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By Chuck Hawks
The most expensive part of a centerfire cartridge is the case. That is why it is saved for reuse. The second most expensive component of a cartridge is the bullet, which, unfortunately, cannot be reused. However, it is so important that economy here is false economy.
The bullet is what gets the job done downrange, whether that be puncturing a tin can, a paper target, a ground hog, a big game animal, or even (heaven forbid) another human being. The effectiveness of the cartridge rests upon the bullet.
The bullet is also the prime determining factor in accuracy. Not that case uniformity, powder, and primer don't affect the accuracy of reloads, but the bullet usually has the most effect.
Today the reloader for modern handgun or rifle cartridges has an excellent selection of very good bullets, available in many calibers, from which to choose. Although there are over a hundred current rifle cartridges alone, many of them use the same caliber (diameter) of bullets. The .30 Carbine, .30-30, .300 Savage, .308 Winchester, .30-06, and various .300 Magnums all use .308" diameter bullets, for example.
Following are the most common bullet diameters available to rifle reloaders (there are a few others, but they are considerably less common). The last number shows how many different rifle bullets are offered in each of these common calibers (in 2003) by the Hornady Manufacturing Company, one of the biggest producers of bullets for reloaders in the U.S.
And these are the main bullet diameters available to handgun reloaders. (Again, there are some oddities, but this covers the mainstream calibers.)
Not every manufacturer's line is identical, of course. Hornady doesn't offer a 9.3mm (.366") caliber bullet, for instance, but Barnes, Nosler, Speer, Swift, and Woodleigh do. Consider that each of the big bullet manufacturers has a similar size line, and it becomes clear that the reloader usually has a much greater bullet selection than the shooter who must rely on factory loads. The bullet makers who offer the greatest selection to reloaders in the U.S. and whose bullets are the most widely distributed are Barnes, Hornady, Nosler, Sierra, and Speer. I have used all of these brands with a high degree of satisfaction.
The lead ball
The simplest bullet today is a pure lead ball. (We no longer shoot rounded stones or scraps of metal from our guns.) Hornady and Speer, among others, offer lead balls for those who shoot muzzleloaders. Lead balls are the most common sort of projectile fired from cap and ball revolvers, even today, and that is what I shoot in mine. They are capable of excellent accuracy and pack plenty of punch for small game hunting. The soft lead expands (flattens) readily upon impact, and lead balls can inflict very lethal wounds, as the slaughter that occurred during the American Civil War illustrates. The U.S. military still refers to its full metal jacketed service ammunition as "ball," even though the projectile used is a sleek boat-tail spitzer bullet.
A step up the bullet evolutionary ladder is the pure lead "conical ball." This is a cylindrical-shaped projectile, usually with a round, flattened, or semi-pointed nose, also used in muzzleloading arms. They look much like modern lead round nose pistol bullets. Conical bullets are used in both black powder rifles and handguns. Their advantage over a lead ball of the same caliber is greater weight and sectional density, for better penetration and higher energy downrange. Their disadvantage is usually decreased accuracy, because it is hard to align the bullet perfectly with the bore when seating it from the muzzle.
Modern lead bullets
The simplest bullet for modern cartridge firing guns is the lead bullet still commonly used in revolvers. These are the direct descendents of the black powder conical. Lead is a very soft metal, and it is rubbed off the bullet by the heat and friction of its trip down the bore. It jams into the rifling grooves and degrades accuracy. It can also be difficult and time consuming to remove. Modern lead bullets are usually not pure lead, commonly being alloyed with 1.5-5% antimony to reduce the leading that occurs at the higher velocities (compared to black powder arms) achieved by most modern cartridge arms. Lead bullets can be cast or swaged. Cast bullets usually contain more antimony and leave less lead fouling in the bore after firing.
Lead bullets are cheap to buy, and for that reason they are still widely used in handguns and some low velocity rifles. .22 Short, Long, and Long Rifle cartridges are all loaded with lead bullets, although the bullets used in "high velocity" .22 loads are usually plated with copper to reduce barrel leading. Lead bullets generally provide less effective terminal ballistics than jacketed bullets, and they can leave a considerable mess in the gun barrel.
