February 28, 2020
By Jospeh von Benedikt
“Small batch, made by hand” is a mantra that has long resonated with aficionados of fine products ranging from coffee, wine, and whiskey to sports cars and bush planes, but it has not been applied to bullets from a major manufacturer. Until now, that is.
Hornady has introduced a new, small-batch match bullet that I believe is hands down the best of its breed. It’s called the A-Tip—for Aluminum Tip. It provides unprecedented performance in several critical categories.
What categories? According to design team engineer Joe Theilen, “First priority was consistency. Consistency is king.” And by consistency, Theilen said that minimizing drag variability was a primary focus in A-Tip development.
We shooters don’t like to think about drag variability because it’s an element that we have absolutely no control over, but the simple fact is that projectiles don’t all exit the muzzles of our rifles with exactly the same drag characteristics. Slight differences in drag matter as the range increases because drag variation causes group patterns to stretch vertically.
Handloaders strive for low extreme spreads and minimum standard deviations in velocity in order to minimize vertical impact variation, but those are only a piece of the puzzle. If the projectile itself varies from bullet to bullet—even minutely—you can have unexplained high and low impacts.
Tip shape and bullet balance are two significant causes of drag variation that Hornady specifically targeted when designing the A-Tip. Traditionally, long, heavy, extremely aerodynamic bullets were known to require more distance and time to settle than lighter-weight, less-aerodynamic bullets. Imagine a child’s toy top. Spin it hard, and it’s likely to buzz around the tabletop with significant vibration and wobble for a second or two before suddenly settling into a perfect, movement-free spin. Bullets exiting the muzzle do more or less the same thing, and the longer and the heavier they are, the longer they take to settle. Traditionally.
This bullet balance issue was common enough that many long-range shooters disliked accuracy-testing at 100 yards. They preferred 200 yards because at that distance their bullets had usually settled, and they achieved more consistent, accurate test results.
The longer a bullet takes to settle, the greater are the variances potentially introduced into its eventual flight path. This has a potential effect on both accuracy and drag variation. That’s why Hornady’s engineers deemed it critical to shorten as much as possible the time for bullet settling. They accomplished this by using bullet exterior profile and interior profile, meaning they manipulated the position and length of the lead core, the cavity between it and the bullet’s mouth, and the tip shape to give the A-Tip an optimal center of gravity and center of pressure. The result is an ideally balanced, long, heavy, extremely aerodynamic bullet that settles fast.
As for tip shape, because it is machined of aluminum, the A-Tip is more consistent in shape than any tip cast of composite material can be. According to Theilen, when you mold composites, there is variation in size, shrinkage, and so forth. Plus, because aluminum is stronger, it can be formed into a longer, sleeker tip than when using any composite. As a material, aluminum previously has never been cost-effective to manufacture into tips. Recognizing that the end result would be a relatively boutique product, Hornady forged ahead, innovating until a cost-effective method of machining aluminum tips was developed.
Another advantage to aluminum is that it’s far easier for engineers to create and test myriad different versions while in the development process—they just finesse the profile in the CNC program and crank out a handful more. Composite tips, on the other hand, require a new mold to be made for every variation tested, which is both expensive and time-consuming.
As one would imagine, tip shape has a very significant influence on aerodynamics. Everything from how air molecules flow around the bullet to where the center of pressure and center of gravity are located is profoundly affected. The ability to finesse tip shape to perfection and then to replicate that shape with absolute precision makes a difference.
There are other less notable but still critical design characteristics of the A-Tip. Each version is engineered to work well at most seating depths, meaning they all are designed to take the rifling leade easily and consistently as they enter the barrel and to exit the muzzle consistently. The latter is more critical than some shooters realize. The boattails that help bullets slide through the air easily can be problematic when fired out of less-than-perfect muzzle crowns. Flatbase bullets are more forgiving, but Hornady’s design gurus finagled the profile to make the long, sleek boattails on A-Tip bullets as forgiving as possible.
Compatible use of the various A-Tip bullets (they are initially offered in 6mm, 6.5mm, and .30 calibers) is defined mostly by rifling twist rate and somewhat by cartridge case capacity. For example, don’t try and shoot the 110-grain 6mm version in a .243 Winchester with a 1:10 twist rate because it won’t stabilize. And don’t try to shoot the 230-grain and 250-grain .30-caliber bullets in the .308 Winchester cartridge because it doesn’t have enough propellant capacity.
