by: Germán A. Salazar
hat do the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Woolly Mammoth and the Dodo have in common with the full metal jacket match bullet? Yes, they’re all extinct species! Evolution occurs with blinding speed in our technological world, at least as compared to the natural world and in 1959, when Sierra introduced the 168 gr. International (later to be renamed Match King), their existing line of 30 caliber Match King bullets (180 gr., 190 gr. and 200 gr.) suddenly looked a bit like a woolly mammoth in a world full of cheetahs. In short order, the Match King line was converted to the hollow point design and neither Sierra nor the rest of the bullet making world looked back. There was one holdout, actually. Not unlike the occasional discovery of a survivor of a species thought to be extinct, Lapua kept on making its famous full metal jacket D46 bullets in 170 gr., 185 gr. and the rarely seen 195 gr. version.
A great deal has changed in the world of Highpower shooting in the 51 years since the hollow point became the near universal form of match bullet. The evolutionary pace of the rest of our equipment hasn’t slowed. Today’s actions, barrels, stocks, triggers and sights are as significant a factor in our higher scores as are advances in bullet design. Therefore, being a curious ballistic archaeologist, I decided to try a selection of the old FMJ match bullets in today’s equipment. However, this is almost like saying that you’d like to go take a ride on a woolly mammoth. By their nature, match bullets are expendable and they only make one trip downrange. Fortunately, I’m not only curious, but also a bit of a scrounger, so I was able to come up with a nice selection of Sierra, Western, Lapua, Arizona Bullet Co., Lake City and Remington FMJ match bullets to test.Selecting the test rifle was simple enough; since the idea is to try old bullets in a modern rifle, what could be more modern that the Eliseo tubegun? Equipped with a 1:11″ twist barrel chambered in (what else) .30-06, using a Warner rear sight, a Riles front sight and an X-Treme Shooting Products trigger, this rifle is as good and as modern as it gets in my opinion.
I’m not going to suggest that the FMJ design is better than or even as good as the hollow point design – it isn’t. Over the years, the principal reason for the HP’s superior accuracy has generally been held to be its more uniform base. Going back to Dr. Mann’s experiments at the turn of the last century, careful shooters have known that a perfectly uniform base is essential to accuracy. When making a FMJ bullet, the open end of the jacket is, by definition, at the base, and it must be rolled over with great uniformity if the bullets are to perform well. When you examine a good selection of FMJ bullets, both match and military, it becomes apparent rather quickly that some are much better than others in this important aspect. Without a very uniform base, accuracy will be compromised by the uneven force applied by the burning gas to the irregular base upon exiting from the muzzle.
There are other reasons, however, for the HP’s dominance. Recently, Al Matson, a well known experimenter in the field (alinwa for those who frequent the Benchrest forum) wrote the following:
All Match Grade bullets are hollow points for two large (and several small) reasons.
1. Only by leaving the point empty can proper weight distribution be achieved. The center of gravity MUST be held to the rear for a bullet to behave properly. If you bring the center of gravity too far forward you run into oscillation problems. To understand this look at a child’s top. A top is fat on top. Make a top fat on the bottom or spin it upside down to see why. A stable bullet is a ‘top’ which balances on the airflow it perceives…… bring a wind in from the right and the top “rights itself” by nutating over to ‘balance’ on the new vector. A proper bullet must be light in front.
2. Mechanically the front should be left empty for manufacturing reasons. Pointing up a bullet with a nose full of lead leads to unpredictable, uncontrollable eccentricity. This is huge. This is one of the reason full-core bullets (Game Kings, Silver Tips, Partitions to name a few) can never be accurate…. and partial hollow points can be even more problematical. Read ‘Rifle Accuracy Facts’ section on .270 bullets to see with pictures and descriptions how unsupported lead will slump, yet understand that while lead is “fluid” under the pressure of firing it’s still a very viscous fluid and therefor cannot redistribute itself for balance. Hand made Match Grade projectile will always be hollow points. As will machine produced bullets…. just go to Sierra’s site to see that Match Kings are the hollow pointed projectiles on the page.
Other problems have to do with flexure during flight and several other manufacturing details….. as well as the fact that when using fragile J4 jackets, the pleats are likely to open and spew molten lead if you get it up into the point section very far.
By the way, a tipped bullet like Noslers or the Hornady A-Max is still a hollow point, but with the point plugged with a hunk of plastic or aluminum or somesuch, not necessarily a good idea.
