How do you choose the perfect hunting bullet? A reader recently asked: Good day,I enjoy you articles Ron but I do have a question I just got a Hawkeye 7MM Mag Ruger I want to use the right bullet for this rifle, sure would like some advice on this not haveing shot it yet. Thanks
Well, if I’m going to answer this gentleman, you might as well listen in.
Perfect Hunting Bullet Hinges on at Least Nine Parameters
Choosing the perfect hunting bullet hinges on:
- Your rifle.
- Cartridge (muzzle velocity and caliber.)
- Hunting style (stand, glass-and-stalk, block-and-drive, etc.)
- Distance to target.
- Bullet shape and construction.
- The game you’re pursuing.
- The habitat it frequents.
- The kinds of shot angles you anticipate taking. You must usually compromise a bit and strike a balance between soft (these expand easily, erode and often break apart) and hard (these control expansion in a variety of ways to minimize expansion and retain more mass for deeper penetration, as explained in this blog.) Let’s investigate…
Consider Carefully These Parameters for the Perfect Hunting Bullet
1. Cartridge. Despite the mystique surrounding most rifle cartridges, there’s nothing magical about their shape. Long and skinny, short and fat, tapered or straight, slope-shouldered or sharp — it’s makes minimal difference to performance outside of target shooting concerns and handloading issues. For hunting, they’re all just convenient reservoirs of powder with bullets already attached so you don’t have to ram things down the muzzle. The bigger the powder reservoir, the faster it can push a given weight of bullet. The faster the bullet, the tougher or harder you want it to be. Why? Because it has to withstand high impact forces. A soft, pure-lead, 150-grain cup-and-core bullet that strikes at 1,400 fps (30-30 Win. at 300 yards= 670 foot-pounds of energy) carries a lot less energy than the same bullet landing at 2,400 fps (300 Win. Mag. at 300 yards= 1,900 foot-pounds energy.) Conclusion: when shooting high velocity cartridges, choose harder, more controlled expansion bullets in every caliber from .224 through .375. The 7mm Rem. Mag. fits this category. Ditto 22-250 Rem., all the 300 magnums — pretty much any cartridge that generates muzzle velocities of 3,000 fps and faster. With cup-core bullets (detailed here,) the larger the caliber and heavier the bullet for caliber, the more likely that long bullet will stay in one piece and penetrate deeply. High sectional density gets the credit for this.
2. Impact distance plays a big role. With enough distance even the fastest bullet slows to 30-30 velocities. Figure into your cartridge selection calculations your likely shooting range. The challenge is selecting a bullet that can stand up to high impact speed/energy during close range shots, yet expand adequately at the low impact speed/energy of long range shots.
3. Bullet shape also influences the perfect hunting bullet. Long, sleek projectiles with high ballistic coefficient ratings retain energy much better than do short, round-nose or flat-nose bullets. Inefficient bullet shapes (flat-nose, round-nose) waste energy to air drag. A 150-grain round-nose from a 300 Win. Mag. retains just 1,180 foot-pounds energy at 300 yards, 720 f-p less than a spire point of the same weight. For maximum energy, minimum drop and minimum wind deflection, use high B.C. bullets.
4. Your rifle will influence bullet speed. Tight chambers and barrels tend to increase pressures and speeds. Longer barrels wring out slightly more velocity than short. Figure roughly 30 fps per inch.
5. Your hunting style should influence bullet selection. If you’re patient and only take perfect, broadside shots behind the leg, a soft bullet should suffice. If you punch through a shoulder or angle from behind forward to the lungs, you’ll want a harder bullet. If you take shots no farther than 250 yards, high velocity and high B.C. aren’t as important as they are for long range shooting. If you anticipate shooting 300 yards or more, bullet B.C. and velocity become more important. Choose cartridge and bullet accordingly.
6. Accuracy is a product of your rifle, the bullet and you. Test a rifle’s inherent accuracy with a variety of bullets from a solid bench rest where human error is minimized. Don’t worry about sub-MOA accuracy. Any rifle/bullet than can put all shots inside 2 inches at 100 yards will keep them inside 8 inches at 400 yards. That’s easily the vital zone of a whitetail. Then test your own accuracy by engaging quarry-sized targets from real field positions, i.e. prone, sitting, etc. Your maximum range should be the distance at which you can always put a bullet into a target equal in size to the vital zone of the game you hunt. This maximum range will then indicate the likely impact velocities your bullets will endure. Pinpoint accuracy is nice, but don’t trade that for a too-soft or too-hard bullet.
7. Distance to target. We’ve addressed this under hunting style and accuracy, but let’s reiterate. If you know you will never take a shot beyond 150 yards or 300 yards or 400 yards, you can make accurate assessments of your cartridge/bullet likely impact speed, and that will inform your choice of bullet construction/type to find the perfect hunting bullet. Limiting your range makes bullet selection much easier.
8. Shot angles, as touched on in #5 above, make a big difference in how effectively bullets penetrate to reach the vitals. Soft cup-and-core bullets at high impact speeds shouldn’t be trusted to plow through major muscle, bone or paunch to reach the chest cavity. In any caliber, heavier-for-caliber bullets (longer) of any material and construction tend to penetrate better than lighter (shorter) ones. In my experience, monolithic copper bullets like Barnes TTSX penetrate the most. Next are bonded partition or solid shank styles like Swift A-Frame and Federal Trophy Bonded Tip. Winchester’s XP3 bullet was a deep penetrator, but they seem to be phasing them out. Next in line are Nosler Partitions and then various bonded core bullets. Each matches up with certain bands of impact speeds/energies. If I think I might need to anchor a fleeing elk with a Texas heart shot or hit anything close at high impact speed, I want a tough, controlled expansion bullet.
9. Your quarry should be a huge influence on selecting your perfect hunting bullet. The bigger the game, the harder or more controlled expansion your bullet should be. This isn’t because controlled-expansion projectiles hit with more punch. It’s because they limit frontal expansion, retain most of their weight in one piece and thus penetrate deeper. When you might have to drill through the hair, hide, muscle mass and heavy bones of a moose, eland, zebra or grizzly — you want a tough bullet.
10. Don’t be afraid to use different bullets for different game, different hunts. There is no one perfect bullet for all occasions.
To sum up, here are generalities to use as guidelines when choosing your big game bullet:
- The faster the muzzle speed, the harder (controlled expansion) the bullet.
- The closer the target, the harder the bullet.
- The lower the B.C., the softer the bullet can be.
- The larger the game, the harder the bullet.
- If you want pass throughs (two holes for better blood trails,) use controlled expansion bullets.
- The more a bullet expands, the wider but shallower the wound channel.
- The less a bullet expands, the longer/deeper but narrower the wound channel.
- No bullet performs perfectly or exactly the same every time. Be ready for the unexpected.
- No bullet/cartridge/impact energy can always knock down or kill any big game animal instantly unless you hit it in the central nervous system. Animals shot in heart/lungs with any bullet may run for several seconds and sometimes minutes depending on levels of hemorrhaging.
- Again, you don’t have to use the same ammo/bullets for all your hunting. Match the hunt and game to your perfect hunting bullet.
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The author has used most brands and types of bullets and cartridges while hunting everything from bunnies to hippos around the world.