RIFLES: How to Choose a Bullet
By Wayne van Zwoll
Your only contact with a live elk is the little missile you send its way. Nearly any will work, if...
Les Bowman, the Cody, Wyoming, outfitter who had a hand in bringing us the 7mm Remington Magnum cartridge, saw a lot of elk shot. He said more were hit badly by hunters using magnum rounds because these fellows didn’t shoot as well as their compatriots with rifles that didn’t kick as hard. Part of his pitch for Remington’s big 7 was that it didn’t belt you like a .300 Magnum. Bowman favored the 150-grain bullet, observing it killed more quickly than the factory’s 175.
A Colorado game warden whose job included shooting nuisance elk used a .270 with 130-grain bullets. An Idaho lodge proprietor who guided many elk hunters was also sweet on the .270. So too Jack O’Connor, whose wife Eleanor found her 7x57 deadly with handloaded 160-grain softpoints at 2,650 fps.
Even if you believe the .270 is all that’s needed to shoot elk, the proliferation of cartridges in this class, with a tsunami of new bullets may leave you sleepless with indecision.Rather than limit their pillow talk to elk cartridges, some insomniacs write me. One missive, just received: “I drew a Wyoming elk tag and plan to hunt the Bridger-Teton units. My guide tells me to come ready for 400-yard shots. What would you pick from this list?” Mercifully, he listed only three options: 6.5/284, .270 WSM and .280 Ackley. For each, his bullet of choice was a mid-weight Nosler AccuBond. “Or is there something better?” he concluded.
Well, I don’t know if there’s something better. Having struck out in the Wyoming elk tag draw, I could have told him not to fret about loads when the luckless have no license. But I mustered a measure of charity and said it truly didn’t matter. I had used the .270 WSM and the 6.5/284 with equally lethal results and would probably pick the .280 Ackley simply because I’ve not yet killed an elk with mine. I added that my experience with Nosler AccuBonds had been good. They fly flat and accurately, drive deep. My most recent bull, a heavy, mature animal, fell to a couple of 160-grain 7mm AccuBonds.
My correspondent could as effectively use a Nosler Partition, Federal Trophy Bonded, Swift A-Frame or Scirocco, Winchester Power Max Bonded, Barnes TSX, Remington Core-Lokt Ultra, Hornady GMX or InterBond, or Norma Oryx. In truth, he could settle for an ordinary softnose like Winchester’s Power-Point, Remington’s Core-Lokt, Federal’s Power-Shok or one of the Speer or Sierra spitzers that laid bulls low for me when all bullets came in boxes of 100 and cost under a dime apiece.
As cartridge lists have become scrolls, bullets have improved. They’re more accurate, on balance, than they were in my youth. Those designed specifically for flat flight–VLD (very low drag) or LR (long range, but you guessed that)—deliver chalk-line arcs. Those built to blast through tough muscle and bone wind up under the far-side skin with negligible weight loss, or punch through to sail into the hills beyond.
Such bullets are expensive, partly because they cost a lot to engineer and produce, partly because they’re less versatile than traditional all-purpose softpoints, so don’t sell in wholesale quantities (market frenzy of 2013 aside).
Jackets and cores
A century ago, bullets were just getting used to high speed. After the Great War, cupro-nickel, of 60 percent copper and 40 percent nickel, became the jacket of choice. Gilding metal (90 percent copper, 10 percent zinc) was first thought too soft for the friction generated by 150-grain bullets in .30-06 service ammunition. But Western Cartridge Company’s Lubaloy jacket, comprising 90 percent copper, 8 percent zinc and 2 percent tin worked well. In 1922 Western provided Palma Match ammunition with 180-grain Lubaloy-coated bullets. When experiments at Frankfort Arsenal showed gilding metal stood up to high velocities, it became standard jacket material for hunting and target bullets. While Nosler stayed with a 90-10 alloy for its Partition bullets turned on screw machines before 1970, most bullet-makers now favor jackets of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc. Softer, almost pure-copper jackets up to .060 thick appeared early on Bitterroot Bonded Core bullets. The high ductility of the unalloyed copper kept it from shattering easily on big bone or in heavy muscle. With nose cavities that initiated expansion, these thick jackets made Bitterroots long for their weight, heavy for their caliber. They required deep seating and an eye to pressures. Copper fouling made frequent bore cleaning a must.
