Choosing the Right Bullet

It’s not as simple as grabbing a box of .270 off the shelf. Today, you need to be able to educate customers on the different projectile options in factory ammo.

Choosing the Right Bullet

On the surface, selecting a box of .30-06 ammunition for a new rifle seems like a simple task for most buyers. Ammo shortages aside, the reality is, for popular calibers like the .30-06, the sheer number of choices can be overwhelming. As a retailer, knowing the differences between a partition and soft point and asking the right questions will take out the complexity and create an easy sale. While all manufacturers offer their own unique flavors and combinations, a solid understanding of the basics goes a long way to confidently helping a buyer make the right decision.

Bullet Types

Focusing on rifle ammunition, bullet choices can be broken down into two categories: copper jacketed lead and solid copper. For most hunting applications in the Unites States, and as required by many state laws, truly 100%, non-expanding, copper-solid bullets are off the table. That said, these true solids are extremely popular in countries like Africa, especially on big game like Cape buffalo or other species like the tiny 10-pound dik-dik, where either superior penetration or reduced damage are required. While it is a good idea to know the purpose of a solid copper bullet choice for customers who travel abroad, for the most part, hunting ammunition will focus on jacketed or controlled-expansion solid bullet choices. 

Within the jacketed bullet category there are myriad options, and the most popular categories include: soft point, hollowpoint, ballistic tip, partition and bonded bullets. While there are many bullet types specific to a manufacturer, for instance, Remington Core-Lokt, these are generally flavor variations made specifically by a manufacturer to separate their version of a soft point from another manufacturer.  

In addition to the expanding jacketed bullets choices, there are a handful of controlled-expansion solid choices that utilize a polymer tip or other mechanism to mushroom the bullet on impact for a larger wound track. The main difference between an expanding jacketed bullet and a controlled-expansion solid is the use of a lead core. 

Jacketed bullets all have a softer lead core, which allows for expansion but also fragmentation as they expand. This allows the bullet to use all its energy within the target, but decreases through-target penetration upon impact of bone and hard tissues. Controlled-expansion solids, on the other hand, expand similarly to a jacketed bullet, but often boast nearly 100% weight retention for maximum penetration, even when they impact solid bone. 

To quickly summarize the hunting bullet options, the following guide offers a quick breakdown.

Soft Point: The soft point has long been one of the most popular bullet choices for most game. Their structure consists of a thin, expanding metal jacket around a soft lead core. The nose of the bullet is exposed lead, and when a target is impacted, the lead begins deforming, thus opening the jacket, allowing it to expand. The one downfall to soft points is they are easily deformed, especially in a tube magazine or even in a hunter’s pocket, which can impact repeatability and downrange accuracy.

Hollowpoint: Hollowpoints are similar to soft points. They also consist of a thin copper jacket, but instead of exposed lead, they have a small opening and hollow section at the tip. In most cases, hollowpoints do not readily expand, and are better suited for small game and varmints. 

Ballistic Tip: Just like a hollowpoint, ballistic tip bullets have a thin copper jacket and a small hole in the end. Where they differ is a ballistic tip bullet has a pointed polymer insert that forms a sharp tip. Upon impact, the polymer tip will push back into the soft lead core and help force expansion like a soft point. While they function similarly to soft points, the polymer tip increases velocity and accuracy, especially at longer ranges, and is less easily damaged.

Partition: Developed by Nosler, partition bullets have gained a lot of popularity due to their excellent penetration. Like a soft point, they have a lead tip and core, but instead of just being a thin copper jacket over a single lead core, partitions have, well, a partition or wall between two different sections of lead. The front section consists of a pointed lead slug and at the back there is a lead cylinder behind the partition. This allows the bullet to expand for increased damage but retain the shape of the rear of the bullet for deeper penetration. 

Bonded: Bonded bullets are a newer design and less common due to their cost of manufacture. They are again similar to a soft point, but in this case, the lead and copper are permanently bonded together, forcing them to expand in unison. They are bonded together using a heating process and offer excellent weight retention and penetration. 

Controlled-Expansion Solids: This bullet style combines a ballistic tip or hollowpoint with a solid copper bullet. These bullets have no thin jackets or lead core, and instead use the engineered tip to assist with expansion and increase the wound channel, but without bullet weight loss. This combination is great for penetration, especially on tougher game. Other benefits include reduced barrel fouling and in some cases increased velocity.  

What About Boat Tails?

Bullet choices can even further be broken down to either boat tail or flat base. In many cases, manufacturers have made that choice for the buyer, only offering one or their other, but in some cases, specifically when purchasing raw bullets for reloading, they may offer both. Boat tails were designed behind the premise that the chamfered back-end reduced drag, but the reality is that that only helps at certain velocities. For long-range shooting, this can be beneficial to maximize down-range velocity, but the effect on most calibers and hunting situations is minimal. There have long been arguments between seasoned reloaders about the differences, but in hunting situations, most of these points are moot. 

