By Ralph M. Lermayer
Today’s shooters are no doubt bedazzled by the number of high-tech bullets being offered by the major bullet and ammo makers. To read the claims, one would think all you had to do to succeed with one of these is send it in the direction of a game animal and go for your skinning knife.
There is no question that today’s high-end bullets are the finest ever made, but they may not be necessary for every situation. To understand their evolution and their applications, bear with me for a short stroll through bullet-making history.
It didn’t take the first shooters long to figure out that pure lead makes close to the ideal projectile. It’s cheap, readily available, easy to shape into any size, and, when kept within its limits, accurate. A heavy chunk of pure lead at moderate velocities will smash through bone and hide, yet hold together once inside a critter. The muzzleloader era included scores of major wars, and pure lead as a patched round ball or conical was a devastating performer. It fed, clothed and protected many a household.
Things changed with the advent of cased cartridges, when we began pushing bullets over 1,200 feet per second. At higher speeds, friction between the lead and the barrel caused the lead surface to melt and leave deposits in the bore. These deposits caused hard loading, high pressures and inaccuracy. Paper patching wrapped around the bullet worked for a while, but as speed climbed, bore leading was holding back progress. The solution: a gilding or copper metal jacket around the lead to protect it.
Enter jacketed bullets. Velocities still climbed as we progressed into the era of the .25-35, .25 Remington, .30-30, etc. Jackets got a little thicker to help penetration and hold things together, but the primary function was still protecting the lead. Then, we made the transition from the slower stuff to the .30-06, .300 H&H and the like, and bullet makers found themselves in another dilemma.
Existing bullet-jacket technology was failing miserably at the 2,700- 3,000-fps mark. Jackets and cores were separating on impact, causing bullets to fracture without penetrating. Manufacturers could build a bullet stout enough to hold up at high velocities, but it wouldn’t expand if the shot was long and velocity had dropped.
Ammo makers could also build one that would expand at lower speeds, but getting a bullet to perform at both ends of the velocity spectrum would take a lot of time and R&D.
At that point, the patron saint of bullet design stepped in. John Nosler solved the problem of fast or slow expansion with his Partition, basically a jacket that split the bullet into two parts. The first half of a Partition is softer lead with an exposed tip for rapid expansion separated by a solid web of copper from a harder lead base. The front opens up, the web checks further expansion, and the solid rear drives the bullet deep into the vitals. It worked.
The cutaway shows the high-tech design that goes into a super-premium bullet like the Winchester Fail Safe. Note the poly coating, deep nose cavity and dual steel reinforcement cups in the lead. The bullet on the left took a chunk out of a tree and still penetrated 18 inches through tough hide to down a 2,500-pound water buffalo.
The Nosler Partition became the first true, reliable premium bullet. Other manufacturers soon figured out other ways to taper their jackets: thicken them up at the base, bond their lead cores to the jacket, or, in the case of the Remington Core-Lokt, a thickened rear jacket with a locking ridge in the center. By the ’70s, everyone made a big game bullet that was accurate, held up to the 3,000-fps mark and still gave reliable performance at lower speeds.
Today, every bullet manufacturer makes bullets that reliably expand for everything a .300 Winchester, .300 Weatherby, 7mm Mag and the like can dish out at any range. Whatever brand you prefer has an option. In the beginning, you had to handload to use these premium bullets, but by the early ’90s, ammo manufacturers began teaming up with premium bullet makers to load their bullets as factory options.
You can now find Winchester ammo loaded with Nosler bullets, Remington ammo loaded with Swift Sciroccos, Nosler Partitions or Swift A-Frames, and Federal ammo loaded with Nosler Partitions, Sierra Game Kings or Barnes Triple Shocks. All are superb bullets that can handle high velocities at short or long range and with pinpoint accuracy.
Some rifles have preferences, but with a little experimenting, you can find a factory-loaded premium bullet that your rifle will dote on. For the last decade, we haven’t had to think about it much. In this premium category, we find the likes of Barnes X, Hornady’s Interlock, Speer’s Grand Slam, Federal’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Swift’s Scirocco and, of course, the standby Nosler Partition.
Remington’s standard Core-Lokt and Winchester’s Accubond join the list of great bullets that can be counted on to be accurate, ballistically superb and reliably expand whether that bull moose, white-tailed buck or bull elk presents a shot at 40 yards or 400.
With the performance dilemma solved, manufacturers turned to making bullets a little more accurate, creating different coatings to make bullets a little slicker and keep the bore cleaner, and adding different polymer tips to enhance downrange performance and protect them from battering their sharp noses in the magazine. All of the above is really just a matter of tweaking existing good bullets.
