Hollowpoints: Myths & Facts
July 15, 2016
My professional relationship with hollow-point handgun bullets began when the Dallas Crime Lab started getting questions about them in 1971. There were many myths and misconceptions running amok, and some persist today. I thought some information I've learned over the years might be useful.
Myth: Hollowpoint handgun bullets started with Lee Jurras and Super Vel.
First, some background. Lee Jurras founded Super Vel Ammunition Co. in 1963 in Shelbyville, Ind., and it thrived until closing its doors in 1974. Jurras coauthored several books with George C. Nonte, who served as Shooting Times Technical Editor for many years.
But no, Lee Jurrass did not invent hollowpoints. Hollowpoint handgun bullets go back much further.
For a century bulletcasters had access to molds that made hollowpoints, some of which, given the proper alloy and velocity, can rival the performance of today's best commercial bullets. I have samples of 9mm Luger ammo with headstamps dating to the 1930s that are factory jacketed hollowpoints.
The problem? None of them worked. However, Lee Jurras gets kudos for producing the first effective factory jacketed hollowpoints for handguns.
Myth: A jacket makes the bullet expand.
A jacket can impede or prevent effective expansion in hollowpoints.
This is why the pre-Jurras JHPs failed. The jackets were too thick and rigid to expand at handgun velocities. Centerfire rifle technology did not export well to the modest velocity regimes common to handguns.
It is in the bullet jacket that we see Jurras's great contribution. Although nondescript by most of today's standards, they were made extra-thin to allow them to deform at modest velocities, permitting the lead core to "bloom."
When I joined Speer Bullets in the late 1980s, I found some old drawings in my predecessor's files that were marked as being for building Super Vel bullets. They showed the jackets as being supplied by the customer, Super Vel.
I asked a Speer "old-timer" who remembered the negotiations. He said Jurras had a factory that specialized in metal buttons build the jackets. They could produce thinner jackets from nonferrous metals like copper than could the bulletmakers of the time. It made sense.
Traditional jackets in non-Jurras hollowpoints were badly underengineered. Their sole contribution to the formula was in allowing the bullet to be driven faster than feasible with factory lead bullets, reducing bore fouling.
Otherwise, their typical .38 Special performance (the .38 was the law enforcement standard at the time) was to shed any exposed lead at the nose with no jacket deformation. If the jacket deformed, it was often asymmetrical, splitting down one side and often unceremoniously dumping out the core.
Myth: Jurras's designs forced major manufacturers to "up their game."
Actually, this one is true.
Faced with an upstart like Super Vel doing it right, the "majors" scrambled to catch up. Remington showed the first real jacket upgrade, and the company did it to the hilt. The Core-Lokt softpoint rifle bullet had a deeply scalloped jacket edge that was properly tapered.
Although easily adapted to handgun bullets with a tooling change to the final draw punch, this modification was the most aggressive of the approaches. The bullets also had a lot of exposed lead that helped at .38 Special velocities. The scalloped edge and internal fluting allowed nicely symmetrical mushrooms — a huge improvement over other companies' early offerings.
Winchester first moved to adding folds at the jacket mouth to encourage symmetrical expansion at modest velocities. Speer was using a special jacket-trim tooling that produced a sharp bevel at the mouth that allowed the jacket to start moving at lower velocities.
Speer added internal fluting to the front section of the jacket; this was one reason for the success of the famous old "Flying Ash Can" 200-grain HP for the .45 ACP. Like the Remington bullet, Speer's fluting was adapted from successful rifle bullets, in this case the Mag-Tips and Grand Slams.
Myth: Successful hollowpoint design is all about the jacket.
That is shortsighted thinking.
Yes, the jacket is important. You can tell just from the number of words I've already devoted to it. But successful bullet design is a "full meal deal." In the early days, a hardened core of a lead-antimony alloy was common. The reason was that hardening the lead with 2.5 to 5 percent antinomy made bullets easier to form properly and left swaging dies cleaner, meaning reduced equipment maintenance.
As these bullets evolved, it became apparent that the alloyed lead was too hard for low-velocity bullets. I have some old samples where the jackets are nicely notched, but hard cores and unsophisticated hollowpoints made expansion a "maybe" at best.
The shape of the hollowpoints was a factor that was ignored for too long. I have samples of .38 Special and .357 Magnum ammo from the same maker that are loaded with exactly the same bullets. Loaded in the .357 Magnum, the bullets expanded nicely, but in the .38 Special, the bullets did not.
Cavity design demands remembering this: The volume of the hollowpoint cavity must be inversely proportional to the striking velocity. A successful .44 Special JHP that may hit at under 900 fps needs a cavity volume much greater than a .44 Magnum bullet that hits at 1,400 fps.
Myth: Modeling clay is an effective test medium.
It was successful as a marketing medium in the 1970s but ineffective at evaluating bullet performance.
One company sold a lot of ammo based on illustrations of how well its ammo "killed" big blocks of modeling clay. The truth is that modeling clay is many times denser than tissue or ordnance gelatin with comparatively little water content.
The very dense clay deforms the bullet in a manner closer to shooting into a brick than into tissue. The result: Few bullets developed in clay passed muster in my crime lab testing.
In spite of their failings, these primitive hollowpoints combined with meaningful and reproducible ballistics test methods led to the amazing performance we see today from Hornady's XTP; Speer's Gold Dot; and the excellent offerings from Winchester, Remington, and Federal.