How Reliable are Hollowpoints for Predator Hunting?

Naked lead, then jacketed soft-nose bullets, reigned supreme for predator hunters wanting performance and success. Then we took the lead out. Why?

How Reliable are Hollowpoints for Predator Hunting?

The coyote appeared just as I was getting too cold to stay. I eased the .243 across my knees, lifted it slowly to cheek and crushed the trigger.

“Can’t you make smaller holes?” Alice raised a brow at the carcass. She had retained just enough newlywed bliss to patch the hides I’d flesh and stretch in the cowboy cabin we shared with generations of mice and an inadequate oil stove. Years alter fortunes and perspectives. We’ve a better house now; Alice no longer feels compelled to sew exit holes shut. But I’m still keen to investigate bullets that kill quickly without leaving a mess.

Full-jacketed missiles that zip through predators at Mach 3 carry knockout energy. But much of it leaves the animal behind, to land its lethality in rocks or trees, or leak it in the blue yonder. While the hide is beautifully preserved, you may have to track to retrieve it. Marginal hits with expanding or fragmenting bullets can deliver enough shock and tissue destruction to anchor coyotes and kin. But bad shot placement with a “solid” often results in wasted wildlife.

Soft-nose Popularity

A century ago, the soft-nose was every hunter’s go-to bullet. These days hollowpoints sell briskly, not just for target shooting and varminting, but for hunting beasts as big as Cape buffalo! They’re slender and rocket-shaped and sent faster than in the days of the Model T.

Hollowpoints in the Kimber 84 produced tight groups and more than enough power for great predator hunting, (Photo: Wayne van Zwoll)

What hasn’t changed much is jacket material. It’s still gilding metal. While Nosler stayed with a 90/10 alloy for its Partition bullets turned on screw machines before 1970, most bullet-makers now favor jackets of 95-percent copper, 5-percent zinc. Softer, unalloyed copper jackets up to .060 thick distinguished Bitterroot Bonded Core bullets. Their high ductility kept those jackets from shattering, but like the early Barnes and other copper-jacketed bullets, quickly fouled bores. Alloy is much preferred now.

Until recently, most bullets with top accuracy credentials were hollowpoints. Now they share the limelight with poly-tip missiles — which are essentially capped hollowpoints. “They’re more uniform up front,” a bullet engineer told me. “Each tip is the exactly the same. Put an un-capped hollowpoint under a magnifier, and you’ll see the mouth is ragged and often tilted, like a crater lip worn on one side. That said, any effect on accuracy might be too small to measure. Compared to concentricity of ogive, shank and heel — and base uniformity — irregularity at the tiny mouth of a Match bullet is of little consequence.”

Nor do polymer tips add much to ballistic coefficient on small-cavity hollowpoints. Ogive shape has more effect on drag.

Hollowpoints with pegs up front have history. Before WWI Charles Newton developed a pointed bullet with a wire nose insert to limit damage in magazines and control upset. He put paper insulation under the jacket to prevent core-melt from bore friction — a problem he found by drilling holes in bullet jackets and shooting into white cardboard at 20 feet. Lead smears appeared only from un-papered bullets.

Later, Western Tool and Copper Works made a hollowpoint with a tiny cavity that drove deep into elk-size game, even when pushed fast. DWM offered a “Strong-Jacket” bullet with a long, capped nose cavity lined with copper tubing. Remington’s sleek Bronze Point employed a pointed peg to prompt upset. Years ago, I used Bronze Points on game. Upset was violent, killing deer like lightning, but limiting penetration in heavier animals.

A common misconception is that all hollowpoints are by design fragile. After John Nosler came up with his Partition in 1947, big-game bullets were judged largely by their retained weight and the inner magic (mid-section dams, bonding, dual cores) that increased penetration. Hollowpoint development in rifle ammo leaned toward smaller bores and faster, even explosive upset in predators and rodents.

Brooks Finds the X

Then it occurred to Randy Brooks that most bullet failures in tough game involved lead loss. Not one to let a good idea lie, he fashioned an all-copper hollowpoint, took it to Alaska and shot a brown bear.

“I called it the X-Bullet because the nose peeled into four petals: an X,” Brooks said. In 1989, Randy and wife Coni bet their company on it. On safari in 1992, he said, “Coni used X-Bullets to kill 61 game animals with one shot each.”

The unalloyed copper X-Bullet fouled bores faster than did gilding metal, so Randy turned three grooves into the shank to reduce friction and catch stripped copper. Result: lower pressures, less fouling. In 2003, this bullet became the TSX or Triple Shock. It yielded the near-100-percent weight retention of the X-Bullet but was more accurate. The Tipped TSX followed, and the MRX Bullet with tungsten-based Silvex core. The Triple Shock has since appeared in more than 60 configurations.

Winchester/Nosler’s E-Tip lead-free game bullet was conceived in 2007. Glen Weeks, centerfire guru at Olin’s ammo plant in East Alton, Illinois, says its gilding metal alloy “won’t foul bores as badly as copper. Its Lubalox coating further reduces fouling.” In 2011, Winchester followed the E-Tip with the Power Core 95/5. This hollowpoint lacks the E-Tip’s polymer nose and Lubalox finish.

Hornady’s GMX bullet (for “gilding metal expanding”) appeared in 2009. The 95/5 alloy expands reliably at impact velocities from 2,000 fps to 3,400 fps. “Typically, we get 99 percent weight retention in ballistic gelatin,” reports Jeremy Millard, who headed the project. The GMX looks and flies like an SST, which is essentially a Hornady Interlock with a poly tip. The shank has two cannelures to reduce bearing surface and collect displaced metal. The GMX’s cavity also differs from the SST’s.

Parallel-sided at the nose, it tapers to a conical point even with the base of the ogive, where expansion stops. The GMX shank was soon paired with the soft poly tip of FTX bullets in LeverEvolution ammo. The MonoFlex resembles an FTX but has GMX cannelures. Says Millard: “We also make the tip stem and cavity longer to ensure against slippage.” A lead core grips polymer more surely. The MonoFlex costs more than the FTX. Like the GMX, it’s made of expensive material. It also requires more handling and burnishing to finish.

Deep-penetrating hollowpoints aren’t needed to kill predators; but, barring bone strikes, exit holes are often more modest than those caused by ordinary jacketed soft-points.

A fragmenting bullet dumping all its energy inside a coyote won’t leave an exit hole. That’s good if your spouse balks at patching hides. Such bullets include some with sintered (compressed metal) cores. This construction appears in Nosler Ballistic Tip Lead-Free, Hornady NTX and Barnes MPG and Varmint Grenade missiles. DRT bullets by Dynamic Research Technologies date to the 1990s, when Harold Beal explored frangible metal cores for .45 ACP service ammunition.

In 2005, John Worrell and his son Dustin developed machinery to produce bullets using Beal’s patents under license. DRT cores are mostly copper and tin, but “we’ve used tungsten too,” says Dustin. “In Texas we killed 11 nilgai with our .223 tungsten bullets!” The company also markets a 170-grain 45-caliber bullet for sabot use in muzzle-loaders. A thin (.030) tin cap atop a broad conical cavity fronts the sintered core. In deer I’ve killed, as in gelatin, cores turned to dust almost on impact, tiny shards driving several inches deep. The channels resembled trumpet-shaped smears of powder.

Bullet upset depends on impact speed. Most game bullets will expand when striking an animal at 1,600 fps. That threshold is easy to reach with modern cartridges to 500 yards; by 800 yards, many drop below it. Swift’s Scirocco opens down to 1,440 fps, says CEO Bill Hober. Reportedly, Federal TLR Edge bullets also upset at relatively modest speeds. Both these bullets are bonded. The challenge, whether using solid copper or gilding metal, or jacketed lead, is ensuring expansion below Mach 2 without making the cavity mouth so big it compromises ballistic coefficient or causes disintegration above Mach 3.

The medium also affects upset. I once set up a railroad tie for penetration tests with three potent handgun rounds and full-throttle hollowpoint loads. Expecting double-diameter expansion with shallow penetration, I was surprised to find all three plowed deep and didn’t open at all! The cavities filled with wood upon impact and thereafter behaved like solids. Police know clothing can affect hollowpoint pistol bullets that way. In the cavity, hydraulic pressure, not dry matter, prompts a mushroom.

Accuracy Isn’t the Point!

Whatever the nose design, jacket and core must hew to tight tolerances for best accuracy. Sierra, renowned for match-winning hollowpoints, keeps jacket thickness within .0003 and bullet weight within .3 grain.

Dave Emary, long Hornady’s ace ballistician, says, “A critical factor for accuracy is the distance between center of gravity (CG) and center of pressure (CP). It’s hard to measure because it’s there only in flight. For a bullet that flies point-on, CP doesn’t matter. But if there’s lift or yaw, CP far from CG affects stability.”

A tapered heel or boattail moves CG back, away from the CP.

“That’s one reason flat-base bullets often shoot as well as or better than boattails," Emary sais. "Also, there’s one less variable at the heel. And when the shank of a flat-base bullet clears the muzzle, there’s no tail for gas to wag.”

Emary claims that, on average, flat-base bullets go to sleep sooner in flight.


While the killing power of .22 rimfire loads is limited by their modest speeds, it gets a boost from hollowpoints.

Slightly lighter in weight but driven fast enough to open, they carve a wider swath through vitals and dump more of the bullet’s energy in small game. I’ve found .22 Long Rifle hollowpoints lethal on coyotes up close. Now you can get subsonic hollowpoints for shooting in settled environs.

Lead-free: Longer — But Non-toxic?

Copper and gilding metal weigh less than lead, so lead-free bullets are longer than same-weight lead-core bullets. Seating a bullet deeper reduces case capacity. Seating it out can challenge the magazine and throat.

But the notion that lead-free bullets are non-toxic is hokum. Both lead and copper are “bad for you,” as Mama said of Hostess Cupcakes. Evidence that lead-bullet particles in offal “poison” scavengers is pretty thin, not at all comparable to toxic effects of lead ingested by ducks in shallows fronting heavily used waterfowl blinds.

After lead bullets are banned, how long before the activists “discover” that copper isn’t edible either?

Featured image: Wayne van Zwoll


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