by John Barsness
The author analyzes bullets based on forty years of hunting notes.
I STARTED taking notes on all my big game hunting in 1970, when the details of the dozen animals not recorded (my first was taken in 1966) still remained fresh in my much younger mind. Today stuff has to be written down within a day or two, and referring back to the notes a year later sometimes “changes” my recollection of the event. There’s nothing like a written record to refresh memory banks.
These notes now fill most of the 8-1/2” by 11” pages in a one-inch-thick loose-leaf notebook. The notebook filled most rapidly during the period from 2000 to 2008, due to a number of what most people call cull hunts in Africa, Ireland, New Zealand and North America, all involving dozens of big game animals, and some close to 200.
Now, I didn’t kill all the animals on those shoots, so part of my notebook involved animals killed by other hunters while I was along. In fact I often go out with my companions after taking my own quota, instead of resting or writing in camp, or even heading back home (some companions have done all three after taking their game). But when gun writing became a significant part of my income about 20 years ago, I decided observing as many animals being taken as possible was part of “research and development,” just as time spent in libraries was essential to my history articles or time on the water was essential to my fishing articles.
While some people feel only animals a gun writer has personally shot provide valid information, Bob Hagel was one of the most influential gun and hunting writers of an entire generation, including me, largely due to his book Game Loads and Practical Ballistics for the American Hunter. A long-time guide as well as hunter, Hagel said shooting and observing were equally valid. After all, you’re right there, recording all the details, whether or not you pulled the trigger.
This made a lot of sense to me. Some guides I’ve known have seen far more animals killed than they’ve taken themselves. Whose would you trust more, an elk guide’s who’s seen 20-30 killed each autumn for 25 years, with a wide variety of cartridges and bullets, but only taken 3-4 himself, or some guy who’s taken a dozen over a lifetime, with one or two rifles? (A few years ago some guy on the Campfire was setting himself up as an elk-rifle expert, saying he’d killed “almost 10 bulls.” What’s “almost 10”? Nine? Eight? Six and a half?)
As a result my notes include a second section on animals I’ve watched being taken, doubling the available information. Some of my companions have asked me to look up the statistics on one of their animals in my notes, and I’ve even corrected a very few when they (like me without my notes) recalled the story differently than it actually happened.
Now, many of us have heard or read, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This was popularized by Mark Twain, who in 1906 attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli, Great Britain’s prime minister from 1874 to 1880. However, nobody’s been able to find it anywhere in Disraeli’s writings, and various forms appeared in other places during that period, but the idea is simple and also partially true.
Statistics can lie, and also change with more information. I spent enough time as a science major in college to know how statistics can be twisted, but also have faith in their correct use. A few days ago I brought up a statistic from my hunting notes discovered several years ago: Over the decades I’d seen a slightly higher percentage of Barnes X’s (plus similar “petal-type” bullets) recovered from big game animals than Nosler Partitions. Somebody challenged this, of course, since such bullets are well known for deep penetration and exit holes, whether the bullet’s a Barnes X or Hornady GMX, Nosler E-Tip or Winchester Fail Safe.
I suspected part the reason might be because many hunters (including me) tend to use heavier Partitions than petal-type bullets, so a few days ago decided to see if this was true. I divided the results from both Partitions and petal-type bullets into two categories, those shot into animals under 400 pounds live weight (“deer-sized” game), and those shot into animals over 400 pounds:
Game under 400 pounds:
Average weight of Partitions: 161 grains
Average weight of petal-types: 122 grains
Game over 400 pounds:
Average weight of Partitions: 186 grains
Percent recovered: 34.8%
Average weight of petal-types: 175 grains
Percent recovered: 33.3%
Obviously the percentage of bullets recovered/exiting was almost identical with both types of bullets, which was different from my original analysis of a few years ago, due to more bullets in the data-base. Just as obviously, there’s a considerable difference in the weight of the Partitions and petal-types used on game under 400 pounds, but not so much over 400 pounds.
However, other little pieces of information can add to the statistical picture. When hunting what’s known as wild Africa, amid Cape buffalo and elephants, I’ve carried a 9.3×62 or .375 H&H as my “light” rifle, since it’s often considered smart to have something minimally adequate in your hands when encountering a herd of buffalo or an angry cow elephant, even when you’re supposedly after kudu. The primary bullet chosen on those occasions has been either the 286-grain 9.3mm or 300-grain .375 Nosler Partition, because I’ve found both to kill smaller animals quickly even with broadside rib shots.
As a result I’ve killed a lot of warthogs, impala and hartebeest with bigger-than-necessary Nosler Partitions, and only a few with bigger petal-type bullets. But even removing the 286 and 300-grain Partitions from the sub-400 list only dropped the average bullet weight to 152 grains, still considerably heavier than the average of 122 grains for petal-type bullets. So yeah, one reason almost exactly the same percentage of Partitions exited deer-sized game was heavier bullets — and none of the Partitions recovered from deer-sized game weighed over 140 grains.