Barnes “Original” bullets, from .22 to .600, also wear jackets of pure copper, .032- and .049-inch thick, depending on the application. The Barnes label, which dates to 1939, now is best known for its all-copper Triple Shock bullets. But some Originals remain for big-bore and obsolete rounds like the .50-110 and .348 Winchester.
Bullet cores are usually cut from lead wire extruded from bar stock in appropriate diameters, then annealed to prevent expansion during forming. Cores of ordinary hunting bullets have a dash of antimony to make them harder (commonly 2.5 percent). A little antimony makes a big difference; 6 percent is about the limit. Sierra uses three alloys for rifle bullets, with antimony proportions of 1.5, 3 and 6 percent. “Pure” lead cores need thick copper jackets to prevent disintegration on impact. (Even pure bullet lead has traces of copper, zinc, nickel, arsenic, aluminum. As little as .1 percent copper can cause hard spots.) Jacket and core must be held to tight tolerances for the best accuracy. Sierra, renowned for match-winning target bullets, keeps jacket thickness within .0003 and limits bullet weight variation to .3 grain. Test-lots of bullets that don’t nip quarter-minute can send the entire batch to the “seconds” bin.
“We shoot four five-shot groups to check lots,” say the gnomes at Hornady. “For 30-bore bullets, maximum measure is .600 at 100 yards, for 6mms it’s .450. We demand .350 from .22 match bullets. Our 30-caliber match bullets must stay inside .800 at 200 yards.”
Incidentally, the Hornady crew tells me flat-base bullets are just as accurate as those with tapered heels. “In fact, they can be more accurate, because the boat-tail adds another angle to get just right. That’s another variable.”
After the bullet lands
In hunting bullets, terminal performance can matter more than accuracy. Expanding bullets dump energy as they decelerate. A ruptured bullet nose hikes resistance, boosting deceleration rate and energy release as it carves a big, pear-shaped cavity. Its rotating nose petals tear tissue. Hydraulic pressure opens the channel still wider. A wound caused by a bullet upsetting to double original diameter is much, much bigger in volume and cross-sectional area than one from a bullet that doesn’t open. The violence of upset increases with impact velocity. Bullets for high-speed loads used on elk-size game are designed to resist break-up at near-muzzle velocity, but ensure expansion to about 1,600 fps. It’s an engineering challenge!
Bullet nose design has a lot to do with how expansion proceeds. Small cavities and thick jackets keep hollowpoint bullets from fragmenting, but make upset less dependable. Among early hollowpoints, the Western Tool and Copper Works bullet with a tiny nose cavity delighted many hunters stateside. In Europe, DWM’s “strong-jacket” missile had a long, narrow cavity lined with copper tubing and capped.
Westley-Richards of London fielded a bullet with a dimple covered by a metal cap that protected the nose and throttled upset.
The polymer bullet tips now so popular have little to do with terminal behavior, though they play a part, commonly as a wedge, to initiate upset. Internal design of the bullet behind the tip determines how a bullet will expand and to what degree. While polymer tips make bullets look streamlined, the profile of the ogive (that section between tip and shank) and bullet length figure more heavily in their trajectory.
