Well-Known Member
Aug 23, 2018
Selecting a Hunting Bullet

When it comes to selecting a hunting bullet, and contrary to popular belief, bullet weight and/or retained energy isn't the all-deciding factor on penetration and overall terminal performance. Actually, it all depends greatly on how the bullet is constructed, the speed it's at upon impact, the placement of the shot, and the amount of resistance it experiences upon impact.

For the most part, you've got three basic bullet designs out there to choose from. First off, you've got what I refer to as the tough constructed bullets. Common examples would be the Nosler Accubond, Hornady SST, Hornady Interlock, Hornady ELD-X, Remington Core-Lokt, Sierra Tipped GameKing, etc. These types of bullets have features such as thick jackets, hard alloy cores, bonding rings and/or cannelures, or the cores are actually electrically/chemically bonded to the jackets themselves.

Next, you have the frangible style bullets that are constructed to be much softer. Common examples of this type of bullet are the Sierra GameKing, Sierra TMK, Sierra BlitzKing, Hornady AMAX/ELDM, Hornady VMAX, Berger VLD and Hybrids, etc. These bullets have no kind of bonding. They have thinner jackets, softer cores, and are designed in a way that enables them to shed weight and transfer most or all of their energy to the animal.

The third type of bullet is the homogeneous bullet (solid copper/brass). Common examples would be any of the Barnes variety, Hornady GMX, Nosler E-tip, Lehigh Defense, Cutting Edge, Maker, Hammer, etc. These bullets are lead free and have actually come a long way since they were first introduced and started becoming popular. That being said, homogenous bullets definitely have their downfalls and typically have more limits than a traditional cup and core bullet. They typically require high impact velocities to expand properly and thus kill efficiently. The rule of thumb for me has been no less than 2200fps, but some newer designs are able to expand now below that. I've not personally validated these new claims yet, however.

Tough constructed bullets are the most widely used bullets globally and are what is still currently in highest demand. There's a huge mindset out there that desires a bullet that penetrates deeply and retains as much weight as possible, yet still expands. If expansion weren't a desire, a full metal jacket would be the best pick for this mindset. These thick jacketed/bonded bullets have limits though. Being constructed tough means they won't expand as well, or at all, at lower impact velocities (typically not below 1800fps, sometimes 2000fps). They will typically also penetrate poorly and expand too rapidly at high impact velocities. That thick jacket that's bonded to the core- impacting at a high velocity- will encounter a tremendous amount of resistance from surface tension right below the skin/hide of the animal (water surface tension). That tension will resist the bullet penetrating. Think of it sort of like a swimmer belly flopping into a pool. The bullet will then expand on the surface, greatly arresting further penetration, thus resulting in shallow penetration and a gigantic entry wound (crater). Animals tend to run a long ways when this happens and they sometimes get away.

To fix that issue, you need to either use a lighter version of that bullet (lower sectional density), or slow it down. Again, think of a small/skinny swimmer belly flopping versus a big/fat swimmer, and that swimmer belly flopping from the edge of the pool (low impact velocity) versus from a high diving board (high impact velocity). You have to overcome the surface tension. With a tough constructed bullet, going heavier will typically only benefit you by increasing the bullet's ballistic coefficient (BC) and giving you more range, as long as you still stay above that 1800-2000fps limit. Otherwise, lighter is actually the way to go.

A frangible bullet has limits as well, but they're definitely different. This type of bullet is actually what a lot of long range hunters prefer, but they can be used effectively at any range, when used properly. They're much more versatile, and kill much more emphatically. The biggest reason a lot of hunters prefer them is because they transfer most, if not all, of their energy into the animal. Why would you want a bullet to retain all its weight and then exit? That's wasted energy that really isn't doing anything for you. Some may argue that an exit hole produces a blood trail (which it does), but if the animal bleeds out internally quickly, there's no need for a blood trail, and if the bullet doesn't exit when hitting vitals, you can rest assured it has done its job as far as amount of wounding, as long as it was placed well. A bullet that holds together really well requires very accurate shot placement. If you strike the animal off your mark- for instance between the lungs and liver- you'll punch through and likely not fatally wound the animal. A frangible bullet that sheds weight and comes apart will still reach out with a shot placement such as that and tear into lungs and/or liver and still fatally wound the animal. That's an obvious advantage.

