The Case for Standard (Soft Point) Hunting Bullets

By Chuck Hawks

First, let's define standard hunting bullets. By "standard" I mean soft point and hollow point bullets of the types made the major bullet manufacturers. These are the bullets commonly found in factory loads such as the Remington Express, Winchester Super-X, Federal Power-Shok, and Hornady Custom lines.

Standard bullets used in these factory loads (and some premium factory loads as well) include the Winchester Power Point, Power Point Plus, Positive Expanding Point and Silvertip; Hornady Interlock; Federal Soft Point; Speer Hot-Cor; Sierra GameKing, Remington Core-Lokt and Core-Lokt Hollow Point. Standard bullets widely used by North American reloaders include most of the above plus the Sierra ProHunter, Nosler Solid Base, and Barnes Original. Most bullets referred to simply as a soft point or hollow point by the various ammunition and bullet manufacturers are standard bullets.

"Tipped" bullets, such as the Remington Bronze Point and AccuTip, Nosler Ballistic Tip, CT Ballistic Silvertip, and Hornady SST can also be included as standard bullets, since their terminal performance is similar to that of soft point bullets despite their pretty plastic tips. These bullets often appear in premium factory loads such as the Winchester Supreme, Remington Premier, Hornady Light Magnum, and Federal Vital-Shok lines, but in terminal performance these are conventional bullets.

What are NOT standard bullets are the premium priced, controlled expansion bullets featuring bonded cores, dual cores and the like. So this article is not about bullets such as the Nosler Partition and AccuBond, Winchester Fail Safe, Speer Grand Slam, Federal Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, Woodleigh Weldcore, Remington Core-Lokt Ultra, Hornady InterBond, Swift A-Frame and Sirocco, A-Square Dead Tough, and Barnes X-Bullet.

I also do NOT include cheap promotional bullets, varmint bullets, cast lead bullets, frangible bullets, full metal jacket bullets, "solid" bullets, or any kind of surplus military bullets. None of these are a good choice (and most are not even legal) for hunting CXP2 or CXP3 class big game.

Modern soft point, hollow point, and tipped bullets are built around a lead core contained in a copper or copper alloy (called "gilding metal") jacket. The jacket protects the bullet's lead core during its trip down the rifle barrel and also helps to control bullet expansion. In terminal performance it matters little whether expansion is initiated by exposed lead at the front of the bullet, a plastic or bronze tip, or a hollow point. All three will get the job done if properly engineered.

These standard type bullets are deadly on medium size (CXP2) big game animals. If you are hunting non-dangerous animals ranging in size from about 50 pounds to, say, 400 pounds, these are usually the best bullets to use. Let me repeat that: standard bullets are usually the best choice for CXP2 game.

Standard bullets will ordinarily provide more expansion and faster kills than premium controlled expansion bullets on animals such as pronghorn antelope, whitetail deer, blacktail deer, mule deer, mountain goats, wild sheep, black bear, caribou, and similar size animals worldwide. These are all relatively light framed animals, so a bullet that penetrates into the heart/lung area and expands violently, thus destroying the maximum amount of tissue, gives the quickest, most humane, kills.

Of course, you do have to get any bullet into a vital spot. You can break an animal's leg with the best bullet on earth, and it is not going to result in a quick kill.

Note that it is not necessary for the bullet to be recovered largely intact. Bullets that fragment after reaching the vitals do more tissue damage than those that are recovered looking like perfect little mushrooms. Bullets that shoot through and through usually do less internal damage than those that are found in pieces under the hide on the off side.

Occasionally I get correspondence that reads something like this: "Last season I dropped a buck in his tracks with one shot, but when we dressed him we found that the bullet had come apart inside of the animal. What went wrong? Should I change bullets?"

My answer is that nothing went wrong. The bullet performed perfectly. Congratulations on a humane, one shot kill. Don't change anything! A deeper penetrating bullet would result in a slower, less humane kill.

The only real "problem" with standard bullets is that many shooters and hunters have been propagandized to believe that all recovered bullets should look like those shown in the advertisements, and that any bullet that does not retain most of its weight and shoot through and through is no good. (Why? It should be obvious that a bullet that goes clear through the animal is wasting its remaining energy on the landscape.)

That is fine if your goal is to sell expensive premium bullets, which is exactly what the ammo and bullet makers want to do. It is no secret in the trade that premium ammo has a much higher profit margin than standard ammo, so that is what the manufacturers prefer to sell. Unfortunately, this propaganda is misleading at best and flat wrong at worst, if the buyer is looking for quick kills on deer size animals.

In fact, standard bullets will also work just fine on large, CXP3 game like elk and moose if they are delivered to the heart/lung area from the front or side. Standard bullets are not the ticket, however, for smashing through heavy shoulder joints or for so-called "raking" shots on heavy game. (In other words, shooting a north bound animal in the south end.) A premium, controlled expansion bullet is better in that scenario.

I would argue, however, that one should not attempt raking shots in the first place. They are always risky, with any kind of bullet. Wait until you have a clear shot at the heart/lung area, or don't shoot. So what if you have to stalk closer, or even lose a trophy, because a good shot is not available. That's why our sport is called "hunting." Your duty as a responsible hunter is a quick kill. If you are not certain of that result, you are obliged to hold your fire. If you want an easy sport, take up racket ball.

A complaint often heard about fast expanding bullets is that they destroy too much meat. My answer is that the whole point is to destroy a lot of tissue in order to cause a quick, humane death. The shooter, not the bullet, is responsible for what tissue is destroyed. If you put the bullet into the heart/lung area, little if any edible meat is destroyed, since most people don't eat internal organs. If you put the bullet into the animal's hip it is going to destroy a lot of meat, for sure, but the hip is not a vital organ. This is a bullet placement, not a bullet performance, problem.

Many shooters today seem to be obsessed with accuracy. Frankly, for the hunter this obsession is sometimes counter-productive, but the good news is that standard bullets are also usually the most accurate bullets. Their relatively uncomplicated design apparently results in a more uniform finished product, and uniformity is the key to hair splitting accuracy.

The bottom line is that premium bullets are neither required nor desirable for most hunting. Animals the size of deer, antelope, sheep, goats and caribou comprise the most sought after game species all around the world. These CXP2 class animals are what the standard bullets were designed to kill. That is why they are standard bullets.

Additional reading for those interested in the subject of hunting bullets are the articles "Bullets for Big Game Hunting" and "The Killing power of Big Game Bullets." Both can be found in the Ammunition, Bullets, and Ballistics section of the Rifle Information Page here on Guns and Shooting Online.

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Copyright 2005, 2007 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.