Hooked on Bullets

A century-old idea is the newest new thing.
by Terry Wieland
From the May/June 2008 issue.

“Hook and bullet” is a term long used to describe the stratum of outdoor magazines devoted to fishing and hunting. No one knows who coined the phrase, which is mildly derogatory but brilliantly concise: hooks and bullets are the precise points where anglers and hunters first come into physical contact with the objects of their desire. 

Unlike fishhooks, whose shape, configuration, and material have changed relatively little since their development centuries ago, bullets are constantly evolving. The abiding problem with bullets is that too many factors are involved in their performance, from the moment they’re loaded into a cartridge until the instant they strike an animal and bring it down.

There have been more positive developments in bullet design in the last couple of decades than in the hundred years or so preceding. We all say this, but is it really true?  Only partly: Some innovations that seem ultramodern can look suspiciously like something marketed a century ago.

Choosing an appropriate bullet today isn’t easy. Whether you’re hunting gophers at half a mile, whitetails in thick brush, elk in the mountains, or Cape buffalo at a few feet and closing, choosing the right bullet is becoming more difficult, not less.

Why? Partly it’s marketing and the never-ending stream of conflicting claims, but mostly it’s the difficulty of sorting out the increasingly complex technical aspects of bullet design. Few hunters—and few hook-and-bullet writers, for that matter—have the facilities for comprehensive testing of bullet performance before they go hunting.

As for the product-proving qualities of big-game hunting itself, no one today will kill a sufficient number of animals, at all ranges and under any and all conditions, to prove conclusively that a bullet is always good, always bad, or somewhere in between. All you can hope to prove is that on a particular day, under those circumstances, the bullet behaved in a certain way. Because the chances of exactly duplicating those circumstances are pretty slim, you haven’t accomplished much.

Cumulative field experience, and the input of hundreds of observant hunters over many years, can show that a bullet is pretty good. But even saying a particular bullet has “stood the test of time” proves nothing. After all, most hunters aren’t really concerned about the bullets in their rifles. Standing the test of time may mean only that the ammunition has been cheap enough to sell well to the vast majority of hunters who know little about bullet performance and care less.

There are vague folkloric notions about bullet performance. The .303 Savage, in some places, is deemed a superior moose cartridge to the .30-30, yet the two are ballistically identical. What made the .303 Savage perform a little better on moose was its 190-grain bullet compared to 170 grains in the standard .30-30 load. More weight, lower velocity, less chance of bullet disintegration, and generally deeper penetration add up to better performance on moose. On deer, though, shot
for shot the .30-30 and its lighter bullet would have the advantage.

In the days of black-powder cartridge rifles, bullets were made of lead, sometimes tempered with tin and lubricated to reduce leading. With the higher velocities of smokeless powder a whole new approach was required, and the result was jacketed bullets. The lead core provided the traditional qualities—weight and mushrooming capacity—while a copper jacket held it together and prevented fouling.

The early days of smokeless powder delivered velocities around 2,400 feet per second (fps). In 1915, the .250-3000 (.250 Savage) reached 3,000 fps with an 87-grain bullet intended for big game. For the first time, bullet disintegration on impact became a serious problem, and ever since, bullet designers have tried to come up with a design that will hold together at high velocity yet expand at lower velocities, retain weight, and penetrate.

Bonding the core to the jacket was tried early and eventually perfected. The word bond seems to carry some sort of magic, but bonded bullets aren’t all the same. Johan van Wyk, a friend in South Africa who hunts extensively and studies the bullets he uses, tells me that his experience with the Hornady InterBond versus the Nosler AccuBond, for example, has been starkly different, with the InterBond proving very tough and the AccuBond very explosive.

Today, literally dozens of bullet designs are on the market, all offering variations on the same theme, and just to make it really confusing often using similar names: AccuBond, InterBond, AccuTip, Trophy Tip.

With the new mania for ultra-long-range shooting has come a demand for bullets with ever-higher ballistic coefficients and sectional densities. These bullets are long for their caliber (a 250-grain .308, for example) with boattail bases and a profile like a racing yacht. Great for shooting targets out to 2,000 yards, but proficiency on targets doesn’t necessarily translate into usability on game.

For example, a boattail bullet looks sexy, and the tapered base undoubtedly helps the bullet buck the wind, but this really makes little difference until you get beyond 400 yards. What’s more, the wedge-shaped base holds the core very poorly. This is meaningless on a target but highly significant on a game animal where you want jacket and core to cling together.

The best target bullets, traditionally, have been hollow-points. HP bullets can also make fine game bullets, but not all hollow-points are the same; a target HP is constructed differently from a big-game HP, and often either doesn’t expand at all or disintegrates on impact.

Since Barnes introduced its all-copper X-bullet in 1989, there have been various developments along the unleaded line, and obviously such a bullet must be a hollow-point if it’s to expand at all. But getting consistent expansion has been a continuing problem. The latest solution is using a spitzer-pointed plug of some kind driven down into the HP cavity, forcing the bullet to open up. This approach has the dual benefit of improving the bullet’s ballistic coefficient and long-range capabilities, while making expansion more dependable.

Any of the new bullets with the word Tip in the name has some sort of plastic, nylon, or polycarbonate spitzer tip. This separate piece, inserted into the bullet’s hollow point, serves two purposes: to provide a sharp, durable point that will improve long-range ballistics, and to drive down into the bullet on impact like a wedge, forcing the bullet  to mushroom.

Most people think the concept originated with Nosler’s fine Ballistic Tip bullets in the 1980s; older shooters might date it back to Remington’s venerable Bronze Point. In fact, the use of nylon dates back to the 1960s and Canada’s C-I-L ammunition, while the whole idea of a separate tip originated in England around 1900! Philip B. Sharpe traced the development back to Westley Richards and one designer: Leslie Taylor, an “engineering genius who was responsible for most of the developments of Westley Richards & Co.”

Listed in the 1906 Westley Richards catalog  as the “Peg-Point,” the design began by using a wooden peg shaped more or less like the old Remington Bronze Point (and almost identical to all of today’s nylon or polycarbonate tips).

“Accuracy would vary tremendously due to the different density of different woods and the natural tendency to throw a bullet out of balance,” Sharpe noted. “Fiber was substituted by about 1905 for the early wood . . . and remained on the market for some time.”

The bullet disappeared from the Westley Richards catalog sometime before the Great War, the patent lapsed, and Remington (according to Sharpe) picked up the idea and continued work on it. The result was the Bronze Point Expanding, a bullet that remained in the Remington line for many years thereafter.

The English didn’t give up the idea entirely, applying it to various large-bore bullets where, in one form and another, it gained a reputation for explosive expansion. Too much so, actually, and John Taylor cautioned hunters of Cape buffalo and lions to avoid “capped” bullets.

In the 1960s, C-I-L introduced the Sabre-Tip in its Dominion line of big-game ammunition, sporting a tip made of nylon. This innovation was greeted in the United States with considerable skepticism, and while it gained a good reputation in Canada, it never made inroads in the U.S. market. Looking back, it was an idea 30 years ahead of its time in one way, but really just a variation on Westley Richards’s fiber-tip bullets of 1905.

From studying the literature, talking to hunters and ballisticians, and personally firing such bullets into test media and game, one stark fact emerges about them all: Bullets fitted with these tips are prone to extreme expansion on impact. This is a universal trait. It is far from being a blanket condemnation, but it’s reason to think very carefully before choosing such a bullet, especially if the game you’re hunting bites back.



Spanish Best is one of several books by Terry Wieland. You can find it and other titles by him at Amazon.com.

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