Securing jacket to core is crucial if a bullet is to maintain its integrity in elk. High-speed impact stresses that marriage. Early efforts to keep bullets intact resulted in the Remington Core-Lokt. It derived from the Peters Inner Belted. The Speer Hot-Core guaranteed adhesion by virtue of warm lead imprinting on the jacket. John Nosler came up with a mechanical solution in 1947, after several softpoints from his .300 magnum disintegrated on a moose. The Nosler Partition bullet has a wall of jacket material dividing the core. However violent the forces mutilating the nose, the heel drives on—a solid cylinder. Incidentally, Nosler wasn’t first with a mechanical device to control bullet upset. Before the Depression, American entrepreneur Charles Newton designed a bullet with a central wire core. During the 1940s, the German H-Mantle bullet had a central dam much like Nosler’s. The Swift A-Frame combines Nosler’s Partition design with nose bonding. I like the A-Frame very much. A 140-grain .270 bullet that downed an elk for me bulged the off-side skin with 94 percent of its original weight, a perfect double-diameter mushroom.
A modified Partition, the Partition Gold, was marketed by Winchester under the CT (Combined Technology) banner that marked collaboration between Winchester and Nosler. Partition Gold dams were moved ahead, to boost retained weight if the nose disintegrated. A steel cup prevented heel deformation. Winchester had pioneered such cups in its Fail Safe bullet, behind a hollow nose of copper alloy, notched to deliver uniform four-petal upset. That cup prevented the rear lead core from ballooning the midsection and escaping through seams opened by the petal tips. Winchester no longer offers either of these bullets.
Chemical bonds have hiked retained weight above the 90-percent mark for many hunting bullets. Jack Carter’s excellent Trophy Bonded design called attention to the process. Now produced and sold by Federal, his softpoints (including a version with a sharp polymer tip) compete with the likes of the Swift A-Frame and Scirocco, Winchester Power Max Bonded and Remington Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded.
Another way to reduce bullet weight loss in animals like elk is to replace jacketed lead cores with solid copper alloy. The Barnes X, then TSX are perhaps best-known of these bullets. Winchester offers its Super X Power Core, Nosler the E-Tip, Hornady its GMX and MonoFlex. Hunters who favor complete penetration like these bullets. Though they weigh less than lead-core missiles of equal length, penetration is commonly deeper and retained weight percentage higher.
Beyond the hyperbole
Some years ago I packed into an Idaho elk camp with a rifle that didn’t shoot accurately with the “controlled-expansion” bullets I’d hand-loaded. I defaulted to Winchester’s Power-Point, an inexpensive softnose that had served me well on deer. My chance came on a quartering bull, trotting off at about 100 yards. My hold for the off shoulder put the bullet into the middle of its ribs. Timber swallowed the elk as I cycled the Model 70. We took the trail and found the animal dead within 40 yards. The Power-Point had angled through both lungs. It lay balled up at the point of the far shoulder.
I remember that shot every time someone insists an ordinary softpoint won’t kill an elk cleanly if it quarters away. And I’ve found gently quartering shots notably quick to take effect. I’ve seen only one elk gallop off that I thought might have been killed with a bullet that drove deeper. Fortunately, this bull gave me a second shot, which dropped him. My first missile had disintegrated before penetrating the near lung. The fault was mine—for using a thin-jacketed bullet, in retrospect clearly designed for lighter game.
Now, far be it from me to suggest you spend a little when you could as easily spend a lot for your bullets. But contrary to what some enthusiasts imply, sending ordinary softpoints at elk is not like hurling whiffle balls. Such bullets have killed many, many elk. And the conditions under which expensive bullets will kill elk quicker, or more surely, are rare indeed!
In a decade of guiding elk hunters, I remember three bulls that were lost or might well have been lost. Each was hit with a powerful .30 magnum launching controlled-expansion bullets. One, shot at long range by an over-eager rifleman while I set up the spotting scope, left blood indicating a leg wound. We looked in vain the remaining three days of his hunt. Another, paunched going away after the hunter had missed a much easier poke at a modest 120 yards, left some bone, but we lost all blood sign the next day. In a marvelous stroke of luck, I spied that bull on a seep in a canyon two days later, and the client killed him. The third elk, struck too far back, ran off. We followed and spied the bull bedded. He rose before we got into position. My shot shattered his heart as he crested a ridge at a determined trot.
