Traditional country pursuits reimagined for a modern world
Accuracy is only part of the equation when it comes to choosing the right stalking ammunition.
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Many of us who hunt or stalk spend a small fortune on the best custom-built or premium off-the-shelf rifles, top of the range scopes and binoculars, sound moderators, bipods, clothing and paraphernalia and then hardly think about what actually does the business... the bullet.
Terminal ballistics - i.e. what happens when a bullet connects with its target, whether it be a fox, roe deer or elk - has become much more of a science in recent years, and the manufacturers of bullets have invested a fortune in bullet technology and manufacturing processes on our behalf, so that we can deliver the correct amount of energy into the vital organs of our quarry to ensure a swift, clean kill. Yet we as hunters often neglect this critical aspect of our kit.
The size, weight and construction of the bullet we choose should to a large extent be dictated by what we intend to shoot. When shooting foxes with a .243 Win, for example - where meat damage isn't a consideration - a light, fast, flat-shooting round which delivers extremely rapid, almost explosive expansion on impact is preferable, as it will cause huge tissue damage and dump all the available energy within the carcass with little risk of over-penetration. With this in mind, a 55gr Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint bullet would be ideal.
However, using such a bullet for a chest shot at a roe deer will, in all likelihood, cause an unnecessary amount of carcass and meat damage through adverse bruising and hydrostatic shock, with the possibility of gut contents being forced into the meat if the shot is a little far back. There is a good chance that on a fallow buck, the same bullet would produce a severe wound to the shoulder but would either deflect off the shoulder or break-up or disintegrate before reaching the vital organs, resulting in a wounded animal.
A soft-point in the 90-105gr range might be a better choice for smaller deer such as muntjac, Chinese water deer and roe, as heavier bullets at moderate velocities penetrate deep into an animal, expand internally and dump energy, and will punch through the heavier bone and deeper carcass, and exit so that there is a blood trail to follow. An added bonus is that heavier, moderate velocity bullets do far less carcass damage than light, ultra-fast rounds. Larger deer or other quarry require larger, 'tougher' bullets.
It is my view that many rifle shooters place far too much importance on the 'flat shooting' properties or trajectory of a bullet, so will choose a plastic-tipped projectile, often too light for the intended task, because it shoots tiny groups on the range and is "dead-on to 300yds". No bullet, no matter how fast and light, is dead-on to 300yds. None. As long as you know the range to your target and what the drop is for your chosen round, there is no problem, you can just hold-over or dial it in if you are using a ballistic turret scope or BSD.
Most hunting rounds in the 130-165gr range in most common calibres, when zeroed at 100yds, will drop in the region of 11-12" at 300yds. But, again, providing you know the distance to your target and the ballistics of your round, there should be no problem. Having said that, I am still an advocate of shooting live quarry at ranges of 200yds or less - 300yds, for me, is an absolute maximum.
And don't rely on what it says on the side of the box; go to the rifle range and practice on targets at ranges that you are likely to shoot in the field, and note how your chosen round performs and the size of your groups. But bear in mind that atmospheric conditions in the field will vary considerably from those at the range. Wind should always be a major consideration, particularly at longer ranges. But to reiterate, rather than become preoccupied with the long-range trajectory of your chosen calibre and bullet, you would be far better off focusing on your fieldcraft - i.e. getting as close to your quarry as possible so that windage and bullet drop become largely irrelevant - and the terminal ballistics of your chosen round.
So to decide which bullet one should be using, one must first decide what you are likely to be shooting. Then, once you have decided which type of bullet is most appropriate to that quarry, go and buy a box of the relevant ammo from three or more different manufacturers and see which one shoots best in your rifle. Every rifle is different and each will usually perform best with one make, type and weight of bullet over another. Once you have established this, it is also important to assess how it performs in the field on your chosen quarry.
The ubiquitous Nosler Ballistic Tip, Hornady V-Max and Sierra's Blitz King and Hornet are typical examples in this category. Designed for rapid expansion on smaller, thin-skinned animals where carcass-damage is not a consideration as you are not going to be eating them, they are often fired at very high velocities and are usually extremely accurate, particularly when used in hand-loaded rounds and tuned to a particular rifle. The Blitz King is designed to be shot at up to 4,400 feet per second (fps).
Such bullets often have an exposed lead tip (soft-point), plastic tip or are of the hollow-point design. They will usually have a thin copper alloy jacket, to prevent them from disintegrating as they travel up the barrel at very high velocities, but that same thin jacket helps the fragmentation effect on the target at impact. Weight retention and deep penetration are not requirements. Such bullets are ideal for foxes, prairie dogs, jackals, etc.Bullets for medium-sized game
I, personally, do not use bullets of less than 75gr on any deer or antelope species. I know people who do and have shot lots of deer with lighter bullets, but I am not a fan. Neither do I like shooting muntjac or Chinese water deer, or roe in Scotland, with centrefire .22s. It's all fine and well if your shot placement is perfect, but we do not live in a perfect world and things can and do go wrong from time to time. As Robert Ruark famously wrote; always, always use enough gun. Indeed, what happens if you are out stalking with your .223 and see a fallow buck? Do you pass the chance up, or risk it and take the (illegal) shot?