Again, these softer constructed bullets do have limits though. They can suffer from bullet blowup on the surface just like tougher/bonded bullets at high impact velocities. That is if you're using one too light for caliber at close range/high impact velocity. Frangible bullets differ from the tough constructed bullets in that they behave essentially the opposite- as far as impact limits are concerned. With a frangible bullet, you actually want more weight (sectional density) for close range/high impact velocities. This type of bullet is going to expand and come apart at almost any speed. So, what you're after with a frangible bullet, for close range work, is more sectional density. An ideal sectional density is above .280, but anywhere above .260 usually proves to be adequate as well, especially with medium to lighter bodied game. The extra mass will allow the bullet to continue penetrating upon impact and have enough material left to still enter the chest cavity and shred the vital organs. This is the type of bullet where heavier for caliber is actually best. This is the type of bullet that goes along with the common mindset of "heavier is better". Going heavier with a soft/frangible bullet can/will only help you. It will give you the ability to shoot at close AND far ranges, it will boost your BC, and the softness/frangibility will allow them to still expand adequately down to 1400-1600fps, and some down to as low as 1200fps. Shooting to that low of an impact velocity though is when results depend more on the shooter's skill to make the proper shot and kill, not just the bullet. A bullet is influenced by the environmental conditions much more at those low speeds. That's an entirely different subject though.

The last common bullet type is the homogenous bullet. These types of bullets were originally made to fill a simple role and purpose. That being lead-free, but still is able to expand. States such as California have banned lead in hunting bullets for claimed environmental reasons. Thus came about the solid copper bullets, out of necessity. Since their release into the shooting/hunting community, folks have discovered how they retain most, if not all, of their weight and penetrate very deep (typically exiting). To the hunter that desires this kind of performance, that's big news. They've gained a massive amount of following due to this characteristic alone. Herein lies the problem. Yes, these bullets do indeed penetrate deep, and at pretty much any impact velocity, but that's not always a good thing. At a high impact velocity- well above 2200fps- they will expand very well and impart a great deal of hydraulic (permanent AND temporary cavity) and hydrostatic shock. That being said, shot placement is critical with this type of bullet, as is impact velocity. You must hit vitals, and you must impact no less than 2200fps (for most designs) in order for the bullet to expand ADEQUATELY and to inflict enough hydrostatic shock to knock down the animal. Hydrostatic shock is what transfers to the central nervous system (CNS) as an electrical impulse/shockwave and will cause it to shut down and the animal will go into a temporary coma. It's similar to a boxer getting knocked out in a fight. With enough energy transferred, and a direct hit to the thoracic/brachial autonomic plexus, you can indeed cause instant death, it's just not as common of an occurrence. In the more common/typical outcome, you still need to inflict enough wounding for the animal to bleed out before it can recover. If there's not enough hydrostatic shock to drop the animal, but still enough wounding (hydraulic shock), the animal may run, but will bleed out and die eventually. This is an even more common occurrence, as you either need to hit an autonomic plexus, or have enough energy/speed on impact to reach out and hit the CNS to shut it down, and that's not always achievable.

