March 03, 2017
I became interested in dangerous-game bullet technology more than 35 years ago when a major magazine ran an article with pictures of 15 bullet types recovered from African game animals. The images spoke volumes. The lack of performance showed the naïvetÃ© of bullet developers. Softpoints often failed to hold together, and solids were often too deformed to deliver straight-line penetration. It was obvious that most of them were simply deer and elk designs scaled to .375 caliber and up. Fortunately, today's dangerous-game hunter has highly evolved bullet designs from which to choose.
The key to the dangerous-game softpoint is in the balance of expansion and penetration, and deep penetration requires the bullet to maintain a significant portion of its length after expansion. The examples in the photos make the point better than words, and all passed the test. What provides the "control" in controlled expansion is the jacket. Jackets can be designed to totally prevent bullet expansion — as in the solids I discuss in a moment — or to allow a bullet the explosive fragmentation of a varmint bullet.
Most big-game bullet jackets are built with tapered jacket walls, somewhat thicker at the base than near the opening at the tip. This retards expansion, but for dangerous game you need to stop expansion. Close ranges mean the bullet strikes the animal at near maximum velocity, and these animals have much tougher hides, muscles, and bones than do the deer and elk you shoot at home. The idea is to get the shock from the blunting of the bullet, yet have enough bullet mass and length left to get deep.
If you just take the profile of a typical bullet used on deer and elk and scale it up to a diameter appropriate for dangerous game, you'll have a not-so-bad bullet that will perform mostly okay — but only under optimal conditions. There will be real-world shooting conditions that defeat such a bullet. Modern dangerous-game softpoints require a positive "stop expansion" feature to ensure retained weight and length for deep penetration.
One of the first bullets I recall that had an absolute stop function was Speer's Trophy Bonded Bear Claw softpoint. It was developed by Jack Carter in about 1985. The lead core extended only through the front half of the bullet, leaving a solid copper base, and once the lead had expanded, there was little you could do to defeat the rear section.
In the early 1990s, Speer continued this trend with the African Grand Slam softpoint. It had a small rear lead core, but it had two "stop" features: halfway back, the jacket wall abruptly tripled in thickness, and the machined jacket was drawn for ductility in the front while the rear was left "full hard."
The Hornady Dangerous Game softpoint (DGX) also uses the abrupt thickening of the rear portion of the jacket, and it adds another strength aid. The jacket is copper-plated steel, thin enough up front to allow expansion over a wide velocity range but tough in the critical shank area for penetration.
Likewise, the all-copper Barnes TSX hollowpoint has a positive stop: the bottom of the hollowpoint cavity. Like the Bear Claw, it is virtually impossible to over-expand this bullet in any current sporting rifle.
The first jacketed solids to see service in Africa were in ex-military European ammo from 6.5mm through 8mm with mild steel jackets. Fortunately, this trend continued as large-caliber sporting cartridges were developed. The steel-jacket/lead-core model persisted for nearly a century.
When I first studied these bullets, homogeneous solids were new on the scene. These were machined gilding metal, making for a very rigid bullet. The only downside was that, lacking any lead, the bullets were much longer than their "leaded" counterparts of the same weight. For most cartridges this was not an issue, but it severely reduced velocities of the most common cartridge American hunters packed for Africa: the .458 Winchester. A 500-grain lead-core bullet could achieve velocities in the range of 2,000 to 2,100 fps, but the reduced powder space of the longer homogeneous bullets' loads often limited speeds to 1,800 to 1,900 fps.
It was this limited space factor that led to the Speer African Grand Slam Tungsten Solid. The tungsten carbide core acted as a weight enhancer. The result was a .458-caliber, 500-grain bullet that was 0.1875 inch shorter than an equivalent conventional steel/lead FMJ and a full 0.375 inch shorter than a homogeneous solid. That bullet could be safely loaded to around 2,200 fps in the .458. Unfortunately, the exotic materials and production costs for the African Grand Slam series led to their demise some years ago.
Fortunately, there are plenty of good solids today. The homogeneous Barnes Banded Solids work great in the larger cases, and Hornady's Dangerous Game Solid (DGS) and Woodleigh's Hydrostatically Stabilised (HS) add to the interest. Hornady's DGS retains the steel jacket of its predecessors, but it is thicker and has the popular flat tip.
The homogeneous Woodleigh HS solid has a special nose profile for improving shock without limiting penetration. Simply stated, the HS nose is cup-shaped. A round, polymer cap — designed to ensure smooth feeding in the rifle — fits over the nose of the bullet. The cap disintegrates upon impact.
Flat or Round Tips?
The trend toward flatpoint solids started with the Trophy Bonded Sledgehammer Solid in the mid-1980s. This bullet shape has been proven both in the lab and in the field as the straightest penetrator in tissue. However, some rifles don't feed the flatpoint shape as well as a roundnose, so you must test it in your rifle. Barnes Banded Solids are available with either tip shape to address these feeding concerns. As I said, the Woodleigh HS solid has a plastic nose cone that covers its complex nose for smooth feeding.
Hornady and Barnes dangerous-game bullets are available both as components and in those companies' factory-loaded ammo. Trophy Bonded and Woodleigh bullets are available in Federal Premium factory ammunition.