Danger Tamed: Hornady DGX Bonded Hunting Ammo
May 23, 2019
It was while immersed in John Taylor’s African Rifles And Cartridges that I first became aware that a bullet’s design could define whether the hunter lived or died. I read accounts of solid dangerous-game bullets bending on contact with elephant skull bone and slewing sideways rather than driving through to the brain and of softnose bullets pancaking or separating and failing to penetrate adequately.
Those accounts and others of well-documented bullet failures left an understanding of the importance of bullet design. I’ve been a disciple ever since.
The culmination of several tried-and-true design elements, Hornady’s DGX Bonded is the kind of dangerous-game bullet that helps you live.
Dangerous-game bullets are divided into two distinct types: non-expanding “solids” designed for ultimate penetration and controlled-expansion “softs” designed to provide massive wound channels combined with penetration that is lesser but still adequate.
Traditional solids were just full metal jacket bullets with a lead core. These are the type that often suffers distortion when impacting bone, particularly if that impact causes the lead core to extrude from the rear of the bullet. When a solid bullet takes a slight bend, it can skew through the animal in a dramatic curve and miss vitals.
That’s a serious problem. Bullet manufacturers tried various solutions to fix the issue. Some went to a copper- or nickel-clad steel jacket or a steel insert inside the copper jacket. Others created monometal designs in which the entire bullet is made of copper or a copper alloy. These reinforced designs tend to maintain their shape and penetrate straight and deep.
Expanding softnose bullets are more complex and more difficult to engineer for perfect performance in all impact circumstances. Softs designed for dangerous game are simply cup-and-core bullets with a hardened alloy-lead core and a particularly robust, tapered copper jacket designed to allow a bit of expansion up front but then arrest it before the bullet pancakes into a flat, distorted bit of copper and lead without enough shank remaining to drive penetration.
Taylor often referred to various softs as “the version with only a little lead exposed at the tip” or “softs with a lot of lead exposed.” He hunted in a time before all the controlled-expansion innovations we enjoy today, and those simple improvements not only helped bullet manufacturers engineer a better bullet, but also helped sportsmen anticipate the way it would perform on game.
Under ideal circumstances, simple cup-and-core bullets performed very well. They’d expand into a nice mushroom on impact, create havoc through the vitals, and either exit or stop against the hide on the offside of the animal. A bit of rib bone or thin shoulder blade didn’t bother them much.
However, if a quartering-to shot was taken and the bullet impacted the massive shoulder knuckle of a Cape buffalo, or if a broadside shot impacted robust shoulder-blade bone, softs took a beating and sometimes became so distorted or fragmented that they failed to penetrate adequately. Specifically, such bullets were known for getting smashed into a flattish disc, for getting shredded into several pieces, and for tipping sideways and having the lead core extrude out the front and separate. All provided limited penetration.
Attempted solutions were many and imaginative. Those that worked survived.
The Nosler Partition’s innovative “H” jacket utilized a copper wall between front and rear cores that enabled the nose of the bullet to expand massively but protected the rear from being flattened or torn to pieces by heavy bone. Swift A-Frames feature a similar design with the addition of bonding that guarantees the two cores stay securely in place. The Trophy Bonded Bear Claw has a solid copper rear shank and a lead front core bonded into the jacket. The Barnes TSX is solid copper with a deep hollowpoint cavity in the nose. The Woodleigh Weldcore is simpler and features a carefully produced 90/10 copper/zinc jacket fused to a pure lead core; it has earned a stellar reputation in Africa.
Enter the DGX Bonded
Hornady has been building DG bullets for more than a half-century, but it has only recently gained notoriety for building one of the best of the breed. Over the decades, the company has used a variety of construction methods. According to Steve Hornady, early copper-clad steel proved to be an outstanding material but became impossible to source. Cupro-nickel was a temporary replacement, but didn’t offer excellent results.
Hornady PR guru Neal Emery was kind enough to dig through an archived stack of old catalogs for me. In 1996 the company offered no loaded dangerous-game ammo but did sell a series of FMJ copper-cup-and-lead-core solid bullets in .375, .416, and .458 diameters, accompanied by traditional roundnose InterLock softnose versions.
Hornady’s 2006 catalog—the last one before the introduction of the DGX and DGS lines—shows a selection of roundnose InterBond bullets: a 300-grain .375, a 400-grain .416, and a 500-grain .458. Plus, the .375 H&H and .458 Win. Mag. were available in the Heavy Magnum ammo line and .416 Rigby and .458 Lott in the Custom ammo line. Legendary brown bear guide Phil Shoemaker wrote Hornady: “I used….458 Win. Mag. ammo during our brown bear season. It is superb. …your roundnosed InterBond bullets set a new benchmark standard for dangerous-game bullets.”
Hornady found a reliable source of copper-clad steel—the company’s preferred dangerous-game jacket material—and introduced the first generation DGX around 2007. That copper-clad steel jacket featured an alloy-lead core mechanically locked in place with a cannelure. It was a good bullet from the get-go. However, once in a rare while, a particularly bone-ridden path through a buffalo, hippo, or elephant would tear it up and compromise core-jacket integrity.
