Boutique Ammo – Ordinary softpoints once killed elk. Why change?

In Bugle, Gear 101 by Wayne van Zwoll13 Comments

Once upon a time, talk in white wall tents—after tales of extraordinary shots and antlers the size of truck axles—drifted to custom rifles with fine walnut. These days, you’ll as likely hear chatter about bullets and ballistic coefficients and ammunition companies fresh as the latest Trump tweet.

Physiologically, the elk haven’t changed.

I may have started perusing Gun Digest and Shooter’s Bible as early as age five, though neither was on introductory reading lists in grade school. The 46th edition of SB, from that era, featured DuPont powders in rectangular cans with labels spelling out “Improved Military Rifle Powder.” In a photo posing with a sable he shot with a .300 H&H, Jack O’Connor looks young. York advertised lemonwood bows.

The ammo section of that wish-book showed Winchester and Western loads and Remington. Or you could ogle the exotic rosters of DWM and RWS, German brands. All but one of 55 rifle cartridges illustrated had a
round- or flat-nose bullet. The exception: the .220 Swift, with a pointed softpoint. You could still buy .33 Winchester and .303 Savage loads, 6.5x58s and 8x57Rs. Prices? A box of .270s would set you back $3.70. To feed that Model 70 .375 you bought new for $120.95, you’d pony up $5.05 for a box of 300-grain Silver Tips.

Who says the old days weren’t good?

Since then, ammunition and rifles have changed apace. The sterile, angular, mean-spirited look of a modern “long-range” rifle might be forgiven in light of its performance—though some of us mourn the current dearth of trim walnut-stocked sporters warm with the glow of boiled linseed oil and rust-blued steel. I’m even a bit saddened by the obsolescence of long blunt bullets, nose lead boldly exposed above scalloped jackets. For many decades such missiles put the skids under big bucks and bulls. Land sakes, in foreign game fields, hunters trusted their lives to such ordinary bullets! Jim Corbett carried a 7×57 to kill man-eating tigers, baiting them at night and trailing them through jungle where shots came so close, even iron sights were superfluous. Colonel J.H. Patterson used a .303 British to dispatch a pair of man-eating lions whose depredations (100 victims!) had stopped construction of the Uganda Railway near the Tsavo crossing. Texas-born “Yank” Allen also relied upon a .303. Its bluff-nose 215-grain softpoints accounted for more than 300 Rhodesian lions in the 16 years before he succumbed to tuberculosis.

These men hunted around the turn of the last century, before shooters boasted of 1,000-yard kills. (Corbett shot the man-eating Chowgahr tigress at a range of 8 feet.) Heavy softnose bullets at 2,200 to 2,500 fps were lethal. They flew in arcs flat enough to match the reach of open and aperture sights. Up close, they had great punch. The old blunt .303 British bullet started at 2,180 fps and hit as hard at 25 yards as a modern 180-grain spitzer from a .300 Winchester Magnum at 300. Too, the common energy measure of foot-pounds arguably fails to give bullet weight full credit in “killing power” comparisons.

Even in my youth, half a century after East Africa’s professional hunters had turned from killing cats and collecting ivory to hosting sportsmen like Teddy Roosevelt, expanding bullets had changed little. And North American hunters were buying, for the most part, from two major ammo makers. Winchester-Western and Remington-Peters had deep roots. Besides, anyone with plans to compete in that arena faced daunting start-up costs. Manufacturing brass and bullets is an industrial project. Even if it bought primers and powder, a new company would have to earn a sizable chunk of the market soon to keep a lid on debt.

In 1964, bullet-maker Joyce Hornady started loading cartridges under the Frontier label. He used canister powders in once-fired brass. Initial offerings were .243, .270, .308, .30-06. By then Federal listed 18 centerfire loads in Shooter’s Bible, .222 to .30-06. Swedish ammo-maker Norma occupied a page with 29 offerings, having established a foothold in North America by loading Weatherby-branded cartridges.

The tale of ammo evolution since 1964 would take more space than I have here. So I’ll fast-forward. During the last 50 years, bullets have become lighter and sleeker. Excepting loads for dangerous game and those for use in tube magazines, you’ll find few missiles that won’t poke through your pockets. Sharp poly-tipped bullets leave fast, cut flat arcs and hold jealously to their bundle of energy downrange.

The generation of big game cartridges that has sprung up since I tumbled my first deer with a .303 also has a new look. Hulls have sharp shoulders and minimum taper to bring maximum powder capacity to common
rifle actions. High-energy, temperature-insensitive propellants add thrust to loads tailored for speed and reach. With iron sights absent from most barrels, why concoct loads for iron-sight distances?

Less predictable than shifts in bullet and cartridge design has been the proliferation of what you might call “boutique” ammunition enterprises selling what the big players do not. Some of these custom loading shops feature their own bullets and headstamped brass.

This article appears in the Jan/Feb 2017 Bugle Magazine. Join now to get your copy

If these companies balk at the term “boutique,” I understand. Still, my wife Alice tells me it’s common to so describe special products, designs or brands not found in standard outlets. Then there are companies that followed Hornady’s lead, establishing ammo businesses to complement bullet-making enterprises—Barnes, Nosler and Swift, for example.

By 2011 Barnes was part of the Freedom Group that bought Remington and, subsequently, a suite of shooting-industry brands. Shortly thereafter, I visited Coni and Randy Brooks, who’d stayed on during the transition, in the new Barnes facility south of Salt Lake City. Even more sophisticated than the American Fork digs where Randy put the X-Bullet on hunters’ radar, it’s where Barnes began making ammunition, now with the Triple Shock (TSX)
as its flagship bullet. Barnes Vor-TX ammo in Handgun, Rifle and Safari lines includes metric rounds like the 7×64. Nitro Express heavies too!

