As a new hunter it’s a challenge deciding which of the many, confusing cartridges and calibers to buy. It’s even more confusing when we’re asked to choose ammunition.
It’s not just brands, but bullet types, weights and shapes. Is all this really necessary? Does it really matter if we choose a 150-grain bullet over a 165-grain or 180-grain? A boat tail over a flat base? A Core-Lokt over a Ballistic Silvertip?
Yes! And no. Well, maybe.
The truth is, most bullet weights, shapes and types will terminate whitetails, mule deer, feral hogs, black bears, and coyotes if parked in the right place. But little details such as weight and shape can influence how easily and effectively you can park them. Materials and construction can change how efficiently they take down game.
Here’s a quick breakdown:
- In any given caliber/cartridge, there are choices in bullet weight. As a rule, the bigger and tougher the game, the heavier your bullet should be. This is because mass enhances penetration and holds more energy.
- Lighter bullets shoot faster and flatter than heavy bullets if both have similar shapes, i.e. spire points.
- Heavy bullets carry more energy and hold it farther downrange, but drop more.
- The differences in energy and drop are minor and not worth worrying about unless there’s a huge spread in weights, i.e. 120-grain vs. 190-grain.
- Aerodynamically efficient projectile shape increases range (shoots flatter) and downrange energy. (Because an efficient shape cuts through wind, kinetic energy in the bullet isn’t wasted pushing air out of the way.)
- The more a bullet expands (mushrooms,) the wider the wound channel, but shorter the wound length (penetration is sacrificed due to increased friction.)
- The less a bullet expands, the more it penetrates. (Longer but narrower wound channel.)
- Bullet material (lead, gilding metal, copper, tungsten) changes expansion. (Harder metals mushroom less.)
- Mechanical construction changes expansion. (Thin jackets and soft lead cores expand maximally or break apart. Thick jackets and hard lead or tungsten cores minimize expansion. Internal walls of jacket material lock lead into shanks to prevent excessive expansion and enhance penetration.)
- The faster the impact velocity, the tougher a bullet should be to resist excessive expansion or breakage.
Which Bullet Is Best?
So, in the real world how do you determine which bullet is best? Choose long, narrow, sharply tipped bullets with boat tails to maximize velocity and downrange energy, but don’t sacrifice accuracy to get it. The differences in performance between a flat-based spire point and a boat tail, Very Low Drag (extremely long, pointed nose) bullet of the same caliber/weight don’t amount to an inch or two at 300 or 400 yards.
Bullets come in many weights and lengths in any given caliber. The longer and heavier they are, the more ballistically efficient they are.
For more penetration on bigger game (elk, giant boars caked in mud) use a tougher, controlled-expansion bullet that’s all copper or copper/lead with a thicker jacket, bonded lead core or mechanically locked core. For greater expansion on smaller, thinner skinned game (whitetails, mule deer, antelope) a thinner jacket swaged around a soft lead core can provide more tissue destruction and adequate penetration. These are ideal for “behind the shoulder broadside” shots. But, if you like to “shoot through” to enhance potential for blood trailing, go with tougher, deeper penetrating bullets. If you anticipate shooting through shoulders or any major bones/muscle groups, use the tougher bullets. Soft bullets can stop or come apart without reaching the vitals.
For impact velocities at or above around 2,800 fps (magnum cartridges) use a controlled expansion bullet.
While bullet choice is important, placement trumps it. Better to hit game in the heart or spine with the “wrong” bullet than in the paunch with the “right” bullet. Practice. A lot. It makes no sense to save $200 on practice ammo and waste a week of hunting, that one chance at the big buck and the cost of your tag by missing.
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Ron Spomer has been photographing and writing about the outdoors for nearly four decades. He’s written seven books, hunted on six continents and been published in more than 120 magazines. He’s currently rifles’ editor at “Sporting Classics,” Travel columnist at “Sports Afield,” Field Editor at “American Hunter” and “Guns & Ammo” — Optics Columnist at “North American Hunter,” Contributing Editor at “Successful Hunter,” Senior Writer at “Gun Hunter,” and TV host of “Winchester World of Whitetail.” He will write on Shooting Tips weekly for sportsmansguide.com. You can read his blogs and catch some of his YouTube videos at www.Ronspomeroutdoors.com.