April 15, 2020
The new Terminal Ascent hunting bullet from Federal Premium is the best bullet the company has ever made. And it just might be the best all-around hunting bullet made by anyone, period.
There’s some history that prompted the new bullet’s development. A couple years ago Federal introduced the Edge TLR (Terminal Long Range) bullet. It’s an outstanding big-game bullet and provides the best across-the-board on-impact expansion and penetration characteristics I’ve seen. As I wrote in the October 2018 issue of ST, I tested it exhaustively on a broad spectrum of African game from a wide range of distances.
As a long-range bullet, it had only one Achilles’ heel: Accuracy wasn’t quite what long-range shooters want. Although the Edge TLR bullet regularly produced one-MOA accuracy in rifles that liked it, the design was just that: a one-MOA bullet. Even in accuracy-tuned handloads in premium custom barrels, it was not a consistent sub-MOA projectile.
So for the past two-plus years, Federal’s design wizards have been manipulating and finessing the Edge TLR to enhance accuracy. They named the resulting bullet the Terminal Ascent, and according to a Federal spokesman, it’s producing 0.60-inch, 10-shot groups in the 100-yard test tunnel.
Part of the renaming process is to eliminate a misconception that the “Long Range” part of the name was causing—that the projectile provides its best terminal performance at extended distances. This perception couldn’t be further from the truth. The Edge TLR is without question the only bullet I’ve used that can be counted on to open at very low, long-range velocities yet hold together perfectly when impacting at very high velocities up close.
Case in point: As I detailed in that previous article, in order to test the full spectrum of performance with the Edge TLR, I shot free-range oryx bulls in Namibia from 15 yards clear out to 997 yards while hunting with PH Jacques Strauss of Kowas Hunting Safaris. (Neither of us likes shooting at game that far away, but journalistic integrity called for it with that specific project.) In every case the bullet provided ideal expansion coupled with outstanding penetration.
How does that apply to the anticipated performance of the new Terminal Ascent? Because the internal construction of the Edge TLR and the Terminal Ascent are the same, we can safely posit terminal performance will be identical.
So what’s different? Technically, just small changes in its profile and the addition of another “AccuChannel” groove around the bullet’s shank. These changes actually reduce the design’s aerodynamics slightly, ranging from about a 1.5 percent to a 4 percent decrease in ballistic coefficient (BC) depending on specific diameter and weight. Federal’s engineers thought it was worth the accuracy gains, and I concur. The fact that the one-MOA accuracy of the Edge TLR is adequate for distances well past where most hunters should attempt a shot is irrelevant—long-range shooters want more.
By now, most passionate hunters and handloaders are familiar with the evolution of Federal’s line of solid-shanked, bonded-front-core bullets, but let’s take a quick walk through its history.
Jack Carter invented the original design in the 1980s. Engineered for dangerous game, it was dubbed the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and featured a rear shank of solid copper. No matter what sort of bone it encountered, that rear half couldn’t be torn apart and always provided reliable penetration. Up front, the Bear Claw had a lead core bonded into the nose. It provided reliable expansion with minimal weight loss, combining large wound channels with that deep penetration. For the most part, it was manufactured in big-bore calibers appropriate for Cape buffalo, brown bear, and the like.
Eventually, Carter sold the design to Federal. A decade or three later, the Trophy Bonded Tip (TBT) bullet was born. It wore a modest boattail and sported a cool-looking translucent orange tip of a heat-resistant composite material. Aerodynamics were significantly better than those of the original Bear Claw, and the bullet’s intended purpose was different. Engineered for hooved big game, it was—and still is—made in deer- and elk-appropriate calibers and weights. I took a lot of African plains game and the biggest bull elk of my life—a DIY, public-land Utah bull that gross scored 402 with the 180-grain version in my pet .300 Winchester Magnum load.
Over the last decade, long-range shooting and hunting entered the mainstream. While the TBT is quite an accurate bullet, it doesn’t offer the extraordinary ballistic coefficients coveted by long-range shooters. Federal’s R&D gurus got to work.
The result was the Edge TLR. It offered best-in-class on-impact performance from the muzzle clear out to way-too-far, paired with eyebrow-raising BCs. Profiles were massaged to Secant shape, streamlined and maximized for minimum friction and maximum flow. Boattails were stretched, and angles were optimized. Translucent blue “Slipstream” tips—long, sleek and heat-resistant—were designed and added.
Importantly, the Slipstream tip is hollow and implodes on impact. This exposes the hollow nose of the bullet. Hydraulics do their thing, and the result is an impressive, consistent bullet expansion even at quite-slow impact velocities.
It’s an outstanding bullet.
In part, the Edge TLR’s increased aerodynamics were gained by eliminating all but one of the AccuChannel grooves around the bullet’s shank. Smoother surface; less drag. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, a subtle loss of accuracy was a side effect.
An additional—and unexpected—issue was that the black nickel coating applied to the Edge TLR proved to be problematic. The independent company Federal had contracted to apply the finish struggled with consistency. And inconsistency, as every accuracy disciple knows, is the enemy of accuracy.
So begins the Terminal Ascent’s story. Almost as soon as Federal introduced the Edge TLR, the company’s engineers had disappeared back into their magic grottos and began finessing the design for better accuracy.
As cool-looking as black nickel is, Federal brought the nickel-plating process in-house when spec’ing the Terminal Ascent. Like its grandfather TBT, the new bullet wears a bright silver nickel—perfectly and consistently applied. That eliminated one accuracy-robbing variable.
