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Premium Rifle Bullets: Who Wins The Toughest Test?

In our expansion tests, we preferred projectiles from Swift, Barnes, and Winchester over the venerable Nosler Partition.

From left to right are: PMC’s Barnes X-Bullet
ammo, the Winchester Fail Safe Supreme bullet,
Remington’s Safari Grade ammo with the Swift
A-Frame bullet, and Nosler Partition bullet.

The explosion of high-end factory rifle ammo in recent years has been hard to ignore. It started with Federal’s Premium line introduced some years ago and continued unabated until it now seems that everybody has jumped on the bandwagon. The primary difference between what has become known as the “premium” ammo segment and the mainstream factory offerings are careful quality-control standards and the use of name-brand bullets. Of course, both of these manufacturing factors serves to drive up the retail cost of premium ammo as well.

Each cartridge maker has different goals in mind when it loads a premium round. Remington’s Extended Range line of ammo, for instance, strives for increased ballistic efficiency by employing more streamlined bullets. Hornady’s Light Magnum line, however, increases velocities over what is considered normal for a given caliber and bullet weight.

Regardless of how a given ammo loading is supposed to perform, from a big-game hunter’s perspective the most important concern is terminal ballistics: What happens after the bullet hits the target. A big-game hunting bullet is asked to perform under a variety of conditions that are not always easily controllable. It should be able to shoot through both shoulders of an elk at 50 yards while staying together, but still be able to expand while shooting through the ribcage of a whitetail at 300 yards. With the huge difference in impact velocities and in target size and composition, this has traditionally been all but impossible for a single bullet to accomplish. The conventional thinking is that you must match the bullet to the expected game and range, and that a single bullet cannot possibly work under conditions this divergent.

To do so would certainly be a tough challenge, and there really isn’t a bullet that can do it all yet—but some bullets are getting pretty close, as we found out.

Premium Bullet Test
We wanted to determine how some of the best-known projectiles being loaded into hunting cartridges would perform in a realistic, but challenging, examination. Since most big game is shot at relatively close range, we decided to take a look at how some of the more popular bullets would perform under the toughest test we could devise: Impact at nearly full muzzle velocity. It takes a very good bullet to hold together while expanding and continuing to penetrate at full velocity. Most “conventional” bullets expand to the point of coming apart soon after contact and fail to penetrate very far in tough test medium. Other bullets designed to penetrate under these conditions, such as solids, do not expand and fail to cause the wound-channel diameters necessary for humane kills.

Manufacturers are continuing to try to create a bullet that will expand very early in the terminal ballistic path, then stop the expansion after achieving the desired frontal area and continue to penetrate while remaining intact. If this could be achieved, the concept of using one bullet for all big-game appropriate to a given caliber will become a reality. We are not there yet, but tremendous progress has been achieved in the last few years. For a long time these “super” bullets were only available to handloaders, but now they are appearing more and more in factory loaded ammo.

For this test we decided on four of the most popular bullets loaded in factory ammo today. All were 180-grain factory loads in .30-06 Springfield chambering.

The Players
Since its introduction in 1948, the Nosler Partition bullet has been the benchmark by which all other big-game bullets are judged by. It has served hunters well throughout the world, and it is doubtful that any big-game animal exists that has not been taken with this bullet. The Nosler Partition bullet has two lead cores separated by a solid “partition” of copper jacket material, forming an H shape in a sectioned bullet. The theory is that the front end of the bullet is designed to expand easily and rapidly, while the rear section is protected by the partition. The bullet will not expand past this partition, and this ensures the rear portion will remain intact and drive the bullet through the target even after the front core is gone. We tested the Federal Premium offering featuring the Nosler Partition bullet.

Next, we selected the Remington Safari Grade ammo with the Swift A-Frame bullet. This bullet is very similar to the Nosler Partition, in that it also uses a partition of metal separating two distinct cores of lead-alloy, but with some design differences. The most dominant difference is that the tapered front core is bonded to the jacket to keep the two from separating while expanding. These bullets are loaded into a nickel-plated case.

Third was PMC ammo using the Barnes X-Bullet. The X-Bullet is a unique solid-copper projectile. Because the bullet is one homogenous metal throughout, there is no lead core to separate from the jacket. It features a small-diameter, deep hollowpoint in the nose that will split into four distinct petals, which will expand until reaching the bottom of the hollow point. This leaves a long solid rear section to continue to drive the expanded bullet through the target.

Also, we tested the Winchester Fail Safe Supreme bullet. This bullet has a front half that is solid copper-alloy with a small, deep, hollowpoint, not unlike the X-Bullet. The rear half has a lead core encapsulated in a steel sheath and end cap and covered in a jacket formed from the same homogeneous piece of metal used for the front. The two are separated by a thick belt of solid copper-alloy. In many ways, the Fail Safe is like the Partition or A-Frame in the rear with an X-Bullet nose.