Jacketed bullets were invented to eliminate the hassle of leading, a problem with all exposed lead bullets. Encasing the lead core in a thin sheath of copper so that no lead touches the bore on the bullet's trip down the barrel was a great innovation. The copper jacket is usually formed in the shape of a tall cup into which the lead is forced. The base of the lead bullet can still be seen, but it does not touch the bore. The front and sides of the bullet are entirely copper clad.
Most jacketed bullets don't use a pure copper jacket (some do), but rather a copper alloy called gilding metal, which is about 90-95% copper and 5-10% zinc. This alloy is a little harder than pure copper and leaves less copper fouling behind after firing. A thin copper wash is left in the barrel after firing jacketed bullets, but it is only a tiny fraction of the residue left by lead bullets. Usually, at least in moderation, this does not seem to have an appreciable effect on accuracy.
Full Metal Jacket
Today we call bullets with no lead exposed at the front "full metal jacket" (FMJ) or "metal case" bullets. The famous Geneva Convention decreed that only non-expanding (FMJ) bullets be used in military combat, and all major military powers comply with that directive to this day.
Originally FMJ bullets were round nose in shape, but later it was realized that the jacket made possible truly streamlined bullets that allowed a flatter trajectory and carried more energy downrange. This dramatically increased the range and lethality of rifle bullets. The Germans developed the long, pointed bullet shape we call "spitzer," a word taken from the German name for such bullets. In 1905 the German Army adopted a spitzer bullet for their new service cartridge, the 8x57JS, and the other major powers quickly followed suit.
FMJ bullets are less expensive to manufacture than most other jacketed bullets. They are available to reloaders in many pistol and some rifle calibers, where they are primarily used for inexpensive practice ammunition. They are a reasonable substitute for plain lead bullets in that role. FMJ bullets should never be used for hunting.
Soft Point jacketed bullets
For jacketed hunting or personal defense bullets the jacket is reversed; the base of the bullet is covered and the lead core at the front is exposed. This is to allow for bullet expansion, which greatly increases stopping and killing power. These are called "soft point" bullets. Soft point bullets work very well for most hunting applications, particularly when plenty of lead is left exposed to initiate expansion. Today jacketed expanding bullets come in all manner of shapes, from flat point and round nose to aerodynamic spire point and spitzer (pointed) designs. Sometimes the jackets are of uniform thickness, but often the jacket tapers from thin at the nose (to facilitate expansion) to heavier toward the base of the bullet (to limit and control the later stages of expansion).
Jacketed Hollow Point bullets
The hollow point, simply a cavity cast or otherwise formed in the lead tip, can also be used to initiate expansion. Hollow point bullets are particularly popular in handgun cartridges, which lack the energy of rifle bullets to initiate expansion at impact. Carefully designed jacketed hollow point (JHP) pistol bullets can be made to expand reliably at even moderate handgun velocities. Medium caliber JHP pistol bullets have proven far more lethal than non-expanding (either hard-cast or FMJ) big bore pistol bullets, a fact that big bore pistol advocates denied for decades (some still do!). However, there are also very effective big bore JHP bullets on the market.
In recent years jacketed bullet design has become very sophisticated, and "premium" bullets have become quite popular. Jackets are designed with varying thickness and inner belts to control or limit expansion. The lead cores are soldered or otherwise bonded to the jackets to prevent separation during the great stress of impact and expansion. Nosler invented the Partition bullet, which has a traverse internal partition of jacket material that positively stops expansion at that point. A-Frame and H-Mantle bullets use a similar internal partition. (In cross section the bullet resembles the letter "A" or "H," with the partition being represented by the letter's cross bar.) Some dual-core bullets use different alloys of lead in the front and rear sections of the bullet to help control expansion. The Speer Grand Slam bullet is of this type.
