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What’s the ‘Best’ Big Game Bullet?

by Layne Simpson   |  March 28th, 2011 3

Modern hunting bullets are capable of levels of accuracy that even target shooters of yesteryear could only dream about.


Left to Right: Sierra 150-Gr. GameKing, Hornady 150-Gr. GMX, Berger 155-Gr.
VLD Hunter, Swift 165-Gr. Scirocco II, Barnes 165-Gr. MRX, Nosler 168-Gr. E-Tip, Speer 180-Gr. DeepCurl, Remington 180-Gr. Core-Lokt Ultra, Federal 180-Gr. Trophy Bonded Tip

When jacketed bullets arrived on the hunting scene over 100 years ago, their performance on game was a great improvement over cast bullets. However, they still left a lot to be desired when compared to those made today. Their performance on game was not bad when the .30-30 Winchester and .30-40 Krag were the new cartridges on the block, but the introduction of faster cartridges, such as the .270 Winchester and .300 H&H Magnum, put bullet manufacturers in a desperate catch-up situation. Accuracy also left a bit to be desired.

Fortunately for those of us who hunt big game today, the situation is greatly improved. When it comes to big-game bullets that will handle any job anywhere under any conditions and in any cartridge, we now live in a world of plenty. Not only that, but modern bullets are capable of levels of accuracy that even target shooters of yesteryear could only dream about.

To see just how accurate today’s hunting bullets actually are, I dusted off my old rail gun and headed to the range.

I used three criteria when choosing bullets to include in my accuracy tests: (1) The bullet had to be available for handloading; (2) it had to be either the latest introduction from a particular company or if that one was unavailable, then the next latest; (3) I wanted to include a variety of big-game bullet designs.


Those of conventional construction, with a lead core encapsulated by a gilding-metal jacket, were represented by the Sierra GameKing and the VLD Hunter from Berger. Other members of this performance category include the Hornady InterLock, Remington Core-Lokt, Winchester Power-Point, and the Hot-Cor from Speer. As a rule, bullets in this group retain less of their original weight during expansion than sturdier types, but due to their simple design they are often the most accurate. Their performance on deer-size game is tough to beat. When used on game larger than deer, they work best when heavy-for-caliber weights are used.

Bullets with a polycarbonate expansion initiator (tip) at the nose and a lead core bonded to a jacket are relatively new on the hunting scene; they are represented by the Swift Scirocco II included in my tests. Others of similar construction are the Hornady InterBond and the Nosler AccuBond. The primary difference between them is Hornady and Nosler use gilding metal jackets, while Swift uses pure copper jackets. Since this family of bullets is designed to retain more of its weight during expansion than a conventional nonbonded softpoint or hollowpoint, penetration is deeper on large game, such as elk and moose, yet expansion is quick enough to render them great choices for use on deer-size game. Tipped bullets with bonded cores are also capable of excellent accuracy.


In addition to being more accurate than big-game bullets of yesteryear, a bonded-core bullet such as the Swift Scirocco II that the author used to take this deer is equally well suited for taking larger game such as elk and moose.

A bonded bullet with its lead core exposed at the nose usually has a lower ballistic coefficient (BC) than a tipped bullet with a bonded core, but in my experience performance on game is quite good. The Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded from Remington is one such. Another recently available is the DeepCurl bullet from Speer. It too is of bonded-core, soft-nose design, but it differs from the Remington bullet by having its jacket electro-chemically formed around a lead core. This is, by the way, the same bullet available from Federal in loaded ammunition as the Fusion.

Moving on to the toughest big-game bullets available today, we have those of homogenous construction, with no lead core. Barnes and A-Square first made this design popular. Two types are presently available: nonexpanding designs, such as the Nosler Solid and the Barnes Banded Solid, and expanding designs, such as the Barnes TSX and the Hornady GMX and Nosler E-Tip that I included in my tests. On the North American scene, bullets in this category are best suited for use on elk, moose, and brown bear, and especially so when used in magnum cartridges. In some rifles they are quite accurate, but since they do not obturate to fill the bore as well as bullets of other designs, accuracy can suffer when they are fired in a barrel with a slightly oversized groove diameter.


Bullets were seated with a Wilson in-line die and Jarrett arbor press.

