When selecting the proper rifle cartridge and bullet design for hunting small game, big game, and dangerous game, understanding “ammo speak” is critically important. If you don’t ask the right questions using the right words, the answers you’ll get won’t be reliable or accurate.
Bullet: While hunters and shooters, in general, often refer to their ammunition as “bullets” as in “Give me a box of bullets for hunting deer,” that’s incorrect … or at the least doesn’t provide enough information to warrant an intelligent response. The bullet is simply the projectile. It’s the part that leaves the barrel, travels down-range, and impacts the target … with the intended result if the proper bullet design was selected. Bullets can be of an infinite variety of calibers and many, many designs. A handloader may request “a box of bullets,” but only with a bunch more specific adjectives attached.
Caliber: In the case of ammunition, caliber refers only to the diameter of the bullet. It’s often misused in place of “cartridge” as in asking, “What’s your favorite caliber for deer hunting?” Bullets of 308 caliber, of varied designs, are loaded in the .308 Winchester, the .30-06, the .300 Winchester Magnum, the .300 Weatherby Magnum, the .300 Remington Ultra Magnum … and many more cartridges. Caliber is one, specific measurement … nothing more.
Cartridge: When it comes to rifle ammunition, the “cartridge” is the thing. It’s the shape, design, and dimensions of that metal case which is loaded with smokeless powder and topped with a bullet of the proper caliber. The .30-30 WCF, the .250-3000 Savage, the .223 Remington, the 7x57 Mauser, the .30-06, the .416 Rigby … and any other you care to list … are cartridges, not calibers or bullets. Cartridges designed and named in America or Great Britain are labeled with marketing in mind and little regard to consistency. Cartridges with origins in continental Europe generally are named by the caliber of the projectile in millimeters (for example, 7.62mm) and the length of the cartridge case in millimeters (for example, 51mm). The American version is the .308 Winchester. The European or NATO version is the 7.62x51mm.
In your quest to purchase a rifle or pistol you will come across another group of terms used to define cartridges; they are “rimfire” and “centerfire.”Here are the differences in those two types of ammunition:
Rimfire Cartridges: When you hear someone refer to a “.22" their usually talking about a 22-caliber rimfire cartridge. The term “rimfire” means the primer is inside the rim around the edge of the case head. That’s the end of the cartridge opposite from the bullet. You can’t see the primer, but it’s there inside the rim. The firing pin in a rimfire rifle or pistol strikes the rim of the case to ignite the primer and fire the cartridge. The most common rimfire cartridges are .22 short, .22 long, .22 long rifle, and .22 WMR. There are also 17-caliber rimfire cartridges like the .17 HMR. Rimfire cartridges are used for hunting small game, target shooting, training, competition, and recreational shooting.
Centerfire Cartridges: Centerfire cartridges are the most common found in rifles and pistols. The term “centerfire” refers to the position of the primer in the case head. That’s the end of the cartridge opposite the bullet. In a centerfire cartridge, the primer is visible and it’s positioned in the very center of the case head. Common centerfire cartridges are the .30-06, .30-30 Win., 7mm Rem. Mag., 9mm, and .45 ACP, and many, many others. Centerfire cartridges are used for hunting big game and varmints as well as target, competition, and recreational shooting and military, police, and defense uses.
Okay … now that we can converse in the same language, check out our Hunting With the Right Cartridge ammo chart for some great recommendations regarding hunting different types of game.
How to Select the Right Bullet Design
No matter which cartridge you select, you will have options in the design of the bullets loaded into it. Popular calibers like the 7mms (.284) and the .300s (actually 308-caliber) offer dozens of bullet designs each meant to achieve a specific on-target performance in a specific velocity range. Let’s look at a few bullet designs and their characteristics to help you decide which is right for your hunting or recreational shooting application.
Thin-walled, highly-frangible, rapid expansion bullets –
Because they are used for hunting prairie dogs, woodchucks, and coyotes, these are also often called “varmint bullets.” They are designed to expand nearly instantly when they strike the target. They even break into tiny pieces. The expansion force of these bullets creates devastating (and graphic) results on small animals, however they disintegrate so rapidly they are not for use on big game because they don’t penetrate deeply enough to disrupt vital organs.
Bonded bullets –
Traditional hunting bullets have a lead core and a copper alloy jacket. In a “bonded” bullet, that lead core is chemically fused or soldered to the jacket. This is meant to prevent the core and jacket from separating. The heavier, solid package retains more energy than would a separated jacket and core, so it drives deeper into the target even if it encounters bone along the way. Quality bonded bullets perform extremely well on medium and large big game animals.
Partitioned bullets –
For consistent expansion and penetration, partitioning a bullet reaches the next level of performance. Two of the most well-respected partitioned bullets are the Nosler Partition and the Swift A-Frame. These designs separate the lead core of the bullet into two portions. The forward portion is enclosed in a tapered jacket to create controlled expansion across a wide range of impact velocities. The rear core is enclosed in a thick jacket so it does not deform. The maximally retained weight of the bullet drives deep for penetration and shock.
Solid bullets –
Large caliber, solid bullets are meant for hunting big-bodied dangerous game … think cape buffalo and elephants. The big cartridges used for hunting these animals are meant to drive heavy bullets deep into the target despite encountering thick hide and heavy bone. The caliber of the bullets is often already so large, expansion isn’t really necessary. In fact, dangerous game solids are meant not to expand. This is achieved by not using lead in the bullets at all; only a harder alloy of copper or brass.
Full-metal jacket bullets –
These bullets are also meant not to expand on striking a target, but for a different reason. These bullets are of military origin and are made with a lead core surrounded completely by a thick metal jacket. The prohibition on the use of expanding bullets in warfare goes back to the Hague Convention of 1899. Full metal jacket bullets are widely available in the consumer market today, especially in traditional “military” cartridges like the 5.56x45mm (.223 Rem.) and the 7.62x51 (.308 Win.). They’re usually the most inexpensive loads you’ll find and are fine for target practice and the like. However, they are not meant for hunting and, in fact, are illegal to use for hunting big game in most places.