Another reason might be that many shooters are more willing to take angling shots with petal-type bullets, which tend to catch more bullets inside the animal. I couldn’t find that trend in my notes, but one of the other interesting statistics was the fact that my wife Eileen and I have used lots of 100-grain “premium” bullets on deer-sized animals over the decades, mostly .25’s but also some 6mm’s.
At first they were all Nosler Partitions, because petal-type bullets didn’t yet exist. I started using Partitions in the mid-1970’s, and my first few boxes were the old screw-machine model, with a pressure-relief groove around the outside of the partition. After Eileen and I were married in 1983 we both used Partitions a lot for game on either side of 400 pounds, but neither of us used any petal-type bullets until 1990, with Barnes X’s and Winchester Fail Safes.
One of the rifles we both used was a Remington Model 722 .257 Roberts inherited from my grandmother. Eileen used it for her first few years with the 100-grain Partition, but after she graduated to a .270 Winchester for elk and moose, I started using the .257 as my deer and pronghorn rifle. Consequently there’s a lot of in the hunting notes on 100-grain Nosler Partition — and not all at “.257 velocities,” since I was something of a hot-rod handloader in those days.
The first 100-grain Barnes X used was the blue-coated XLC in my NULA .257 Roberts Ackley Improved, the only rifle in my collection that would shoot early X’s into an inch. It worked great, but by around 2000 Barnes improved uncoated X’s enough that they started shooting accurately in several of my rifles, including a Ruger 77 Mark II in 6.5×55 that grouped the 120-grain into tiny clusters, and a CZ 550 9.3×62.
When the TSX appeared we tried them in several rifles. By then Eileen had two NULA’s, a .270 Winchester and a .257 Roberts, and used the 140 in the .270 and the 100 in the Roberts, and I used them in the .257 Weatherby. The only problems we had were a pair that apparently didn’t expand much, if any, on a mule deer and a pronghorn. The Tipped Triple Shock solved the expansion problem, so there are bunch of notes on them as well.
We’ve never recovered any 100-grain .25-caliber Barnes bullets, but have recovered a couple of 100-grain .25 Partitions. The game killed with both X’s and Partitions was basically the same in both species and size, mostly pronghorns and deer, with a few pigs. But the notes didn’t list any animals taken with the 100-grain Barnes X using a severe angling shot, and the two 100-grain Partitions were recovered from animals with almost lengthwise shots.
The first was a whitetail doe Eileen killed one frosty morning on the Big Hole River bottoms. We were still-hunting around the edges of some alfalfa fields when we spotted the doe watching us. Eileen quickly got the .257 up and put a bullet in the near shoulder. It stopped a few inches in front of the hindquarters, just under the hide along the opposite flank.
The other was a big pronghorn buck I shot at around 300 yards. It was the tail end of the rut and he was following some does, while a smaller buck followed him. I lay down and rested the forend of the .257 on a handy sagebrush, and when the bigger buck whirled to stare down the smaller one, aimed behind the shoulder and shot. The .257 was sighted-in dead-on at 300, since the muzzle velocity was within spitting range of 3300 fps (told you I was a hot-rodder), and when the rifle came down out of recoil all I could see were a couple of pronghorn legs waving weakly in the air.
“All right!” I said.
“I think you hit him in the butt,” Eileen said. “He turned to follow the does again just as you shot.”
I stood up and we walked over there, pacing off the range since this was a decade before laser rangefinders appeared. The buck was dead, and the bullet had indeed taken him in the right hip. It then traversed his body, ending up under the skin of the left shoulder. That’s a lot of penetration for such a small bullet. (An added statistic: When my friend Dennis Slade’s son started hunting, Dennis loaded 100-grain Partitions in the .250 Savage. His son took several cow elk with broadside shots, and all exited.)
None of the animals we’ve shot with 100-grain X-Bullets have been with such a severely angling shot, or we might have found one or more — though my California friend Bob Whitehead just phoned after a cull hunt in Namibia. Instead of taking one of his rifles, he used the PH’s .25-06 with handloaded 100-grain Tipped TSX’s. Bob took 77 animals with the rifle, with only two bullets recovered. Most were springbok, about the size of American pronghorns, but Bob also killed some gemsbok and blue wildebeest, considered among the toughest of plains game. Bob wasn’t totally surprised by the results, since he’s used the TTSX for several years in his .257 Weatherby for North American hunting, but he said the bullet killed better from the .25-06, despite starting 300 fps slower!
