History of the Match Grade Berger Hunting VLD
By Eric Stecker
The story of the Berger Hunting VLD is a story of discovery rather than design. The VLD bullet design was created by ballistician Bill Davis. Bill’s goal was to produce a bullet design that performed better in the wind than the 30 cal 168 gr SMK. He was asked to do this by the US 300 meter shooting team, who had discovered that they were losing points late in the match due to recoil fatigue. They wanted a lighter bullet (less recoil) that would still fly with the same or better trajectory.
After Bill came up with the design he went to Walt Berger to make the bullets. Walt understood the vision of this concept and even though this bullet required a faster twist barrel than was readily available, Walt decided he would make these bullets. They were a huge success in that they had a much better trajectory than the 168 gr SMK, so the goal of this particular project was achieved and surpassed.
Slowly but surely word started to get out about the VLD concept. Shooters who cared about trajectories started ordering barrels and over the next several years the VLD popularity grew rapidly. From the beginning and to this day Berger Bullets makes only match grade bullets. For a very long time Sierra Bullets has communicated the message that you cannot hunt game with match bullets since this is true with their MatchKings. Since the Berger VLD is a match grade bullet, Walt Berger took the same position and recommended that shooter should not hunt with the match grade Berger VLD.
Over the years we would get reports from hunters who used the Berger VLD to take game of all sizes. We dismissed these reports as the exception rather than the rule and would tell these hunters that we do not recommend that they use them to hunt. Through the 90’s we tested several different concepts for a Berger “hunting” bullet, which had to meet two criteria. The first is that it had to retain at least 80% of its weight (since this was the conventional wisdom at the time), and the second was that it had to be capable of ¼ MOA in an equally capable rifle. We were not successful in meeting both goals in any of our tests.
As the century turned, we had all but given up on the notion that we could make a “hunting” bullet which was also match grade. In 2005 everything changed. While attending the SHOT Show we were approached by John Burns, who at the time was with The Best of the West TV show. He asked if we would be interested in sponsoring their hunting show. Walt replied “we don’t make a hunting bullet”. John’s response was, “Oh yes you do.”
John pulled out a portable DVD player and showed us 45 minutes of bang flop after bang flop. Being a long time hunter Walt was very impressed with how quickly the game was dropping in each of the hits. John relayed that each animal was taken with Berger VLD match grade bullets and that he’d taken or watched personally hundreds of big game taken with Berger VLD’s over the years.
Obviously, this got our attention, but we were not ready to jump in with both feet without personally testing this report and observing the results we’d been shown. Over the next year numerous tests were done in media using every caliber and every VLD bullet in our line. The results were consistent and led us to decide to try them on game ourselves. In 6 months we either shot or personally witnessed over 50 animals of various size being taken with the Berger VLD. Each animal acted in the same way as the animals in the video John showed us at the SHOT Show.
Autopsies of these animals would confirm what we observed in the media, that the bullet penetrates through the initial 1" to 3" of tissue and bone depending on impact velocity and then quickly fragments, sending a tremendous amount of hydrostatic shock and fragments into the surrounding vital organs’ tissue. The tremendous amount of internal damage created by these bullets was far more than any of the experienced hunters we shot with had ever seen before. We realized that we, in fact, had been making one of the most quickly lethal hunting bullets since Bill Davis came to Walt with the design for the 6mm 105 gr VLD decades earlier.
After these tests confirmed the results we had heard about for years, we decided to start making it public that our Match bullets (that we have been telling people for years were not recommended for game hunting) are actually recommended for game hunting. This was no easy task at first. Fortunately, there were enough of those who had used them already. Also, with the help of The Best of the West TV show we decide to sponsor, word began to spread. It was during this time that we were wrestling with a completely different situation that had nothing to do with hunting but which would affect our entire line of bullets.
For decades our bullets have been growing very popular among target competition shooters. The vast majority of those who used our bullets were happy with the results. On a few occasions a competition shooter would be shooting a string, doing very well and unexpectedly a fired shot would come up as a miss. When a top level shooter is pouring bullets into the 10 ring and for no obvious reason the next shot is a miss it is clear that something bad just happened.
As it turns out the bullets were heating up to the point where the cores would actually melt. Once a bullet leaves the barrel with a melted core it is certain that the melted lead will burst through the jacket under such high RPM. Obviously this was a problem that we needed to solve, so we decided to test a thicker jacket. Making the jacket thicker did not make it strong enough to contain molten lead, but rather it moved the lead away from the source of the heat, which is the friction between the bearing surface and the rifling as the bullet goes down the barrel.
The thicker jacket was a huge success, and since its introduction we have received no reports of a bullet failing to reach the target unless extreme circumstances were present (very rough bore, excessively high velocity case far beyond even the largest standard case, or poor loading practices which damaged the bullet before it was fired). This successful solution to one issue presented us with another problem. Now that we are making bullets on thicker jackets do we need to make the original thickness jacket anymore?
To answer this question we went back to testing in media. The results were consistent and are the reason why we have the two different lines today (Target and Hunting). The standard jacket had been thoroughly tested and proved to expand wide, creating primary and secondary wound channels in a large portion of the animal’s internals. The thicker jackets acted similarly with one key difference. The area in which the fragmentation is distributed is narrower and the amount of fragmentation is less. Sure it is true that this result can kill game, but it is clear that the standard jacket consistently performs much better in its ability to spread as wide a primary and secondary wound channel as is possible, making it a more quickly lethal bullet.
It was this consistent difference that led us to the decision to keep making both jackets. The standard jacket produces the most lethal wound channel deep inside the organs, and the thicker jacket keeps competition target shooters from losing 10 points with a miss. Now we had to figure out how to explain this to the shooters. Since everything is match grade we had difficulty in figuring out how we would distinguish one from the other.
Our first attempt was to label the bullets made with the thicker jacket simply with the word THICK. Wow, was that a mistake. No one understood what THICK meant. When asked, we would explain that the thick jackets were to keep the bullets from blowing up before they hit the target. Nearly every time the shooters response was, “What do you mean the bullets blow up before they hit the target?!” This result had happened infrequently enough that many shooters were not aware of the situation at all. Clearly we were creating more confusion rather than helping people understand the difference, so we took another look at the situation.
We needed a way to quickly and simply tell shooters something that would help them understand the difference in a way that lets them know which bullet is best for them. That is when we decided to separate them into application based lines; Target, Hunting and of course Varmint (which was not affected by any of these situations). Instead of trying to explain what the difference was between the bullets, which took some time and didn’t always sink in, we decided instead to tell shooters what the bullet should be used for (application).
Thus was born the Match Grade Berger Hunting VLD, which is the same bullet that we have been making since Bill Davis came to Walt asking him to make the innovative design. The Match Grade Berger Target VLD (and other designs in the Target line like the BT and Hybrid) are the newest member of the Berger family which started production in 2007 with a thicker jacket. The Match Grade Berger Varmint bullets have remained unchanged, but have earned the Varmint designation for the same reasons as the Target and Hunting groups. These are the applications we recommend the bullets be used for. What the shooter decides to do with them is entirely up to each shooter (which in a way is why the different lines exist at all).
An Arizona native, Eric Stecker started working for Walt Berger as Range Officer for the benchrest matches held in Phoenix. Several months later Walt asked Eric if he was interested in making Berger Bullets. After a few days in the shop Eric knew he had found his passion. 19 years later he is the Executive Vice President in charge of operation at their Fullerton CA plant.