Right Bullet for the Right Job

Bullets matter. That is picking the right bullet for the right job matters. I’m not talking about the caliber, nor am I taking about the entire cartridge. Just the bullet, or the projectile.

I’ve covered this topic briefly before in several posts like the beginner’s guide to the first firearm and a post about searching for the ultimate self defense handgun ammo amongst other places. But I figured it was due time to revisit the subject in a dedicated post. I don’t intend to cover all the different types of projectiles as there are many and I don’t have experience with all of them. There are also plenty of other sources of information about projectiles across the internet, many of which are undoubtedly better qualified to talk about them than I am. Regardless, I wanted to personally review my selections are share my opinions with others – especially those who maybe new to the topic.

From my point of view, selecting the right bullet type starts with understanding the intended use or application. The applications will vary from one person to another depending on their interests and commitment to those interests. For me those applications include recreational plinking, target shooting, competitive shooting, personal defense, personal defense training, and hunting. While that’s a broad list, it excludes several tactical applications that may be employed during law enforcement and military operations.

Over the next couple of sections, I’m going to cover the bullet types I tend to use and what use them for. I hope this will help some readers make the better informed choices when attempting to select the right bullet for the right job.

Full Metal Jacket (FMJ)

Commonly referred to as ball ammo, ammunition with FMJ projectiles tend to be the lowest priced ammunition one can find. This makes them the most commonly sought after projectiles for recreational plinking or other activities requiring a high round count. I’m going to lump total metal jacket (TMJ) projectiles along with FMJ here just because I see very little difference in their applications. I’m also going to lump copper plated (CP) projectiles along with FMJ for the same reason.

FMJ projectiles are generally composed of a soft lead core encased in a shell, or jacket, of a harder metal. This bullet design dates back to the early 1880s and generally has the lowest manufacturing cost. I suspect the low manufacturing cost has more to due with it large volume production rather than manufacturing complexity, but that’s just a guess. Ammunition with FMJ projectiles is generally available for just about every single center-fire cartridge that I can think of.

9mm FMJ
9mm FMJ

FMJ tends to be what I use for just about all applications with the exception of long distance target shooting, personal defense, and hunting. While I do use FMJ bullets for the competitive shooting activities I participate in, seriously dedicated competitive shooters will opt for match grade ammunition instead especially for high level matches.

From what I have gathered, FMJ is a poor choice for personal defense or hunting applications as they tend to over penetrate targets and leave smaller wound cavities than other bullet types. This is especially true for heavy, slow-moving handgun cartridges. This also happens to be less true for high velocity rifle projectiles like 5.56 NATO which can quickly fragment into smaller pieces when they encounter resistance. Regardless of the degree for truth, FMJ would be my last option for personal defense or hunting applications.

Lead Round Nose (LRN)

There are some bullet types that I am going to lump, perhaps incorrectly, along with LRN projectiles. These include, but aren’t limited to, lead solid (LS), lead semi-wadcutter (LSWC), lead wadcutter (LWC), and any other non-jacketed lead projectiles. Although, it’s not because of their applications are similar it’s just because I generally don’t use them as I’ve heard they tend to make more of a mess when it comes to fouling that I need to clean later.

.22 Long Rifle LRN
.22 Long Rifle LRN

On occasion, I use plain old lead projectiles for recreational plinking. This happens more often than not when I’m out shooting the good ole 22s. A lot of times, .22 Long Rifle (22LR) ammunition with plain old lead projectiles can be found in large quantities at a slightly lower price than it’s copper plated counterparts. Honestly, the fouling mess left by 22LR cartridges seems to be about the same regardless of projectile type anyway.

Jacketed Hollow Point (JHP)

Hollow point bullets are designed for controlled expansion when they strike a soft tissued target. The “hollow” part of a hollow point is a pit at the tip of the bullet. Upon striking soft tissue, pressure builds up in the pit which forces the bullet to expand and increases its diameter. The expansion has a couple of few effects: a larger wound channel and decreased penetration. Following the pattern of lumping other bullet types into the same category, I’m going to lump semi-jacketed hollow points (SJHP) along with JHPs. I’m also going to throw copper plated hollow points (CPHP) into the same bucket when it comes to 22 caliber rimfire cartridges.

To the best of my knowledge, hollow point bullet types are only found in handgun cartridges. The one exception to this would be hollow point boat tail projectiles, which are covered in the following section. Soft point bullet types, found only in rifle cartridges, are essentially equivalent to hollow points in and are covered in a later section.

The difference between SJHPs and JHPs is simply how much of projectiles is jacketed by a harder metal (like FMJs mentioned above). The jacket of a JHP starts at the base and continues all the way up to the pit which exposes the softer core. The jacket of a SJHP begins at the base and continues up to about the half way point of the exposed portion of the projectile in a cartridge.

