When I first started big game hunting, most serious hunters handloaded their own ammunition. This was because the quality of the factory ammunition that was available was not always of the highest grade, and the selection of calibers, along with bullet weights and styles, was not the greatest either. Handloading is still very popular, especially for those who do a lot of shooting and are looking to save money by reusing the brass shell casings and buying the other components of ammunition in bulk, but fortunately the quality and variety of factory ammunition available today is no longer an issue. Here's what you need to know to select the right ammunition for hunting. For the purposes of this discussion, we will be looking at only rifle ammunition.
The first consideration when buying ammunition is the caliber. Obviously the caliber has to match that of the rifle that you plan to use. Always make sure that you use only the exact same caliber that is stamped on the barrel or receiver of your rifle; using any other caliber may result in serious or even fatal injury to you.
"Caliber" is generally the measure of a bullet's diameter; the higher the caliber, the bigger the bullet, and generally the larger the game it can be used for.
Below is a chart to help you match up the caliber with the type of hunting you are plan to do. Click here for a larger PDF of the chart.
What Style of Bullet?
The style and construction of a bullet are also important considerations. If you shoot a lever action rifle with a tubular magazine, your bullet style will usually be limited to bullets that have a round or flat nose to prevent a chain reaction detonation of the rounds that are lined up tip-to-primer in the magazine. However, most bullets feature a pointed or "spitzer" tip, for increased ballistic efficiency. The main exception to this is large-for-caliber bullets, such as the 220 grain bullet for a .30-06 Springfield mentioned above. Such bullets often feature a round nose as well, as they are generally designed for use at short ranges or heavy cover.
The construction of a bullet will depend on the size of game being hunted. Varmint hunting requires a bullet with a thin jacket and soft core, for rapid expansion and fragmentation inside these tiny targets. At the other end of the spectrum, bullets designed for the largest of North American game feature a thicker or tapered jacket, often bonded to the bullet's core, in order to provide for deep penetration and controlled expansion while retaining most of the bullet's weight. For deer-sized game, bullets are generally constructed with a softer point, as these animals lack the thicker hides and tougher bones of moose and bears.
Many of the most popular bullets today also feature some sort of polymer tip atop the lead slug. These tips help to prevent deformation or damage to the soft lead bullet that can result from repeated loading and unloading in a rifle's magazine and chamber, which can then hurt the bullet's ballistic efficiency and performance.
Premium grade ammunition usually carries a premium price, but it is generally well worth the added expense. These loads generally utilize higher-quality components, including the brass, bullets, powders and primers, and are loaded to strict specifications with tighter quality control tolerances. The result is ammunition that is generally more accurate and consistent from shot to shot. When you consider the amount of money we spend to hunt big game, and that we might only fire a few rounds a year, a few extra dollars spent to buy the best factory ammunition available is a good investment.
In recent years, ammo manufacturers have come out with some new specialty loadings as well. Reduced recoil loads have become popular with female shooters, younger shooters and anyone with a heightened sensitivity to recoil. These loads feature special powders and bullets to achieve hunting performance on deer-sized game out to 200 yards, with much less than standard recoil.
At the other end of the spectrum, hunters who are not particularly sensitive to recoil and who want the maximum performance available for a particular caliber can choose from new "hyper-velocity" loads now being offered. These loads offer faster velocities than standard loads, resulting in flatter trajectories, more energy and better penetration.
Lead-free bullets are also gaining popularity. They are legally required in certain areas, while other hunters prefer them due to concerns about lead bullet fragments in their venison. Fortunately these all-copper bullets tend to be very accurate and, as a bonus, they deliver nearly 100 percent weight retention.
Hunters today have a greater variety of top-quality factory ammunition available to them than ever before. No matter what or where you hunt, there's a bullet and load combination that's ideally suited for the task.