Why Hunting Cartridge Velocity Matters

long_range1Humans are always looking for bigger and better. When early man picked up a rock and threw it, his neighbor figured out a way to throw it faster. The same thing happened with spears, arrows and, eventually, firearms.

You can be sure that as soon as the first musket ball was fired for the rudimentary bores of the day, tinkerers starting adding power to see if they could make the ball fly faster.

That trend continues with new cartridges boasting incredible velocity figures but what does velocity really give us in a hunting cartridge and how important is it?


In my mind, the most practical advantage that velocity provides a hunter is the ability to send bullets in a useful arc toward the target — the higher the velocity, the flatter the arc.

Size can be deceiving. Despite their differences in length, these three cartridges (from left, the 300 WSM, 300 Winchester Magnum, and 300 H&H Magnum) produce similar velocities- all are fine cartridges that strike a good balance between speed and recoil.

One of the reasons that the .30-30 WCF isn't a useful 400-yard cartridge is because of the excessive holdover required to hit an animal at that range; a bullet of equal mass fired from a .300 Winchester Magnum can make that shot with minimal correction.

That said, trajectory is not the end-all when it comes to hitting your target and, at a certain point, we reach diminishing returns. A 180gr. Nosler Partition fired from a .300 H&H drops less than 4 inches more at 400 yards than the same bullet does when fired from a .300 Ultra Mag, but the latter generates 35% more recoil.

Hunters have some useful tools at their disposal these days to compensate for bullet drop including bullet drop compensating scope reticles and target dials. Better to hunt with a gun that you can shoot with precision than rifle that beats you to death in search of a few inches of trajectory.

Bullet Performance

"Killing power" is an often-touted byproduct of velocity, and a bullet's speed does correlate to a game animal's demise, but maybe not in the way that you think. Bullet engineers develop bullets to expand at a certain range of impact velocities, which is the speed at which the bullet is traveling when it strikes the animal.

Since bullets are developed to work in a range of cartridges (a .30 caliber bullet has to work in everything from a .300 Savage to a .30-378 Weatherby Magnum), engineers try to create a product that will work well at as many velocities as possible. At maximum velocity, a bullet may come apart and fail to penetrate; more important to this discussion is the speed at which a bullet will expand reliably.

As an example, Nosler's big game bullets are designed to work at as little as 1,900 feet per second. If you expect good bullet performance, you'll need to limit your shots to those that will maintain that impact velocity.

There is certainly such a thing as not enough velocity. The author shot this cow elk with a .404 bullet that was moving too slow to expand properly — it made for a long morning.

A higher velocity cartridge allows you to extend the range at which a given bullet will perform — this is one area where magnum cartridges provide a real edge, especially with heavy bullets.

A 180gr. Partition fired from a .308 Winchester hits the 1,900 fps threshold right at 300 yards, which is fine for most hunting, but a .300 Ultra Mag doesn't fall below that mark until 500 yards.

I don't necessarily believe that increased velocity allows you to reliably kill bigger animals with the same bullet, but it certainly allows you to do it at longer distances.

I'm not claiming that higher velocity doesn't have an effect on terminal performance — my experience tells me that it does. All things being equal, a faster moving bullet usually means that the animal's death will be faster and more dramatic, usually due to bullet fragmentation.

This past fall, I shot a whitetail buck with a 162 gr. Hornady Interlock that was still moving at well over 3000 fps when it hit him. At the shot, the buck acted like he'd been hit by lightning and somersaulted onto his back; the bullet caused so much trauma due to its speed that death was literally instantaneous.

At the end of the day, though, that bullet would have killed the buck just as dead at 2500 fps as it did at 3000 — he just might have run 100 yards before his oxygen supply ran out.

The one category of bullet that really seems to favor the high-velocity cartridges is the monolithic designs such as the Barnes TSX.

Because those bullets don't expand very violently in the first place, they seem to do best when they are pushed fast. For this reason, I usually choose a lighter bullet when using a monolithic than I traditionally would when using more conventional expanding bullets.

The good news is that the risk of pushing a TSX or E-Tip too fast is almost unheard of — there's very little risk of bullet blowup if a shot happens at close range.

Wind Drift

How much a bullet is pushed by wind depends on many factors but, all things being equal, a projectile's flight time is the key. The faster a bullet reaches its target, the less time wind has to influence its path.

Velocity diminishes the effects of wind drift as it increases. But how much? Let's look at the 160gr. Accubond fired from the .280 Remington versus the new 28 Nosler.

At a certain point, adding more power to a cartridge becomes an exercise in diminishing returns. The powder charge on the left is for the 280 Remington: the charge on the right is for the mighty 7mm STW. While the difference in muzzle blast and recoil are clearly noticeable, the practical advantages are not always apparent at common hunting distances.

The 28 Nosler pushes that bullet 500 fps faster than the .280 does but the difference in wind drift is less than four inches at 500 yards with a 10 mph full-value wind.

Velocity gives the hunter numerous advantages as it increases but, at a certain point, the juice isn't worth the squeeze for many of us.

Unless you're doing lots of really long-range shooting at game that justifies the trade-offs, the really fast cartridges create lots of recoil and blast without much practical advantage. That said, there's no harm in having more velocity at your disposal so long as you can handle the recoil and your bullet is up to the task.

No amount of velocity will make up for a lack of practice, however. I'd trade you an extra few hundred feet per second of velocity for 500 practice rounds any day of the week.

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