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Battlin' Bullets

Battlin’ Bullets

The perennial campfire debate continues. Which hunting projectile is best? Light and fast, or heavy and slow?
By Russell Thornberry and Bryce M. Towsley

Light, Fast & Devastating: By Russell Thornberry

P.O. Ackley, the godfather of American ballisticians, forgot more than most of us will ever know about ballistics. Many years ago, I read his double volume “Handbook for Shooters & Reloaders.” When I turned to his chapter entitled “Killing Power” in Volume I, I fully expected a treatise on why .50-caliber bullets are deadlier than .49-caliber bullets. However, I was amazed to fine something different — something that Ackley called “shockdown power” rather than “knockdown power.”

His premise is simply that the more speed increases, the more shock increases. And when speed passes the threshold of 4,000 feet per second, a whole new dynamic is created — one that cannot be equaled with lesser speed, no matter how large the bullet.

His classic test that proved his point was conducted by shooting bullets into half-inch thick steel armor plate from the frontal area of a U.S. military half-track. At a distance of 30 feet, he shot a .270 Win with 100-grain bullets, a .30-06 with military issue, solid steel, armor-piercing bullets, and a .220 Swift with a 48-grain bullet.

The results were astounding. The .270 bullet left a shiny spot on the armor plate and did not penetrate at all. Two shots from the .30-06 armor-piercing bullets left shallow craters .070 and .098 inch, respectively. The little .220 Swift bullets consistently burned -inch-diameter holes completely through the armor. The results spoke for themselves. Crossing the threshold of hypervelocity created a dynamic as a result of shock than cannot be achieved any other way.

Ackley’s test was done on armor plate, but how does that translate to performance on the flesh and bone of wild animals? Ackley went on to say that if he had to pick only one rifle for hunting North American game, it would be a .220 Swift. If, in Ackley’s day, he had had access to the slower-burning powders of today, he would have been able to propel even larger-diameter bullets at “hyperspeed” — bullets traveling 4,000 or more fps at the muzzle. I speculate that he would have chosen a larger caliber, heavier bullet capable of hyperspeed for his choice North American game rifle.

Battlin’ BulletsFate allowed me to cross paths with an Ackley disciple when I was outfitting in Alberta, Canada. James Ferguson of Wharton, Texas, came to hunt with me, and we struck up a lasting friendship. James is a superb custom rifle maker and has built several hunting rifles for me. Two of my favorites are the .257 Ferguson Hot Tamale chambered in .257 STW and the Ferguson Mach IV Habanero in .30-378 Weatherby.

The .257 STW is the 7mm STW case necked down to .25 caliber. I prefer either a 100-grain all-copper Barnes Triple Shock or a Lost River Ballistic Technologies 100-grain J-36 bullet in that rifle. For the custom .30-378 rifle, I prefer a 130-grain Barnes Triple Shock or 130-grain XLC coated bullet. Both calibers meet or exceed 4,000-fps muzzle velocity. The incredible expansion control of the all-copper bullets make it possible to achieve complete penetration in spite of their light weights and extreme velocities.

Ferguson went to South Africa last year with the .257 Hot Tamale in hand. Yes, he was treading on the hallowed tradition of the .375 H&H Magnum, but he convinced his professional hunter to give him a chance. Then he proceeded to anchor plains game large and small in their tracks with a single 100-grain bullet. Game including zebra, wildebeest, kudu, waterbuck and gemsbock folded up like scalded spiders upon bullet impact.

Before Ferguson left for Africa, he took a massive plains bison and a 6x6 bull elk with his .257, achieving complete pass through with the 100-grain all-copper bullets. Guess where he aimed at all these critters? The point of the shoulder — the thickest-muscled and most heavily boned part of their anatomy.

I have taken numerous deer with my Fergunson built quarter-bore rifle and I, too, seek the point-of-the-shoulder shot. They drop like stones.

Buckmasters videographer Jimmy Little and I went to Mexico on a whitetail hunt, and we filmed each other taking our bucks. When we returned to the office and viewed the footage in slow motion, we were astounded to see the devastating results of our shots. In both cases, the front ends of the deer collapsed — their heads dropped before their hind legs buckled. Then they flipped over backward and landed with all four feet pointed at the sky as if struck by lightning.

The subsequent examination of their vital organs further explained the effects of hypervelocity. Whether deer or buffalo, the internal examinations revealed the same thing: The vitals were, for the most part, unrecognizable, rendered as a mass of black jelly.

On Ferguson’s plains bison hunt in Canada, he used his custom Hot Tamale rifle while a friend used a .300 Win Mag. He said the examination of the buffalo shot with the .300 revealed a bullet hole through the lungs, but the farther from the bullet hole, the more the lungs looked pink and normal. The internal organs of the buffalo hit with the Hot Tamale were as described above — a mass of black jelly.