Then, about three years ago, another shakeup. Remington broke new ground with the introduction of the full-house Ultra Mags. Its .300 Ultra Mag can drive a 180-grain bullet at 3,300 fps in a factory load. The floodgates opened with a barrage of full and short mags that drive bullets faster and farther than a lot of the existing bullets can handle. The .300 Ultra Mag even pushed the limits of Remington’s own standby Core-Lokt, causing something unheard of in decades: bullet fracture! With the bar raised once again, it’s back to the drawing board in bullet design. Enter the new and latest world of super-premium bullets.
Remington wasted little time in revamping the Core-Lokt bullets, and it was probably long overdue. The basic Core-Lokt is a great design, and deer hunters across the country continue to swear by them, but it can’t handle the power of the Ultras. Step one was a 20 percent heavier jacket with a new wall profile that’s narrower at the tip and thicker at the base. The Core-Lokt Ultra web is thicker by 50 percent, and the entire core is now chemically bonded to the jacket with a close-to-the-vest, proprietary process.
It’s a secret, but I suspect a chemical is added much like a soldering flux that bonds the copper and lead together under heat. Some form of bonding has become crucial for today’s bullets as the rotational stress imposed by high velocities in fast-twist bores can make non-bonded bullets separate. Remington claims the new Core-Lokt Ultra will reliably expand but hold together at ranges from 50 to 500 yards. That is serious bullet technology. Ultra bullets are now available loaded in a wide range of calibers from .243 to .338 and may eventually replace the standard Core-Lokts. Check www.remington.com or your local Remington retailer for availability.
Winchester Fail Safe
The Fail Safe brings a little of every technique we know about bullet technology and puts it in one bullet, then adds some more. The forward half is solid copper with a deep hollow nose cavity that runs about a third of the bullet length. Then, you hit a super-thick web leading to the shank of the bullet’s lead rear core. That core is protected in the forward end by a steel cup, and another steel cup protects the base. All of the lead is chemically bonded to the jacket, and the whole works are covered with a slick Lubalox coating.
It’s as high tech as you can get. Fail Safes are super-tough bullets designed for bullet extremes, and, most importantly, they are accurate.
Fail Safes are offered in the Winchester Premium line, in .243 to .338. They’re also available to handloaders. For a full list, check www.winchester.com.
Do you need the performance capabilities built into these new super-premium bullets? For the vast majority of hunters, the answer is no. Under normal hunting conditions, the proven bullets we’ve come to rely on are perfectly adequate. For the velocity limits of the standard .30-06, .308, .270, even up to the 7mm and .300 Win Mag, existing premium lines are long proven. But there is a place where the new high-tech bullets can make a difference — when you’re hunting big, heavy and potentially dangerous game.
Last year, I had two hunts where the modern bullets were my first choice. The first hunt was in central Australia for water buffalo. While backing up another hunter who was shooting a bull at about 150 yards, movement to my right caused me to turn just as 2,500 pounds of nasty bull appeared. Head down and bent on bowling me over, he was running straight at me from 40 yards away.
My first shot took him in the shoulder but did little to change his mind or direction. As he closed the distance through some trees, I shot him again at about 30 yards. It dropped him instantly. Inspection showed that the bullet tore a 3-inch chunk out of a tree before penetrating the bull’s hide and traveling 16 inches to smash the vertebra.
The bullet that performed this feat was a 180-grain Fail Safe fired from a .300 Winchester Short Mag. It’s highly doubtful that any conventional bullet would have held together. In that instance, high tech saved my bacon.
In all, seven of us took a total of 13 buffalo with the short mags on that hunt. Some may deem that caliber too small for dangerous game, but the performance built into these bullets is like stepping up in caliber. They deliver a lot more punch.
I also chose a premium bullet for a bison hunt in South Dakota. While not particularly hard to hunt, bison are big and tough and can take a lot of lead. A 180-grain Core-Lokt Ultra from a .300 Ultra Mag broke both shoulders for a spectacular one-shot drop from 160 yards. Again, the bullet held together through a gauntlet of hide, bone and muscle. Six bison were taken on that hunt, specifically to test the Ultra, and, in every case, they dropped as though hit with a .375. Once advantage to these high-tech bullets is you can ease back on caliber a little. With them, a .270 will perform like a .30 caliber and a .30 like a .33 — more punch with a little bit less punishment.
For this upcoming season, there is a long-awaited combination moose, bear and deer hunt scheduled. I’ll be using one gun, one load and one bullet for all of it — a .300 Rem SAUM loaded with 180-grain Core-Lokt Ultra. A 180-grain Fail Safe in a short mag would be equally well suited for that much diversity. Either shoots flat enough for long-range deer, yet is tough enough for close-in work on the big, heavy and mean.
Would these bullets be my first choice on this year’s antelope, whitetail or muley hunts? Probably not. I’ll fall back on standard premium bullets and cartridges that are easier on the pocketbook and the shoulder. Super-premium bullets may not be necessary, but they sure bring a little extra peace of mind if you have to task a bullet to the max.
Reprinted from the September 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine