The goal of every hunter should be that game be despatched cleanly without causing unnecessary suffering. Vital life sustaining organs should be destroyed as quickly and effectively as possible. For almost all big game hunting, controlled-expansion bullets are superior. How much expansiuon takes place is determined by the design of the tip, the jacket material and its thickness, the hardness of the core and the bullet’s striking velocity.
For top performance, initial expansion on impact should be delayed, full mushrooming only happening when the bullet reaches vital organs, and deep penetration combined with excellent accuracy is needed. Today, there’s a wide variety of bullets including conventional soft-pointed-tapered jacket designs such as Hornady’s traditional spire-point, Remington’s Core-Lokt, the Speer spitzer soft-point and Sierra GameKing. However, most bulletmakers offer more intricate controlled-expansion designs which have bonded cores and sharp polymer tips to increase ballistic coefficients and initiate expansion.
A trend which started with Barnes many years ago is homogeneous bullets made of pure copper with a cavity in the nose which is skived to ensure expansion. The latest example of this type are Barnes TSX, MRX and Tipped MRX. Hornady’s GMX (Gilding Metal eXpanding). Winchester and Nosler’s combined technology E-Tip (Energy Tip) lead-free bullets are different in that they are made from solid gilding metal – 95 percent copper/5 percent zinc, instead of pure copper. All of these high-performance monolithic solids offer high weight retention and deliver devastating terminal performance over a wide range of velocities.
Other bullets which control expansion and penetration by other means include Woodleigh’s Weld Core, Hornady’s InterBond, Nosler’s Partition and AccuBond, which feature heavier jackets than the Ballistic Tip. Federal’s Trophy Bonded Tipped is a longer, sleeker more streamlined version of the original Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, and Remington offers the Core-Lokt Ultra Bonded.
Winchester’s XP3 is a simplified version of the Fail Safe which opens more readily and has a red polymer tip, but lacks the steel inserts that reinforced the front of the rear lead core of its predecessor. The company’s new Super-X Power Max Bonded bullet features a lead core with copper-alloyed jacket and a protected, notched hollow-point.
Remington’s Premier A-Frame needs no introduction to trophy hunters and safarists, and their Premier Scirocco Bonded is claimed to be the toughest polymer-tipped bullet available. It shows varying degrees of mushrooming at speeds from 1750 to 3350 fps while retaining from 80 to 90 percent of its weight.
We can choose from a wide assortment of the best bullets in the world, but you donít need a premium bullet for ferals and thin-skinned deer-sized animals; they can often be too much of a good thing. There’s a suitable bullet for every job, depending on the calibre and the range. Insufficient expansion (and/or too much penetration) cause more problems in terms of painstaking trailing of animals that should have dropped in their tracks.
I quickly realized that a certain famous big game bullet was too fragile for African plains game, but it took me longer to get it through my thick skull that another equally famous bullet was too tough for scrub bulls. If you are shooting soft-skinned, medium game you need accurate bullets that offer rapid expansion, and there’s nothing better than one of the same old unexciting soft-points you’ve been using for years. Such a bullet delivers almost all its energy when it forms a large mushroom after it gets into the chest cavity where it causes a large degree of tissue destruction.
For feral goats and medium-size deer, a conventional lead-core, tapered-jacket soft point is just as effective as anything else.
Even the most highly sophisticated controlled-expansion bullet needs the help of velocity to make it give a sufficiently rapid effect. If a mushroomed bullet could be made to penetrate deeply enough at low velocity, it would – if placed properly – most certainly inflict a fatal wound, but the process could be prolonged and the animal would probably live long enough to run a long way before it dropped. Controlled-expansion bullets open up more slowly and form a smaller mushroom, but penetrate a lot deeper.
With the high-velocities today, shock waves contribute materially to the rapid effects of a shot. These shock waves cause considerable damage, the tissue in their path is destroyed and disrupted leaving a broader wound channel than the bullet can mechanically achieve. Also, if large nerve centres on either side of the animal can be destroyed at short intervals, the central nervous system will be shut down, causing a state of shock.
When a medium-sized, thin-skinned animal is hit by a high-velocity bullet, it may immediately be paralyzed by shock and anchored on the spot. But a large, tough, big game animal will not always react in this way, even if hit by an extremely fast bullet, but it is indisputable that shock will to a large extent contribute to the effect of the shot.
Most shots at big game are aimed at the heart-lung area and a hit there with a conventional soft-point bullet will achieve this, even if the calibre used is not among the most powerful of big game cartridges. The lungs cease to function immediately, no further oxygen enters the blood, the brain suffers from lack of oxygen and the animal expires within 20-30 seconds. But if this can be achieved with a cartridge of moderate power and a conventional bullet, why are controlled-expansion bullets so necessary for big game hunting?
For one thing, larger game animals are tougher all over; they have thicker hides, heavier muscles, larger bones and there’s a lot more meat to bore through.
Expansion of a ‘soft’ bullet which opens quickly, ultimately limits expansion due to the parachute effect of a large mushroom. A bullet that gives deep penetration is much more effective on big, tough game. And one that makes exit is desirable, especially when you consider that game animals don’t stand around posing nicely side-on waiting to be shot. They are often angling, quartering away or standing rear end-on, which calls for bullet with limited expansion structured strongly enough to drive deep, with minimal weight loss. A strong bullet opens up enough to deliver the explosive effect of a grenade inside the chest cavity, but also carries on through, leaving a blood trail to follow should the game manage to run off a short distance.
No bullet in the world is good enough (or heavy enough) to make up for poor shot placement, and maximum performance is no good in the wrong place. For a perfect result when hunting big tough game, a powerful, high energy calibre firing a controlled-expansion bullet is the best choice, no matter how far or how close he may be.
This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, June 2010.