The solution was seemingly obvious: bond the core to the jacket. However, bonding isn’t simple, particularly to copper-clad steel. Nevertheless, as Emery put it, “Dangerous-game bullets are truly a place where bonding a bullet makes sense.”
After considerable research and fine-tuning, Hornady introduced an updated version in 2018. Dubbed the DGX Bonded, it uses the same copper-clad steel jacket but includes a proprietary lead-core-to-steel-jacket bonding that prevents any sort of separation.
It’s important to note that the copper layer is 0.015 inch thick, and because of the lead core, the copper-clad steel jacket actually has more give than monometal bullets. In other words, it’s not hard on your rifle’s barrel.
To reliably initiate expansion, the nose is flat, and the jacket mouth has serrations that provide tear points, enabling the nose to mushroom and roll back on impact. To arrest expansion at the ideal point, about a third of the way back, the jacket tapers to almost 0.10 inch thickness (depending on caliber and weight). This provides a massive barrier to continued expansion and contributes tremendous strength and resistance to deformation no matter how gnarly the bone it encounters.
The result is extremely high weight retention that drives the DGX Bonded deep, coupled with an impressive 1.5 to 2.0 times expansion that wreaks tremendous internal damage along its path. And unlike their non-bonded predecessors, bullets recovered from game often have such a perfect mushroom shape that they could be used in an advertisement.
Looking for a statement that might pinpoint some of the design elements that Hornady engineers found lacking in the first-gen DGX, I asked Emery what prompted the change. Emery is a very good friend of mine, and I took notice of the twinkle in his eye as he said, “We’re always looking to improve our products. Over the years of using these bullets, we found a tangible way to improve them. As good as the old ones were, we found a way to make them even better.”
No soft dangerous-game bullet is complete without a solid of like weight and profile that shoots very close to the same point of impact. Often hunters will load a softnose bullet first in line, planning to take only a clean broadside shot presentation. That soft is backed up by a stack of solid, non-expanding bullets for follow-up shots, which often must be taken at less-than ideal angles or straight on. Whether raking through a wounded, departing buffalo’s hip, or pushing straight up the tailpipe in an effort to drive deep to vitals, or attempting to stop a charge with a full-on frontal shot, penetration is key.
Hornady supports its DGX Bonded with a solid DGS (Dangerous Game Solid). Featuring a thick copper-clad steel jacket and almost the exact same profile, it tends to shoot very close to or even exactly to the same point of impact. Tests in my .375 H&H and .416 Rem. Mag. Winchester Model 70s proved that the soft/solid combo groups to the same point of impact.
Because the DGS core is inserted from the rear, its nose is heavily protected by a massive layer of steel. Unlike many traditional solids, it features a flat nose—an improvement proven in fairly recent years to provide better straight-line penetration when heavy bone is encountered.
A Field Trial
Terminal performance reliability is paramount in a dangerous-game bullet. Because dangerous game is typically shot at close distances, accuracy is usually a footnote—and a relatively insignificant one at that.
However, being a handloading nut, I worked up a DGX Bonded load for my favorite .375 H&H rifle, a superb custom Model 70 built for me by Lex Webernick of Rifles Inc. With favorite bullets, it clusters groups well under 1 MOA. It doesn’t particularly love the DGX Bonded, averaging just under 2.5 inches at 100 yards, but that’s plenty adequate for dangerous game shot at the very outside out to 200 yards.
Last fall, using early production bullets, I hunted a remote drainage in Alaska’s interior. My objective was moose, but I also had a caribou tag. When Tok Air Service pilot Zack Knaeble dropped us off, he informed me that most of the caribou had already moved out of the area, so I shouldn’t be picky if I wanted a bull. The area was heavy with grizzly, so I prowled the muskeg swamps and boreal woods with the DGX Bonded load in my rifle.
Still in scouting mode the first morning, I was brought to an abrupt halt by the clicking of caribou hocks! Melting into the shadow of a stunted pine, I watched as a bachelor herd flickered through the thicket some 80 yards distant. Picking a bull with palmation up top and massive bottoms, I fired offhand.
The bull was down before I even came out of recoil. He was heavy-bodied and beautiful. Informal forensics showed that the 300-grain DGX Bonded had taken him squarely through the shoulders, slightly high of center. It punched through both scapulae, devastated the vitals, took out a sizeable section of spine where it dips low between the shoulders, and left an exit hole the diameter of a 25-cent piece.
Several days later, I took a giant moose at 205 yards with a single Hornady 250-grain GMX bullet. Wanting to test the DGX Bonded on a big-bodied, heavy-boned animal, I put one through the moose carcass at close range, angling it from mid ribs forward through the vitals. Penetration was excellent, and it blew through that 1,500-pound bull just like it had the caribou.
I’m planning to use the DGX Bonded on my first-ever Cape buffalo hunt this year. Its performance is impressive and consistent, and I’m convinced that when the chips are down and you hunt game that can kill you, there’s no better choice than Hornady’s DGX Bonded.