David E. Petzal’s Complete Guide to Choosing the Best New Bullets for Your Rifle
A bullet is the most important item that you take hunting. It is the implement that does the killing, and...
A bullet is the most important item that you take hunting. It is the implement that does the killing, and there are big differences among bullets. The mass-produced variety, such as those made by Winchester, Federal, and Remington, are accurate and give both adequate penetration and expansion nearly all the time. But they are not foolproof. When I started big-game hunting in the late 1960s, I could look forward to seeing at least one dandy bullet failure every season. Either a slug would zip right through the animal, not expanding at all, or it would blow up and fail to penetrate far enough.
HERE ARE SOME EXAMPLES:
• A friend of mine shot a mule deer broadside with a .358 Winchester, and the 250-grain bullet slipped between the animal’s ribs. The muley, which had his head down feeding when the shot hit him, raised his head, looked at us, and went back to his meal. My friend nearly fainted. It took a second shot to convince the deer we were serious.
• The same person shot an elk head-on with a .270. After penetrating only a few inches, the 150-grain bullet blew up, and we had to chase the poor creature half a mile through waist-deep snow before he died. If the bullet had penetrated properly, it would have broken the animal’s spine and dropped him then and there.
• I shot a zebra in the chest with a 270-grain bullet from a .375 H&H that should have stopped her dead to rights. It blew up before getting to the heart, and I had to pursue the beast for over a mile and shoot her four times more before the animal expired.
That is why you need to know all you can about premium bullets. Many examples are quite expensive, and in some cases using them is a waste of money. Some of them are designed to do very specific things and if not used for those purposes will disappoint you. But if you apply them as they are intended, you can go for several hunting lifetimes and not have to do much trailing.
Why are ultrareliable bullets so difficult to make? Consider the challenges to the designer. He has to come up with something that will expand reliably whether it is going 3000 fps at 25 yards from the muzzle or 1000 fps out at 400 yards. The bullet has to penetrate rubbery hide, hard bone, and tough muscle, and it must expand while doing this, weakening itself structurally. The projectile also needs to be aerodynamically perfect or else it will not fly where you aim it. And it has to be capable of being manufactured by the hundreds of thousands and sold for a reasonable price.
The first real progress toward reliable hunting bullets came in the early 1950s, when an Oregon machinist and big-game hunter named John Nosler developed a bullet with two lead cores, separated by a “wall” of jacket metal. In cross-section, the jacket looked like an H with a chunk of lead in its top and another in its bottom. The nose of the jacket was thin and fragile, so when it hit, the slug would expand regardless of the speed at which it traveled. However, the rear of the bullet remained intact because the bottom half of the H would not break apart or deform no matter what.
John Nosler called his creation the Partition and started a company to manufacture it. Today the business is run by his son Bob, and the Nosler Partition is pretty much the standard against which all other game bullets are judged. Why? A Nosler will do two things reliably, every time: expand, and hold together.
But there was still the matter of the front lead core separating from the jacket. Partitions retained their rear core, but the forward half of the bullet disintegrated as the bullet expanded. This makes some hunters unhappy, as they feel that maximum weight retention is necessary for maximum performance, and Partitions lose considerable weight when that nose finally goes.
So other bullet designers began working on their own versions of bullets that differed from the Partition but would still perform superbly, whether for all-around use or under specific circumstances and for specific game. Today, there are dozens of premium bullets, all of which have a niche. For this article, I tested and examined 12 premium bullets that you don’t have to handload in order to use–all are available in factory ammunition. Learn, choose your best bullets, and hunt with confidence.
The following is an analysis–based on extensive tests–of the 12 premium bullets available in factory ammunition that North American hunters are most likely to see sold in sporting-goods stores. Some premium bullets loaded by big ammunition companies are not included here because they are designed specifically for use on extremely large African game animals. Consider your choices carefully.
I shot some of the early X-Bullets and was not a fan. I got erratic pressures in my handloads, and I saw one X-Bullet whose little petals had broken away, and another whose hollow point had imploded inward. But I rarely hold a grudge for more than 15 years, and when Barnes came out with the Triple-Shock X-Bullet (essentially the original bullet with three sizable relieving grooves cut into its shank), I welcomed it as eagerly as the flowers of spring.
