Bullets For Africa

Bullets For Africa by Pierre Van Der Walt

"I shoot the Hippopotamus,
With bullets made of platinum..." Hilaire Belloc

The easiest way for me to structure bullet application is to divide bullets into a number of classes. Insofar as it concerns the modern hunting bullet I categorize bullets in three groups, namely:

4th Generation Bullets

Traditional bullets with a lead, nickel and antimony alloy core wrapped in a gilding metal or zinc jacket. These can be soft points or solids. Typical examples are Hornady, Sierra and Speer.

5th Generation Bullets

Essentially 4th Generation bullets but with some features to improve terminal performance. This improvement feature can be a partition, a solid base or core bonding and these are often referred to as 'premium' bullets. Typical examples are North Fork, Swift-A Frame and Trophy Bonded Bear Claw. There also is the excellent South African Rhino bullet.

6th Generation Bullets

Bullets made from a single metal or alloy such as copper or marine brass. Quality examples are those manufactured by Barnes (X-Bullet) and the South African GS Custom versions.

4th Generation Bullets

These bullets have worked for generations and are quite suited to smaller African plains game hunting. By smaller, I refer to species lighter than kudu. It does not mean that these bullets suddenly fail when you shoot something bigger, but large animals like giraffe have surprizingly thick skins and I am simply erring on the safe side here.

The advantage of 4th Generation bullets are that they are relatively affordable and therefore excellent for initial load development, sighting and practice. They also perform satisfactory at moderate, or so-called Green Band impact velocities. The Green-Band is an impact velocity range between 2,600 fps and 2,200 fps and if a 4th Generation bullet impacts a soft skinned plains game animal within this velocity spectrum, it generally performs quite well. The faster impact velocities go above 2,600 fps, the more the 4th Generation bullets tend to fragment or lose weight upon impact and the sturdier the animal is, the more likely it becomes. The slower they go below 2,200 fps, the poorer the expansion.

5th Generation Bullets

As the velocity and kinetic energy crazes took hold, hunters found that 4th Generation bullets did not hold up at high impact velocity. They did however feel the need to dispense high doses of kinetic energy in the belief that it equates to killing power and they wanted high velocity for the convenience of flat trajectories. Africa lags behind in this as our shooting ranges generally are surprisingly short on most species. There are a few exceptions of course. The only way to counter bullet fragmentation at high impact velocities was to make sturdier bullets. Initially this was only done by making the jackets thicker and it worked to some extent, but then men like Bill Steigers (Bitterroot) popularized the fusing of core and jacket through core bonding. Other designers like Fred Barnes and John Nosler tinkered with the solid base concept. The latter eventually settled on the partition. Other designers went further and incorporated several features such as partitions, solid bases and the like with core bonding. The results were bullets that perform best at considerably higher impact velocities than 4th Generation bullets. They have to a large extent become the state of the art and the norm for high velocity cartridges in the African game fields.

A word of caution here. A bullet is not a quality bullet or a premium bullet simply because it sports any or several of these features. A bullet is only a quality bullet if it is designed and manufactured to be a quality bullet without these additional features. Core bonding for example only helps to hold an otherwise quality bullet together.

There also are misconceptions in that once a bullet contains a premium feature such as core bonding, it can automatically withstand high impact velocity.

Nothing is further from the truth.

A great example is the excellent Australian-made Woodleigh. These are bonded core bullets, but their design is purpose specific. In most instances they are shaped to duplicate regulation in double rifles and the jacket designed to offer maximum expansion at old express rifle velocities. The bonded core is just a great bonus preventing core and jacket separation. Woodleigh clearly states the recommended impact velocities for its bullets on its website and it is a fact of life that those bullets perform marvelously when applied accordingly. You will be disappointed if you apply them differently.

American bonded core bullets such as the Bitterroots, North Forks and Swift A-Frames generally are designed for use in American high velocity bolt action cartridges and consequently to only expand optimally at much higher velocity. If you put them into animals at snail's pace, you may be disappointed with expansion and target trauma. The South African made Rhino bullets are generally made more carridge specific and because they are not only bonded core, but also of solid base configuration, expansion is halted at a given level. They can therefore be made to expand at moderate impact velocity without over expanding at very high velocities. Their bonded core component also prevents fragmentation and weight loss. They are excellent terminal performers.

Bullets in this class generally perform best at impact velocities in excess of 2,600 fps and often even in excess of 3,000 fps. These bullets are very well suited to the larger soft skinned plains game species such as eland, zebra, giraffe, sable and roan. These softs also perform very well on all dangerous game bar elephant for which only solids are recommended.

One important difference to take note of is that some of these bullets are made to expand into petals. An example is the Rhino, while the others mentioned expand into a solid mushroom. It is a matter of personal preference as I can honestly not say a difference is measurable, but I apply them differently. The petal type offers deep penetration and the solid type massive trauma and tissue displacement. For that reason I like the petal type for animals such as buffalo and eland where penetration can be an issue of secondary shots are required, whereas I prefer the solid mushroom type for maximum effect on the sensitive nervous systems of the cats.

6th Generation Bullets

Although they are a higher numbered generation it is a consequence of their introduction time line rather than superiority over earlier designs.

I was not impressed with the early monometal solids as I found the reloading disadvantages disproportionate to any other benefits. I disliked the excessive barrel fouling. In my experience they also shed their petals at velocities in excess of 2,700 fps. Very often, due to the limited expansion they remained very long during the terminal phase and therefore prone to flipping over and traveling base first. Flipping over or tumbling of any bullet very often results in crooked penetration. It is not all that important in a small animal as it has generally passed the vitals and done the damage by then, but on big animals that may not be the case and it can result in wounding despite proper shot placement.

The leader in resolving the shortcomings of monometal expanders undoubtedly is GS Custom in South Africa. This firm overcame the propensity to pressure spiking upon the bullet hitting the rifling by making the bullet shank approximately bore size, leaving artillery style narrow driving bands of near groove size on the shank to seal the barrel. This approach required very little engraving and material displacement and 'softened' the engagement between bullet and rifling – largely eliminating the monometal bullet propensity to give pressure spikes. Since it also created a lot of space for the bullet metal dispplaced by the rifling to flow into, barrel fouling was considerably reduced.

Other makers such as Barnes adopted a similar concept, but simply cut grooves into the bullet shank to provide space for displaced material. The result effectively is the same and today expanding monometal bullets are excellent and can be used with confidence on any African game bar elephant.

Some double rifle manufacturers apparently warn against the use of monometal bullets in double rifles. I would go with heeding that as far as old style, smooth shank monometal bullets are concerned. I am not convinced that it should be the case with the more modern driving band or grooved shank bullets are concerned, but I have to add an important rider. A lot of dimensional variation exists in the barrels of older doubles in particular. Some are larger in bore and groove diameter than one expects them to be, while others are smaller. If full sized monometal bullets are fired in an undersize barrel, disaster is sure to follow. So, before you fire any such bullets in your beloved double, make sure you have the barrels slugged. If they are undersize – stay away from monometal bullets.

About Pierre van der Walt

An ex Captain in the SA military, a qualified professional hunter, conservation lawyer, firearm and hunting lobbyist, rifle handgun shotgun and assault rifle instructor, one of the most accoladed gunwriters in Africa, ad hoc lecturer at Professional Hunting academies and post-graduate wildlife management schools. Conceiver and organiser of the official South African firearm and hunting expo. Founding editor of Safari Times Africa, PHASA News and the Big Bore Journal publications. Leading big bore reloading expert. Author of International Big Bore Cartridge Load Data Collection and African Dangerous Game Cartridges.

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