Other bullet makers have successfully eliminated the lead core altogether, fashioning the bullet out of pure copper. The Barnes X-Bullet was the pioneer bullet of this type. It uses a small hollow point that causes the tip of the bullet to fold back like the petals of a flower upon impact, but the bullet normally retains virtually 100% of its weight for maximum penetration. This has proven to be an excellent design where deep penetration is required.
There are premium bullets that are solid copper hollow points in front (like a Barnes-X) and have a lead core in back (like a Nosler Partition); the CT Fail Safe bullet is constructed this way. And there are bullets that reverse that idea, using a lead core in front for expansion and a solid copper rear half for penetration, such as the Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw.
It is perhaps worth mentioning that, at least in my experience, complicated premium bullet designs are seldom as accurate as conventional soft point bullets and their derivatives. Most also kill medium size animals (CXP2 class game) slower that faster opening bullets, tending toward complete penetration that wastes a lot of their energy on the background rather than using it to destroy the animal's vital organs.
As far as I know it was Remington Arms who first introduced bullets with a hard, pointed tip to increase ballistic coefficient (BC) and eliminate tip deformation. This was the Bronze Point bullet of the 1930's, which is still available in a few calibers. The hard tip was supposed to act as a wedge to initiate expansion upon impact. CIL of Canada changed the tip material to easily molded plastic for their Saber Tip bullets. Many years later Nosler adopted the idea and incorporated it into their Ballistic Tip bullet line. Nosler successfully promoted the idea, and suddenly the tipped bullet, which had been largely ignored for decades, became extremely popular. Plastic tipped bullets like the Nosler Ballistic Tip have a good reputation for accuracy.
Now practically everyone is offering rifle bullets with plastic tips, and even some handgun bullets have plastic tips. Standard plastic tip hunting bullets usually open quickly and provide results similar to conventional soft point bullets, which they resemble in internal construction. There are also premium bullets with plastic tips that incorporate bonded cores and other trick design features to retain weight and increase penetration, while still offering excellent initial expansion.
Choosing a bullet
The reloader should realistically analyze what he or she hopes to achieve with the cartridges being reloaded. Where, under what conditions, in what terrain, and for what purpose will the bullet be used? Is flat trajectory of primary importance? The ability to penetrate brush or other obstacles on the bullet's path to the target? Will very deep penetration be required--or even desirable? Is a quick opening bullet with a fast energy dump more appropriate? How much accuracy do you really need?
Once a clear purpose is understood, research appropriate bullets in sources such as Guns and Shooting Online and your various reloading manuals. You should own the company's reloading manual for every brand of bullet you shoot.
I get more questions about bullet selection for deer hunting than anything else, so I am going to use that as an example. (The second most common question regards loads for self defense, and there are already entire articles on the subject on Guns and Shooting Online. See "Ammunition for the Self Defense Firearm" and "A Beginner's Guide to Stopping Power" for starters.)
When a rifle shooter hopes to use reloaded ammunition to bag any game animal he or she needs to consider the conditions in which the hunt will take place, for altitude, heat, and cold will all influence ammunition performance. The anticipated range, the type of country to be hunted (open, wooded, etc.) and the size and type of the game itself are other factors that should be considered.
Let's say our hunter is a new reloader named Dennis, whose big game rifle is chambered for the .308 Winchester cartridge. Dennis is going to be doing his deer hunting somewhere along the wooded slopes of the great range of Western mountains known as the Cascades/Sierras, where shots will likely be anywhere from 25 yards to a maximum of 250 yards. It will be cool in the fall, so extreme climatic conditions are unlikely. There will be brush and woods and clearings on those slopes. He knows that shooting through branches and brush is a very risky business indeed, and there will be plenty of openings around the trees in the area he intends to hunt, so he has resolved to wait until a deer presents a clear shot.
The deer Dennis is likely to encounter are going to average maybe 150 pounds live weight, with an exceptionally large specimen weighing not more than 250 pounds. This is CXP2 class game. So the Speer factory loads using 180 grain Grand Slam bullets that he bought for last year's elk season are obviously not going to be the best choice for this year's deer hunt.