However, I’ve recovered some even bigger X’s from deer. One was a 120-grain from that accurate 6.5×55, the deer was a big axis buck taken in the Hill Country of Texas. He stood quartering toward me at about 125 yards and the bullet broke the big joint of his right shoulder. The buck ran 38 paces and keeled over dead, and upon skinning we found the bullet between the flank meat and hide on the left side. It’s one of the few X’s that lost any weight, since all four petals disappeared — but the front end still mushroomed slightly, to .41 caliber.
The other was a 168-grain TSX from a .300 Winchester Magnum, and the animal a big Sonora mule deer buck, trotting away at about 200 yards. I put the bullet in front of the left edge of the pelvis, and after some tracking the guide and I found the buck still standing 150 yards further on, legs splayed and head lowered. He was probably ready to fall, but I put another behind his shoulder. After field-dressing we hauled the buck back to camp and hung him in the shade of a tree for skinning, finding the bullet under the hide of the right shoulder.
So bullet-recovery statistics also depend on angles, and I’ve seen the same thing on bigger animals. I’ve recovered two 400-grain .416 Nosler Partitions from a Cape buffalo and a water buffalo, each an angling shot from the rear of the ribcage to the opposite shoulder. The two broadside shots I’ve taken on buffalo with the 400 .416 resulted in exits, with blood and even chunks of lung on the ground, though that doesn’t mean a broadside buffalo wouldn’t stop one.
Most people say Partitions retain 2/3 or 65% of their weight, but that’s not always true. Larger, heavier Partitions have the partition moved forward, so they’ll retain more weight, since they’re mostly used on heavier animals.
You may have noticed that so far no retained-weight percentages have been listed, because over the years I’ve decided it’s not the most important factor in either “killing power” and penetration. Among the examples of the first was a cull in New Zealand with Berger Hunting VLD’s. Most of the animals were feral goats, one of the toughest deer-sized animals. The outfitter and guides were skeptical, but by the end of the first day their skepticism disappeared. By the second day they said Berger VLD’s were the deadliest goat bullet they’d ever seen, and most of the recovered bullets didn’t retain even 20% of their weight, because they were mostly fragments. But their long, pointed noses allowed them to get inside before they came apart, destroying far more tissue than any other expanding bullet any of us had ever seen — and the average distance lung-shot animals have gone before falling (another statistic from my notes) has been shorter with VLD’s than any other expanding bullet.
But I will mention the averaged retained weight of my collection of bigger Nosler Partitions: 86.3%. The smallest was a 225-grain .338 from a big musk ox, the shot angling through the shoulder joint to the rear of the ribs on the other side, and the largest were the pair of 400-grain .416’s. Not only do the big Partitions retain more weight, but they also tend to open up into smaller mushrooms than some bonded bullets such as the Woodleigh Weldcores and Swift A-Frames, so tend to penetrate deeper, because frontal area of the mushroom has more effect than retained weight.
I’m also convinced that whether a “petal” cuts the hide is more important to exits than retained weight, and petals don’t occur only with petal-type bullets. One example was a 340-grain .416 Woodleigh Weldcore that retained over 90% of its weight. The animal was a doe fallow deer weighing at most 100 pounds, but it was (again) angling severely away. Hunting partner Ron Spomer put the bullet just in front of the pelvis, and the doe staggered a few yards and died. We found the bullet barely hanging in a petal-cut through the skin on the far shoulder, expanded to around 2-1/2 times its original diameter.
A high percentage of recovered bullets resulted from frontal-quartering shots that broke the shoulder joint, the bullet ending up under the hide at the rear of the ribcage or just behind it. This shot tends to catch bullets for two reasons: The joint slows them down before they enter the soft tissue of the chest cavity, and they hit the skin on the far side of the animal at an angle, rather than broadside.
Some people think bonded bullets are the ultimate answer, but I suspect at least one would exit more often if it wasn’t bonded. When North Fork Bullets was still in Wyoming I visited one day, and was told the reason the little piece of lead in the nose is bonded is customer demand, not because it increases penetration. After shooting several animals with North Forks both in North America and Africa, I suspect they’d exit more often if the dab of lead wasn’t stuck to a bullet that otherwise strongly resembles a Barnes TSX, because the lead would disappear during expansion, leaving petals rather than a round mushroom.
I don’t go on cull hunts as much anymore, partly because they normally involve long travel, and few years ago I decided to mostly stick closer to home and hunt more with family and friends, rather than fly to foreign lands, whether South Texas or South Africa. Plus, I’ve hunted with a lot of bullets, ranging alphabetically from Berger VLD’s to Woodleigh Weldcores, and don’t feel the same need for information. But Eileen and I still tend to use different bullets, because we’ve found they all work very well for at least some hunting, so we keep slowly adding to the statistics.