Many moons ago I sat astride a split-rail fence clutching a 121 Remington stuffed with .22 Shorts. The barn rats plying tunnels in the packed sheep manure didn’t merit costly Long Rifle or hollowpoint ammunition. But after a few stricken rodents kicked their way deep into holes — which I reached, innocently, to my elbow in to grab tails — it occurred to me a 29-grain solid at 1,080 fps might be lacking.
Boosting bullet weight to 40 grains and speed to 1,335 fps (tops for Long Rifle loads of the day) improved results. The rats didn’t wilt; they spun, flipped, rolled. If they kicked, it was reflexively, and they didn’t move far. One day I splurged on a box of hollowpoints. Midsection hits that earlier left the animals a couple of steps shy of the Great Halls of Cheese put them instantly four-paws-up.
Some years later, I called up a coyote and shot it with a .243. The bullet was a 90-grain softnose that struck at about 2,900 fps. The pelt, primed by winter’s first icy blasts, was rent asunder as light went from the animal’s eyes. It was an instant kill, but also destructive. At the time, I was stretching and fleshing coyote hides on home-built frames. Patiently, Alice patched the gaping exit with dozens of masterful stitches.
Evidently, other hunters were losing pelts to expanding bullets too, and soon there appeared nose-jacketed missiles for .22 centerfires and 6mms. That field has not grown.
Why? And why didn’t they appear sooner?
Sub-.270 bullets didn’t always leave a contrail of charred atmosphere in their wake. Indeed, the first so-called varmint rounds were downright civil. The .22 Hornet sent its 46-grain softnose downrange at just 2,690 fps. The .218 Bee on the .25-20 case launched the same missile at 2,860 fps. The .219 Zipper (a shortened, necked-down .25-35) clocked a sizzling 3,110 fps with its 56-grain bullet. These were rimmed cartridges, consistent with demands of their day for cartridges adapted to single-shots and lever-actions. The .222 Remington, announced in 1950, confirmed a new era in varmint and predator hunting, presaged by the .220 Swift 15 years earlier. The .22-250 preceded both, but only among wildcatters; it wouldn’t get commercial sanction until 1965.
The .222 matched the Zipper ballistically, but its rimless design, like that of the .222 Remington Magnum (1958), Weatherby’s belted .224 (1963), the .223 (1964) and subsequent fast-steppers, suited it to magazine-fed bolt rifles. The dismal accuracy of lever guns bored for the Bee, the .25-20 (with its 60-grain bullet at 2,250) and the Zipper complemented the short leash accorded by their iron sights. Scoped bolt rifles extended reach — provided they were paired with sleeker, faster bullets. Soon 3,000 fps became a velocity floor; before the war it had been a practical ceiling.
The Hornet and the Bee treated their prey gently. High impact speeds caused bullets to open more violently. That had been obvious in the late 1920s, as big-game bullets roared past 2,500 fps. Softpoints that performed with unexciting lethality at .30-30 speeds blew up when driven from a .30-06. The .270’s first 130-grain bullets, at 3,100 fps, ruined so much venison that hunters whined. Winchester responded with a 150-grain load at 2,675 fps. Nobody bought it. Once you get a taste of fast, you no longer want slow.
This evolution is mirrored in the small-bore loads now popular. Prairie dogs disintegrate with 40-grain .223 bullets driven at 3,800 fps. The .22-250 hurls 50-grain missiles that fast, and you can top 3,900 with 58-grain spitzers from a .243. Bullets of 75 to 95 grains — once thought light for 6mm and 25-caliber bores — now sell briskly in loads that clock 3,400.
Pelt damage in animals the size of fox and coyotes increases with bullet speed and weight. The faster the bullet, the greater its energy. Deceleration in the animal transfers energy quicker than tissue can part to let the bullet pass. Hydraulic action spreads the damage and can burst the skin before exit, just as a .22 LR hollowpoint shreds the off-side skin of an orange. A nonexpanding bullet drills a smaller hole, so it disrupts less tissue. As its nose doesn’t set up the resistance of a mushrooming bullet, the solid decelerates less and transfers less kinetic energy. Result: The exit hole is small.
Another path to intact pelts is to ensure bullets do not exit. Alas, this is a tough assignment, partly because bullets that yield distant kills are heavy enough and fast enough to penetrate small animals. Too, hit location and bullet tracks vary. A bullet that fragments upon striking the spine, shards stopping inside, might drive through sans bone contact. Not long ago I killed a coyote with a 50-grain Ballistic Tip from a .22-250. It struck between the shoulders as the animal faced me. No exit, no pelt damage. Results would have been different had the bullet entered from the side, between ribs.
Some hunters use .17s or short bullets in .22s to keep velocity high and hold bullet mass to a minimum. Another option is the DRT bullet, which literally turns to dust upon entry.
“You can help us cull deer,” John Worrell told me on my visit to his Missouri ranch, headquarters for Dynamic Research Technologies “DRTs will open your eyes.” In truth, I rolled my eyes. New bullets have proliferated like rock bands, as if we needed more of both. “Even from muzzleloaders, they turn to dust inside. Instant kills.”
Half-inch bullets that vaporize? Did the Worrells not worship at the Altar of Retained Weight?
Son Dustin Worrell has a basketball star’s physique and a baseball player’s resume. He told me DRTs date to the 1990s at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where Harold Beal explored frangible metal cores in .45 ACP bullets. In 2005 John and Dustin developed machinery to fashion bullets using Beal’s patents under license. DRTs’ compressed-metal cores are mostly copper and tin. “We use tungsten too,” said Dustin. “In Texas, we killed 11 nilgaiwith 79-grain .223 tungsten bullets.” Nilgai rank in size with yearling elk, but they’re stockier. And tough. I’ve seen them absorb chest hits from .300 magnums and gallop off!Dustin added that .30-bore DRTs had taken brown bears. “No exits. Just grenade-like upset. We’ve found our sintered bullets more consistently lethal than ordinary softpoints.”
Sintered missiles aren’t new. They’re manufactured by several companies for small-bore varmint cartridges: Nosler’s 35-grain Ballistic Tip Lead-Free (loaded at Winchester), Hornady’s NTX line and the Barnes MPG (Multi-Purpose Green) and Varmint Grenade. But the DRT was the first such bullet I’d seen promoted for big game. The obvious question: If it disintegrates in a deer’s chest from the side, how does it perform driven obliquely, flank to off-shoulder?“It’s deadly,” smiled Dustin. “You’ll see.”
We repaired to the woods. Presently, Dustin spotted a buck with misshapen antlers. “He’s what we want.” I centered the shoulder in my Weaver scope and triggered the T/C Triumph. Through a gray cloud from 85 grains of Black MZ, I saw the buck sprint. He labored up a rise, then collapsed. My bullet had entered where intended; it had not exited. Shortly, the buck was back at the skinning shed, with other deer. Dustin performed the autopsies with the dexterity of a surgeon.
“DRT bullets needn’t plow through the lungs, or even reach them,” he said, as he sliced through the diaphragm of a doe hit too far back. “We’ve killed deer cleanly with .223 bullets that didn’t enter the chest cavity. As the bullet turns to tiny particles — really to dust — it releases all its energy in one quick burst. The shock to the liver and other vital organs is lethal, even if those organs show no bullet channel.”
The bullet that took my buck had been reduced to a few jacket shards inside. I’ve since used .223 rifles to kill deer with DRT bullets. That high-speed dust truly does inflict lethal damage. The application to predator hunting was obvious. While I’ve not used DRTs on small animals, I’ve tested these bullets in ballistic gelatin. Penetration exceeds coyote-width, but particles driving that deep are mite-size. Channels resemble trumpet-shaped smears of powder, as if you’d shoved the snout of a caplock against the gelatin block and fired without first loading a projectile.
Like Harold Beal, John and Dustin have experimented with myriad bullet designs and materials. Super-dense 79-grain tungsten .223 bullets offer more thump than lead within practical length limits. But tungsten is costly, and sintered missiles of less expensive metals deliver reliable, explosive upset that kills even when the bullet has turned to dust before reaching vitals.
Explosive upset or full, pencil-diameter penetration? Either can help you save pelts. Neither is a perfect solution. You could, of course, return to the Hornet and the Bee!