Dennis bought those Speer factory loads because they were advertised to give maximum penetration on heavy (CXP3 class) game such as elk. He realizes that better results on 150 pound deer will be had with a different bullet. A good opportunity for him to apply his new reloading skills.
Having read the articles about deer hunting and deer rifles, as well as those about rifle cartridges and bullets on Guns and Shooting Online, Dennis concludes that a relatively quick opening 150 grain jacketed spitzer bullet will give him the knock down power to quickly dispatch any deer he might encounter. Further, a muzzle velocity between 2700-2800 fps will give him an adequately flat trajectory for the country he will be hunting. Besides, he has read that medium velocity loads are often the most accurate. Speaking of accuracy, MOA groups would be nice, but the best his rifle has ever shot with factory loads is 1.75" at 100 yards, so he will be satisfied with that. Deer are fairly large targets and that is plenty accurate enough to kill a deer at 250 yards.
On a shelf in his reloading room Dennis has the reloading manuals from Hornady, Nosler, Sierra, and Speer, all of whom make suitable 150 grain bullets. Every bullet makers' reloading manual includes specific information about their line of bullets. These are valuable sources of information when choosing bullets. Dennis knows that a premium bullet will probably expand too slowly for his purposes, and he sees no reason to pay for more bullet technology than he needs. He has already developed a preference for reloading boat-tail bullets, as he has found that they slip easily into his resized cases. So he narrows his choices down to the following 150 grain boat-tail spitzer bullets: Hornady Interlock boat-tail spire point, Nosler Ballistic tip, Sierra GameKing, and Speer Hot-Cor boat-tail spitzer.
Despite each manufacturer's claims of superiority, Dennis suspects that any of these bullets would meet his requirements. He determines to buy at least two of the four brands and test them in his own rifle at a MV between 2700-2800 fps, according to the loads recommended in his reloading manuals. He will simply buy one box each of the two bullet brands carried by his local sporting goods store, which happens to be Hornady and Sierra. (Had his local store stocked Nosler and Speer bullets instead, that would have been equally acceptable.)
Dennis has also noted that medium to medium-fast burning powders are recommended for the .308 with 150 grain bullets. Viht N140, IMR 3031, and WIN 748 powders are specifically mentioned in his reloading manuals as good choices for the .308/150 combination. Not wanting to spend a fortune doing research on bullets and powders, he decides to pick one of these three powders for initial bullet testing. Probably any one of the three powders will do. He is pretty sure that the same local sporting goods store carries the Winchester and IMR lines of powders, so he will get either WIN 748 or IMR 3031, whichever they have in stock. If the first powder does not work out, he will try one of the others.
Dennis is on the right track, and unless his rifle is particularly cantankerous he is going to be able to develop a suitable load with little problem. My .308 does quite well with the Sierra bullet and IMR 3031 powder, but Dennis' rifle may well have a different preference. That can only be determined by actual testing.
Obviously, a shooter selecting a .44 Magnum bullet for silhouette target shooting with his Contender pistol would have a whole different set of priorities than our friend Dennis. But the point of my little fictional tale is the methodology Dennis used to narrow down his bullet choices. He realistically analyzed his needs, did a little research, and reached a practical conclusion that he could implement conveniently and economically without going farther afield than his local sporting goods store.
There is much more that I could write about the subject of bullets. Fortunately, I have done so in several other articles.
For the rifle shooter and reloader interested in learning more about bullets, I humbly recommend my articles: "The Sectional Density of Rifle Bullets," "The Ballistic Coefficient of Rifle Bullets," "Bullets for Big Game Hunting," and "The Killing Power of Big Game Bullets." The rifle shooter may also find the "Rifle Bullet Diameter List," "Bullet Frontal Area List," "Rifle Bullet Sectional Density List," and the "Rifle Trajectory Table" to be convenient resources.
The handgun shooter may find "The Sectional Density of Handgun Bullets" and the "Handgun Trajectory Table" useful references. And the article "A Beginners Guide to Stopping Power" and the little dialogue piece "Thoughts About Handgun Stopping Power" might also prove interesting.
Copyright 2003, 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.