February 18, 2020
By Joseph von Benedikt
Dragging a Sitka blacktail off Kodiak Island has a high pucker factor during daylight hours, but you’re usually flushed with the good cheer of recent success, surrounded by unsurpassable beauty, and confident in the knowledge that, in spite of all the horror tales, bear maulings are rare.
Two hours after dark, with a gut pile and a bloody drag trail leading to the alder thicket you’re jammed up in, that pucker factor is positively off the charts. That’s the situation Hornady’s Neal Emery and I found ourselves in during a hunt to field-test Hornady’s new Outfitter line of ammunition. One mature blacktail buck was cut up and stowed in our packs, making us top-heavy and adding weight that pushed our boots deep into the sucking muck of the flooded alder thicket. We dragged another buck behind us, threading it a few feet at a time through the thickets. Totally exhausted, we were too tired to think clearly, or we’d have certainly stopped—inky darkness notwithstanding—and taken the time to quarter the second buck and stow it in our packs.
At least, I reasoned, if our luck turned south and drained into the Kodiak Island mud, I knew I could count on my rifle and ammo.
The former was a rifle I’ve written about before—a superbly accurate .375 H&H Winchester Model 70 customized by Lex Webernick of Rifle’s Inc. As I just alluded to, the latter, my ammo, was Hornady’s new Outfitter, which is composed of controlled-expansion monometal GMX bullets loaded into corrosion-resistant nickel-plated cases and then aggressively sealed around the primer and the case mouth.
It’s designed to excel at two things: one, shrugging off wet, corrosive conditions and hunter-applied abuse; and two, penetrating deeply and killing authoritatively from just about any angle. As the name implies, it was conceived to provide outfitters and guides with ammo they can count on no matter how bad the conditions or how desperately poor the shot angle presented by a wounded animal attempting to escape or charge.
To enhance penetration, in all cases the GMX projectile chosen is the heaviest that each particular cartridge will stabilize, assuming a standard rate of rifling twist. In at least one case—that of the .338 Winchester Magnum—Hornady delayed production until a suitably heavy new iteration of the GMX could be engineered for the Outfitter line.
While Outfitter ammo in authoritative cartridges is ideal for use by guides and extreme backcountry hunters, it’s also suitable for everyday guys who value exceptional reliability and deep penetration. As such, it’s loaded in popular cartridges from .243 Winchester up through .375 H&H.
Years ago, I used to scoff at nickel-plated cartridge cases. They were more expensive than the brass stuff I commonly used, and I’d seen the nickel plating flake off when cases were resized prior to handloading. Not only did I dislike having cases with rough, chipped necks, but also I didn’t like the idea of fragments of nickel getting up inside my reloading dies.
However, at that point I lived in southern Utah’s arid climate. Dust was a far greater enemy than corrosion, which I simply never encountered. Brass cases were ideal.
Four years living in humid Illinois enlightened me. Brass-cased cartridges left in my leather cartridge belts formed a dark green layer of corrosion beneath the leather. Hard to scrape off and readily evident to the touch, it messed with reliable feeding. I didn’t like putting the discolored ammo into my rifles’ chambers, and when I had to, it didn’t chamber smoothly or extract easily.
Nickel-plated cases, on the other hand, didn’t discolor. And I discovered that whether shooting semiauto pistol ammo or bottlenecked centerfire ammo in bolt-action rifles or big-bore straight-wall cartridges in lever actions, nickel-plated cases flow from magazines into chambers and back out again as if greased, courtesy of nickel’s natural lubricity.
Now, I’m not saying that I have turned away from brass cartridge cases. My point is that when conditions—whether storing or carrying ammo—are less than ideal, nickel plating keeps cartridge cases clean and aids reliability.
Unlike traditional copper-jacketed, lead-core bullets, homogeneous bullets made from one metal, such as copper or gilding metal, typically lose little or no weight when they expand during impact. Unless a monometal bullet impacts at extreme velocity or encounters shockingly heavy bone, it tends to stick together, unlike lead-core bullets that shed fragments and core particulates as they mushroom.
This has a couple disadvantages and several advantages. One disadvantage is the lack of secondary projectiles—shrapnel, if you will—that spiral off the main path of the bullet and cause additional contact damage to nearby vital organs. Another is the lesser density of copper or gilding metal compared to lead, which means same-weight monometal bullets must be longer than lead-core bullets. As a side effect, it’s difficult or impossible to make a truly high BC monometal bullet.
Advantages include dramatically increased penetration, virtue of the greater mass integrity, and therefore momentum of the non-fragmenting, controlled-expansion projectile; increased bone-breaking ability for the same reason, plus the monometal bullet’s lesser malleability; and less tendency to deflect, resulting in straighter wound cavities.
Several different companies produce monometal hunting bullets, and I’ve shot game with most of them, but I have the most experience with Hornady’s GMX. Accuracy, penetration, and all-around performance has been excellent with GMX bullets. That’s why on that long, grueling night on Kodiak Island I figured if anything failed during a bear attack it would be me, not the Hornady 250-grain GMX bullets in my .375 H&H rifle’s magazine.
