Hunting Bullet Basics (Craig Boddington)

Autumn is approaching quickly, which means hunting season is coming soon! Actually, depending on where you live, it may already be here. Rifle deer season starts in August in Alaska, parts of South Carolina, and right here in coastal California, where I’m penning these lines. I’m in a “lead-free zone” for hunting bullets, so my choices are limited. More about that later, though! Let’s start with an inviolable premise: It’s ultimately the bullet that does the work. So these later days of summer offer a good time to select the load and bullet you’ll be hunting with this fall.

A huge-bodied Alberta mule deer, taken with a .270 Winchester with 130-grain Barnes TTSX. The homogenous-alloy bullets are very tough for deer-sized game and will almost always exit. This buck was shot quartering away through the opposite shoulder…three jumps and he was down, and the bullet may still be going.

There are dozens of cartridges suitable for deer-sized game, and only a slightly smaller universe of cartridges acceptable for larger game such as elk, moose, and bear. Choice of bullet makes a greater difference than the specific cartridge, and choosing wisely can take a borderline cartridge to a larger class of game.

Velocity and Accuracy

We American riflemen tend to be obsessed with velocity and accuracy. Both are useful if you hunt open country, and both are essential if you’re a long-range specialist. Realistically, however, across the continent most of us take our game well within 200 yards. An example: I just got back from a backpack sheep hunt in Alaska. I wanted to be ready for any reasonable shot so I took an accurate Jarrett rifle in .300 Winchester Magnum, topped with a Leupold VX6 3-18X with their CDS (Custom Dial System) turret calibrated for Hornady’s 200-grain ELD-X load. I did the range work and I was ready for a shot to perhaps 500 yards. I ended up taking my ram at 120 yards—a .243 with any hunting bullet would have been plenty.

In August 2017 Boddington took this Dall ram with a 200-grain Hornady ELD-X from a Jarrett .300 Winchester Magnum. He was prepared for a long shot if necessary, but the ram was taken at 120 yards.

No game animal will notice the difference of a couple hundred feet per second in bullet speed. The entire deer-sheep-goat-pig-pronghorn class of game has a vital area at least as large as a 10-inch paper plate, so “paper plate accuracy” at the distances you shoot is actually good enough. Obviously confidence counts, too! Since we crave velocity and accuracy, we tend to want faster loads that group better than necessary. But here’s the point: The bullet has to get in there and do its job, and that is more important than raw bullet speed and pinpoint accuracy.

 

Look for “Hunting Bullets”

Different brands, styles, and types of bullet construction are designed to offer different levels of terminal performance. Today we have a bewildering array of bullets, and sorting through the choices may seem difficult. But it really isn’t. With ten million American deer hunters headed afield, the manufacturers assume that every bullet branded as a “hunting bullet” will see use on deer. It’s also assumed that most “hunting bullets” from perhaps 6.5mm upwards may see use on elk.

The universe of bullets available today is vast and diverse. There really aren’t any “bad” bullets out there, but for hunting it’s essential to choose “hunting bullets” and avoid match bullets and varmint bullets.

The key words to look for are “hunting bullets.” Varmint bullets are designed for rapid expansion on small rodents. Match bullets are designed for utmost accuracy; performance on game is not a design consideration. Regardless of velocity or accuracy in your rifle, varmint bullets and match bullets should be avoided on big game. Sometimes they work like a lightning strike, but performance on game is erratic. Varmint bullets often open prematurely and fail to penetrate. Match bullets can do the same, but I’ve also seen hollowpoint match bullets fail to expand.

That leaves us the full and vast spectrum of “hunting bullets” to choose from. Most rifles vary in accuracy from one load to another. So the load and bullet you wish to use may not be the fastest or most accurate in your rifle. Based on either advertising hype or experience, if a particular load gives you the most confidence and the accuracy is adequate for your hunting conditions, then that’s what you should use.

 

A Breakdown of Hunting Bullets

Even amid the seemingly endless choices, many bullets offer similar terminal performance and, as I’ve said, virtually all hunting bullets are fine for deer, and many are suitable for larger game as well. If you use factory loads, you can try several flavors and see what your rifle likes best. If you’re a handloader, you can vary the components endlessly! Here’s a brief summation of my “spin” on hunting bullets today.

These are lead-core bullets recovered from game. They aren’t all pretty, but all expended their energy inside the animal and did their work. On deer-sized game Boddington has come to prefer bullets that expand fairly quickly and do serious damage to vital organs.

Cup-and-core bullets

I call these “plain old bullets,” a copper jacket drawn over a lead core, with some of the lead core exposed at the nose to initiate expansion. Familiar names include Federal Hi-Shok, Hornady Interlock, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra GameKing, and Winchester Power Point. Expansion is slowed by jacket thickness and/or mechanical devices (such as the Core-Lokt and Interlock.) These bullets are inexpensive and often tend to be very accurate. These are not “tough bullets.” They will open up fairly quickly, and may lose a lot of bullet weight during penetration. However, provided caliber and bullet weight are adequate, “plain old bullets” are awesome for deer-sized game.

Two things to keep in mind: First, velocity is the enemy of bullet performance. Second, bullet weight covers a lot of sins in bullet construction! So if you are shooting a really fast cartridge and may get a close shot you might consider a tougher, controlled-expansion design or a heavier bullet. I had a .300 H&H that loved Sierra GameKings. For deer-sized game, I used 150-grain bullets, but for elk and African plains game I bypassed the 180-grain bullet and used 200-grain bullets. On bullet weight, a quick word on .22 centerfires for deer: Today there are a lot of .22-caliber bullets from 60 grains upwards that were designed for deer hunting. Choose the heavy-for-caliber hunting bullets…but still pick your shots with care.

