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3 Bullet Types for Big Game Hunting

James Paine,
November 8, 2022

     In the modern day and age of ballistic science, things have come a lot farther than just a ball of lead wrapped in a copper jacket. Each bullet type on the market today was designed for a specific purpose and should be recognized as such. If you are preparing for your first big game adventure, or perhaps you had a bullet fail on you in the field and are searching for reasons why - keep reading, I can help. 

     Let me get this article rolling with a bold statement that may contradict what you’ve read on some of the backwoods hunting forums or heard from buddies. Bullets with the label of “Target” or “Match” are NOT designed or suitable for hunting big game in North America. Bullets such as Hornady's ELD-M or Berger VLD target are designed for one thing, and one thing only, to get from the shooting bench to the target in the most accurate manner possible. These bullets are constructed of softer materials that shatter when impacting tough targets such as steel plates and will often do the same on game animals. This is bad news for hunting where what is most important is what happens after the bullet impacts the animal and creating a deep, highly disruptive wound channel is paramount. The copper jackets surrounding the unbonded lead cores are often much thinner on match grade projectiles and the “hollow-point” on these kinds are designed for reduced drag rather than expansion. This results in unreliable bullet performance on soft tissue, and while your good buddy may have had some luck using the Sierra Match Kings on a couple of elk hunts, rest assured luck is all it is. I’ll go into this in more detail in a future article but for now remember this, just because they are accurate doesn’t make it ethical for a living creature. 

    The first on our list of hunting bullets is the good old Cup-and-Core bullet. This was the first version of modern-day hunting bullets originating all the way back in the 1880s. The idea was simple; take the lead balls people had been shooting, wrap it in a copper jacket and give it a more aerodynamic shape. This opened up a whole new era of long-range shooting, and though the technology has come a long way in the last 120 years, the old cup-core style bullet has proven itself in the test of time. While similar in construction to the target bullets mentioned earlier, these bullets are designed with stronger metal alloys and thicker jacket walls to hold together during and after impact with muscle or bone. Cup-and-Core style bullets are among the most accurate hunting bullets on the market with Hornady’s ELD-X and Sierra Game King being top choices in this design. But for all the technological advancements of the modern day, because the lead core is not attached to the copper jacket, they still have a tendency to separate from each other after expansion which can negatively affect the penetration inside the animals' vitals. Some manufactures have responded to this issue by creating a copper bridge inside to bullet that secures the lead in the rear of the projectile and restricts jacket expansion to a predetermined point. This allows the bullet to expand and disperse its energy into the animals' vitals while maintaining 40-60% weight retention in the rear of the bullet to maximize penetration as well. John Nosler developed this design in 1948 and to this day the Nosler Partition remains a giant in the big game hunting world. The Swift A-Frame is another massively popular choice among big game and dangerous game hunters that also incorporates this bridged design as well as a feature from the next bullet type: a chemically bonded core. 

Swift A-Frame with copper partition design and bonded core expansion

     Back in 1965, Bill Steiger brought us another solution to the jacket separation problem with his Bitterroot Bonded Core bullets. These days bonded core bullets are extremely popular with big game hunters around the world with names like the Nosler Accubond, Swift Scirocco or Hornady Interbond sounding familiar. These bullet types have the same basic construction as traditional cup-and-core bullets but with one major change: the lead core is irreversibly attached to the outer copper jacket. This means that as the outer jacket of the bullet expands the lead core rolls with it; resulting in the same trauma as traditional hunting bullets but with upwards of 90% weight retention after impact driving the penetration force deep into your prey. There are two main methods the bonding is achieved. One is to lace a pre-formed copper jacket with a soldering agent and then fill it with the melted lead core. The hot lead melts the soldering material which, once cooled, holds the two metal parts together. The second method is more common among major manufactures and involves a chemical compound being mixed with the lead core that, when combined with heat, creates a molecular diffusion between the lead and copper alloys. This happens by removing oxides and carbonates from both metals and lowering the surface tension of the molten lead, allowing it to meld to the copper in the jacket by actually shifting the atoms of the raw metals until they are interlocked. Once cooled the core and jacket are inseparable even under the highest velocity impacts, they will expand reliably and smash through vital soft tissue and bone alike. In my own humble opinion, this is the perfection of balance in hunting bullet construction; reliable expansion coupled with deep penetration is a good start to a DRT recipe. 

Nosler Accubond recovered from moose
165 grain Nosler Accubond recovered from the off-side hide of a moose, 2021 hunt with Clabe Parson

      But what if your state doesn’t allow common lead core bullets? Or if you're worried about the impact the lead core may have on your meat or the environment? We’ll cover that more specifically another time, but just know, there is still a viable hunting bullet that addresses those exact concerns.  

     The monolithic bullet design is one that has been around for a very long time but was made commercially popular in 1986 with the release of the Barnes X bullet. Unlike traditional lead core bullets, the monolithic design is machined out of a solid metal ingot, typically a copper or brass alloy, and a hollow point is carved into the core of bullet to allow the expansion of “pedals”. Some of the most recognizable names in monolithic bullet types would be the modern Barnes TSX/TTSX, Nosler E-Tip and Hornady’s GMX which was recently redesigned as the new CX bullet in 2021 for better long-range performance. One major advantage to the monolithic design is that while lead core bullets may vary in weight up to 1 grain to either side of what’s advertised due to multiple parts and pieces, the precision of modern CNC machines makes consistency from one bullet to the next much easier with solids. That coupled with a near 100% weight retention after impact means these bullets are not only accurate on game, but they lead the pack for penetration on virtually any game animal and are often sought after for hunting this world's biggest and toughest critters. But not all monolithic bullets are expanding. The Underwood Xtreme Penetrators are a good example of a solid-cut bullet that does not expand but can still cause massive trauma inside an animal’s vitals at close ranges and will smash through bone without shedding weight. Other manufactures make solid “flat-nose” bullets that don’t cause the trauma an expanding bullet would make on vital organs, but are virtually guaranteed to make short work of the shoulders and hips. This type of bullet however is best used as a backup shot to break down a dangerous game animal after it has been hit with an expanding round. While a broadside shoulder shot with one of these may result in an animal that’s down before he heard the muzzle blast, a shot placed into the soft tissue just inches behind the shoulder will result in a perfectly symmetrical hole in a very angry, very alive critter. The unfortunate reality is this will result in either a charge situation or he may run off and die miles from where you made contact. Make sure you check your local hunting regulations book before investing in these as almost all states require expanding bullets to be used in the pursuit of game, and for good reason.  

New Hornady CX monolithic bullet

     The difference between these three types of bullet construction ultimately comes down to balance. The unbonded cup-and-core bullet is the most accurate on the list due to superior internal gyroscopic balance but suffers from shedding weight and having less penetration. The bonded bullet holds together well after impact, and while it may not dump quite as much kinetic energy immediately into the animal as its unbonded cousin, it will penetrate farther and create a deeper wound channel. Lastly, the monolithic bullet will have slightly less explosive expansion due to the harder metals they are constructed of but will offer you the most penetration and weight retention for powering through tough bone and tissue. 

     The choice of which bullet type to use is specific to you, the shooter; your prey of choice and your specific hunting situation. As hunters we have the great privilege to travel to places most people only dream of and experience highs unlike anything else this world has to offer, but that comes with a responsibility to the animals we pursue. As ethical hunters, it is not enough just to make sure our shot hits our mark, but that the bullet performs as it should once it gets there. I hope this article has given you some insight to the world of bullet technology to help you make the right choice for your next adventure.

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