A homogenous bullet requires a great deal of hydraulic shock (large wound cavity), and ideally a great amount of hydrostatic shock as well, in order to kill the best. A typical homogenous bullet does not shed weight and reach out like a frangible or even a bonded cup and core bullet. If impact velocity is too low, both hydraulic and hydrostatic shock will be minimal and the bullet tends to pencil through. If you miss vitals, you'll likely not kill the animal and it will get away. If you do hit vitals, but it still pencils through them, you'll cause a slow and inhumane death. The animal may still travel far enough to become unrecoverable in this scenario as well. Homogenous bullets really only excel in magnum cartridges where they can keep speeds high at longer ranges, or in any cartridge at close ranges (inside 200-300 yards). They're great for dangerous game that have thick hides and require a tough bullet that will penetrate with ease. Yes, there are tons of hunters out there having good luck with these bullets, but there are many that have had less than ideal experiences. I myself have had my own experiences with them and can say first hand that I've not seen any evidence to prove to me that they're anywhere near superior to a traditional cup and core bullet. Plus, they typically cost more! I'd only ever continue to use them if I were forced to due to lead-free requirements.

I think it's necessary to note that there are some bullets out there that are a sort of hybrid on some of these designs. The Nosler Partition and Swift A-Frame are two good examples. They feature a thin jacket at the ogive with a soft core to produce excellent expansion, and a base that is separated by part of the jacket. This keeps the base of the bullet completely separate and together- which allows it to still penetrate after impact. This is ideal for those close range/high impact velocity shots. There are also some tough constructed bullets that attempt to offer a bit of both worlds. The Hornady SST, Hornady ELD-X, Nosler BT, Swift Scirocco II, etc. are good examples. They feature jackets that are tapered in thickness and thin out towards the ogive. This enables them to initiate expansion at the front of the bullet, yet the jackets are thicker towards the base and/or they have a cannelure or bonding ring that helps adhere the base of the jacket to the base of the core. These are a good compromising design, and what many refer to as "controlled expansion", but they still have a higher minimum impact velocity than a true frangible bullet. They still have a tendency to penetrate poorly at high impact velocities, and expand poorly at low impact velocities.

Hopefully this helps clear up some of the common misconceptions with bullets and helps you better understand bullet construction/composition and how it all matters and comes into play with terminal ballistics. There really is a science to it and if you understand how it all works, you can better select the right bullet for the job. This was meant to be more of a summary, and is really only scratching the surface of this subject. There is definitely much more that could, and maybe should, be said. I do have a couple other posts that elaborate further on this. One more on cup and core bullet construction, and another more on solid copper bullets. I've taken parts of this write-up and included in the one more on solids. That's also more of an update to this one as well in a lot of regards. I’m only posting this one now because I feel it’s a good one that kind of compares different bullets and things to consider when selecting a bullet for a particular task. Keep in mind too that this is all with long range hunting specifically in mind. Close range only shots would take some different considerations in certain areas.

The bullet construction post can be found here:

The post more on homogeneous/solid/monolithic bullets can be found here:
To compliment this post:

Here are some rules of thumb regarding where I put TYPICAL limitations for the three bullet types. I'm reluctant to post this though since it's not an absolute at all and there are many factors that go into how a bullet actually performs and behaves once it impacts an animal. Please keep this in mind. The amount of sectional density the bullet has really affects these numbers and ranges.

•Impact velocity range for tough constructed bullets: 1800-2600fps, ideally. If impact velocity will be above 2600fps, avoid high impact resistance shots like shoulders. If impact velocity falls below 2400fps, and especially below 2000fps, aim for areas where impact resistance will be higher, particularly shoulders.

•Impact velocity range for soft/frangible bullets: 1400-2400fps, ideally and depending on the particular one used. If impact velocity will be above 2400fps, avoid high impact resistance shots like shoulders. If impact velocity falls below 2200fps, and especially below 1800fps, aim for areas where impact resistance will be higher, particularly shoulders.

•Impact velocity range for homogeneous bullets: 2200-3200fps, ideally for most designs out there. Honestly, as long as you will impact above 2200fps, I'd be aiming high shoulder to hit the thoracic plexus as well as both lungs. If impact velocity is going to be on the real high end, like above 3000fps, I'd reduce impact resistance so that you don't simply rip off petals and leave yourself with just a caliber sized hole going through the rest of the animal from just the shank of the bullet.

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