These days the .22 centerfires are legal for deer in about 34 states. They are adequate, but it’s important to place the shot carefully and choose heavy-for-caliber bullets. This Kansas buck was taken in 2016 with a 73-grain Hornady ELD from a Rock River .223.

 

Polymer-tipped bullets

Tipped bullets aren’t new. The old Remington Bronze Point had a metal tip, and Canada’s CIL “Sabre-Tip” was probably the first plastic-tipped bullet. Advantages: The tip won’t batter in the magazine, and you get a more consistent downrange ballistic curve. This is because an exposed lead tip melts off in flight, changing the shape and Ballistic Coefficient (BC). Most polymer tips also change shape slightly due to friction, which is a major point behind Hornady’s ELD-X bullet. However, the difference in shape is small at normal shooting ranges.

Virtually all manufacturers offer polymer-tipped bullets today. Aside from looking wicked the polymer tip prevents battering in the magazine and offers a more consistent Ballistic Coefficient than bullets with exposed lead tips. On impact the tip is driven down into the bullet, initiating expansion.

For most hunters, the important thing about polymer-tipped bullets is that, upon impact, the tip is driven down into the bullet, initiating expansion. Absent other design features to slow things down, expansion can be very rapid. Good examples are Hornady’s SST and the original Nosler AccuTip. These bullets tend to be very accurate, but they expand quickly. Given adequate weight and caliber I have found them to be extremely effective on deer-sized game, but the through-and-through penetration that many hunters prefer is unlikely.

A .300 magnum was definite overkill on this Texas whitetail—but it worked just fine. Boddington used a 180-grain Hornady SST, a fast-opening lead-core bullet well-suited to open country. The bullet did not exit and the deer dropped as if struck by lightning.

 

Bonded Core

Pioneered by Bill Steiger’s Bitterroot Bullet and perfected by Jack Carter’s Trophy Bonded Bearclaw, core-bonding means that the bullet’s core is chemically bonded to the jacket. So while some lead may be wiped away during penetration, full separation of jacket and core is virtually impossible. Bonded-core bullets offer massive expansion, but since they hold together, they also tend to penetrate. Most manufacturers now offer bonded-core bullets. While it always depends on what gives you the most confidence, I am not convinced that bonded-core bullets are essential for deer-sized game…but they definitely come into their own on larger, tougher animals. Federal’s excellent Fusion bullet uses an altogether different process, but in terminal performance acts much like a bonded-core bullet.

The top row is homogenous alloy bullets (Barnes and Hornady). The bottom row is bonded-core bullets (Federal and Swift), all recovered from larger animals. These are all “tough bullets,” similar in weight retention, but bonded bullets provide greater expansion, while homogenous-alloy bullets, with less expansion, will provide deeper penetration.

 

Tipped and Bonded

These bullets add a polymer tip to a bonded-core bullet. Good examples are Hornady’s InterBond, Nosler’s AccuBond, and Swift’s Scirocco. They tend to be accurate, and although the polymer tip still initiates expansion they are considerably tougher than unbonded polymer-tipped bullets. Again, I don’t believe bonded-core bullets are essential for deer-sized game, but these are versatile and effective hunting bullets, offering greater penetration and weight retention than cup-and-core bullets and unbonded tipped bullets.

 

Dual-core bullets

In 1948 John Nosler created the Partition, front core and rear core separated by a wall or “partition” of jacket metal. The Swift A-Frame is of similar design, except the front core is bonded. The Partition set the standard for penetration for many years and is still a great bullet, while the Swift A-Frame probably offers the largest expansion and highest weight retention of any lead-core bullet. Both are generally tougher than necessary for deer-sized game, but if you are using a smaller caliber on large-sized deer then a tougher bullet changes the game.

 

Homogenous alloy bullets

The Barnes X was the original all-copper-alloy expanding bullet. Today, Barnes offers the TSX and the TTSX; Hornady has GMX and Monoflex; Nosler has E-Tip; and Federal, Remington, and Winchester all have “copper bullets.” In every round, a skived nose (which might have a polymer tip) surrounds a nose cavity, with expansion limited by cavity depth. These bullets are awesome for weight retention but generally don’t expand as much as lead-core bullets. Once in a while a petal breaks off, but retained weight is often nearly 100 percent. If you like penetrating bullets you’ll love them—it’s rare to recover any of these from deer-sized game. Accuracy can be exceptional, but some rifles are finicky about these bullets.

 

Hornady’s GMX is a good example of today’s homogenous-alloy bullet. This 130-grain .270 bullet was recovered from a large red stag shot at about 400 yards…the group was fired from the MGA .270 used. Not all rifles will shoot this bullet—or any bullet—quite this well!

My feeling is they are better for larger game; on deer I prefer bullets that offer greater expansion. However, if you live in a “lead free zone” like our Central Coast, these are the bullets you must use. One thing we’ve learned: With our small-bodied coastal blacktails the homogenous-alloy bullets consistently punch right through. American deer hunters tend to prefer the behind-the-shoulder lung shot (biggest target, least meat damage), but with these tough, deep-penetrating bullets you’re better off to borrow a page from African hunters and shoot for the shoulder. The end result is the same, but you’ll do less tracking!

 

Practice Makes Perfect

Despite the variety of bullets available, manufacturers make it fairly easy to find the appropriate ammunition for the game you’re hunting. As with any activity, finding what works best for you takes practice and a bit of trial and error, and the end of the summer is the perfect time to optimize your accuracy, technique, and hunting toolkit. Once you find a cartridge and a bullet that works with your rifle, you’ll be one step closer to being prepared for the upcoming fall hunting season!


Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world. 

For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.