September 23, 2010
We all have those friends who think superlight bullets traveling at warp speed are the key to dropping deer way out there.
They quote velocity figures ad nauseam and are constantly searching for lighter bullets and ways to drive them even faster. Who do you think buys all that moly coating?
Try quoting wind-drift and retained-energy figures to those guys, and their eyes glaze over.
"What do you mean my hypervelocity super magnum retains less energy and drifts farther in the wind than that slowpoke of yours?" they might ask.
And don't even try to talk to them about the importance of bullet design when hunting deer or big game. After all, they'll only counter with something like, "A bullet is a bullet." Don't bother arguing because, sadly, it will take a few lost animals and some hideous entrance wounds to make those guys see the light.
Lately, especially in African hunting circles, a lot of guys have gone too far the other way. Now a handful of bwanas in their khaki Daisy Duke shorts are trying to get us to shoot 350-grain slugs from our .375s and 200-grain--or even 220-grain--bullets from our .30-06s.
I understand why Africans like heavy bullets. Before the widespread availability of partitioned, bonded, and expanding mono-metal bullets, all too many professional hunters experienced monumental bullet failures that resulted in some pretty nasty maulings, stompings, and gorings by irate beasties unimpressed with the performance of those early cup-and-core projectiles.
Today's hunters are blessed with many great bullets from which to choose. Now you can actually get deeper penetration and better terminal performance with the right balance of bullet weight and velocity.
A recent safari in Namibia proved to my companions and me what I've thought all along: You need a certain amount of velocity to make bullets perform as their designers intended. Too much velocity, and bullets will open up too quickly and penetration will suffer. Drive a heavy bullet too slow, and it won't upset as much or penetrate as deeply as it should, which is what we saw in Namibia.
The first morning of the hunt, I climbed a granite kopje to glass for gemsbok or wildebeest, both of which we were tasked with culling from the property. A thousand yards off, a small herd of blue wildebeest fed. My professional hunter did a fantastic job of leading us through head-high brush to within 150 yards of the herd. I put the gun on the sticks, settled the reticle just behind the lead bull's shoulder, and touched the trigger. At the shot, the bull bolted.
We ran to where the bull had stood at the shot and started tracking. Though it was a very shallow quartering shot and the wildebeest was a youngish bull, the lack of blood told me there was no exit wound. Five hundred yards down the trail, we still hadn't found a drop, but we did see the bull standing in the shade of a tree. I shouldered my rifle and shot the bull neatly in the neck.
A postmortem revealed that my intentions were good and that the first 200-grain .30-06 bullet had hit exactly where I intended it to go; it just ran out of gas before it made it to the off shoulder. In fact, the bullet barely made it to the second lung, which is where we found the perfectly mushroomed slug. The heavy projectile had found its mark, but it didn't have enough oomph to drive through to the off shoulder.
That night, a fellow writer lamented losing a big gemsbok bull. He had shot it at about the same angle as I had shot my wildebeest, and once again, there was no exit wound. Without the carcass to examine, it's hard to say for sure if he hit it well, but I've hunted with him enough to know he usually hits where he aims. He called the shot good, so I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt based on my wildebeest experience.
The next day, I got another bad taste of the 200-grain .30-06 when a nearly broadside shot from 220 yards failed to drive through a gemsbok. We tracked it as best we could, but the footprints ran out before we found blood. The PH and I felt good about the shot, but we didn't find that bull. Maybe I botched the shot, but I had a solid rest, the reticle was spot-on when the shot broke, and the animal was clearly rocked by the shot. Despite all that, the result was my first wounded-and-lost African animal.
That experience soured me on overly heavy bullets. From then on, I only took broadside shots at less than 150 yards. I dropped three more gemsbok and a red hartebeest with those slow, heavy bullets, but they all ran a great distance. Only one, a slightly built female hartebeest, had an exit wound. The bullet struck behind the shoulders and hit only one rib.
My companions had similar experiences. In fact, that was the first safari I'd ever been on where we recovered so many bullets, and it was the one with the most animals wounded and lost. I am not sure of our exact total, but I know of at least six animals that were never found. Of those, four were said to have been good shots by all involved. If they were, I'm quite certain a bit more penetration would have resulted in more damage, blood trails, and fewer lost animals. If they weren't shot perfectly, deeper penetration would still have upped the odds of recovering those animals.
I left that ranch for another Namibian safari, but on that expedition, I toted my personal .300 WSM stoked with 180-grain Tipped Trophy Bonded bullets. I think 180-grain bullets offer the perfect balance of velocity and bullet weight to buck the wind at long range and drive deeply through even the biggest plains game. Though I was starting to think gemsbok were bulletproof after the previous safari, I got the stink off right away by dropping a big-bodied bull in its tracks at 217 yards.
That bull made me feel better, but I shot three more gemsbok for leopard baits just to make sure. I shot the biggest at 467 yards, and it dropped in its tracks, too. I also used that .300 WSM rifle to turn a charging leopard and to drop a black wildebeest, a red hartebeest, and an impala. None ran more than a few yards after the shot, and every single bullet exited.
"But that was a magnum," you might say. And you'd be right. But my hunting partner used a plain old '06 stoked with a very similar bullet to the 200-grain projectiles that gave us so much trouble. His results were far different.
My buddy's 165-grain bullets performed beautifully, dropping a big kudu on a steep quartering shot and a barrel-chested gemsbok bull at a moderate angle. He shot several smaller animals with it, too. Every one dropped quickly, and all but one bullet exited. That one was lodged under the skin on the off shoulder.
I know much of what I've written is subjective, but the field is the only place you can learn how bullets truly perform on game. I've shot hundreds of head of African game with just about every popular caliber and bullet design, and I've seen hundreds more shot by my clients. My recent experiences in Namibia confirmed something I've always known: In hunting, as in life, balance is the key. The right bullet weight at the right velocity is the key to deadly on-game performance.