Due to their unique construction, the Federal Trophy Bonded Tip and the Barnes MRX belong in categories of their own. The front section of the Barnes bullet is solid, but a rear cavity is filled with a tungsten-based core material that is heaver than lead. This makes it a bit shorter overall than a solid bullet of the same caliber and weight, so it does not occupy as much powder space within the case of a cartridge as does a homogenous expanding bullet. Design of the Federal bullet is just the opposite–it has a long solid section at the rear and a lead-filled section up front. Both are great choices for use on our largest game, but due to its softer front section the Federal bullet will expand more rapidly at extremely long range where velocity has dropped off, making it a better choice for use on deer.

Preparing The Loads
Since my goal was to seriously check out the accuracy of various bullets, I prepared each cartridge as I would for benchrest competition. After neck-sizing a batch of once-fired Hornady cases, I trimmed all to exactly the same length, and then chamfered and deburred their mouths. Those chores were quickly taken care of by a Trim Pro Power Case Trimmer and a Trim Mate Case Prep Center from RCBS. Primer pockets were carefully uniformed to precisely the same depth with a tool from Sinclair International, and flash-hole interiors were deburred
with the Uniformer from Lyman.

Determining Bullet Jump


Read the story HERE

 

The final step in case prep was to use a Premium Neck-Turning Tool from Sinclair to outside-turn necks just enough to make wall thickness the same all the way around. Then to assure sufficient case neck tension on bullets, cases were neck-sized with a Redding Type S Match bushing-style die (with no expander button on the decapping rod), using a bushing .002 inch smaller than the neck diameter of a loaded round. All bullets were seated with a Wilson straight-line hand die and a Jarrett arbor press. Powder charges were thrown with a Harrell precision measure from Sinclair, and cases were primed with the Handheld Priming Tool from Hornady. Bullet runout of all cartridges ran from zero to no more than .001 inch.

The .308 Winchester barrel of my rail gun had seen better days, so I had Kenny Jarrett replace it with one of his excellent match-grade barrels. Measuring 24 inches long and 1.25 inches in diameter, its rifling has a 1:12-inch twist rate.


Deburring flash holes was one of several operations the author performed during case preparation.

A Jarrett barrel is capable of accuracy in the sub-quarter-minute range, making it perfect for accuracy testing. I chose the .308 cartridge because of its reputation for excellent accuracy and went with Reloder 15 powder for three reasons: it is one of the more popular powders among those who shoot the .308 in competition; it produces top velocities with most bullet weights in that cartridge; and due to its fine granulation, it flows through a good powder measure with minimal charge-to-charge weight variation.

As you can see in the accompanying chart, four of the bullets averaged less than half an inch for five shots at 100 yards, and while the others did not, they were more than accurate enough for shots on game out to extremely long range. They are also more accurate than a great number of hunting-weight factory rifles out there. When perusing the results keep in mind that all rifle barrels have distinct preferences in bullets, and those that prove to be most accurate in one rifle may or may not prove to be so in another.

Truth be told, big-game bullets don’t have to be nearly as accurate as they are today, but the fact that they are instills confidence. The more confident a rifleman is in the field, the better his chances of making a successful shot on game.


WARNING: The loads shown here are safe only in the guns for which they were developed. Neither the author nor InterMedia Outdoors, Inc. assumes any liability for accidents or injury resulting from the use or misuse of this data.
NOTES: Accuracy is the average of three, five-shot groups fired from a machine rest. Velocity is the average of 15 rounds measured 12 feet from the muzzle of the 24-inch Jarrett barrel. Hornady cases and Federal 210M primers were used for all handloads.

  • Dan

    I harvested a 699 pound (dressed) cow moose yesterday in Aroostook County. About 250 yards with a .30-06 shooting Core-lokt PSPs. I missed a couple of the shots (I can admit that) but also made a three shot 5-inch group at the back of the shoulder. She was standing in the middle of a logging road for all but the final shot. I guide kept telling me I was missing because the moose didn't even flinch. He wasn't convinced until we found good blood in three spot. The moose was about 35 yards away. In addition to Maine my guide also works and hunts in Alaska – his advice was that I should have used a better bullet (the outfitter was fine with my choice). I'm certainly happy with the outcome but agree with the guide that a better bullet should have had a more immediate impact, potentially dropping the moose in the middle of the road. Had the moose gone a few more yards it would have been a real bear to get it onto the truck.

    • Joshua

      did the core-lokts punch thru to the other side w/o adequate expansion? how many grains were the bullets?

  • Alex

    That will depend on what you're hunting. Taking down a deer and an elephant are two different things. You'll really have to find the right weapon, ammo, and skills for the job.

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