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Rifle Magazine
April - May 2001
Volume 36, Number 2
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 210
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The new stainless steel Ruger Single-Six is chambered for the .32 H&R Magnum. Mountian lion photo by Ron Spomer. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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The Super Penetrators

In the past 15 years, dozens of new big game bullets have been developed, the majority as competitors to the old stand-by Nosler Partition, a hard act to follow. Today’s Partition, the result of over 50 years of experimentation, remains the most perfect all-around big game bullet on the market. It expands easily, yet penetrates very well, and shoots quite accurately in almost any rifle. While Partitions won’t match the accuracy of varmint or thin-jacketed “deer” bullets, I own several rifles that group three Partitions into much less than an inch at 100 yards.


Many premium bullets retain more weight after impact than Partitions, but only three widely available bullets actually out-penetrate Noslers of equal weight and diameter: the Barnes X-Bullet, Combined Technology Fail Safe and Trophy Bonded. All three open up less than most other premium bullets, such as the Swift A-Frame and Speer Grand Slam, and retain more shank length. In my experience any of the three need only weigh about 80 to 85 percent of a Partition to penetrate as deeply.

A typical example might be the kudu bull my wife shot last year with a handloaded 165-grain Fail Safe from a .30-06. The bull dropped to a lung shot but staggered to its feet and started off. So Eileen planted another in its left hip. The bull crumpled, because the Fail Safe broke the kudu’s right shoulder before rattling off through the thornbush. I wouldn’t try the same shot with any .30-caliber Partition weighing less than 200 grains.

On average the Trophy Bonded penetrates slightly less than an X-Bullet or Fail Safe but still penetrates deeper than any other commonly available bullet. A couple years ago a friend shot a huge Alaskan moose in the rear end with a 180 grainer from Federal’s High Energy .30-06 factory load - and recovered the bullet from the bull’s heart. Since the moose is now No. 3 in Boone & Crockett, my buddy’s still smiling.

All three bullets work wonderfully on heavy animals and reasonably well on lighter game. I’ve taken animals as small as pronghorns and whitetails with all three. Often they drop to the shot, though perhaps not so often as when hit by quick expanders like Sierras and Nosler Ballistic Tips. But even if some animal runs off before expiring, all three super-expanders generally leave an excellent blood trail, unlike the “popcorn” bullets (as my wife calls them), and tear up less meat. All three expand down to 2,000 fps, the lowest speed where conventional lead-core spitzers still open reliably. At lower velocities the Trophy Bonded doesn’t punch a hole as well as the other two, probably because of its rounded “mushroom” rather than the dished face of an expanded X-Bullet or Fail Safe, so I like to start it as close to 3,000 fps as possible. Other than that, all three work very similarly on game.

So why not use them for all hunting? First, they’re expensive, even more costly than Partitions and, on average, not as accurate. I went through my handloading records for the past five years, averaging three-shot, 100-yard groups shot in tuned bolt-action and single-shot big game rifles with each bullet, from both handloads and factory ammunition. Calibers ran from .243 Winchester to .375 H&H. The averages follow:

 

Nosler Partition

Original Fail Safe

Trophy Bonded

Barnes XLC (blue X-Bullet)

Moly Fail Safe

X-Bullet

(Inches)

1.19

1.68

1.68

1.91

1.96

2.01

Probably because of their solid shanks, the Barnes X-Bullet and Trophy Bonded bullet will shoot terribly in a few barrels. A recent example involved the 150-grain XLC in a pair of accurate .30-06s, one from Ultra Light Arms, the other a custom 98 Mauser. Both have very even and smooth bores slugging .3078 inch, nearly identical throats and group an inch or under with almost any Nosler Partition. With the XLC I tried several loads, both using new Federal brass. The Ultra Light showed promise from the start, and I eventually settled on 53 grains of Reloder 15 for over 3,100 fps with accuracy averaging around 1.25 inches; but the smallest group from the Mauser ran 2.06 inches, and one spread 5 inches.

For years my impression was that only very smooth barrels would shoot solid-shank bullets well, but my loading notes proved this false. Two examples: A Weatherby Accu-Mark in .270 Weatherby Magnum with one of the smoothest factory barrels I’ve ever seen scattered 140-grain Trophy Bondeds into 3 to 4 inches. My old FN Mauser .270 WCF fouls badly, due to a slightly eroded throat and the years it spent as the property of my East Coast father-in-law, but it shoots the same 140-grain Trophy Bonded into an inch.

The blue-coated XLCs have grouped slightly better than “naked” X-Bullets, but the Barnes claim of higher, yet safe, velocities hasn’t always held up in my rifles. Some bullet/bore combinations, like the .30-06 load listed above, show noticeable gains. But in other rifles I can’t get any more velocity than with conventional bullets. The rather fragile coating tends to scrape off when the bullet is seated, perhaps more so in some cartridges than others. The coating also can build up in seating dies and rifle throats but is easily    removed with a brass bore brush and, unlike moly, burns out of a barrel after a round or two of uncoated bullets.

Fail Safes are another matter. Their shank is lead-filled, so they seem to obturate better in the bore than either the X-Bullet or Trophy Bonded. The first commercial Fail Safes, blackened with a light lubricant Winchester calls Lubalox, shot very well, often under one inch. But the latest generation is moly-coated. In my rifles these don’t shoot as well as the old model and require about 10 fouling shots before settling down. Why should a hunter have      to foul the bore with several 40ยข bullets - or $1.50 factory loads - after every cleaning? (Yes, bores shot with moly-coated bullets should be cleaned. Not only can moly build up in a bore, but it is somewhat hygroscopic so in moist country can cause bore rust.)

Moly has some good points, but for big game bullets I’ve yet to find any advantage. The Combined Technologies of Winchester and Nosler offer the Partition Gold in moly and “moly-free” models. Why not offer the same option with the Fail Safe?

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