Hunting bullets . . . fit for purpose

Thomas Tabor

All hunters clearly understand the important role bullet placement plays in their success, yet equally crucial is how that bullet performs on reaching its destination. If it comes apart prematurely prior to having reached the vitals of the animal and fails to be effective at disrupting bodily functions, disastrous consequences could ensue.

There are essentially two starkly different trains of thought when it comes to how a bullet should perform after it enters the animal. On one side are hunters who believe the best performance is achieved when the bullet is capable of maximum penetration, even if it may in some instances exit the carcass. At the other extreme are those who want to be assured every bit of the bullet’s power is expelled inside the carcass and view a potential exit only as a waste of that projectile’s energy.

The best case scenario would be for the bullet to always penetrate deep enough to reach the vital organs no matter what it may encounter along the way, then provide enough energy at that point to humanely terminate the life of that creature. Unfortunately there are sometimes impediments like heavy bone, dense muscle mass and in some instances vegetation in the way of achieving those goals.

Case for deep penetration

If we could always be assured of having a perfect broadside shot where the target animal remains calm and undisturbed and without obstacles in the path of the bullet, even a thin-skinned, poorly constructed design could produce favourable results. In this case the bullet would likely only have to penetrate a few inches in order to reach the heart or lungs to seal an effective and humane kill. But as most hunters know, perfect shots like these are not always possible and for that reason it’s often good to prepare for the worst and select a bullet with the capabilities for deep penetration.

Case for quick expansion

A bullet which expands quickly can be valuable in certain situations by providing a high degree of shock and in this case considerable tissue damage may result immediately after impact. In many instances this may result in a devastatingly humane kill, particularly when dealing with near perfect broadside shots. But if a hunter chooses to shoot this style of bullet it’s imperative to have a thorough understanding of that bullet’s abilities and limitations – or they should hold off squeezing the trigger until those conditions have changed.

Bonded lead core bullets

Bullet manufactures have used the term ‘bonded’ for decades to describe the process of attaching the outer copper jacket of the bullet to different inner lead core material. In this case the jacket is intended to contain and protect the bullet’s softer, more vulnerable lead centre, the challenge of maintaining that bond being a significant one with the methods used frequently varying from maker to maker. While many bullet producers continue to use the term ‘bonded construction’, the cautious consumer understands not all ‘bonding’ is equally effective.

When a bullet comes apart

A few years back I found myself wondering precisely what happens when a bullet jacket separates from its core and that curiosity led me into a fairly extensive research project. Without unnecessary details the venture essentially involved shooting a selection of different calibre bullets into a bank of old magazines which were stood on edge. All bullets were traditionally styled, jacketed, lead core designs and I’m happy to report no SSAA publications were harmed in this exercise!

In those instances where bullets shed their jackets, the forward movement was brought to an abrupt halt. At that point the lead core material continued to move forward but only by a few centimetres before the separated cores totally disintegrated. What was once a well-formed cylindrical mass was transformed into what I can only describe as looking like coarsely ground graphite powder. Under actual hunting conditions a bullet performance such as this is likely to produce a great deal of tissue damage, but if it hadn’t reached the vitals at that point the outcome may not be favourable for animal or hunter.

Total copper bullets

When Randy Brooks of Barnes Bullets developed his first solid copper bullet in the 1970s -eventually becoming known as the Triple Shock X – it opened up a new era in bullet design. In the beginning many shooters (including me) were sceptical as to the performance, that concern mainly based on the fact copper is less dense and lighter than lead. Some feared that difference in weight would translate into lower bullet energy on impact and a lack of expansion. Ironically, the weight difference actually worked in its favour.

When two bullets of the same weight and calibre are compared, one comprised solely of the lighter weight copper and the other a traditional jacketed lead design, the copper bullet has to be longer which translates in a higher ballistic coefficient (BC) value. That higher BC produces flatter trajectories, better wind-bucking abilities and higher retained energy at extended range.

Simply put, a complete copper bullet can’t shed its jacket as it doesn’t have one. Frequently this style of bullet achieves controlled frontal expansion through its hollow-point format and a series of fine scribing serration cuts along its tip, these features helping encourage rapid expansion and a high degree of retained weight. I’ve found these bullets also produce exceptionally good penetration even when encountering bones and heavy tissue mass.

This style of bullet usually brings good results when velocities and energy levels are fairly high, but may not be the best choice for slower velocities cartridges or when extreme long range has adversely drained that energy level. Since Brooks developed his Triple Shock X a few other manufacturers followed suit, but Randy and Coni Brooks will likely always be considered the copper king and queen of this style of bullet.

Dual core

Dual core-style bullets like the Nosler Partition and Swift A-Frame have become popular with hunters seeking potential for deep penetration, good expansion and a degree of retained weight, yet some found this style doesn’t always produce quite as good accuracy as more traditional options. I also found that to sometimes be the case but the amount of accuracy loss has never been substantial enough to be a concern under hunting conditions.

This dual core is made up of two separate lead core chambers separated by a thick copper belt barrier. As the bullet makes impact and mushrooms the jacket typically peels back to the partition, at which point the front lead core frequently is sacrificed while the rear core remains securely intact, often resulting in the bullet retaining about two-thirds its original weight.

I’ve taken many deer-sized animals and much larger game using Nosler Partition bullets in various calibres when those bullets have performed admirably. The overall design of the Swift A-Frame resembles that of the Partition but the A-Frame is a little heavier constructed and in my opinion would possibly be a slightly better choice for larger and tougher game.


Many modern bullets come equipped with a small plastic tip. In this case the plastic typically extends down into the pocket of the hollow-point where it’s held securely throughout firing and flight of the projectile, these inserts working to improve performance. Firstly the plastic tip helps streamline the slug which increases its BC value, resulting in flattening its trajectory, increasing retained energy and allowing it to resist effects of the wind. In addition, the plastic tip works to protect the point from becoming disfigured which could lessen the bullet’s BC.

Jacket variations

Jackets vary in make-up, thickness and design. Some makers maintain the same thickness throughout while other formats progressively become thinner at the tip of the bullet, a step meant to encourage quicker and more controlled expansion. Nosler AccuBond and Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullets come with tapered jackets, both designs wrapping around the base of the bullets, helping to protect their integrity. But the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw base is considerably larger with the copper reaching nearly to its midpoint.

The way I see it

I doubt if hunters will ever reach a total consensus when it comes to the best possible bullet design as whether we choose one assured to produce deep penetration or one which expands instantly, it’s imperative we understand the bullet’s limitations and use that knowledge to better our hunting success.

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