The right bullet to get the job done

by Paul Miller

We recently received an interesting and relevant question from a SSAA member regarding problems he was having with projectiles doing excessive damage to the small game he was shooting. It was a question posed for our increasingly popular ‘Top Shots’ column and the editor felt it warranted a more lengthy explanation than could be convened in that short answer format.

The subject of bullet construction and what’s the right bullet for different purposes is one on which many books have been written, but for the purposes of our member’s question let us look at the basics of what a bullet is and how they differ in the their construction and performance.

The word ‘bullet’ is derived from the French ‘boulette’ which roughly translated into English means ‘little ball’. The earliest muzzleloading rifles fired a round lead ball wrapped in a loose cotton patch then rammed down against the previously-loaded charge of powder. The barrels were originally smooth bore like a shotgun but, with time, rifling was invented when it was discovered that stabilising a projectile by making it spin improved its performance (excuse this over-simplification but we have a lot of ground to cover!) Shooting with muzzle loading rifles is still very popular today and is a great connection to the history of our sport.

With the invention of the metallic cartridge and single breach-loading rifle, the world opened up to the design of shapely lead cast bullets and varying their shape as a better understanding of ballistics developed. It was soon discovered that a bullet with a pointed profile was more efficient than one with a round nose. This occurred around 1832 in England with Army Captain John Norton’s design of a conical bullet, and was followed closely by famous English gunsmith William Greener who invented a bullet with a wooden plug in its base which expanded on firing and forced the bullet to fit the rifling.

In 1847 French Army Captain Claude-Etienne Minie invented the soft lead Minie ball, conical in shape with a hollow cavity in the rear which had a small iron cap installed in the base rather than a wooden plug. On firing, this cap also pushed forward in the cavity of the bullet and forced the projectile to expand and contact the rifling. Around 1855 the British adopted the Minie ball projectile into their Enfield rifles.

The next important change in bullet rifle design and construction occurred in 1882 when Lt Colonel Eduard Rubin, director of The Swiss Army Laboratory at the time, invented the copper jacketed bullet. This was elongated and featured a lead core in a copper coating. This was a profound invention as lead bullets were, historically,  only able to be fired at lower velocities because their surface in contact with the hot gases of the powder burn at the rear, and contact with the rifling on its way down the barrel, would melt them at higher velocities. The advantage of a copper jacket was that copper is harder and has a higher melting point so bullets were now able to be fired at greater velocities.

So to summarise simply, bullets for muzzleloading firearms were mostly made from pure lead, which worked well as they were fired at velocities less than 1450fps. Then moulded bullets made from a combination of lead and tin proved successful at higher velocities in more modern firearms with rifling in their barrels. Copper jacketed bullets with a lead core were developed and are now the most commonly used bullets worldwide due to their ability to withstand much higher velocities and be designed and constructed for different purposes. Today we have multiple manufacturers producing an incredible number of highly sophisticated bullets designed for every conceivable use from military to target and, of course, hunting.

To get back to our member’s question, we can now choose bullets for small game shooting that are lightly constructed and therefore very explosive when driven at high velocity. The same can be said for larger game like feral pigs, and here we use a more stoutly-constructed bullet that holds together better for penetrating a mud-encrusted hide and mercifully kills the animal by wrecking its lungs or heart.

When we move up the scale to large deer or all the way through to buffalo in the Top End, heavier and even more well-built bullets become appropriate. For the very biggest of game animals, solid or monolith construction bullets are employed to transfer energy and retain their weight to get through to the vitals and ensure a merciful dispatch. And that’s what every ethical hunter should aim for when choosing bullets for their particular cartridge and game animal.

Getting back to small game, we now have copper plated bullets that can be driven at speeds in excess of 4000fps and still hold together in cartridges like the 17 Remington, 220 Swift, 204 Ruger and 22/250 Remington.  If a small game hunter wants to shoot foxes for their coats then bullet construction in combination with velocity becomes very important. Foxes are lightly built animals and not difficult to kill so the issue is more preservation of their skin.

Much work has gone into developing projectiles by manufacturers like Nosler, Hornady and Sierra that are copper plated but with thin jackets and fine hollow points or plastic ballistic-style tips to enhance their aerodynamic qualities but also increase explosiveness when the bullet hits a fox or other small animal. Ideally, the bullet fragments completely and stays inside the animal and doesn’t exit, as it’s an expanded bullet exiting that causes the damage to fox pelts.

Alternatively, shooters can use a solid or more stoutly-built bullet at lower velocity which passes through the fox with minimal exit damage. The problem here is where that solid bullet ends up after it exits the fox and whether it does a good job of killing it humanely, as it expands so little on the way through. If hunting rabbits for the pot you really need a head shot, otherwise they’ll be completely ruined by these hyper velocity smaller bore cartridges. The alternative is to use a smaller rimfire cartridge with a hollow point or plastic-tipped projectile at a range where you can be sure of a head shot.

Bullet design is now so sophisticated that manufacturers can vary the thickness of the jacket and shape of the bullet as well as the internal structure of the lead core, to make a bullet explosive or hold together for penetration and achieve the mushroom effect that bigger game hunters look for to transfer energy to the animal and create a greater wound channel to aid in humane dispatch.

There’s an argument as to whether a bullet should be designed to mushroom but still pass through a big game animal so as to create a blood trail for tracking, or whether it should expand sufficiently to remain inside, thus imparting all its energy to the animal rather than only part of that energy with the rest spent on exiting and travelling off down range.

I’m in the ‘stay in the animal’ camp and using all the energy on a humane kill, but the debate will continue to fuel ever more sophisticated bullet designs to potentially achieve the best of both worlds.

So how do you pick the right bullet for your purposes? You look at what the maker recommends on ammunition boxes, talk to a reputable gun dealer, ask your experienced mates or buy a quality reloading manual like the Nosler or Hornady Reloading guide. These are essential if you plan to reload but are also a great way of learning about bullet construction and the ballistics of various shapes.

For the shooting enthusiast these high quality books provide a wealth of information to allow you to choose the right projectiles and powder combinations to achieve exactly what you want in terms of bullet speed and results on target. Of course the internet is a huge resource nowadays, with various shooting forums helpful on questions about what bullets to use for different circumstances.

Taking time to research is really enjoyable and will make you more knowledgeable and thus more successful at the range or in the field. There’s also no substitute for getting out there, having a go and learning from experience.

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