Choosing a Hunting Bullet

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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.

Bullet Design
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
Member of OWAA & OWC.


numbnutz's picture

This was a great article with

This was a great article with a ton of good information. The main thing is finding a bullet that your gun shoots good. The brand or type of bullet don't mean a darn thing if your gun doen't shoot them good. With my 30-06 I went through 4 brand and types of bullets before I found the ones for my gun. I now will only shoot Winchester supreme xp3's in my rifle. I can get 1" groups at 100 yards with them. The other's I tried I was getting anywhere from 3-6 inch groups and for me that wasn't good enough. I shoot them in 180 grains. It's a little big for the small blacktail deer I hunt out here but perfect for the elk I hunt. I used to shoot 150 gr for deer and then switch it up to 180 for elk season. I just got tired of going to the range to resight my rifle every time I would switch so I just made the choice to stick with the 180gr bullets. I gues there the saying "theres no such thing as to dead".  Thanks for all of the great information provided here. Just remeber to find a bullet that your gun likes and don't worry about brand names untill you find the right one.

Retired2hunt's picture

  I had to laugh as I read


I had to laugh as I read the beginning of this article as I too was one that stood at the counter looking at all the pretty bullet boxes and wondering what the heck kind of bullet to buy and use with my rifle.

Great article with great information.

I have continued to use the Remington Core-Lokt bullets.  I have had absolutely no issues with them and have maintained great accuracy at very good distances.


hunter25's picture

That's a great article and

That's a great article and like stated the choices can be mind boggling. I don't reload right now but there are so many factory choices for every caliber it seems like I spend hours agonizing on what loads to try. I have been using Barnes X bullets for years but I always second guess myself if I could do better. The cost of these rounds is also a consideration and one of the reasons I think about using something else. The x bullet has never failed me but I do sometimes want something with a little more expansion. I am about to try the Accubonds in my new .270wsm to see how they shoot as it looks like they would be a good compromise. I have tried ballistic tips a few times but they are too explosive for me and have causes some problems for me on game animals when using the 30-06 with 150gr bullets.

Shot placement is in fact the first priority and then a bullet matched for the velocity it is moving and the size of the game you will be hunting.

After that it's just a matter of who advertises the best to talk you out of your money.

arrowflipper's picture


Excellent article on bullets.  It was written simply yet completely.  I have been shooting and reloading for 40 years and I still learned from it.  I liked the fact that it gave great information and did so in a simple enough way for a novice.

I'd like to say that I have it all put together when it comes to buying or reloading bullets.  I've tried a plethora of different bullets and I'd be lying if I said I can tell a huge difference.  My final criteria on a bullet is performance on an animal.  I've found so many different bullets that do the job.  For years, I used nothing but Hornaday bullets and loved them.

Then I switched to Sierra, Speer and a couple of others.  To be honest, I was usually motivated by price rather than performance.  I have never found one that I thought was totally bad.

In my later years, and now a little more able to spend the extra dollars, I have gone pretty much to the Nosler Partitians.  I have found them to be an outstanding bullet that does what I want it to do.  I used them exclusively in Africa with great results.  I will say that my PH in Africa does not prefer them but will accept them.

Thanks for a well written, articulate article that can be used by both the novice and those who have a little more experience.

groovy mike's picture

shot placement is key

There is a lot of good information in this article.  Thanks for taking the time to write it up Kevin.  That said, I have to add that in my opinion, every article on choosing a bullet should begin and end with bullet placement is more important than bullet construction.  Jim is right when he says that bullet selection is worthless if you can not hit what you are aiming at.   Accuracy and even more importantly, familiarity with the capability of your cartridge and your rifle is more important than anything else in the hardware. 


You have to first start with developing a load or trying an ammunition that shoots well in your rifle.  There are so many minute details that it is not predictable.  Each individual rifle of even the same make and model are slightly different.  This is true to the point where my Winchester model 70 might love Remington ammunition and be phenomenally accurate with it, while your Winchester model 70 will deliver only mediocre accuracy with the same box of ammunition.  While at the same time the reverse might be true.  Yours might love Winchester ammunition, but mine prefers Remington.  Or you might get the best accuracy from a 150 grain bullet while mine likes 165 grain bullets better. 


Once you find a load that is accurate use it, and practice with it and then you can keep using it.  I too am a bit of a creature of habit too.  If I have success with a given load I will likely continue to use it unless something better comes along.  And ‘better’ is determined first by time at the shooting range, then by experience in the field. 


If you can get a bullet placed in the right spot the animal will go down regardless of whether it is a cast lead slug or a solid copper projectile.  Some bullets are indeed better than others.  I like Barnes triple shock bullets, Swift A frames, and Nosler partitions.  The Barnes triple shock projectiles are phenomenally accurate in my favorite rifle but the bullets don't kill any more effectively than the plain Jane Hornady round nose soft points that I can buy for less than twenty five percent of the cost of the Barnes Triple Shocks. 


As long as the bulelts you choose are not constructed so lightly that they won't penetrate the vitals of the animal that you are hunting at the time, you will be well served to use any bullet that is accurate in your rifle.  So, use whatever you have confidence in and that makes you happy. 


jim boyd's picture

Great read, that is for

Great read, that is for sure.

I think in the old days before we knew ANTHING about bullets, we either used what our fathers, uncles or friends used.

As we gained hunting experience, we gravitated to bullets that had worked well for us in the past.

First magazines - and now in an exponential manner - the Internet has opened up information like we could have only dreamed about even just 30 years ago.

We have charts we can research to the nth degree...

We have articles we can read until we are tired of reading!

I do think on clear truth should be recognized, however.... bullet selection is worthless if you can not hit what you are aiming at.

I would encourage all hunters to find the bullet that works best in their gun (and performs well on game) and then do two things.... use that bullet only for hunting and practice with that bullet - a lot, even at distances that are longer than you intend to shoot when hunting.

This was a great read and I agree with a previous poster - well worth bookmarking and returning to for a knowledgeable set of answers to a fairly complicated issue!

Great work!

Thanks for the clarification

Yes I am one of those guys who cant figure out which bullet to use.  Im a creature of habit. If something worked for me once before I will use it until it dont work.  But I honestly say that I learned more from this article than most others.  I kept reading it over and over.  I will add some of this to my data base I am building for hunting and research information. 

jaybe's picture

Good Read

Thanks, Kevin, for the informative article.

As you said, choosing the "perfect" bullet can be a daunting process.

Truth be known, there are probably many bullets that will perform very satisfactorily on whatever game a person pursues.

But it's nevertheless important to at least give serious consideration to ensure a clean, humane kill.

I appreciate you good articles and great pictures.


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