By Glenn Barnes
The author prefers a hard-cast bullet when tough, heavy-boned critters are on the hunting menu.
Each year, sporting magazines publish hundreds of articles on new or existing handguns used for hunting. Many of these stories are helpful to potential buyers, pointing out a firearm’s inherent strengths and weaknesses. But don’t forget that a handgun is merely the launching pad for the most important part of the hunting package: the projectile.
Lead has been the most common handgun bullet alloy for more than a century. In its purest form, lead has a Brinell Hardness Number (BHN) of 5. It is easily cast or swaged into practically any bullet shape. This feature, along with its relative low cost, makes it popular with bullet manufacturers, and its accuracy and performance endears it to the hearts of shooters.
Most commercially produced lead bullets have a pointed nose of some kind, from severely pointed to almost egg-shaped. These are well suited for target work, but lack the design features that make them acceptable for hunting.
The late Elmer Keith, a handgun hunting guru and authority on bullet design, was quick to realize the importance of a properly constructed hunting bullet. In 1917, Keith and a friend startled a mountain goat sunning itself in the high backcountry. The old billy promptly took off running, almost straight away from the hunters. Keith had left his rifle back at camp, so he reached for his Colt Single Action Army chambered in .45 Colt.
Keith shot the goat at 40 yards, using Remington factory ammo with 40 grains of blackpowder and a 250-grain pointed lead bullet. Even by today’s standards, this is a powerful load. The slug traveled the full length of the goat before breaking the left shoulder, where the bullet was later recovered.
Elmer Keith designed the bullet that bears his name long before most of us were born. It remains a popular choice for the serious handgun hunter.
Keith had fired multiple shots at the old billy. He was clearly shaken by the slugs’ performance. Instead of cutting full-caliber holes in the animal, the pointed slugs simply sliced through the tissue, leaving narrow wound channels. Keith thought that a flat-pointed bullet would perform much better. He obtained a .45-90 Winchester 300-grain rifle mold, cast a few pounds of bullets and then sized them to .454 so they would function in his .45 Colt revolver. He then loaded them behind 35 grains of FFG black powder.
With this load, Keith killed a variety of game, including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, jackrabbits and several heavy-bodied mule deer. In each case, the animal simply dropped at the shot. Autopsies proved his theory that flat-pointed bullets opened a larger wound channel and caused greater tissue destruction than pointed lead bullets.
Keith then set out to develop the perfect handgun bullet. The culmination of his efforts, the “Keith” bullet, remains a near-perfect hunting projectile even today.
His design was a semi-wadcutter bullet with three full-caliber bands and a large square-cornered grease groove to hold plenty of lubrication. He also determined that a hard-cast bullet, usually a mixture of tin and lead, allowed him to push the projectiles to higher velocities than pure lead bullets without sacrificing accuracy.
Today, Keith-designed bullets are still available to the serious handgun hunter, usually as hand-loading components. For those who enjoy casting their own bullets, Lyman, RCBS and NEI produce molds very close to Keith’s original specifications. All produce bullets that, when cast hard, are accurate and superb performers on game. The Keith bullet paved the way for many other excellent designs and showed how effective a properly constructed handgun bullet is on game.
Although hard-cast bullets will take game from squirrels to grizzlies, they work best on tough, heavy-boned critters. The wild boar is a prime example. Large hogs have a thick gristle shield that covers most of their vitals. Last year, I managed to take a nice Texas boar at 36 yards with Federal’s excellent Cast-Core factory load. This ammo features a 300-grain LBT heat-treated Cast Performance bullet that has a BHN of 18-21, or four times harder than pure lead. A post-mortem inspection of the boar revealed the bullet had penetrated its gristle shield, broken the near shoulder and plowed through the lungs, breaking the off shoulder and exiting the other gristle plate. This is typical performance for a properly constructed cast bullet.
Most handgun hunters do not need the bone-breaking, penetrating qualities of a hard-cast bullet to put meat in the freezer. But when large, tough critters are on the hunting menu, a well-designed cast bullet is the logical choice.
Until the 1960s, serious handgun hunters used the Keith bullet simply because it was the best hunting bullet available. One of the first major improvements in bullet design was to create a gas check on the base of the lead bullet. This allowed it to be pushed to higher velocities without leading or fouling the barrel. Many cast bullet manufacturers still use gas checks on their high-performance projectiles for this reason.
Next up in bullet evolution was the half-jacketed bullet, which is nothing more than a copper cup usually filled with pure or hardened lead. In truth, this design offered few advantages over the simple gas check, but it was the next step leading to the development of the modern jacketed hunting bullet.
Today’s handgunner can choose from a wide array of jacketed hunting bullets. They offer repeatable precision and performance at velocities that would amaze yesteryear’s ballisticians. Jacketed bullets expand rapidly and deliver excellent penetration on deer-sized game. Unlike cast bullets, which kill by punching a full caliber-sized hole through bone and disrupting vital organs, often with little shock value, a jacketed bullet can be counted on to deliver quite dramatic results.
A small whitetail I took using Hornady’s excellent XTP handgun bullet last year is a good example. The deer was slightly quartering toward me at 39 yards. At the shot, the animal simply dropped. The Hornady bullet completely penetrated the deer, leaving a silver-dollar-sized exit wound. Had this been an antelope, mule deer or another deer-sized critter, results would have likely been the same.
Another example of the effectiveness of jacketed bullets: At the annual “handgun only” deer hunt sponsored by White Oak Plantation in Tuskegee, Ala., I was perched high in a treestand overlooking a food plot when a large doe wandered into range. The light was fading fast when she finally turned broadside at 41 yards. I was testing Winchester’s newest premium hunting ammunition, the Platinum Tip. The 250-grain hollowpoint bullet took the deer right above the heart, dropping her instantly. Again, the exit hole was about the size of a silver dollar. This is the kind of performance I’ve come to expect from modern jacketed handgun bullets.
Compared to cast bullets, high-performance jacketed bullets are relatively new to the handgun hunting scene, but offer impressive performance. My suggestion, having used both cast and jacketed bullets for a number of years, is to match the bullet to the game. Use a hard-cast bullet when bone-breaking penetration is needed, and a premium jacketed bullet for everything else. A quick, humane kill will be the result, which is what we all should strive for, anyway.
Reprinted from the July 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine