March 19, 2021
I’ve said this before—as have many others—and I’ll say it again: We are living in the golden age in terms of quality rifle ammunition for big-game hunting. When I began hunting a little more than 20 years ago, factory ammo with premium bullets was relatively rare. Like many others, I became a handloader to give myself more options. These days, virtually every manufacturer offers high-performance loaded ammunition, suitable for nearly any hunting situation we might encounter. Among the newest products in that category is Federal Premium’s Terminal Ascent line: 11 loads designed to meet the needs of those hunting the wide-open spaces.
Federal has long been a leader in the hunting ammunition world and was one of the first companies to offer premium expanding bullets, such as the Nosler Partition and Trophy Bonded Bear Claw, in factory loads. Three years ago, I was headed to Alaska’s Brooks Range on a Dall sheep hunt, and I chose Federal Premium’s TLR loaded ammunition due to its outstanding accuracy and terminal performance potential. The TLR combined the proven technology of the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Trophy Tipped bullets and continued the evolution. With the development of Terminal Ascent ammunition, Federal took the TLR concept to the next level.
Terminal Ascent is loaded in a variety of calibers, and I chose three chamberings based on the rifles I had available: 130-grain 6.5 Creed-moor, 136-grain .270 Winchester, and 155-grain .280 Ackley Improved. I used three very accurate rifles for my range testing. For the 6.5 Creed-moor, I used a rifle I built myself with a Defiance action and a Proof Research barrel. For the .270, my walnut-stocked Echols Classic. And for the .280 Ackley, my first-ever custom rifle: a tuned Remington 700 that is now on its third barrel.
Effectiveness as a hunter comes down to two big factors: shot placement and bullet performance. Other than producing ammunition that is sufficiently accurate to do the job, the terminal performance aspect is the one that ammunition makers can control. The challenge for bullet engineers is to come up with a projectile that will reliably expand at a wide range of impact velocities. Hunters today are taking shots at longer distances than ever before, meaning that a bullet must be soft enough to expand at relatively low velocities. On the other hand, one never knows when a close-range shot opportunity will present itself, so a bullet must be up to the task of penetrating at near-muzzle velocities. This is asking a lot. I’ve been on elk hunts where I was told to expect shots anywhere from 9 to 900 yards, so I’ve experienced this dilemma personally.
When polymer-tipped hunting bullets first entered the market, many of them failed to penetrate deeply at traditional hunting ranges due to their thin jackets. For shots at close range, the Terminal Ascent bullet combines several features to ensure adequate penetration and weight retention. For starters, most of the bullet is constructed of a tough copper alloy similar to what one might find in a monolithic bullet. A lead core that is bonded to this copper alloy sits in a forward cavity, ensuring that a solid copper shank is driving the bullet as it expands. I used my milling machine and a belt sander to cut a bullet at its cross section, and I can assure you that the alloy used is extremely tough.
Making a tough bullet isn’t brain surgery, but making a tough bullet expand at low impact velocities is a real challenge. Most traditional bullets are designed to reliably expand down to around 2,200 feet per second (fps). That equates to roughly 400 yards with a .30-06 and 525 yards with a .300 Weatherby. That’s far enough for most hunters, but whether you like it or not, these days hunters are taking animals at more than double those distances. The Terminal Ascent bullets are designed to expand at velocities as low as 1,400 fps. That equates to 1,200 yards with the brand’s 200-grain .300 Winchester and .300 Short Magnum loads. That’s far.
This reliable expansion at low velocities is a function of the relatively soft lead core, the tapered copper jacket, and the Slipstream polymer tip. Upon impact, the tip is driven to the rear and acts as a wedge that helps the bullet expand. The polymer tip also increases the bullet’s ballistic coefficient (BC), reducing drag during flight. A bullet encounters a great deal of friction as it travels through the air. Doppler radar tests have shown that this heat can lead to deformed polymer tips on certain bullets, which can change the flight characteristics. The Slipstream is designed to resist heat-related deformation. In my first attempt to section a bullet on the sander, I managed to melt the lead core into a molten mess, but the polymer tip was not affected.
The Terminal Ascent has many of the design characteristics that have evolved with bullet technology over the past two decades or so. When monolithic bullets became popular some years back, it was discovered they were prone to fouling bores and weren’t always accurate. The solution was to form grooves into the shanks, allowing for some crush when the rifling was engaged. Federal calls these AccuChannel grooves on the Terminal Ascent. Grooves can cause drag, so Federal engineers sloped the rear wall of the grooves to maximize aerodynamics. The result of all of this are bullets with high G1 BCs ranging from .493 on the .270 to .608 on the .300 magnums.
We tested each of our three loads for accuracy at 100 yards and measured muzzle velocities using a LabRadar Doppler chronograph. Not surprisingly, the 6.5 Creedmoor won the accuracy battle, with the .280 Ackley Improved leading the .270 Winchester. I wouldn’t get too wrapped around the axle regarding our accuracy results since every rifle has its own likes and dislikes in ammunition. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to test terminal performance due to the time of year and current travel difficulties.
Hunters across the continent will be out in search of deer, elk, antelope, and other game animals in the coming seasons. For those hunters needing ammunition designed to work across a broad spectrum of distances, Federal’s Terminal Ascent line is worth a close look.