Bullets

By Keith Wood

Ray is a hard dude. A grizzled Montana hand, this wolf-killing character is missing a thumb because he refused to go to the doctor when a cut got infected. There must have been work to do that day. His wild gray beard is streaked with red, making him look like an extra from Braveheart. He wears a .500 S&W in a homemade holster on his hip and the claws of a bear and mountain lion on his woolen hat. I guessed him at 60 but, as it turns out, he’s only a handful of years older than me. High mileage, I guess. Ray doesn’t say much but when he speaks, you listen. When it’s quiet, Ray whistles himself a tune. For this adventure, Ray was my guide. 

We were in the Madison River Valley near the town of Ennis, Montana. As you head east from the river, sage flats turn into rolling hills which transition into timbered mountainsides. Since the timber is home to wolves and grizzlies, these elk herds take their chances with the humans and stick mostly to the open terrain. It was late fall but there was still no snow on the ground. 

I had a combo license in my pocket so both elk and deer were on the agenda. I’ve killed some truly big trophy elk bulls so my main objective on this hunt was meat. I knew there were some big deer in the area so those were the antlers that were on my mind. I was paired-up with another hunter and I gave him first dibs on elk. This gave me the first crack at a mule deer so, yeah, I sandbagged him a little. 

The elk were piled into a single herd of several hundred animals, a brown mass snaking across a sage-covered bench. The wind was strong and we worked with it, sneaking as close to the herd as the scattered cover would allow. At 400 or so yards I took a seat—there was no reason to have another body on the actual stalk. Ray and Jon slipped off toward the herd and I settled down behind a clump of brush to watch the show. 

Despite it being November, the herd was incredibly vocal. The dominant bull strutted back and forth, tending the cows and taunting any challengers with a howling bugle. Next to the sound of my childrens’ laughter, it doesn’t get any better for me than hearing an elk bull court a cow on a clear fall morning. Elk are a bit like trout in that they only seem to thrive in the most beautiful spots. It is moments like this that make me love hunting so much. 

The stalking pair looped around to get an angle on the biggest bull and, of course, the herd fed slowly back in my direction. They came closer, closer, then closer still. When they hit 150 yards, it was all that I could do to restrain myself. I got as low as I could and tried not to move. The elk eventually fed back to the south, giving Jon a chance to take a shot. Between the suppressor and the howling wind, I could barely hear the rifle’s report but the slap of the bullet on flesh was unmistakable. 

I crouched low as I moved up to offer my congratulations, still feeling the need to whisper for some reason. Ray let me know that there was another shooter bull in the herd. Did I want to take a crack at him? As he was asking the question, I was cycling the bolt and getting settled on the tripod rest. 

My bull was toward the back of the herd, 350 yards from our position. My rifle was a suppressed Gunwerks Magnus chambered in .300 PRC, stupid-accurate and topped with an EOTECH Vudu 1-10x28mm. There was no question that my equipment was up to the task, at least when it came to guns and glass. I’ve never been crazy about the idea of hunting with match bullets, though, and this rifle was stoked with 215-grain Bergers. I waited for a broadside presentation to minimize the need for penetration. I shot him through the heart and expected him to drop instantly. He didn’t.

By this time the herd decided to take its chances with the wolves and made a hasty exit for the timber. The wounded bull was sick enough to lag behind. I reloaded quickly and took a quartering-away shot that should have raked through both lungs and broken his offside shoulder. The bullet’s impact echoed through the valley but he remained on his feet. I shot again and again, reloading from the ammo pouch on my belt until the fifth shot put him down. Fact is, 350 yards from a sturdy rest is not a tough shot; I had dialed for the range and knew that I’d placed each bullet where I’d intended. But that match bullet created a shit show. All I got from Ray was a curt “hmm.” 

We could get a truck to this location so at least the recovery of both bulls would be relatively painless. It took some time to make our way to them so imagine my surprise when I came over a ridge to find my bull’s head up, crippled but still alive. I sprinted forward and put two neck shots into him at close range before he finally gave up the fight. Then Ray unrolled what looked like a Civil War surgeon’s kit, laying out an assortment of knives he’d made himself. Recognizing a master when I saw one, I grabbed a leg and tried my best to stay out of the way. As we winched the bull onto the flatbed, I wasn’t smiling.

I feel zero remorse for taking a legal game animal in fair chase but this bull’s unnecessary suffering made me sick. When we gutted him, we confirmed that my first shot went directly through his heart—the fact that he lived for an hour under the circumstances is a great example of just how tough elk can be. The other shots failed to penetrate far enough to reach vital organs, coming apart within the first couple inches. 

This shouldn’t have come as a shock since this bullet is advertised as doing just what it did: “With a simple copper jacket and lead core, once the bullet starts expanding, it really comes apart, creating massive wound cavities and devastating performance.” Okay, maybe if the animal is perfectly broadside that’s great. But that’s not always the case in the real world. This is exactly why controlled-expansion bullets were invented in the first place. 

The outdoor industry and its flat-brimmed influencers have done a great job in promoting the use of match bullets for big game. But I’m calling bullshit. With so many controlled-expansion bullets on the market, there’s simply no reason to choose such a fragile projectile. I’m not saying that they can’t work— Jon’s bull went down without any real drama—but my opinion is that they’re not the best tool available for the job. I honestly don’t give a shit about ogives or ballistic coefficients when I’m hunting. Give me a Partition, a Triple-Shock X, give me a GMX or a Terminal Ascent. Give me something that I can reliably break bones with and I’ll be happy. 

I trust those who argue match bullets are great at really long ranges where their fragility allows them to expand at low velocities. They might be great for taking a 900-yard poke, but I’ll never know because I’m not taking that shot on an unwounded animal. The stalk is my favorite part of the hunt for me, so why would I sacrifice that satisfaction so I could impress the internet with how long of a shot I took? I’ve had outfitters tell me of hunters who wouldn’t take a shot given because “it wasn’t long enough.” Those types of egomaniac douchebags should take up golf. 

Another hunter in camp had an elk get away that evening—was it a bullet failure or just bad shooting? We will never know but the thought certainly crossed my mind as I stumbled around a field way after dark looking for a blood trail, a flashlight in one hand and a celebratory glass of red wine in the other. Classy, I know.

By the time we focused our attention on mule deer, I was less than enthusiastic about the prospect of using another match bullet on something with a heartbeat. Ray knew where a nice buck had been hanging out, surrounded by a harem of polygamist does. We could have shot him from several hundred yards away but what fun would that be? We used a creek bottom to sneak as close as we could before high-crawling to a hog wire fence that I wasn’t comfortable shooting through. 

Ray and I both assumed that the deer would stand up as we crawled to within 200 yards, but the howling wind had taken away two of their senses. I was in a dead-steady prone position when Ray blew his cow call to get the deer’s attention. One by one the does stood up, then a smaller buck and finally the big one. He was facing me directly and I knew that, if he turned, he’d be gone before I could take a shot. I held on the white patch below his chin and broke his spine. I guess match bullets are ideal for neck shots because he was dead before the rifle had finished recoiling. 

This was a great hunt with a great group of guys but as I traveled home, I couldn’t help scratching my head and wondering why it has become cool to use shitty bullets on big game. You may swear by match bullets for hunting and that’s fine; it’s a (mostly) free country. If you want my advice, though, find a bullet that will work under any presentation. Call me old school. I like exit wounds; I like blood trails Helen Keller could follow, and I like animals to die quickly and with minimal suffering. I’m willing to bet that ole Ray agrees. 




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