In order to obtain a valid picture of the performance of any new ammunition or bullet, we really need to know what it will do in the game fields as well as on paper. It’s the combination of these informative factors that helps us to match the cartridge to its intended use and to understand its limitations, if any. And that’s just the sort of review you see on these pages regarding the new LeverEvolution bullets from Hornady, Dept. ST, P.O. Box 1848, Grand Island, NE 68803; 308-382-1390; www.hornady.com. The field test was my assignment, so I took it elk hunting.
For years we gun writers have passed on the sage advice that one should only use roundnose bullets in tubular-magazine lever actions. The reason for this is quite simple. If you load pointed bullets into a lever gun’s magazine, the bullet tip rests against the primer of the cartridge in front of it. Under recoil, the bullet tip will very likely detonate the primer, and you are in for a pyrotechnic experience, not to mention a painful one. Steve Hornady, Wayne Holt, and the good engineers at Hornady Manufacturing Co. decided they would try to do something about this. The result is the brand-new LeverEvolution bullets.
Hornady has designed a pointed bullet and loaded it in the various popular lever-action cartridges. The secret is that the red polymer tip has a soft and spongy consistency. This soft tip acts as a buffer and doesn’t allow the adjacent primer to receive the hard, sharp blow that would set it off. The result of this engineering innovation is a bullet that has a better ballistic coefficient and greater accuracy at longer ranges. At a recent Primedia gathering of gun writers in Illinois we were busting soda pop cans at 300 yards with the new ammunition using a scoped Marlin rifle from a benchrest. Now, in my book, that’s pretty good performance out of a lever gun.
Still, the best test is to use new ammo on game. For that reason I jumped at the chance to make a Utah elk hunt with the new setup. For this hunt I used a Marlin Model 1895 444 with a 22-inch barrel and a five-shot magazine. The rifle was topped off with a Leupold 2-7X scope with duplex crosshairs. The ammunition was the new Hornady .444 LeverEvolution ammo with 265-grain bullet. The published muzzle velocity for this round is 2325 fps, and I suspect the muzzle energy is over 3100 foot-pounds. I sighted-in the rifle so that it placed its bullet about three inches high at 100 yards and got ready to go hunting.
Sand Creek Ranch is located in the mountains east of Salt Lake City, near Tabiona, Utah. It is a 20,000-acre ranching/hunting operation that is owned and managed by Outdoor Expeditions International (Dept. ST, 119 Oak Ridge Dr., Canton, GA 30114; 800-211-8638; www.oeionline.com). Outdoor Expeditions International specializes in obtaining quality hunting lands, improving the habitat and facilities, and offering them for sale to those seeking the ultimate hunting experience.
Our hunting party arrived at Sand Creek Ranch at just the right time. The bull elk were still bugling, and we had some excellent elk callers in the crowd. Standing out at the shooting range on our first evening at the ranch, we could hear the bulls calling up in the mountains, as if they were heralding our arrival. It was a harbinger of the good things that were to come.
The next morning, Tom Giles, guide and ranch foreman, told me that he wanted us to climb up into the mountains, above timberline, and catch the elk coming up out of the valley to spend their day in the thick aspens. Accordingly, we made our way up into cloud country only to find that the full moon was working against us; by the light of the moon, the elk were feeding all night long and then heading up high well before dawn. The occasional bugling that we heard was below us in the thickest timber. It became clear that the only thing to do was to go down into the thick timber and get amongst them.
Okay, I thought, that’s just what we’ll do. After all, I was armed with a proven brush caliber and a fast lever-action rifle. Besides, working close for the shot is the way I like to hunt trophy game. For me, it’s a test of hunting skills as well as fast-shooting marksmanship.
From our first stand on the edge of a thick forest of aspens, we could hear a herd bull bugling. He was clearly upset at some smaller bulls that were circling his herd of cows. In just a moment, we saw three young bulls sneaking through the aspen timber, trying to circle around the bull and entice one of his cows off.
Slowly, we moved downhill and farther into the aspens, finally taking up a stand on a little bench. Although we couldn’t see him, the big herd bull was within 100 yards of us, still doing his best to discourage the young fellows. At this point, Giles went to work on his cow elk call in an attempt to stir things up even further. The thick aspens hampered our visibility, but they also gave us plenty of cover to wait out the game. In response to Giles’s call, a young bull wandered up to within some 15 yards of us, close enough for us to see that he wasn’t the trophy we’d come for. He departed with our blessings and encouragement to hurry and grow bigger.
Finally, at about 70 to 80 yards, through the aspens, we began to see some elk cows that had wandered in, seemingly with the idea to lie down and enjoy a noontime nap. Turning my Leupold scope down to 2X, I sat down and rested the .444 Marlin on my knees so as to have the most solid rest possible. The bull came ghosting through the aspens, a shoulder here, a piece of an antler there, keeping a close eye on his herd of cows.
Between a couple of trees, I could see a portion of the bull’s left shoulder and a bit of his rib cage. The range was approximately 70 yards, and I really didn’t figure I’d ever have a better chance than the one that now presented itself. At my shot, the aspens were suddenly full of running elk. I could no longer see the bull, but my impression was that my bullet had flown true and that the bull had run to my left. Looking that way, I saw the bull step partially into the open. Having worked the lever and chambered another .444 LeverEvolution round, I made a quick shot at the bull’s left shoulder, hoping to center it. With this second shot, the bull flipped sideways and hit on his back with such authority that I knew my hunt was over.
My fine 6×6 bull elk was down and out. There’d be no need for any tracking on this hunt: Hornady’s .444 LeverEvolution rounds had done the job to perfection. Upon examination, I found that my first shot had taken the bull in the ribs, slightly back from the shoulder. The second shot had punched the center of the left shoulder and was probably not actually necessary. That’s okay, though, I like to see a game animal DRT: “dead right there.” Quick, humane kills on game are always my goal.
Although we did not recover either of the 265-grain LeverEvolution bullets, it was clear from the tissue damage that they’d given good expansion and penetration. And, from the way the bull hit the ground, it was also apparent that the load had imparted a substantial amount of energy to the animal. This bull elk weighed approximately 900 pounds and had a 48-inch outside spread to his antlers. I can’t imagine another bullet turning his lights out any quicker than the Hornady .444 did. Holt later told me that my bull elk was the first game animal taken with the new LeverEvolution ammunition.
On this particular hunt two other hunters used the Hornady .444 LeverEvolution round to take two more bull elk, and another hunter used the Hornady .30-30 165-grain LeverEvolution loading to drop an elk as well.
Hornady’s plans are to offer this new LeverEvolution pointed bullet in loaded ammunition for the .30-30, .35 Remington, .444 Marlin, .450 Marlin, and .45-70. The .30-30 and .444 ammo should be available on your dealer’s shelves by the time you read this; the other selections will be available soon. Initial production will be limited to loaded ammunition, but bullets for handloaders shouldn’t be too far behind.
Flat, quick-shooting lever-action rifles are an excellent choice for hunting in heavy timber and brush. They are easy to handle in the thick stuff and offer quick subsequent shots should they become necessary. Hornady’s new bullets carry the combination a step further by extending the effective range and power of these firearms by allowing the use of pointed bullets. In my case, the .444 LeverEvolution bullet dropped my bull elk with such authority that I am already looking forward to using it on moose, black bear, and caribou.
Lever-action rifles are still a major part of the American hunting tradition, and I think it is amazing that Hornady has found a way to increase their performance in such a meaningful way. The serious lever-action hunter will find that his success rate is greatly enhanced by using Hornady’s fine LeverEvolution ammunition.