I have shot Triple-Shocks at targets and into the Ballistic Buffalo (see page 59) and can tell you that they are as accurate as anything you can get. My groups average under an inch. They expand exactly as scripted, have tremendous penetration, and are also the only bullets I recovered from the Ballistic Buffalo that retained 100 percent of their weight. I will let you know more after this coming hunting season.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: Very tough, very accurate, and very streamlined. WEAK POINTS: Too early to tell. USE IT ON: It seems ideal for high-velocity use on long-range targets. FACTORY LOADED BY: Federal
Steve Hornady is not a man to pee on your leg and tell you it’s raining. He will pour lead shot on your leg under the table and tell you he’s peeing on it. (And oh how the folks do leap about when he does this!)
Hornady makes a veritable host of fine hunting bullets, but their InterBonds are, I think, the best. Like Nosler AccuBonds and Swift Sciroccos, they combine toughness, excellent expansion, and a high ballistic coefficient, courtesy of a polycarbonate tip, a boattail base, and a streamlined profile. The InterBond’s lead core is bonded to a thick, tough jacket that bulges inward about where the ogive (see sidebar, right, for this and other terms) begins. This limits the degree to which the bullet can mushroom and ensures that it does not overexpand and come flying apart.
InterBonds are particularly good for shooting at long range, and the ones I’ve used have been very, very accurate.
(Hornady also makes a highly specialized InterBond [not shown for lack of space] for heavy game only. It has a blunt lead nose and a jacket made of cartridge brass rather than copper. Produced in .375, .416, and .458 diameters, it is an extremely strong slug.)
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: A terrific all-around bullet. Good expansion, excellent penetration, fine accuracy. WEAK POINTS: None that I can find. USE IT ON: Whatever your heart desires. FACTORY LOADED BY: Hornady
In the beginning, there was the Partition, and John Nosler saw that it was good, and so did a lot of other hunters. For nearly 30 years it was the only premium hunting bullet.
The Partition is not a perfect design.
When the front half expands, it does so violently and loses its whole front end. Because of this, it has a very small frontal area, which lets it penetrate well but leaves a small exit hole. Some hunters–the ignorant and the incurious–note the diminutive egress and claim that the bullet does not expand. That is simply not true.
I killed my first animal (a 6-point elk) with a Partition in 1972 and since then have shot everything from javelinas to Cape buffalo with them, and I’ve never had one fail. You’ll never see one fail, either.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: It provides just about an ideal combination of violent expansion and good penetration. WEAK POINTS: Because it loses considerable weight as it expands, it does not penetrate as well as some other bullets, and it leaves a small exit hole that does not always give a good blood trail. USE IT ON: Anything. FACTORY LOADED BY: Federal Weatherby
The Nosler Ballistic Tip is a highly streamlined bullet suitable for use on anything that is not heavy-boned or thick-skinned. It employs a polycarbonate tip and a boattail base. The very first versions were a little too fragile, but that has long been corrected, and the .338 Ballistic Tip is quite a bit stronger than those in the rest of the line.
Note that the Ballistic Silvertip, which is made for Winchester by Nosler, differs from the Nosler Ballistic Tip in that it has a silver tip (is this a surprise?) and an attractive black oxide coating on the bullet itself. The Winchester version has all the accuracy and explosive expansion of the Ballistic Tip but seems to penetrate better. I’ve shot them through and through some big deer. It’s also worth noting that Nosler has resurrected its Solid Base bullet for Federal. This streamlined slug is a bit stronger than the Ballistic Tip, and just about the same aerodynamically.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: Possibly the most accurate hunting bullet made. Very quick kills if everything goes right. WEAK POINTS: Put too much velocity on a Ballistic Tip and it may blow up when expanding. USE IT ON: Deer, antelope. FACTORY LOADED BY: Winchester (as the Ballistic Silvertip), Black Hills, Federal, Weatherby
This Nosler bullet combines the streamlined form and the accuracy of the Ballistic Tip with the performance of the Partition, courtesy of a bonded core and a jacket that is thin at the nose and very heavy toward the base of the slug. I think that in the fullness of time, the AccuBond may put the other Nosler bullets, as great as they are, in the shade.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: All the virtues of the Ballistic Tip without the draw-backs. WEAK POINTS: So far I haven’t found any. USE IT ON: Anything. FACTORY LOADED BY: Winchester, Federal, Black Hills
CORE-LOKT ULTRA BONDED
In 2002, Remington announced an upgrade of its standard Core-Lokt Cartridge bullet, which has been around even longer than I have, and which Remington claims is the most popular big-game bullet ever made. The Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded, as the newcomer is called, is just what the name says–a tougher, bonded version of the older bullet, and Remington introduced it with unnerving honesty. “It’s not the most accurate bullet out there,” said a spokesman. “It’s not the most aerodynamic bullet. All it will do is expand reliably and penetrate 100 percent of the time at any velocity at any range.”