We can divide this class into soft-points, hollow-points and polymer-tipped bullets. All of them tend to have thicker bases and a thicker jacket than their varmint-type counterparts, which prevent them from breaking up on impact and mean that they retain weight and achieve the important deep penetration required for a quick, clean kill. Because both the skin and the bones of animals in this class are thicker and tougher, and we may have to punch through them to hit vital organs, we need a bullet that will retain at least 50 per cent of its weight, and controlled expansion to create a larger wound channel to aid rapid blood loss and immediate incapacitation.
Polymer-tipped bullets such as the Hornady Interbond, Swift Scirocco II, Nosler Ballistic Tip and Remington Accutip tend to be extremely accurate and resist deforming in the magazine. The jacket is bonded to the lead core to stop separation on impact and aid penetration, and the polymer tip gives a good aerodynamic shape to it and initiates expansion. You will see if you recover a bullet from a carcass how it has deformed and it is worth weighing to see how much weight has been lost. Winchester's Silvertip bullet, which is produced for them by Nosler, seems to be tougher than the Ballistic Tip.
Soft-points have an exposed lead tip protruding from the alloy jacket which is designed to initiate expansion. On impact, the lead deforms, peeling the jacket back in a controlled way, forming a mushroom shape. Most soft-points boast a high percentage of weight retention which, again, is down to the design. The vast majority of the 230 plus deer I shoot per year are taken with soft-points. Carcass damage with a soft-point in the 140-165gr class at sensible velocities (say up to 2,750fps) will be minimal, but will reliably flatten anything found in the UK, punching straight through to give a good exit wound and blood trail to follow up. And on heavier-boned red stags or big fallow bucks they will not easily break up.
I have shot good-sized boar with 165gr Hornady Interlocks and they have all died quickly. Nosler Partition is another very reliable high quality bullet which has proved itself over many years on animals of all types. On impact, the front section - in front of the copper alloy partition or 'wall' that divides the two halves of the bullet internally - mushrooms while the rear part acts as a solid or full metal jacket (FMJ). Remington Core-lokt is another well-constructed, reliable bullet.
Berger produce a wide range of quality hollow-point bullets for game in all calibres and weights. These are very similar to their target bullets in appearance, but are designed to penetrate up to five inches of tissue and bone before shedding up to 40 per cent of their mass to cause massive tissue damage and death. Never use target bullets on live game, they are not designed for it.
Generally speaking, larger game such as bear, moose, elk, boar and many of the larger African plains game species such as eland, kudu, wildebeest and zebra will have much tougher hides for a bullet to punch through, much more mass to penetrate, and larger, heavier bones which can easily deflect or stop lighter bullets.
Deep penetration, reliable expansion and weight retention are all vital. Bullets such as the excellent Trophy-Bonded Bear Claw, Swift A-frame and Winchester Fail Safe and XP3 all fall into this category and reputedly retain up to 90 per cent of their weight.
Monolithic expanding bullets - such as the Barnes TSX, Nosler E-Tip, Remington Copper Solid and Hornady GMX, which do not contain a lead core, but are constructed from a single metal such as copper or a copper alloy are essentially expanding solids that boast up to 95 per cent weight retention, making them an excellent choice for heavier-boned quarry and even some dangerous game. Ideally suited to heavier calibres with moderate velocities such as the 9.3x62 or .375 H&H Magnum, they are an excellent choice for all but the very biggest quarry.
Choosing the right bullet for dangerous game, such as Cape buffalo, is very much a specialist field and should not be taken lightly. There are a number of bullets designed specifically for thick-skinned dangerous game, such as the Hornady DGX, Barnes TSX, Woodleigh Weldcore and the A-Square Dead Tough, but before making your choice, my advice would be to speak to as many experts and experienced professional hunters as possible.
The key to making the right bullet choice is to think about the quarry you intend to hunt and what is required to consistently deliver quick, clean kills. Your choice should be determined by performance both in terms of accuracy and terminal ballistics. Try a range of bullets in your rifle, but once you have found one that performs well on both counts, stick to it and focus on improving your marksmanship at realistic ranges and that all-important fieldcraft.
Traditional country persuits reimagined for the modern world
President of Hornady Ammunition, Steve Hornady, shares his views on the perfect all-round calibre for deer stalking in the UK.
Is one of the UK’s most popular stalking calibres the best choice available for a single-rifle owner?
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