Why the difference? Shock. Liquid can’t be compressed, so when the force of hypervelocity impacts internal organs, the liquid contained therein becomes a deadly weapon in its own right. It explodes away from the impact with such force that it destroys all in its path. Crossing the 4,000-fps threshold of speed creates such intense hydrostatic shock within the animal that the liquid in its vital organs becomes something of an internal bomb. Magnum velocity of 3,000 fps does not approach this devastating threshold, regardless of bullet weights.

Now, a word about bullets: All-copper bullets are a key in standing up to hypervelocity. Since all-copper bullets are lighter in mass than lead, they must be longer than jacketed lead bullets of the same weight. This offers another advantage: The all-copper bullet of any given weight will be longer those that of a copper-coated lead bullet, creating a downrange ballistic advantage in speed and accuracy.

Wind drift is often cited as a reason not to use light bullets, but like gravity, wind drift is in a race with the bullet’s speed. The faster the bullet flies, the less time wind drift has to bear on the bullet.

I watched a man shoot a huge bull elk last season with one of Ferguson’s Mach IV Habaneros. He used a 130-grain XLC bullet leaving the barrel at 4,000-plus fps. The elk was some 200 yards distant. Upon impact, the bull’s chin hit the ground so hard, I thought it might have broken his jaws — and that was before his hind legs could even buckle! He never took a step. The bullet passed through the thickest part of his shoulder and exited the offside.

I shot a big Saskatchewan whitetail last fall with the custom .30-378 shooting the same bullet that dropped the elk. The buck was 240 yards from my blind. When the bullet hit, he did a complete back flip and landed without a twitch, as dead as a sack of cement.

Did I mention accuracy? Both rifles shoot three shots into -inch groups or less. I’ve taken several javelinas, much smaller than a whitetail, in excess of 400 yards by holding right on them. Amazing!

The argument of light high-velocity bullets versus big slower bullets will likely continue as long as hunters sit around campfires. But for me, the argument is forever settled.

I am sometimes quoted as saying “There all kinds of wounded, but only one kind of dead,” and while I still hold to that, I have come to realize that there is instant dead and there is dead pretty soon. I am definitely a proponent of instant dead, or as they say in Texas, “Dead right there!”

For more information on James Ferguson Custom Rifles, call (979) 533-0140 or visit

Battlin’ BulletsBigger is Always Better: By Bryce M. Towsley

Does size matter?

That is the perpetual question that has plagued men for eons. The simple answer, like it or not, is yes, and bigger is always better.

At least when it comes to hunting bullets.

It’s like boxing. If two guys fight with equal skill, the odds always favor the larger of the two winning, simply because he hits harder.

There is no single rational argument in favor of a little gun for hunting big game. Yes, of course it’s about bullet placement, but that’s important with any cartridge. Big guns are not a substitute for skill, and you still need to put the bullet where it belongs. The claim that careful placement makes up for an inadequate cartridge is ethically flawed. Hunting is not a shooting competition, and we should not be compromising the game we are hunting to “prove” what a great shot we are. We can prove our shooting skills in competition at the range, but we have a moral responsibility when hunting to use enough gun to ensure a clean kill under a wide range of conditions.

Today’s hunter is much too focused on velocity and flat trajectory. Rather than learn the skills to get close to game or recognize that most critters are taken at less than 200 yards, we are obsessed with long-range shooting. So we look for lightweight bullets with high muzzle velocity, and we delude ourselves in thinking that even a fraction of the hunters who own the equipment for this kind of shooting possess the skills.

Consider, too, that the bullet still has to do its most important job upon arrival. But bullets fail sometimes, and they don’t expand, or more likely with today’s hypervelocity cartridges, they overexpand and fail to penetrate. Big bullets depend on expansion, too, but if something goes wrong, they are already big bullets so they don’t have as much ground to make up.

As velocity decreases, energy also decreases, but exponentially. When a bullet hits a big game critter, it slows down dramatically. That decrease in velocity has a corresponding but compounded decrease in energy. So a light bullet stops penetrating rather quickly. However, a heavy bullet gets a greater percentage of its energy from bullet weight, which is a more direct correlation. So as the bullet slows in the game, a much lower percentage of energy is lost, and the bullet continues to penetrate. Larger bullet holes and more reliable penetration are the insurance policy that is carried by a bigger bullet.

“But,” some argue, “Big cartridges don’t shoot very flat, so they are not good at long range.”

Is the 7mm Remington Magnum a long-range cartridge? Are the .300 Winchester Magnum and the .300 WSM long-range cartridges? Most hunters will agree that they are. Most also will say that .35-caliber cartridges are considered “big” and therefore will not shoot with a flat enough trajectory to satisfy today’s “enlightened” hunters.

My .358 UMT  (Ultra Mag Towsley) shoots flatter than a 7mm Remington Magnum with a 160-grain bullet or any .300 Winchester, short or tall, with a 180-grain bullet. When the .358 UMT is loaded with a Nosler Partition 225-grain bullet at 3,225 fps and zeroed for 200 yards, it is only 5.72 inches low at 300 yards. The .300 Win Mag with the same zero is 7.60 inches low at 300 yards, and the 7mm Rem Mag drops 7.24 inches.