And he was right. I’ve shot them at game and at the Ballistic Buffalo, and they equal Nosler Partitions in performance. Forgive me, but that’s what happened. I like them so much that I got a bunch and handload them for my pet 7mm/08.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: Very reasonable price, excellent all-around performance. WEAK POINTS: Not as streamlined as some slugs, so not ideal for long-range shooting. USE IT ON: Anything you want. FACTORY LOADED BY: Remington
PRO-HUNTER & GAMEKING
Among shooters to whom accuracy is paramount, no name counts higher than Sierra. You cannot enter the loading room of an accuracy nut without seeing stacks of green Sierra boxes.
The company makes two standout bullets for big-game hunters: the Pro-Hunter and the GameKing. The former is a flat-base design; the latter is a boattail and is considerably more streamlined. Both will give you spectacularly quick kills. I shot a 300-pound mule deer with a 150-grain .308 Pro-Hunter a number of years ago, and I have never seen anything drop faster.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: Super accuracy, very fast expansion, and very fast kills. WEAK POINTS: Not the world’s strongest bullets. In calibers of .30 and smaller, I think the two bullets should be used on nothing bigger than deer. USE IT ON: Deer and antelope. It will stop them from playing plenty damn quick. FACTORY LOADED BY: Federal
Introduced in 1984 by Kansan Lee Reid, the A-Frame resembles a Nosler Partition but utilizes pure-lead cores and a hardened pure-copper jacket. Most important, the front core is bonded to the jacket, so that unlike the Partition, the A-Frame does not blow out its front end. In stead, it “rivets,” expanding, but not by much. (A .30-caliber A-Frame, upon striking something solid, will flatten out to about .45 caliber.)
The A-Frame also retains its weight–usually 90 percent plus, no matter the velocity, the range, or what it hits.
How strong is the A-Frame? Last summer in South Africa I shot a bull eland (the largest of all antelope, scaling at three-quarters of a ton) with a 300-grain .375 A-Frame. My bullet hit the shoulder, broke it, went through a lung, the heart, and the liver, and ended up in the stomach. That eland was knocked sideways by the impact (one of the very, very few times I have seen a big animal so moved) and died within a few seconds. The bullet had traveled 4 feet through some of the heaviest hide, bone, and muscle in the animal kingdom and retained 92 percent of its weight. That is what A-Frames do.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: If there is a tougher expanding bullet than this, I don’t know what the hell it is. Does not expand much but goes through anything short of an M-1 tank. Also spoils very little meat. WEAK POINTS: Unless you really need all that penetration, it’s better to save your money. USE IT ON: Whatever is big, thick-skinned, heavy-boned, and nasty. FACTORY LOADED BY: Remington
In 1999, Swift introduced the Scirocco, a highly streamlined, boattailed, plastic-tipped bullet. Swift said that it offered superior penetration, and Swift was not kidding. The first time I shot Sciroccos at the Ballistic Buffalo, I thought that they would be easy to stop, but the BB couldn’t hold any of them. I had to go get a lot more newspaper and plywood, and it was a pleasure to do so.
The Scirocco gets its strength from a very heavy jacket (see the cutaway photo above) and a bonded core; it expands but does not come apart. It is also very accurate.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: One of the very best all-around designs. Since the Scirocco is both very strong and very streamlined, it excels for long-range work at magnum velocities. WEAK POINTS: I haven’t found any. USE IT ON: Anything your heart desires. FACTORY LOADED BY: Remington
Jack Carter, the Houston big-game hunter and bullet tinkerer, is hunting in a better world now, but his Trophy Bonded bullets are alive and well and being manufactured by Federal and sold to handloaders through Speer Bullets. Federal has swapped Carter’s pure-copper jackets for gilding metal, which is stronger, and made the bullet points more streamlined. The new Bear Claws are more accurate than the originals.
I have a .270 that will shoot nothing but Bear Claw bullets accurately and have been using it regularly for nearly 20 years. When a Bear Claw hits, the bullet opens up like a propeller, and because it retains 90 percent or better of its weight, it goes zipping right through whatever you’ve shot.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: Does a lot of damage, giving very quick kills. Also penetrates very well despite huge expansion. WEAK POINTS: On smaller species they do a little too much damage to suit me. Also, in some rifles, they simply will not shoot accurately, period. USE IT ON: Big, tough critters: elk, moose, bears, African game. FACTORY LOADED BY: Federal
This is one of the most complicated designs. It has a solid copper front with a hollow point, and the interior of the jacket is scored with grooves to make the point open. A rear lead core is protected in front by a steel cap and sealed at its base by a brass cap.
For toughness, reliability, high weight retention, and penetration, the Fail Safe has no betters. In 2000 I took a .30/06 loaded with 180-grain Fail Safes to Namibia and killed five animals with five shots, including a zebra and a gemsbok, which are both big, tough critters. My colleague Ross Seyfried says that the Fail Safe is the best hunting bullet made, period.
THE UPSHOT STRONG POINTS: Does not expand much but goes through anything. Of all the bullets I’ve used, only the Swift A-Frame can compete with it for toughness. WEAK POINTS: It’s not cheap, and you don’t need this kind of strength for everything. USE IT ON: Large, thick-skinned, heavy-boned game. FACTORY LOADED BY: Winchester
EXPANDED VIEWS THE RECOVERY ROOM
If you look at these expanded slugs, you’ll notice distinct differences in the way they’ve expanded, and those differences are critically important to how they behave on game. Bullets that show little expansion penetrate better than those that expand to a wide diameter. Bullets that expand violently work poorly on heavy game but produce quick kills on light game. And premium bullets such as these always behave the same way, every time. That’s what you’re paying for. –David E. Petzal
Barnes Triple-Shock Solid copper, and an improved version of the X-Bullet. Very accurate and super penetration.
Hornady InterBond Aerodynamic and highly reliable. One of the best all-around designs.
Nosler Partition The front always comes apart violently and the rear holds together for good penetration.
Nosler Ballistic Tip Super accuracy and expansion, but not the best choice for penetration.
Nosler AccuBond Unites the best characteristics of the Partition and the Ballistic Tip.
Remington Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded Dead-reliable performance and good accuracy at a fair price.
Sierra Pro-Hunter Very accurate, very quick expansion, though not the best penetration.
Sierra GameKing A more streamlined version of the Pro-Hunter with the same vices and virtues.
Swift A-Frame Very little expansion, but super-high weight retention and penetration.
Swift Scirocco Good expansion and penetration matched with a streamlined shape. Very strong.
Trophy Bonded Bear Claw Tremendous expansion combined with excellent penetration and high weight retention.
Winchester Fail Safe A complicated bullet that offers tremendous penetration and good expansion.
HOW WE TESTED THE BULLETS MEET THE BALLISTIC BUFFALO
Back in the 1970s, when great bullets did not abound and bad ones did, I corresponded with a very knowledgeable gun writer named Bob Hagel, who told me that I should do my own testing to see which slugs would penetrate and hold together before I took them hunting. The following target is based on what Hagel used and is made to tear apart weak bullets. In the Ballistic Buffalo, only the strong survive.