Ideal A-Tip cartridge pairings are, according to Hornady, 6mm BR, 6mm Dasher, and 6mm Creedmoor cartridges for the 110-grainer; 6.5 Creedmoor for the 135-grain version; 6.5 PRC and similar-speed rounds for the 153-grainer; and the .300 PRC for the ultra-heavy .30-caliber A-Tips. In all of these cartridges, A-Tips can be seated to magazine-compatible length. Unless they are built with extended magazine boxes, most other .30-caliber cartridges don’t have adequate head height to mag-feed ammo loaded with the super-long A-Tips.
Another notable characteristic of the A-Tip is that each bullet in every 100-count box and in every 500-round sleeve purchased is sequential in order, meaning you get 100 bullets made one right after the other for the ultimate in consistency.
Traditionally, bullets coming off factory presses are dumped into huge vats and tumbled in ceramic pebbles and a soapy solution to remove oil applied during manufacturing. As a result, several thousand bullets are combined, and there’s a bit of “bash process” as they’re tumbled.
Hornady A Tips, on the other hand, come off the press and are placed directly into individually protective, egg-crate-type cartons. For those who worry about the very light film of machine oil on them, Hornady includes a rag-bag for wiping.
To date I’ve shot all five initial versions of the A-Tip bullet in ammo handloaded to standard overall length, and every rifle tested performed well. My results support the company’s claim that A-Tips are not picky about seating depth.
Hornady recommends only one special step be taken in hand-loading A-Tips, and that’s to obtain a correct seating stem for your reloading dies. Because the A-Tips are so long and the aluminum tips are so slender, they tend to bottom out on common seating stems, even those designed for common VLD-type bullets. This causes the bullet to be seated by pressure applied to the meplat—the front of the bullet—rather than evenly around the ogive.
While I’ve shot all the different versions, all but the 6mm were in ammo handloaded in Hornady’s lab for media events. I don’t have a full chart of accuracy and velocity results for all of them. I do have data for both .30-caliber versions handloaded for and tested in a Gunwerks .300 PRC and for the 110-grain 6mm version tested in my GA Precision 6mm Creedmoor PRS match rifle. That information is listed in the accompanying chart.
Practical field experience has been extraordinary. I’ve hit small targets past 1,400 yards using the 110-grain 6mm version and life-size steel torso targets at 2,060 yards using the 250-grain .30-caliber bullet.
In addition to working with the new A-Tips on my home range, I used them during Hornady’s recent two-day PRS match in the rolling canyons and sweeping grasslands of my home state of Utah. Organized by GA Precision owner George Gardner and his crew, it was challenging. I took 34th place out of 120 competitors.
At dawn the day before the match, I went prone to validate the trajectory with my new loading. Five shots pounded into 1.1 inches at 384 yards, and a couple shots at 600 yards confirmed the A-Tip was tracking perfectly with the output of the Hornady 4DOF function in my Kestrel wind meter and my phone app.
Day one at the match proved challenging, with fickle winds gusting to 25 mph and scudding clouds constantly changing light conditions. Even so, as long as I judged the wind correctly and broke the trigger in the sweet spot, targets rang. Day two was hot. A glaring sun made even unfired barrels too hot to hold, and canyon-bottom thermals sucked bullets astray. Still, scores soared because the breezes were light and relatively consistent. My A-Tips hit steel past 1,400 yards, confirming both their consistency and the precision of the 4DOF-powered drag coefficient profile in my app.
Early on, after supplying several top-shelf pro-staff shooters with prototype A-Tip bullets for trial work, the company asked for feedback. According to my good friend Neal Emery, who is Hornady’s PR guru, shooters responded with two questions: “What did you do to these?” and “How soon can I get more?”
For those of you reading this now, you can order A-Tips from several online retailers as well as find them at many gun shops. No factory ammunition is loaded with A-Tip match bullets, and according to Hornady, there are no plans to do so.
A-Tips are priced around double the cost of Hornady’s ELD Match projectiles, and their primary market appears to be Extra Long Range (ELR) shooters and PRS and sniper-type competitions. Only time will tell, but I suspect it will be a long while before we see another match bullet that can hang with Hornady’s new A Tip.