Nosler offers a truly impressive array of custom-loaded ammunition for common and hard-to-find cartridges, .17 Remington to .505 Gibbs and .500 Jeffery. For double rifles it lists the .470, .500/416 and .500 NE. I’ve used this ammunition and found it top-drawer. Nosler features its own wide range of bullet weights and styles, of course—and its own brass, which it also offers fresh to handloaders. A line of pistol ammo (9mm, .40, and .45 ACP) comprises target and defense loads.

Swift announced an ammunition line recently, after decades producing only bullets. In the 1980s, while serving as editor of Kansas Wildlife Magazine, I freelanced for Rifle. Ever on the hunt for stories, I nosed out a bullet shop in Quinter, a small rural town west of Pratt. There I met a youthful Lee Reed. In 1982 Reed decided he could make a better big game bullet. On crude benches in a dim warren under the local grain elevator, he and a handful of talented locals put C&H and Corbin tools to work making bullets, some jacketed with .22 rimfire hulls. Two years later, Lee developed a new bullet based on Germany’s dual-core H-Mantle and John Nosler’s similar Partition. He improved that design by bonding the front half, then bought an ad in Shotgun News to announce the A-Frame. Loading his pickup with samples, he drove east.

“Remington needed a bullet for really tough game,” Lee told me. “Hunters are digging for spent bullets, measuring and weighing them. They’ll spend more to get more.”

Remington bit. A decade later, Pepsi executive Bill Hober invested in Swift Bullets. The additional capital, along with Hober’s marketing background, took the company into another phase. Hober promoted the A-Frame to handloaders and to ammunition manufacturers. Eventually Swift bullets would sell in 24 countries. Sako in Finland and Norma in Sweden would load them in finished cartridges.

Meanwhile, Hober and his son Tony came up with a new design: the Scirocco bullet appeared in 1999. A bonded lead-core bullet with no mid-section dam, it had a sleeker profile than the A-Frame and a sharp black polymer tip.

In Alaska about then, in foul weather that grounded the scheduled Super Cub, our spike camp was shy of food. So one morning, a pal and I set off to waylay a grizzly. He had a license. From 80 yards, his bullet did not strike where intended, upsetting the bear. It roared, spun and hurled itself toward a thicket. It died suddenly on the way, victim of two Sciroccos. As we were hungry, I fileted the bruin’s backstraps. “It’s been scavenging caribou,” protested my friend. But floured, peppered and seared, they proved a hit—tender and mild-flavored, much like elk. Later that week I tested the Scirocco’s penetration and integrity by firing my .30 magnum into successively thicker spruces. The bullets zipped through even 8-inch boles.

Most of my elk hunting doesn’t require a bullet shaped like a ballistic missile, and I like double-diameter mushrooms that leave most of a bullet’s heel intact. So Swift’s A-Frame (with Federal’s Trophy Bonded) hikes my pulse. I used one to take an elk on a forested Wyoming hill. The splash of dun alerted me. I eased closer and sent a handloaded 150-grain A-Frame from my .270 Howell. The elk made a single leap before tumbling down the hill, dead. The perfectly mushroomed bullet scaled 92 percent of starting weight. A-Frame bullets in Norma 9.3×62 loads have taken a moose and a mountain goat for me too.

Swift has lumped its new ammunition into series: Scirocco II, A-Frame, Lever-Action, A-Frame Heavy Rifle, Break-Away Solid and Heavy Revolver. Nickel-plated cartridge cases distinguish the Heavy Rifle/Dangerous Game (A-Frame and Break-Away Solid) and Heavy Revolver loads.

One of my favorite shooting-industry enterprises emerged in what some might call Horatio Alger style. After the Vietnam War, demand for service ammunition waned. Jeff Hoffman, a police officer in his home town of Rapid City, South Dakota, was handloading “because I liked to shoot” and to supply his friends on the force. In 1982 he and wife Kristi bought into a business that six years later would split from Black Hills Shooter’s Supply. The Hoffmans hatched Black Hills Ammunition (BHA) in a Quonset hut that soon bristled with handloading presses. Aisles were so tight, visitors had to time passage between the swings of press handles. Every round was loaded by hand!

Re-manufacturing cartridges using once-fired cases, BHA loaded for hunters, law-enforcement (LE) officers and target shooters. Jeff and Kristi and a loyal staff worked hard to invest in a larger building across town: a creamery! Shortly after signing the contract, Jeff led me through a labyrinth of annexes stripped of milk tanks and plumbing. “We’ll fill these,” he assured me. “All 60,000 square feet are spoken for!”

Military and LE orders hurried BHA through its re-purposing of the creamery and grew payroll to 75. The Black Hills Gold stable of hunting rounds comprises 41 loads in 10 chamberings, to .338 Lapua, with bullets from Barnes, Hornady, Nosler and Sierra. Gold “elk rifle” ammo on my shelf—.25-06, .30-06 and 7mm Magnum—shoots as accurately as any competitor’s. BHA’s “target/tactical” category has 31 loads in seven chamberings. Hornady ELD-X and ELD Match bullets have just replaced A-Max missiles.

You may not need a magazine full of a custom-loaded cartridges in the chamber when dawn brightens elk country, but having better than you need inspires confidence—which can help you shoot well. Much of our best hunting ammunition began life in handloading presses in garage-size shops with no advertising budget. Some of tomorrow’s is still there.

Even when you know an ordinary load should suffice, a load you know is the best you can buy may be your best choice when the shot really, really matters.