However, according to Director of Product Engineering Jared Kutney, the primary accuracy advantage was gained by adding a second AccuGroove. The grooves provide a vacant area for material displaced by the rifling to flow into—something that benefits solid-shank bullets. “The effect,” Kutney continued, “is a reduced magnitude of vibration applied to the barrel, and therefore, by way of reduced harmonic reaction of the barrel, a more consistent launch vector from shot to shot.”
So how is an AccuGroove different from any other groove? It’s engineered using computational fluid dynamics modeling (CFD). The result is a smoother geometry that shrugs off drag and air friction. This, Kutney told me, “minimizes the drag penalty of each groove.”
Terminal Ascent projectiles are available both in factory-loaded ammunition (also named Terminal Ascent) and in component-bullet form. I began working with component bullets some time ago while researching and writing about handloading the Terminal Ascent projectile for ST’s sister publication RifleShooter. Results of that project were excellent, with two of the three cartridges on which I performed initial handloading (6.5x55, .280 Ackley Improved, and .300 Win. Mag.) providing 0.75-MOA accuracy averages without any load tuning at all.
Federal generously sent me a box of each of the initial factory loads coming off the line, seven in all, including 6.5 Creedmoor, .270 Win., .280 Ackley Improved, 7mm Rem. Mag., .308 Win., .30-06, and .300 Win. Mag. All Terminal Ascent cartridge cases are nickel plated against corrosion and feature primers sealed against moisture.
In addition, while testing for this report, I handloaded 10-round batches of ammo in 6.5 Creedmoor, 7mm Rem. Mag., and .300 PRC.
To give each load its best chance, I tested using rifles of proven accuracy. Most are fitted with custom barrels. With a truck full of my favorite long shootin’ irons, I sallied forth for a day of shooting. My results are listed in the chart.
A few rifles didn’t like the Terminal Ascent bullets. Oddly enough, two of the three were the .270 Win. and .30-06, both of which produced groups of around 1.5 MOA with Federal’s factory ammo. The third was my much-loved Kimber 84L Mountain Ascent in .280 Ackley Improved, which put my handload into 1.23 inches.
And what about the rest? All of them achieved sub-MOA averages. In my Proof Research Summit .280 Ackley Improved rifle, the factory-loaded 155-grain Terminal Ascent proved to be extraordinary. As a matter of flabbergasting fact, it produced a 0.40-inch average over three consecutive three-shot groups. No mulligans, no excused shots—just reliably tiny bughole groups.
When laid atop one another, the nine shots form a cluster that measures just 0.63 inch. Keep in mind that’s with two pauses that include a move from the bench to my cooling area and back, plus the human variables of reseating behind the rifle for each group. And did I mention there was a 12-mph wind gusting and buffeting me from behind?
Importantly, it proved that the Terminal Ascent projectile, when paired with a rifle that likes it, is a superbly accurate bullet.
Intrigued, I fired a series of test groups through my Kimber Mountain Ascent in .280 Ackley Improved. It’s a five-pound true mountain rifle. Usually, with loads it likes, it’ll shoot a tad under an inch. Federal’s 155-grain Terminal Ascent factory ammo averaged 0.72 inch. Without hyperbole, it’s the most accurate .280 Ackley Improved factory load I’ve ever tested.
As for the rest of the factory loads, they averaged between 0.75 MOA and one MOA, as did all my handloads, and those were not tuned handloads. I have no doubt that a bit of experimentation with different propellants, charge weights, and seating depths would result in admirably tiny groups.
I haven’t hunted with the final version of the Terminal Ascent bullets, but I took an old dagga boy buffalo with a 500-grain version of the ancestral Bear Claw in my .475 Turnbull; a plethora of African plains game, including a 56-inch free-range kudu bull and my big bull elk with the 180-grain TBT using my Turnbull color-case-hardened .300 Win. Mag. Kimber rifle; and a long list of management plains game with the 200-grain Edge TLR from a Kimber 8400 Montana rifle in .300 Win. Mag.
On a hunt last summer, using a handloaded 155-grain Edge TLR in my Kimber .280 Ackley Improved, I took a massive, ancient kudu bull. While that bullet didn’t sport the bright silver nickel finish and second groove of the Terminal Ascent version, on-impact performance of the two will be identical. In a word: ideal.
These days, ideal isn’t difficult to define. For me, the ideal hunting bullet will offer consistent sub-MOA accuracy—and half that again with carefully tuned handloads. It provides excellent aerodynamics, so as to buck the wind well and maintain bullet-expanding impact velocity as far out as I want to shoot. And perhaps most importantly, the ideal hunting bullet will combine nearly unattainable expansion/penetration characteristics—the toughness necessary to hold together and penetrate reliably when impacting heavy bone up close, yet the “soft” nose needed to expand reliably at the slow impact speeds of extreme range.
Since the latest iteration of Federal’s solid-shank, bonded-lead-core line of hunting bullets is focused on increased accuracy, it’s necessary to consider how it compares with other legendary bullets within that realm. Bullets by Barnes, Berger, Hornady, Nosler, and others have reputations founded in time. Each has notable characteristics. Candidly, some of these are still, in my opinion, slightly more accurate than the Terminal Ascent—at least across a large cross-section of rifles. However, it’s by very, very little. Importantly, the Terminal Ascent offers something that none of its competitors have achieved: predictable, reliable on-impact expansion, weight retention, and penetration no matter the distance.