The bullet is designed to expand very quickly until it reaches the solid belt at the end of the hollow point and then stop expanding. The long rear section behind the bullet contains more weight in contrast to the front because of the denser lead load in back. This provides weight to push the bullet through the target, increasing penetration. Winchester also uses a nickel plated brass case for the Fail Safe Ammo.

All these factory loads have been proven to be accurate (by hunting standards) in most rifles. As with any ammo, some rifles will shoot one brand better than another, but in extensive testing, I failed to find any premium ammo that showed any tendency toward poor accuracy in a significant number of rifles. That said, however, I found a marked difference in how the bullets performed in impact tests.

Nosler Partition Results
The results can certainly be interpreted in different ways, and no bullet failed, in our broad estimation. However, if the goal of the test was to find the one bullet that can be used for all game at all ranges, then it’s easy to choose one that has the best overall performance downrange.

The Nosler Partition—the bullet that formerly set the standard for big-game bullets—would be our last pick as a one-bullet-does-it-all choice, in our estimation. While the bullet reacted exactly as it was designed to, in this test it performed poorly.

The Nosler’s average penetration was only 16.4 inches, which is more than 3.5 inches less than the next bullet. Also, its retained weight was very poor at only 114.8 grains, or 64 percent. This loss of weight results from the fragmentation of the front core, which certainly contributes to poor penetration. In the dozens of Nosler bullets I have recovered from big game, this is consistent with the Partition’s expected performance, as almost any Nosler bullet recovered will be missing its front core and will be expanded to the partition.

Also, every single bullet in the test was turned completely around and was facing backwards when it was found in the wet newspapers. This no doubt was a factor in the final expanded diameter, because as the bullet traveled backward it started to de-expand, or fold forward.

When the Nosler Partition bullet was introduced almost 50 years ago, it began a revolution in terminal performance. For shooting light game such as deer, it still remains a good choice, but today’s other bullet technologies have left it in the dust, we think, as an all-round pick.

Swift A-Frame
The Swift A-Frames used in the Remington loading are a good indication of how just a few changes can make a huge difference in terminal performance. The bonding of the front core to the jacket alone is probably the largest influence on the bullet, and this small change results in a dramatic difference in performance over the Nosler Partition Bullet.

The Swift’s consistency was astounding. Its penetration was never more than 1 inch different from the average, and the retained weight did not vary more than a grain and a half, making it virtually perfect. Also, the expanded bullet diameters are all within 0.15 inch of each other. Both lead-core bullets (Nosler and Swift) showed larger initial wound channels. Much of this can be attributed to the expansion of the soft frontal area as opposed to the other two bullets from Barnes and Winchester, which expand in four distinct petals. While perhaps as large in diameter, these petals provide less total frontal area.

Winchester Fail Safe
The Winchester Fail Safe bullet is perhaps the most technologically advanced bullet in our test. Winchester continues to refine the bullet as field reports trickle in, and the latest change had been to “soften” the frontal area to allow more positive expansion at the lower velocities encountered at long ranges. This is evident in the test, as the bullet showed evidence of early expansion in the terminal path. The down side (at least from one perspective) is that, as a softer bullet, the petals broke off from the bullet after penetrating 12 to 15 inches. This resulted in a smaller frontal area and a lower retained weight. However, it also resulted in the best penetration of all the bullets tested. On average, the Fail Safe penetrated 5.6 inches more than the next closest bullet.

Many would see this as excellent performance with controlled expansion followed by good penetration, while the other side will argue that low retained weight (84 percent) and smaller frontal area (0.422 inch) indicates poor performance. However, the bullet was designed to perform like that, so that it will stay on course and continue penetrating even after hitting tough game at close range, yet still expand at long range with low impact velocities.

I have recovered Fail Safe bullets from black bears where the bullet penetrated more than 40 inches, including bone, and still retained 100 percent of its weight during two-caliber expansion. Another bullet that was recovered from a large whitetail deer that was shot from end to end showed the same performance, yet small deer taken with the Fail Safe still showed plenty of expansion and tissue damage.

Barnes X-Bullet
The Barnes X-Bullet was one of the leaders of the new technological advancements in bullet design, and it soon became the one to watch. This bullet had gained the respect of big-game hunters throughout the world, and our test results showed why many hunters like it. The bullet showed flawless expansion, good penetration, and almost perfect weight retention.

Coupled with the PMC ammo, which came in with the pole position for velocity, this round is the obvious choice if a “winner” is to be selected. While the Winchester penetrated better and the Swift had more frontal area, the X-Bullet put it all together better than any of the others.

Also With This Article
Click here to view "Ammunition Comparison."
Click here to view "Picks."


-By Bryce M. Towsley





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