Obviously, bad shooting was to blame in all three instances. Having done my share of that, I can hardly cluck too loudly. Still, I’ve killed elk with pretty ordinary bullets from the .30-30 and .32 Special, the 6.5x55 and 6.5 Creedmoor, the .260 and 7mm-08. These animals all expired less than 60 steps from where struck, most without another shot fired.
A fast bullet isn’t necessary to kill an elk; the .30-30 and .32 Special clock only about 2,400 fps with the most ambitious loads. Nor do you need a heavy bullet. A pal has shot several with 105-grain .243 boat-tails. You could say that fast, heavy bullets—more horsepower—and controlled-upset design afford you more margin for error, harder hits at distance where mild cartridges fade, and that unusual but always anticipated quartering shot. Fair enough. But none can substitute for good shooting at reasonable yardage!
You needn’t pay extra for …
Complexity. A sophisticated early hollowpoint, the old Peters’ Protected Point bullet had a flat-tipped core, the front third wrapped in a gilding metal band and crowned with a metal cone. Upon impact, the nose drove the band under the jacket, where it started upset. The jacket split as expansion progressed. Each Protected Point bullet required 51 operations and three hours to make! Winchester’s Silvertip, given new life in 1960 and now discontinued, was a less costly rendition, without an inner band. There’s no evidence expensive bullets kill better than cheap ones.
Bullets sharp as spears. Like Remington’s Bronze Point. It’s a hollow-point with a needle-keen tip that becomes a wedge at impact to expand the core. It’s a bit violent and frangible for elk, in my view, but a great deer bullet. As with the now-ubiquitous polymer tip, this nose delivers no better accuracy and essentially no flatter flight than a bullet with a relatively blunt nose but the same ogive. A hard nose does indeed resist deformation in the magazine a bit better than a soft one; but my tests with badly deformed bullet noses showed surprisingly little change in group sizes. Ordinary tip damage won’t affect accuracy.
VLD profiles or even tapered heels. While a long ogive can flatten a bullet’s flight and reduce the rate of velocity loss, it doesn’t come into play at normal hunting ranges. Ditto a tapered heel (boat-tail). Such profiling hikes ballistic coefficient; but to the point-blank range of most elk cartridges (say 260 yards with a 200-yard zero), there’s no real advantage. Most elk are shot closer. Even to 300 yards, the difference in drop and energy are negligible. A pal anguishes that his pet rifle shoots Norma Oryx bullets well, but that they fall fast past 400 yards. Methinks he frets unduly. The Oryx kills elk handily. It’s accurate in his rifle. Good pick.
Recoil. Huh? Who pays for recoil? Hunters do when they drive heavy bullets. Hike bullet weight, and you lose speed. Unwilling to suffer that indignity, many hunters choose more powerful cartridges, which belt them in the gums and leave hairline cracks in their clavicles. I’ve killed elk with 100-grain bullets from a .250 Savage. One dropped to a very long poke with a 129-grain 6.5mm softnose. A giant bull wilted when a client shot it (and not perfectly!) with a 140-grain Speer from a .280. When thin-jacketed softpoints were the only option, heavy bullets made sense. But these days, bullets needn’t be heavy to drive deep.
Television endorsements—or photos of dead animals. Alas, advertising is priced into every box of bullets and ammo you buy. But carcasses are no measure of bullet lethality. Many animals so displayed fell to loads that not long ago would have seemed as over-juiced as an Abrams tank at a local tractor pull. Whatever game bullet you fire from a .30-06 will kill an elk. As blunt .303 softpoints loafing from SMLE rifles at 2,300 fps have clobbered myriad Canada moose, and Sweden’s hunters have reaped as efficiently with the 6.5x55, gentle, century-old loads still bring elk to bag.
Of course, so will frisky new numbers launching bright, polymer-tipped rockets. All you have to do is send each one between the shoulders.
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and more than 2,700 articles on rifles and shooting. Two of his latest books, Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles are chock full of information. Just out: Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting—and yes, Wayne always tries for the close shot.