Midsummer, hunting season a long way off. That makes it a good time to dust off Old (or New) Betsy and try her out with some different loads. It’s never been a good idea to wait until just before Opening Day before getting in some serious range work, far worse today. Supplies are better today, but there are still shortages and back-orders.
So, maybe you can’t find the brand you’re looking for. Any factory load is just one assemblage of its four components: One bullet, propellant charge, primer, and case. Factory ammunition is wonderful today, but there’s no predicting if any one load will shoot well in your rifle.
So, for accuracy, you try this and that. If you shoot a popular cartridge, something like 6.5 Creedmoor, .308 Winchester, or .30-06, you’ll get old or go broke before you try every load. You’ll quit when you find a load accurate enough for your purposes. I have stacks of partial factory boxes, because, after just one group, I knew my rifle didn’t like that load.
Handloaders have a huge advantage. Oh, we can’t always get the specific bullet, primer, powder, or brand of case we’re used to, but we can surely find components that will work. Then we can put them together…and vary the recipe infinitely.
I’m a lazy handloader. I start with a bullet I like, usually a favorite powder, primers I’m used to…and whatever once-fired cases I have. To save range time (and components), I’ll load just five, then another five with a grain or two more powder, and so forth. If I weren’t so lazy, or if I was in search of utmost accuracy, then I’d weigh cases and bullets for consistency, vary seating depth, and other tricks. Usually, I’m thinking about hunting ammo, so my goal is to find a load that produces the level of accuracy I need to hunt with that rifle…with a bullet that has the performance characteristics I’m looking for.
With factory loads, we can only vary powders, primers, and cases by changing brands. At least with popular cartridges, we can usually vary bullets. Most manufacturers load several different bullets. Again, there’s no telling what bullet or load a given rifle might shoot best. Some rifles are finicky, others or not. I had a Remington M700 Mountain Rifle in .280 Remington, usually an accurate platform…and usually an accurate cartridge. At that time, Remington was the primary source for .280 Rem. One of my better editors once commented, “Remington rifles tend to shoot well with Remington ammo.” Though about it and agreed, but this darn rifle didn’t shoot anything well. With all existing factory loads, it fired shotgun patterns, not groups. By this time, I had dies and plenty of once-fired cases. I looked up a random recipe and loaded up some Nosler AccuTip bullets. Good Lord, instant MOA groups.
That degree of finicky is unusual. Also unusual to get an exponential accuracy increase just by changing loads. Usually, differences between loads and bullets are very incremental. Since it’s impossible to try everything, we usually limit experimentation to bullets that suit our purposes.
Keep in mind that, ultimately, it’s the bullet that does the work. Lots of brands, lots of weights, shapes, and styles, and different types of internal construction. With today’s precise manufacturing, I don’t think there are any bad bullets out there. Modern bullets do what they’re supposed to do, but performance characteristics vary. When choosing bullets, it’s important to know the performance you want. Then, you must cut through the hype and understand what a given bullet was designed to do.
If I wanted maximum accuracy, I’d start with match bullets…understanding that, in some rifles, they may not be as accurate as some hunting bullets. Some match bullets are non-expanding “solids,” thus illegal for hunting in many jurisdictions. Many match bullets are hollowpoints, a design proven for accuracy, and hollowpoints expand, thus always legal for hunting. However, match hollow-points are designed purely for accuracy, not for terminal performance on game. Some hunters swear by them, but I fear them. When they work, they often drop game like lightning, but performance on game can be erratic. Match bullets are simply not designed for consistent penetration and expansion on game animals.
Historically, the most common .30-caliber match bullet was a 168-grain boattail. Today, we have .30-caliber match bullets up to 250 grains. This illustrates a key point in bullet selection: Bullet weight overcomes shortcomings in bullet construction. If your accuracy standards are such that you simply must use match bullets for hunting, then use heavier bullets.
Hunting bullets must be adequately accurate for the game and shooting distances but are designed first and foremost for consistent terminal performance on game. On impact, expanding hunting bullets are supposed to upset or “mushroom,” creating larger wound channels. However, a hunting bullet must penetrate at least to the vitals on the size of game it is intended for.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Expansion is the enemy to penetration: The more a bullet expands, the more resistance it encounters. Thus, the more quickly it slows and must come to rest. Also, velocity is the enemy to bullet performance. Staying with a .30-caliber example, the .30-30 propels a 150-grain bullet at about 2400 fps. The fastest .30-caliber magnums might be 1200 fps faster. No bullet can perform equally across that velocity range. Obviously, bullets slow at greater distances. By about 500 yards, even the fastest .300 magnum has dropped to .30-30 velocity. Out there, you’ll probably get reliable and consistent performance…with less expansion. With fast cartridges, I start with a tough bullet that will hold up at the highest velocity, lest it come unglued if you draw a close shot.
Absent design feature(s) to keep them together, lead-core bullets usually have at least some of the lead wipe away. Not all bullets are intended to hold together and retain weight. Varmint bullets are designed for rapid, explosive expansion, for maximum damage on rodents, and to reduce ricochet. Big game bullets must hold together well enough to penetrate to the vitals.
Provided I have confidence adequate penetration is certain, it doesn’t bother me if a bullet isn’t recovered showing a near-perfect, intact mushroom, or if loses 30 or 40 percent of its weight. Generations of hunters have been happy with the performance of good old lead-core bullets: Core-Lokt, GameKing, Hi-Shok, Interlock, Power Point. They often aren’t pretty, but they work.
More frangible yet are simple lead-core bullets with polymer tips, such as AccuTip and SST. Such bullets tend to be exceptionally accurate, but expansion is rapid. In my experience, these bullets drop deer-sized game like lightning. However, at extreme velocity they can come apart. Again, bullet weight matters, but I avoid such bullets for close shots in fast magnums, and rarely use them on game larger than deer.
Polymer tips increase aerodynamics and prevent battering in the magazine. Upon impact, the polymer tip is driven down into the bullet, initiating expansion. If you like to recover pretty bullets “against the hide on the far side,” then go to bonded-core bullets, which may or may not have polymer tips. The core is chemically bonded to the copper jacket, an additional process that increases cost. Just about everyone has them now: AccuBond, Core-Lokt Bonded, InterBond, Terminal Ascent, Trophy Bonded Tip, Swift A-Frame and Scirocco, more. Bonded-core bullets offer big mushrooms with high weight retention, often above 90 percent.
For hunting bullets, bonded must be the way to go, right? Maybe, but it’s never that simple. Bonded-core bullets are rarely the most accurate, or the most aerodynamic, and upset decreases at lower velocities. So, bonded-core bullets may not be the best choices at longer ranges.
For years, the Barnes X (series) was the lone expanding all-copper (copper alloy) bullet. Today there are many: Copper Impact, CX, GMX, Trophy Copper, more. All copper bullets are hollowpoints, with a skived nose around a frontal cavity, the nose peeling back in petals to the limit of the cavity. Unless a petal breaks off, weight retention approaches 100 percent. Expansion is not as wide as with lead-core bullets, so copper bullets are deep penetrators. If you like through-and-through penetration with exit wounds, you’ll love them…but you won’t recover very many.
Expansion decreases along with velocity. And, since, copper is lighter than lead, aerodynamics cannot quite reach the off-the-charts BCs of today’s low-drag bullets such as Berger and ELD. As with all bullets, some rifles love them, others don’t produce their best groups with all-copper. You never know until you try. I use a wide variety of bullets, depending on my immediate purpose…and what works best in a given rifle. Even with today’s limited availability, there are lots of good options. Even though I’m lazy, I don’t give up experimenting with different loads, a perfect pastime for these long summer days at the range.