Making the Beast: In front I stick two thicknesses of wornout truck inner tube , which you can get for free at any tire shop. Behind it goes a bundle of water-soaked newspapers , and behind that, an 11×14-inch piece of ½-inch plywood . Behind the plywood I place bound bundles of water-soaked newspaper  that total 2 feet thick, and behind that, if I’m testing an extremely tough bullet (usually it’s not needed), more plywood. In the rear, I use a post  or tree stump to lean it all against. In the Buff: With an orange aiming dot marked on the upperleft-hand quadrant of the tire, I fire a shot from 50 yards. Then, I go up to the buffalo and carefully start pulling the paper bundles apart to see how far the bullet has penetrated, taking note of the size and shape of the wound cavity and the depth of penetration. When I find the slug, I remove it with a pair of pliers because it is as hot as hell. Weight Up: The slug goes into a handloader’s scale. I divide the resulting measurement by the original weight of the bullet to find the percentage of weight it retained. Try this yourself, and you will know how far your bullet penetrated, how big a hole it made, and how well it survived the trip. –David E. Petzal
BALLISTIC COEFFICIENT BC for short, it is the mathematical expression of the relationship between a bullet’s shape, weight, length, and diameter. The higher the BC, the more streamlined the bullet, and the better it will perform at long range.
• BASE The bottom of the bullet. It can be either squared or boattail.
• BOATTAIL A bullet base that tapers, much in the manner of the stern of a boat. Boattail bases streamline bullets, giving them greater range.
• BONDED CORE A lead core that is joined permanently to the jacket. This is done chemically or by soldering.
• CANNELURE A circumferential groove in the bullet jacket into which the case mouth can be crimped.
• CORE Just what it says. Made of pure lead or a harder lead alloy.
• JACKET The casing enclosing the core. Made of pure copper, or a harder alloy called gilding metal.
• MEPLAT Pronounced MEE-plat. The very tip of the bullet.
• OGIVE Pronounced OH-jive. The curved or rounded section of the bullet leading from the shank to the meplat.
• SECTIONAL DENSITY The mathematical expression of a bullet’s weight in relation to its length. A 180-grain .30-caliber bullet has a higher SD than a 150-grain bullet of the same diameter, and it will retain its velocity better at long range and shoot flatter despite the fact that the lighter bullet starts out faster.
• SHANK The straight section of the bullet. –David E. Petzal
You don’t need a high-end bullet to kill game any more than you need a Porsche to drive to work. Factory bullets these days are very good–much better than they used to be.
What you buy with a high-end bullet is–pardon the expression–overkill. You get a lot more accuracy than is required and a lot more toughness. When you pay all that money for a Porsche, you are buying a 160-mph car. There aren’t many places where you can drive 160, but all that power will get you right up to 65 in a big hurry when you enter a freeway, and you won’t have to worry about an 18-wheeler creaming you from behind.
Similarly, if you are shooting Swift A-Frames or Winchester Fail Safes, and you have to break a shoulder or take a raking shot to reach an animal’s vitals, you can be sure the bullet will do it. That’s what you pay all the money for. Eight times out of 10 you don’t need a super bullet, but for those two, it sure comes in handy. –David E. Petzal
You’ll notice I do not dwell on accuracy in this piece. That’s because there isn’t a biggame bullet that I’ve used that isn’t plenty accurate enough for hunting. Moreover, if you want super accuracy, you have to do a lot of experimenting, either with factory ammo or with handloads. And obsession with accuracy will not get you one more animal than you would without all the fussing over every .0005 inch. –David E. Petzal
WHICH ONE SHOULD YOU USE?
The simplest way to determine the best bullet for you is to start with the animal you’re hunting. If you’re interested in small critters such as southern whitetails, Coues deer, or antelope, you want a quick-expanding, accurate bullet. Get one box of ammo loaded with Sierras and another with Nosler Ballistic Tips and see which one shoots most accurately in your rifle.
If you’re after big bears, you want penetration above all. Your options include Swift A-Frames, Trophy Bonded Bear Claws, Barnes Triple-Shocks, Winchester Fail Safes, and Hornady InterBonds. Buy one box each, and see which shoots best.
If you want to keep things simple and are looking for a good all-around bullet, you have a choice of Nosler Partitions or AccuBonds, Swift Sciroccos, or Remington Core-Lokt Ultra Bondeds.
Does this cost money? Of course it does. But compared to your license, guide fees, airfare, and other costs of a big-game hunt, premium ammo is a bargain. –David E. Petzal