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Best-Bet Bullets

Best-Bet Bullets

How to choose the right bullet for your needs and your wallet.

Hard-cast bullets (left) are inexpensive, accurate but just a bit messy. Jacketed bullets (right) are much cleaner but cost more. Plated bullets (center) split the difference but have their own issues.

When it comes to shooting, bullets are an essential component. And, yes, the pun was intended. Which bullet is best? As with so many things in life, the answer starts out as "that depends€¦."

Let's start by outlining our options. We have jacketed, plated and cast. Swaged is a subset of cast, with some advantages but more downsides in the mix.

Jacketed bullets are made by pounding a disk of copper into a cup, inserting a lead core and bashing the two until they form a unit. They can be full-metal jackets, hollowpoints or softpoints. Usually, the former is made by having the opening in the rear, and the latter two made by having the opening in the front.

The advantages are that you can usually push a jacketed bullet to a higher velocity, and you can also, if you're willing, buy jacketed bullets that expand far better than soft lead ones would. An ancillary benefit is accuracy, as at the outer reaches of accuracy it is easier to load jacketed bullets to the nth degree than lead.

For example, serious competitors at the Bianchi Cup insist on loads that deliver 1.5 inches at 50 yards or less. To do that requires either jacketed bullets or some very serious and time-consuming testing and sorting with lead bullets. The typical Bianchi Cup bullet is a Hornady XTP for the stellar accuracy it delivers.

Jacketed bullets are clean to load, clean to shoot and forgiving of some reloading mistakes. They are, however, unforgiving of others, and a jacketed bullet that is tipped too much on seating will simply crush the case.


The disadvantage to jacketed bullets are cost and lack of performance at low velocities. The cost is both from the lead and copper (copper being relatively expensive compared to lead) and the work it takes to fabricate and combine the two.

As for the velocity downside, it takes a certain amount of force to engrave a jacketed bullet into, and push through, the rifling of your barrel. That greater friction means you have a higher threshold of "won't get stuck" velocity you have to maintain. If you try to go too slow with a jacketed bullet for super-low recoil, you'll quickly get one stuck in the bore. That is not good, and the hazard of launching another behind it, and ruining a barrel, should be enough to keep your speeds up.

Lead bullets offer many advantages, primarily cost. A cast bullet and a jacketed bullet of the same weight typically shows a price advantage of up to 50 percent to the cast bullet. That's right, half off.

Hard-cast lead bullets, where allowed, offer a significant cost advantage, and that's why a lot of competitive shooters shoot lead. Matched to your caliber and use (lead bullets above 1,100 fps can be a problem), they can be startlingly accurate. They do, however, shoot "dirtier" than jacketed bullets. The powder residue, lubricant and lead can create a gooey black residue in your gun and on your hands.

Part of the cost advantage is locality. That is, it takes an industrial setup to produce jacketed or plated bullets. But a local caster can produce high-quality bullets with a modest setup, and when you buy local you save on shipping.

Lead is easier on bores, too. The Hensley & Gibbs No. 68 bullet, a 200-grain semi-wadcutter for the .45 ACP, basically built the sport of IPSC. I figure I've launched something on the order of nine tons of those downrange. How many does it take to wear out a barrel? Significantly more than 100,000 of them, based on the wear on my guns.

However, some ranges don't allow lead. Exposure to lead can be unhealthy but is greatly mitigated with proper ventilation and hand washing. That's right, just as all our mothers told us: "Wash your hands when you're done." However, hand-washing alone isn't enough for some who experience long-term exposure, like range officers on indoor ranges. That's why ranges may insist on all-jacket or lead-free bullets--even lead-free primers.

But where they can be used (which is most places) something like the hard-cast bullets from Oregon Trail will be superb.

That brings us to our last category: plated bullets. Here, lead cores are shaped to bullet profiles. Then they are dumped in a vat of copper-containing electroplating solution, and the electricity is turned on. (Obviously there are more details than that, otherwise they'd be fused into one copper-plated mass.)

The copper-plated bullets are tougher than all lead but not as tough as jacketed ones. They are also in between in cost, too. However, if you do not need the expanding abilities of jacketed hollowpoints, want the cleanliness or speed of jacketed--at something closer to lead in cost--plated bullets are for you.

You'll have to be aware of a few things, however. Plated bullets can be very touchy about crimp. Reloading your ammunition requires that you bell the case to allow clean bullet insertion. Then, you have to un-bell and typically apply a slight crimp. If you crimp a plated bullet too much, you can cut through the plating, and then accuracy typically goes all to hell.

Berry's Bullets makes plated bullets, and it also makes a type known as the "double strike" plated bullet. There, the bullets, once plated, are fed into a machine that "bumps" or slightly swages them, to increase uniformity and to harden the plating.

Now, there are always exceptions. Speer Gold Dots are bullets made via the plating process but are so thickly plated, and then pierced and swaged into hollowpoints, that they perform like the best of jacketed bullets.

Hornady XTP bullets are known for their accuracy. And their expense. Since expanding in cardboard targets is an aspect completely absent in competition, Hornady makes its HAP; the XTP without the extra work to make it expand. Still superbly accurate but less expensive because there is less work involved in making them.

And what if you want penetration but not expansion? Go with a jacketed bullet? No, lead. There, a hard-cast lead of the right shape, such as one of Cast Performance bullets like its 300-grain Wide Flat Nose Gas Check for the .44 Magnum, will not expand worth a whit, but it will drill a .430-inch diameter hole for the next four feet of critter (driven to the correct velocity, of course), which is what you need if you are hunting bear, moose, or other big, dangerous a


Wise Investing
As the most expensive component of your ammunition, bullets are a significant investment. They do not, however, have a shelf life. Bullets bought last week work the same as bullets bought in the last century. If you find a bullet that works well in your handgun, and you expect to be using it for some time, inquire about volume buying. Cast bullets especially can be had at a discount if you buy a lot, and even more if you can arrange to pick them up.

I once arranged the pickup of 50,000 hard-cast bullets for reloading and met the caster at the match where he was going to be anyway. Yes, my truck struggled mightily on the trip back, but the cost in extra gas from the weight was nothing compared to the shipping cost they'd have racked up.

Get together with some of the guys at your gun club. Find someone with a truck up to the task. Make a group purchase and pickup, and then divvy them once you get back home. The more you save, the more you shoot.

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