9mm JHP
9mm JHP

Expanding ballistic tips are essentially the same as a JHP except a synthetic tip fills and covers the exposed pit. Sometimes the tip will continue to a sharp point above the tip resembling a cone shaped birthday hat. The ballistic tip is supposed to perform a couple of functions. One is to improve the aerodynamic qualities of the projectile by decreasing drag. The other is to prevent debris from clogging the pit which would prevent expansion.

.500 Smith & Wesson Magnum JHP with "Ballistic Tip"
.500 Smith & Wesson Magnum JHP with “Ballistic Tip”

The side effects of a JHP controlled expansion are very desirable qualities for personal defense or hunting applications. Larger wound channels increase the chances of incapacitating a target. While reduced penetration lessens the risk posed by a projectile that continues to travel beyond the target as it will have significantly less velocity and energy.

Another characteristic of these projectile types is they tend to be more expensive than LRN or FMJ projectiles. Sometimes significantly more expensive. This makes ammunition with JHP projectiles less desirable, if not cost prohibitive, for anything other than personal defense or hunting applications.

In terms of my use, I load JHP ammo in defensive handguns when I expect the most likely threat to be of the two-legged variety. Since, I don’t do

Hollow Point Boat Tail (HPBT)

HPBT, sometimes called open tip match (OTM), bullets are very different from the other hollow point bullets described in the section above. These bullets are not designed to expand. The hollow point or open tip, which is a pit that looks like it was made with the tip of a pin, is a side effect of their manufacturing process where they are spun to ensure a very concentric weight distribution. The pit is literally where the bullet was held during the manufacturing process. The boat tail is a taper at the end of the projectile giving the entire projectile a tear drop like shape. The combination of the tear drop shape and the concentric weight are some of the key elements in the overall HPBT to design to achieve very low drag. Very low drag being a highly sought after quality for long distance precision shooting.

.338 Lapua Magnum HPBT
.338 Lapua Magnum HPBT

Some manufactures have added a tip to HBPT projectiles to achieve even lower drag. I tend to call these a non-expanding ballistic tip projectiles since they weren’t designed to expand and look virtually identical expanding ballistic tip projectiles. I’m certain I didn’t make up the term non-expanding ballistic tip, but I’m not aware of an industry standard term for them.

.338 Lapua Magnum HPTB with "tip"
.338 Lapua Magnum HPTB with “tip”

HPBTs tend to be similarly priced to JHPs. This makes ammunition with HPBT projectiles only desirable long distance precision shooting which is exactly what I use them for on rare occasions.

Soft Point (SP)

The last bullet type I will cover in this post is the SP along with the pointed soft point PSP, which as the name implies is a pointed SP.

As noted in the JHP section earlier in this post, SP bullets are essentially equivalent to JHPs in both composition and function. They are composed of a soft core jacketed by a harder metal. The difference is that the tip of the core is exposed without a pit. Just like JHPs, the exposed core of the SP allows the projectile to expand in a controlled fashion upon impact.

Soft point hunting loads
Soft point hunting loads.
From left to right: .223 Remington, 6.5mm Creedmoor, .308 Winchester, .30-06 Springfield.

Some of these expanding projectiles are, like JHPs, also manufactured with a ballistic tip. The ballistic tip adds the same two functions to SP projectiles, but one works slightly differently. Since SP bullets do not have a pit, there is no danger of debris preventing expansion. However, rifle caliber bullets rely heavily on high velocity impacts to initiate expansion due to their smaller diameters when compared to handgun calibers. As such, expansion failure can occur due to insufficient impact velocity. A ballistic tip can assist in starting expansion at lower velocities.

Soft point with "ballistic tip" hunting loads
Soft point with “ballistic tip” hunting loads.
From left to right: 6.5mm Creedmoor and .308 Winchester.

If you haven’t guessed yet, prices of SP projectiles are comparable to JHP. Need less to day, the side effects of controlled expansion also make SP bullets desirable for hunting applications.

As far as my applications go, defensive rifles are loaded with SP ammo and I tend to prefer expanding ballistic tip ammo for deer hunting applications.

Closing Thoughts

There are lots of other bullet types I haven’t covered here. Frankly a lot more research can be done and thought given to ensuring optimal bullet type selection for different applications with different cartridges and weapons. All of which can become overwhelming. I will leave you with a small chart that summarizes my typical selection for different activities with different weapons.

Application22LRHandgunRifle
Recreational plinkingLRN
CP
FMJFMJ
Target shootingFMJFMJ
Competitive shootingFMJ
Long distance precision shootingHPBT
Personal defense trainingFMJFMJ
Personal defenseJHPSP
HuntingSP + tip

Remember your choices may be different depending on your interests and level of commitment to those interests.

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Written by Uncle Zo

Just an average Joe who loves to geek out on firearm mechanics and ballistics.

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