Match Bullets: Death Ray or Hunting Folly?
January 04, 2011
I recently attended a shooting school with a group of my hunting clients...
The author loves MatchKings for pinpoint accuracy — they shoot great, are affordable, and are available in factory-loaded ammunition from several manufacturers. These .308 Winchester match loads from Black Hills (left, 168 grains) and Federal (right, 175 grains) are two of Greg's favorite MatchKing loads.
I recently attended a shooting school with a group of my hunting clients. After class, we were all sitting around talking guns when the conversation turned to hunting bullets. Though I shouldn't have been surprised--given his precision shooting background--I was absolutely shocked to hear the instructor tell my clients they should use Sierra MatchKings for all their hunting. Now the Match-King is a fine and superbly accurate bullet, but in the field, accuracy does not trump the predictable terminal performance designed into true hunting bullets.
I love to shoot my precision rifles at long range. I've had great success with match bullets from Berger, Hornady, and Lapua, but I shoot Sierra's MatchKing the most because it is accurate, affordable, and available in factory ammunition from several makers. Not surprisingly, the MatchKing is also the match bullet most often touted as suitable for hunting by the accuracy-is-everything crowd, despite the fact that even Sierra says the MatchKing is not suitable for hunting. I guess those self-appointed, Internet-chat-room geniuses don't think the folks at Sierra know anything about their own bullets.
I understand why those match-bullet shooters like MatchKings. Heck, I love to shoot tiny groups, too. But the bullet is only one part of the accuracy equation. The quality of the optic and rifle are, in my opinion, equally important, which is why I've found that I can usually find a true hunting bullet that shoots almost as good as, and occasionally better than, each rifle's favorite target load. It makes me wonder if those match-bullet fanatics have ever even tried real hunting bullets, such as Barnes's TSX, Federal's Tipped Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Hornady's InterBond, Nosler's AccuBond, Swift's Scirocco II, or Winchester's XP3.
Even if your pet rifle won't shoot up to match bullet standards with a real hunting bullet, I can't imagine any accurate rifle shooting hunting bullets so poorly that the combination is unsuitable for hunting. After all, how much accuracy do you need to hit the vital zone of an elk or a deer at typical hunting distances? Whether your rifle shoots a half-inch or 1.5 inches, I can assure you it won't make a difference from field positions in actual hunting conditions. Given the same rest, and assuming your fundamentals are solid, your shot will be true with either load. And when it gets there, the hunting bullet will usually do the job quicker and more humanely than any match bullet.
Match-bullet shooters will usually counter that they've dropped x-number of whitetails or elk and have never had a problem. They'll also argue that I must not have shot any quarry with Match-Kings or that I just can't shoot very well. I'll let the groups and game I've shot and written about in these pages over the years speak for my marksmanship abilities, but my journals serve as a reminder of my track record with MatchKings in the field.
Because the 168- and 175-grain, .30-caliber MatchKings are the most popular, I searched my journals for animals taken by my clients and me with .308 MatchKings with shots to the body. (We've taken dozens more with head shots on culling expeditions where bullet construction is irrelevant.) I found a total of 23 whitetails and 14 hogs taken with .308 MatchKings, with the vast majority falling to the .308 Winchester round. Eight of the deer and three of the hogs dropped within 30 yards of where they stood at the shot, and half of those dropped within a few feet.
MatchKings are included in many of the author's rifle evaluations because they shoot great — as evidenced by this 0.434-inch, five-shot group from the author's 16-inch AR-10 — but he strongly urges not using MatchKings for hunting.
Of the 15 deer and 11 hogs that ran more than 30 yards, all but one were shot well. That pig was lost. I cannot fault the Match-King because the shot placement was very poor, but a more solidly constructed bullet would almost certainly have given more penetration and a blood trail, which would have upped our odds of finding that hog.
Of the other 25 animals, only one was lost that appeared to be shot well. My client shot that buck on the point of the shoulder with his .308 from about 115 yards. I heard the bullet strike and saw the impact about halfway up, just behind the near shoulder. That buck should have been dead within 50 yards, but there was no blood trail, and we never saw the deer again. Back at camp, the video backed up my first impression--the shot was a good one. Still, we never recovered the deer. Based on the shot placement and past experiences with the MatchKing on such shots, I can surmise that the bullet passed right through without opening up because it didn't strike bone or solid muscle.
We recovered the other animals that ran over 30 yards, but internal damage and penetration were inconsistent. Penetration varied a great deal, with six bullets exiting and three failing to make it past the first lung. Expansion and the resulting wound channels were also inconsistent. Some of the wound channels were bloodied, jellied wrecks, while others were no more than .30-caliber pencil holes. The disconcerting part was there was no rhyme or reason; they would exit on shoulder shots one time and not make it past one lung on another, even when no bones were struck. Yes, the animals all died, but those results are indicative of what happens when you choose a bullet designed to shoot tiny groups over a hunting bullet designed to deliver consistent penetration and expansion on game.
I fully expect a bunch of e-mails from MatchKing shooters who rave about the accuracy of their MatchKings and swear up and down that they've never had a MatchKing fail on game. Well, save the e-mails; I know that MatchKings can and do kill game. In fact, I still use them when I shoot deer and hogs with my .338 Lapua. But that's a big gun pushing a darn big bullet--everything drops to my Lapua as if struck by lightning. I also like MatchKings for hunting the diminutive Coues deer where the MatchKing's accuracy and high ballistic coefficient are a great help in taking those tiny targets at long range. But the fact is the Match-King was not designed for hunting, and the .30-caliber and under bullets most MatchKing devotees use cannot be trusted to give the predictable expansion and penetration hunters require.
What that means for hunters is that there is no defined effective range, body size, or shot angle when you hunt with match bullets. With quality, controlled-expansion hunting bullets, such as the TSX or Tipped Trophy Bonded, I know I can take steep quartering shots on big, tough animals. When hunting with fast-expanding bullets, such as the Ballistic Tip, I know I should stick to broadside or slight quartering angles on whitetails and pronghorns. With MatchKings, I might get a complete pass through on a 250-pound boar one time and inadequate penetration on a whitetail doe the next with an identical shot. Such inconsistency in the field is unacceptable.
The iconic Sierra MatchKing is, without a doubt, one of the most accurate bullets ever made. But according to Sierra, "The Match-King bullets are designed for pinpoint accuracy, with no consideration given to what might happen after impact. If the bullet has arrived on target accurately, its job is done at that point. Hunting bullets must perform in a certain manner after impact. Penetrating ability, expansion characteristics, and even profile must be considered when designing a hunting bullet. Use MatchKings for matches and game bullets for hunting."
I couldn't agree more.