The right bullet to bring down your game of choice

A few years back, a fellow moose hunter opened my eyes to the fact that many hunters have a poor understanding about choosing the proper bullet for big game. He was using a lightly constructed, 150-grain bullet in his .30-06, arguing that its high velocity makes it the best choice for taking down a bull. I said little at the time as we were in a remote camp and he had no other options, but I thanked our lucky stars when he didn't get a chance to prove his theory. The results would not have been pretty.

Make no mistake, today's bullets are generally well constructed and a considerable improvement over their predecessors. However, some bullets are better for a given situation than others. And understanding the characteristics to select in a bullet for any given game animal or hunting scenario is essential for a sure kill.

A bullet takes down game by disrupting one or more of the animal's vital processes, specifically the circulatory, nervous, respiratory and digestive systems. Under most conditions, the chest shot is ideal because it damages the lungs, with the heart and spinal column serving as backups if the shot is a little off the mark.

It's up to the hunter, though, to first select the right bullet to get the job done. And that decision largely depends on what side you support in the old campfire argument over bullet penetration.

Some hunters believe a bullet should expand rapidly enough to expend all its energy within the body of the animal. If the bullet enters and then exits the animal, they argue, some of its energy has been wasted. Others contend, however, that it's preferable for the bullet to pass through the animal. With both an entrance and exit wound, they argue, the animal leaves behind a better blood trail.

I don't subscribe to the latter rationale, as a well-placed shot will more often than not preclude the need for a blood trail, but I do support complete penetration on a broadside chest shot. That way, if you have less than an ideal shot and the bullet must pass through significant amounts of bone or muscle, it stands a better chance of penetrating to the vitals.

The amount of penetration is largely determined by how quickly the bullet opens up, or “mushrooms,” after it leaves the rifle. With traditional big-game bullets, the degree to which a bullet expands depends on the thickness of the jacket, the amount of exposed lead and velocity.

For years the best bullets were the domain of the handloaders. That changed in the '70s, however, when Federal Ammunition started loading aftermarket premium, or controlled-expansion, bullets. Today, all the major ammunition manufacturers offer a premium line. While the construction of these bullets varies, each is essentially designed to offer deep penetration, controlled expansion and high weight retention.

While more expensive than standard-grade bullets, they are well worth the added cost considering the importance of your bullet's performance. This is particularly so when you're hunting heavier game, including bears and antlered animals larger than 350 pounds. If you hunt game in this category, read the information provided by the manufacturers, select a few different brands and then test them to see which ones perform best in your rifle.

Understand, of course, that controlled expansion is not as critical when hunting thin-skinned, whitetail-sized game. In fact, bullets specifically designed to expand are often a better option here, making most of the conventional soft-points and pointed soft-point bullets fine choices.

While bullet construction makes a difference, remember that heavy-for-calibre bullets will always penetrate better than lighter bullets. Consider your calibre, species of game and the types of shots you may encounter and then select your bullet accordingly.

And if you're pursuing larger animals, consider one of the premium-grade bullets. Chances are you won't be disappointed, and you'll significantly reduce the risk of merely wounding, and losing, your quarry.

Going deep

When it comes to penetration, traditional big-game bullets fall roughly in the middle of the available options. At the extreme end of the scale are solids-bullets built for maximum penetration when hunting thick-skinned game such as elephants. These are illegal for most North American hunting. At the other end, meanwhile, are hollow-point bullets. Designed to expand instantly and completely at the slightest resistance, these are generally used for varmint hunting.