Weight, Velocity and other Metrics

If you are familiar with archery tackle, you know that speed is important, but so is mass. Kinetic Energy (KE) is a simple equation that uses the bullet’s mass (m) and bullet’s velocity (v). (KE = 1/2 m v2). In simple terms, the greater the mass, at the same velocity, the greater the energy. While this is true, bullet cases can only hold “x” grains of powder, thus making them somewhat velocity limited. If a case is at its maximum capacity, increasing the bullet’s mass will reduce its velocity. As a simple example, a .30-06 150-grain bullet is being pushed at 2,900 fps at the muzzle. That equates to a KE of 2801 ft./lbs. If changing to a 180-grain bullet reduces the velocity by 200 to 2,700 fps at the muzzle, the KE is 2,913 ft./lbs. While this does not appear to be a significant difference, the key phrase is, at the muzzle.

Where bullet weight begins impacting ballistics is at long distances. Bullets with a higher ballistic coefficient (BC) will retain more of their energy downrange, as they resist the wind better and maintain higher velocities. Typically, making a bullet longer increases the BC, and since we have a fixed diameter, the only way to do that is by adding material, or mass. For example, a .30-caliber Hornady 150-grain Interlock Boattail Soft Point has a BC of .349. The same bullet choice, but in 180-grain, has a BC of .452. Now, using the same muzzle velocities as above, the 150-grain has a velocity of 1,725 fps at 500 yards and 991 ft./lbs. of KE. The 180-grain now, due to the increased BC, has a higher velocity than the 150-grain at 500 yards, 1,802 fps, and 1,298 ft./lbs. of KE. This is where bullet weight matters, and why many long-range hunters are choosing heavier bullets, sacrificing short-range velocity for long-range performance.  

Selecting the Right Bullet

Now armed with the information, helping a customer select the right bullet for their needs comes down to a few questions. First, what game are they hunting? Second, what distance do they expect to shoot? And last and most often overlooked, what shot placement do they prefer?

While the first two are straightforward, it is important to explain the purpose of the third question before moving on. For example, some deer hunters prefer to shoot behind the shoulder, in the lung/heart region of mostly soft tissue. On the other hand, other hunters prefer to take a neck or high-shoulder shot, in areas of dense bone. In these differing situations, the bullet type matters. A soft point, or variation like a ballistic tip, is perfect for the first hunter, as the thin jacketed bullet will allow for rapid expansion and fragmentation — a recipe for a quick, clean kill. For the second hunter, this bullet choice may not offer the required penetration, making something with better weight retention and less fragmentation, like a controlled-expansion solid, a better choice.

Getting back to the first and second questions, which are equally important, understanding the game and distance are important factors. In fact, some manufacturers even specify right on the box of ammunition what game it is suitable for. 

For small game and varmints, like prairie dogs, coyotes, and other species, standard hollowpoints have long been a good choice, but other choices including ballistic tip and standard soft point work just fine as well. For furbearers and other game where damage should be minimized, many hunters are choosing varmint-specific fragmenting bullets that almost disintegrate on impact to reduce exit hole damage, like the Nosler Ballistic Tip Varmint. 

For most mid-size game like whitetail, mule deer and antelope at distances less than 300 yards, any of the bullet choices above will do just fine, if the hunter chooses the correct shot placement for the bullet type. Soft points have historically been a choice used by whitetail hunters because, quite simply, they work. For hunters intending to shoot longer distances, ballistic tip bullets offer increased velocity and, as explained above, heavier bullet choices will shoot flatter past 400 yards. 

For larger game, like elk or American bison, or tough game like wild hogs, partitions, bonded bullets, or controlled-expansion solids are great choices as they offer greater weight retention, which will increase penetration. Additionally, for larger game even at short ranges, heavier bullet choices will provide higher KE, a key factor for these larger, tougher animals.

Five Great Factory Options

Remington Core-Lokt Pointed Soft Point Ammunition

This is Remington’s flavor of a soft point, and it’s great for small to medium game. It’s long been a proven performer in the hunting woods and has great expansion. The Core-Lokt family of bullets are also available in ballistic tip, hollowpoint, bonded, and a standard soft point for tubular magazine firearms. 

Federal Premium Nosler Partition

While the partition bullet was invented by John Nosler, Federal Ammunition offers the bullet in its Premium line of ammunition. This ammo is great for medium to large game, offering good expansion and weight retention for great penetration. The Nosler partition bullet is also widely used by reloaders when making custom handloads.

Winchester Power Max Bonded Ammunition

Offering great expansion, long range accuracy, and knockdown power, this load is good for medium and large game, including tough animals like hogs or American bison. This ammo features a protected hollowpoint to promote repaid expansion. 

Barnes TTSX Ammunition

TTSX stands for Tipped Triple shock. It uses a controlled-expansion, solid-copper bullet and has the same benefits as the company’s standard TSX, but includes a polymer tip to boost BC and initiate expansion. It’s great for medium to large game and has unwavering weight retention in bone or other dense matter.

Hornady Superformance Varmint V-Max

Deadly on varmints and predators, this ammo uses a ballistic tip to provide straight-line trajectory, enhanced accuracy, dramatic expansion and explosive fragmentation for deadly power without significant fur damage on the exit. It’s available in most small-caliber chamberings.


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