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Ammo - how to choose the best bullets for north american game hunting

how to choose the best bullets for north american game hunting

By Brad Fitzpatrick

There’s a great deal of debate regarding which caliber is best for hunting various species of game. Some hunters feel that powerful, high-velocity magnum cartridges like the 7mm Remington magnum and the various Weatherby cartridges are perfect for big game because they shoot flat and produce a great deal of energy. Others prefer “standard” cartridges like the .30-06, which has been a successful hunting cartridge for years and doesn’t produce the recoil or muzzle blast associated with hotter magnum cartridges. Still others prefer the classics—the .30-30, .45/70 and the like.

Despite all the difference of opinions regarding caliber, there seems to be far less conversation regarding bullet choice, but that’s a mistake. Regardless of the caliber with which you choose to hunt, the bullet is doing the real work. Whether you deliver a clean, quick, humane kill to an animal may depend solely on your projectile.

There are several factors that go into bullet selection, but the primary objective is to match the bullet’s construction to the velocity of your rifle and the physical structure of the animal you’ll be hunting.

Matching Caliber to Velocity

The same bullet may perform very differently at varying velocities, so you need to match your bullet to the velocity of your firearm. For instance, many .30-caliber bullets were designed to perform at .30-06 velocities—roughly 2,700 feet per second for a 180-grain bullet. The same bullet that performs well at that velocity may, when pushed to magnum-level velocities above 3,000 feet per second, break apart when it strikes an animal and may not penetrate into the vitals. It’s similar to the way a car reacts when striking a stationary object: if you strike a wall at 30 miles per hour, your vehicle will be damaged but will likely maintain its structure and keep you safe. Hit that same wall going 60 miles per hour and your car may break apart. So it goes with bullets. The faster your bullet is going when it strikes the target the tougher it needs to be.

Matching Caliber to Game

Some animals are lightly built and don’t require a heavy bullet to penetrate into the vitals. Other animals, like bear and hogs, are dense and heavy-boned, with thick hides and a great deal of muscle that can stop a bullet. For that reason, you’ll need a tougher bullet on bears and hogs than you will on antelope and deer, which are much lighter. Winchester’s new Deer Season XP bullet, for example, is carefully designed for use on deer-sized game. Though it’s a fine bullet, it was not designed for use on large, heavy game. Remington Core-Lokt, Hornady Interlock and Federal Fusion bullets all work well on game like deer. For heavier game, a tough bullet helps. Some of the all-copper bullets like those from Hornady and Barnes provide reliable expansion across a wide range of velocities, and bullets like Swift’s A-Frame and Nosler’s Partition, which will work just fine on light-skinned, light-boned game if the shot is properly placed, were really designed to hold up to high velocities and heavily-built animals.

Ballistic Coefficient and Sectional Density

Two figures that you’ll see when selecting a bullet are sectional density (SD) and ballistic coefficient (BC). Ballistic coefficient is a relative figure that illustrates a bullet’s ability to overcome the effects of air resistance—in short, how aerodynamic a bullet is. This figure changes with pressure, altitude and other external factors, but in short, a bullet with a high BC will have a flatter trajectory and more downrange energy. This is the reason that long-range shooters favor spritzer boattail bullets, which have a high BC and better long-range ballistic figures. This is primarily a concern if you’re shooting at long range; at 100 or 200 yards, having a high BC bullet is not critical.

Sectional density, or SD, is a ratio of a bullet’s grain weight to diameter. Heavier bullets by caliber have higher sectional density, and sectional density allows a bullet to penetrate better. For instance, a .30 caliber 150-grain bullet has a sectional density of just .226, while a 180 grain .30 caliber bullet has an SD of .271. For deer-sized game, sectional density is less critical because the bullet doesn’t have to penetrate as deep. On larger game though, like elk and moose, a high SD bullet provides better penetration, so stick with heavier bullets. For the .270s that means 140- or 150-grain bullets, for 7mms that means 160 grains or more, and 180 grains and up for the .30-caliber class. Will lighter bullets penetrate big game? You bet, but not as well—provided the bullet holds up and does its job.