coyote and wolf hunting with my .22-250 for instance, I like Winchester's Super X 55-grain pointed Soft Point (SP) bullet. It is fast, effective, and minimizes damage to the hides. For deer and elk I like to use a 7mm Rem. Mag. In this rifle I've been absolutely impressed with Winchester's 160 grain Accubond bullets. They too are fast, flat, they retain their kinetic energy and rarely will they create an exit wound. Engineered to do so, most often I'll find the bullet lodged just under the skin on the opposite side of the body from the entrance wound. For sheep hunting, I like to use Federal 165-grain Ballistic Tip bullets in 300 Win. Mag. These are designed for maximum expansion upon impact.
Test it at the Range
Regardless of which bullet you choose, be sure to test it at the range. Only by shooting it consistently, at different distances and even different targets, will you learn how it performs. Two of the best tools you can use at the range are a chronograph and gel block. A chrono will give you a read on bullet velocity and gel will allow you to measure and compare penetration. You may have to test a few loads before settling on the one that works best for your gun. Strive to find the balance between accuracy and performance.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.