Hunters had only a handful of choices in big game bullets 50 years ago. Today, we’re barraged with many types of bullets to address almost any imaginable hunting scenario.
Looking back, solids were good for dangerous game in Africa, but illegal for most game in the U.S. Soft points and hollow points were adequate for low-impact hits on everything from small whitetails to giant moose, but sometimes they failed. At magnum velocities, a prayer and careful shot placement were your best options for success because those cup-and-core bullets couldn’t be counted on to penetrate every time.
Now, there are so many hunting bullets that hunters get confused. If you’re one of them, keep reading. The fog should clear.
Big game bullets are sold in roughly five categories:
1. Cup-and-core. This is the traditional jacketed lead bullet of yesteryear. It’s made by forming a cup of gilding metal (copper with 5- to 10-percent zinc added) and putting a lead cable or pouring melted lead inside, then swaging (squeezing) it into the final shape. The tip can have lead showing, be cut flat and flush with the jacket (a meplat,) have a short empty space (hollow point), or have a plastic, bronze or aluminum tip. None of this makes much difference in flight characteristics or terminal performance. Thicker jackets and lead cores hardened with antimony make such bullets slightly harder. Cup-and-cores might include internal locking rings, heels or cannelures to help hold core and jacket together, but under violent impact these rarely work. Soft lead erodes, flattens like a pancake or breaks into pieces, as does the jacket. All of this limits penetration, and you need penetration to reach vital organs. Examples of cup-and-core bullets include Remington Core-Lokt, Nosler Ballistic Tip, Hornady InterLock, Speer Hot Core and Sierra GameKing.
2. Partitioned. The Nosler Partition in 1948 started this category. There is a wall of jacket material separating the rear shank lead core from the front nose lead core. The nose behaves like a typical cup-and-core, but the shank is locked within jacket material, so it behaves more like a solid. This retains mass in one piece to enhance penetration. Partitions usually lose 40 to 60 percent of their weight during impact. Tougher variants such as the Swift A-Frame add thicker jackets and/or bond (weld) the nose lead to the jacket to minimize weight loss. The more weight a bullet retains during impact, the deeper it penetrates.
3. Bonded. Jackets are chemically or molecularly “welded” to lead cores. The different metals can’t be torn apart, but lead still erodes, and it must be quite soft to be bonded. Jacket thickness influences mass retention, so not all bonded bullets are equal. Noses are usually tipped with polycarbonate, but some are merely formed to a small hollow point. Examples include Nosler Accubond, Hornady Interbond, Federal Fusion, Winchester Power Max Bonded and Swift Scirocco.
4. Monolithic hollow points. The Barnes X Bullet started this trend. Instead of jacket and lead core, the entire bullet is one material, usually all copper or an alloy of copper and zinc. The nose is hollowed to various depths and sometimes tipped with polycarbonate. When the tip or body tissue/fluid enters the nose hollow, petals peel back, stopping at the end of the hollow. The solid shank acts like a solid, driving the expanded nose forward. Petals sometimes shear off on bone. Monolithic hollow points usually weigh 90 to 100 percent after impact and shoot clear through even large animals, doing massive tissue damage en route. Others include Nosler E-Tip, Hornady GMX, Federal Trophy Copper and Winchester’s Power Core 95/5 or Razorback.
5. Hybrids. These can be any combination of ingredients and construction. Some put a bonded lead nose atop a solid copper shank. Some put a lead core in the shank and use a hollow copper nose, with or without a poly tip. These also penetrate deeply. Examples: Winchester SP3, Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Trophy Bonded Tip and Nosler Bonded Solid Base.
But what should you use and when? It all depends on the size of your game, where you intend to shoot it and at what terminal velocity. The higher the impact velocity, the harder the bullet should be. At .30-30 Win. velocities, even the softest, thinnest-jacketed cup-and-core should stay in one lump and penetrate nicely. But at .300 Win. Mag. speeds, it’ll suffer. And so might your game. So use a tougher bullet. The higher the impact speed and the bigger the animal, the tougher the bullet should be. If you suspect you’ll try a shot at the south end of a north-bound elk, you definitely need a deep-penetrating bullet to plow through all that bone and muscle and reach the vitals.
However, just because a bullet starts at hyper-velocity doesn’t mean it lands at hyper-velocity. At extreme range, even the fastest bullet can slow to the impact speeds of a .30-30 Win. In that case, a softer bullet should perform better than a hard one. You have to know what you’re shooting, how it performs and at what distances. And then you need to exhibit some self control. Resist shooting moose smack on the shoulder at 20 yards with a .300 Rem. Ultra Mag. and a cup-and-core bullet. Put it in the ribs behind the muscle. And at extreme range, say 500 yards and over, don’t expect a hard, tough bullet to necessarily expand fully. No one bullet can do it all. But some come close.