Bullets chosen for use in the Outfitter line of ammo are, as I mentioned earlier, the heaviest practical for each chambering. So, for instance, the lesser-capacity .308 Winchester is loaded with the 165-grain GMX, while the longer, more capacious .30-06 is stoked with the heavier 180-grain GMX.
With a few exceptions, the GMX is a boattail bullet fitted with a red polymer tip. Both enhance aerodynamics, and the tip provides a reliable, predictable expansion mechanism that starts the bullet mushrooming immediately as it impacts a big-game animal.
Grooves in the shank of the monolithic bullet serve two vital functions. First, they provide a place for material displaced by the rifling to flow into and reduce bearing surface. Monometal bullets aren’t nearly as malleable as lead-core jacketed bullets, and because they are long, the bearing surface is long and friction high. Historically, they had to be run at lower velocities than similar-weight lead-core projectiles to avoid too much pressure. Grooves eliminated those issues, making it possible to achieve admirable velocities at safe pressures.
Second, the front groove provides a place to crimp the mouth of the case. That’s important in heavy-recoiling cartridges intended for use on dangerous game.
Whether drenched by incessant rain or soaked by water sloshing around your pack in the bottom of a skiff or caught in a flooded basement, wet ammo can be problematic.
That’s why military-grade ammo has a sealant—usually a translucent reddish color—painted around the primer and the mouth of every cartridge.
Hunters lives rarely depend on their ammo being reliable under penetratingly wet circumstances, so manufacturers don’t traditionally seal cartridges made for hunting. However, Hornady Outfitter ammo is made with reliability and authority as governing criteria, so it is sealed. You may never need the protection it provides, but if you do, it’s there.
An Exclusive Field Test
While absolutely outstanding for use on big game, GMX bullets don’t typically provide extreme accuracy. Not that they don’t shoot well—they do. I have several rifles that routinely produce 1-MOA, three-shot groups with GMX bullets. For past hunts with my Rifle’s Inc. .375 H&H, I worked up a handload that shot pretty well. In fact, I once shot it at 1,000 yards and connected with four out of six shots at a torso-size steel plate.
When Emery suggested we hunt Sitka blacktails on Kodiak Island with the new Outfitter ammo line—which still hadn’t been announced at the time—I figured I’d take my .375 H&H. Yes, it’s way more cartridge than is needed for deer, but the rifle and the cartridge embody the philosophy behind the ammunition line, as did hunting Kodiak Island. Plus, I figured, should a big coastal brown bear decided to try to have me for a meal, the .375 H&H was capable of suppressing his appetite.
Late summer was lingering, and autumn was reluctant to arrive.
While we saw a couple small bucks on the shoreline, the mature bucks were high. Warm bunks and good food made the nights plush, but hiking up to big-buck elevation made for the physically most demanding deer hunting I’ve ever done.
As described in the beginning of this article, Emery and I got ourselves into a touchy spot on our first foray up the slopes. It took us about three hours to climb 1,200 feet from sea level—that’s how tough it was. Fatigue washed away when a good buck showed some 500 yards away. Hustling across a basin and up around the shoulder of a moss-frosted cliff, I got within range.
A few does fed in nearby thickets, but the buck had disappeared. I crouched on the short lip atop the cliff and glassed.
Movement caught my eye. It was the buck, working across the brow of a ridgeline at a seemingly impossible angle above me. The grass surrounding me was tall. To clear it and shoot, I had to back right to the edge of the small cliff. The buck saw and turned to face me, skittish but curious.
Standing my backpack on edge, I rested the rifle on it, steadied the glowing red dot in my 1-8X 24mm scope on the center of his chest, and squeezed the trigger. I quickly saw the deer leap, buckling in midair, and crash down the slope, tumbling over and over for 40 yards and out of sight into a hollow.
An hour later we recovered the bullet at the back of the deer’s hindquarter. It had completely traversed the length of its body.
A point a quarter-mile away beckoned. On it, we could overlook an entire basin thus far unseen. Midday’s quiet had descended by the time we battled our way to it. An hour later we’d seen a big bear browsing way below us, but no deer. I got up to stretch, and the movement startled a buck below to his feet. Emery put a bullet through the sweet spot, and the deer sprang over a bluff and out of sight.
Dark was a few hours away when we got to him. It was steep, and we could see the ocean below. Alternately dragging and sliding Emery’s buck down the grassy slopes, we made good time. Then the terrain went lumpy, and it became dramatically harder to drag the buck through.
We should have stopped, quartered the meat off, and continued with heavy packs. Instead, we committed a cardinal mistake and decided to lighten the buck by gutting him, and then make an aggressive push to drag him quickly to shore.
Hours later, long after dark, we were still battling through the alder thickets, willow-choked creek gullies, and swampy tundra. We were lucky no bears threatened us, and eventually we stood victorious on the rocky shore.
In retrospect, we made a lot of mistakes that day. But our choice of ammunition was not one of them.