The .358 UMT makes a lot more sense for hunting elk, moose or bears than the smaller-bore guns. Not only does it shoot as flat, but it also hits these big, tough critters very hard. At 100 yards, it still has more energy than the .375 H&H has at the muzzle, and at 200 yards it retains 3,676 foot-pounds of energy, almost as much as the .338 Win Mag has at the muzzle. Not ready for a wildcat? There are several commercial cartridges with similar performance, including the .338 RUM.

I have had a lot of people argue that big guns are not accurate, but just the opposite is true. My .358 UMT will shoot groups less than a half-inch at 100 yards with several different loads. Both of my .375 H&H rifles are as accurate as varmint guns, as is my .338 RUM.

I just built a .458 Winchester to take to Africa this year, and it’s shooting less than a minute of angle with good loads. My Thompson/Center Encore in .416 Rigby will shoot sub-inch. My Remington Model 700 .35 Whelen will put selected loads in one big ragged hole at 100 yards. If anything, big guns are easier to make accurate than little guns because the variables are spread out over a wider range.

The reality is that big guns can shoot very well, but most shooters can’t shoot big guns very well. That’s because physics being what it is, big guns kick more than little guns.

However, that doesn’t mean you can’t master them. Coni Brooks, who owns Barnes bullets with her husband, Randy, stands about 5 feet nothing and weighs around 110 pounds. She hunts most of the time with a .338 Winchester, and when it’s big stuff, she uses the .500 Nitro Express. Now, are you big strong men going to stand there and tell me that she can do it and you can’t? With a proper fitting and well-designed rifle, anybody without physical limitations can master most hunting rifles.

Shooting any rifle well is a matter of practice. It will take more practice to master a hard-recoiling rifle than a powder puff, but it’s practice, not muscle or testosterone, that will have you shooting well with any cartridge.

The truth is that most of the bigger-bore rifle cartridges are going to produce lower velocity, simply due to the recoil factor. We can make a 500-grain .458 bullet go as fast as any of the new wonder magnums, but who will shoot it? Either the recoil will be death defying or the gun will be so heavy it will need wheels.

Moderate velocity is good, though, for a couple of reasons. First is bullet performance. The terminal performance demands on a bullet are much lower when the velocity is reasonable. A bullet exiting the muzzle at 4,000 fps will need to perform at any impact velocity from 4,000 fps down. That means it’s got to hold together and expand at high velocity and still expand on a long-range critter that it hits at low velocity. Making that happen is why a lot of bullet designers have gray hair. However, a bigger bullet at modest velocity has to meet lower expectations. They tend to be more predictable in game and a lot more reliable for penetration.

Penetration can make a big difference in the outcome of the hunt. Most hunters will claim they will wait for the perfect broadside shot, but reality is something different. Consider this scenario: An Eastern hunter saves his money for five years for his dream hunt for elk “out west.” After 10 hard, discouraging days, he has yet to see an elk. He is feeling his dream slip away, and he is getting a little desperate. It’s late on the last afternoon, and suddenly there is a huge bull elk quartering away from him and walking into the deep timber. Do you seriously think he will wait for a broadside shot that’s not going to happen, or “pass” on this one?  His chances right now are much higher with a .338 Winchester than they are with a .270 Winchester, simply because the big gun can penetrate better, make a bigger hole and hit harder.

Subscribe Today!Another factor is blood trails. I shot several whitetails this year using a new, small cartridge. It killed them fine, but rarely exited. Most of the deer ran before falling, and with no exit holes, the blood trails were not there. Some of the deer were hard to find, and, frankly, one was never found. Entry holes with pointed bullets tend to be small and do not leak much blood. A big bullet makes a bigger entry hole, and if it’s one that will penetrate, it will make a big exit hole for an even better blood trail. If you placed it right, that trail will always end at a dead critter.

I am not advocating that you need a .470 Nitro Express to hunt pronghorns; simply that it’s better to be overgunned than undergunned. As Russell Thornberry once told me, “There is only one kind of dead, but there are lots of different kinds of wounded.” A big gun carries a low-priced insurance policy.


What defines “big” is the animal hunted. It’s something different with whitetails than it is with elk. Most places in Africa with dangerous big game have a minimum bore diameter requirement, usually .375. These are rules that were a result of egotistical fools trying to shoot big and mean game with little guns. It simply got to be too much work to keep collecting them in garbage bags and sending the jellied remains home to the family.

Why do you suppose they mandated big calibers for big game? If little guns worked better and it was “all about shot placement,” why not set the minimum at .30 caliber? Oh wait, those dead guys already tried that approach!

Don’t we have the same moral responsibility to game that runs away from us as we do with game that runs after us?

Reprinted from the October 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.

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