Bullet Choice And Pelt Damage
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One of the oldest predator-hunting dilemmas, when hides matter, is whether to use frangible, thin-jacketed bullets or full-metal jackets.
Proponents of the former say it is better for the bullet to explode after penetrating the skin. They maintain two things are accomplished: all the bullet’s energy is spent on the prey rather than in the hillside, and only one hole is made in a valuable pelt.
Those who opt for FMJ bullets say two holes cause greater blood loss, leaving very small, readily reparable holes in that valuable pelt. They point out that a highly explosive bullet could “backfire” on the hunter. It could produce a through wound on a smallish animal with a broadside shot, creating a large and irreparable exit hole, or may not penetrate to the vitals of a large coyote or bobcat, especially if only a going-away shot is possible.
Both sides apply good logic, but neither has a definitive answer. The primary consideration is the end objective. Is the object a prime pelt, or ending the depredation of a barn-raiding thief? If it is the latter, no one cares if the bullet blows the hide to bits; if a pelt is important, one small hole is the obvious choice.
Here is where the debate becomes moot: It might not be possible to inflict minimal external damage while demolishing the vitals. Consideration of the many variables of species, bullet construction, velocity, etc., can help make this choice more obvious. For instance, a 50-grain Sierra Blitz bullet from a .222 at 3,200 feet per second (fps) is pure destruction on a red fox at any reasonable range, and rarely exits. But that same bullet from a .220 Swift fired at a 60-pound eastern coyote might make one huge entrance hole, yet fail to reach any vitals. By the time that dog dies, it might be miles away and have chewed at the wound enough to destroy the pelt – if you manage to find it at all. A bullet of stronger construction might kill, yet sail on through both sides, taking a golf ball-size hunk of pelt with it. The first consideration, therefore, is to match the bullet not only to the animal hunted, but also to the velocity of the cartridge.
A full-metal jacketed bullet will usually cause little pelt destruction, unless it causes bone fragments to act as secondary projectiles, which might exit the far side. The down side to FMJ projectiles is they must kill by severe blood loss (through two holes) or by imparting a great deal of hydrostatic shock (through velocity). While the latter usually provides instantaneous death, the former often requires considerable time (and distance) for the target to die, even though a sizeable blood trail is usually present.
I don’t believe a heavy-jacket big-game bullet is ever a good idea to use on a smallish predator, unless you simply happen on a predator while big-game hunting. Most game bullets open up to some degree in even the smallest animal, and all such bullets penetrate completely through all but the largest predators such as bears or mountain lions.
Again, consider why you are shooting an animal, as well as the nature of that animal. Years ago, a friend invited me to help him try to exterminate a pack of wild dogs on his uncle’s farm. Armed with an M-1Carbine and a Browning High Power, we took a stand near a day-old cow carcass under the only large tree in a field of winter-crushed grass. The dogs came in shortly after sunrise—all 20 or so. They showed absolutely no fear, even after we foolishly shot a few. When we did, two very frightening things happened. First, a half-dozen immediately turned on the ones we shot, and the remainder of the pack turned on us. Fortunately, the tree branches were low enough that we escaped upward.
Five long, cold hours later, and after firing at least 150 rounds of the metal-jacketed military ammunition, my friend’s uncle rescued us with his Farmall tractor and hay wagon. We succeeded in killing 14 dogs and wounding several, but we learned not to use full-metal jacket ammunition in that situation (as well as to never hunt wild dogs from the ground.) Conclusion? Full metal jackets might kill with little damage, but it rarely happens fast. They are the best option for hide hunters, but place your shots with as much precision as possible.
However, I must also relate the story of a buddy who decided a Barnes X bullet fired at full velocity from a .270 Winchester was just the thing for coyotes. He argued it would let him kill the occasional dog across a cornfield, despite howling winter winds. The X bullet has an excellent reputation as a bullet that penetrates seemingly forever and retains almost all of its original weight. What some people fail to realize is these bullets open up—to the end of their hollow point—quickly, and in doing so, create four “petals” which create an extensive wound channel.
The first coyote’s pelt was ruined, but Alex was certain the off-side damage was caused by the bullet fragmenting bone along its route. Finally, after an “necropsy” was performed on the fourth dead dog, he realized no bone had been struck at all, and the gaping exit wounds were caused by the high velocity of the X bullet doing precisely what it was designed to do—opening up. The next spring, Alex bought a very accurate .223 and relegated his.270 to deer and bear.
Larger predators are an entirely different matter. Here, the only emphasis is putting the animal down with authority. Kill it before it (a) suffers, (b) runs a long distance and is possibly not recovered or (c) gets angry at the puny, two-legged critter who caused its pain! In this instance, use the best expanding bullet available, preferably one of the “premium” bullets. There is a big difference between a 150-pound mountain lion and an 800-pound grizzly, so choose the bullet accordingly.
The reason for most of my predator hunting is to reduce the population of fawn-killing coyotes, and the sooner and more convincingly they’re dead, the better. But when hides are prime, my objective changes. What hide-saver would I recommend? Frangible and explosive bullets work on appropriate-sized game in specific situations, but be prepared for occasional ruined hides or failure to penetrate. For prime pelts, my choice is precisely placed, full-metal jackets, and whichever brand and bullet weight work best in my rifle for the size of my quarry.
Bio: J.C .Munnell has been an avid handloader for over 30 years. His interest spans European combination guns to the most powerful revolvers, and includes all facets of predator and varmint cartridges. His loading room houses over 150 sets of dies from conventional to exotic. He is first and foremost a passionate experimenter who takes the art of rolling your own to a new level.