I’m not certain how accurate all of this is, but if nothing else, it reflects a well-informed modern experimenter’s perception of the FMJ v. HP analysis. Al’s focus is the Benchrest world, mine is Highpower and accordingly, since we have a different perspective we can see different sides of the same question. I wrote to Al and he gave me permission to use his quote and is very interested in this test. Al’s opinion is informed by the high accuracy standards of the Benchrest world, whereas mine derives from Highpower shooting where other factors often rise above pure accuracy in generating winning scores.
The bullets in this test are old, they’re not made with J4 jackets, and although their accuracy is likely not equal to modern offerings, they probably aren’t too bad by Highpower standards. The questions is: how well will they do on the modern Highpower target? In Highpower prone shooting, the winners are determined in larger measure by their wind reading, shot execution and strategy than by pure accuracy. That’s not to say that an inaccurate rifle can be used to win big matches, but simply that small accuracy differences aren’t terribly important once the wind starts to blow and experience takes the lead.
Although we might like to shoot a 200-20X all the time, in reality, many good scores are fired within that 2 moa 10 ring of NRA mid-range and long-range targets with equipment that is far from state of the art; equipment that would, in fact, place dead last in a Benchrest match. When our test bullets were made, the targets had a maximum value of 5, and the 5 ring was approximately 4 moa; will the bullets still perform decently on the tougher, but not too tough, 2 moa 10 ring of the modern target?
Let’s take a look at the test bullets; just click the pictures to enlarge for detail. The order is simply by weight, no special plan here.
Arizona Bullet Company 180 gr. bullet. These were made in Tucson, I have had some trouble getting a precise date but the 1950’s seems pretty reliable. Both Bob Jensen and Norm Darnell, who were active shooters in Tucson during that era confirm that as a likely date for this box.
- Length – 1.310″ (33.28 mm)
- Diameter – 0.3085″ (7.84 mm)
- Meplat – 0.050″ (1.27 mm)
- Base – Bases are rolled over forming a lip with the exposed lead below the lip is uniformly flat. Very uniform rollover.
Sierra 180 gr. Match King. These are from the original Sierra plant in Whittier, California. This may be the most commonly used match bullet of the period after the Frankford Arsenal 173 gr.
- Length – 1.294″ (32.87 mm)
- Diameter – 0.3080″ (7.82 mm)
- Meplat – 0.053″ (1.34 mm)
- Base – Bases are folded over flat, edge of jacket visible, exposed lead below the lip irregular, some flat, some cupped. Not very uniform rollover.
Lapua 185 gr. D46. My favorite bullet of all time. It’s not the most accurate bullet ever made, and it certainly doesn’t have the highest BC, but it shoots very well in almost any barrel and the consistency of manufacturing over the 8 decades it’s been in production is fantastic. The box shown is from the 1950’s, part of a shipment to Roy Dunlap direct from Finland.
- Length – 1.324″ (33.62 mm)
- Diameter – 0.3090″ (7.85 mm)
- Meplat – 0.046″ (1.16 mm)
- Base – Bases are rolled over forming a lip, exposed lead below the lip is uniformly flat. Very uniform rollover.
Lapua 195 gr. B406. This is the rarely seen big brother to the D46. This box is the only one I’ve ever had and I’ve been saving it for something interesting; the time has arrived. The same rebated boat tail FMJ design as the D46, but longer.
- Length – 1.386″ (35.20 mm)
- Diameter – 0.3090″ (7.85 mm)
- Meplat – 0.048″ (1.22 mm)
- Base – Bases are rolled over forming a lip, exposed lead below the lip is uniformly flat. Uniform rollover, not quite as perfect as the D46.
Sierra 200 gr. Match King. Here’s a bullet that won the Wimbledon Cup on more than one occasion. Also from the old Whittier plant, these were a top choice for long-range shooting into the 1960’s.
- Length – 1.403″ (35.63 mm)
- Diameter – 0.3085″ (7.84 mm)
- Meplat – 0.048″ (1.22 mm)
- Base – Bases are rolled over forming a lip, exposed lead below the lip irregular, some flat, some cupped. Not very uniform rollover.
Western 200 gr. International. These bullets were pulled from WCC 58 match ammunition intended for 300 meter ISU competition. By 1960, Western switched to the stubbier HP 197. This bullet is distinctly sleeker and should have a better BC than its replacement.
- Length – 1.451″ (36.85 mm)
- Diameter – 0.3090″ (7.85 mm)
- Meplat – 0.052″ (1.32 mm)
- Base – Bases are folded over flat, exposed lead below the lip even with jacket, slightly cupped. Uniform rollover.
Now that we’ve had a look at the test bullets and measured them a little, let’s see how they shoot. The shooting test was conducted in two parts: the first was 10 shots at 100 yards on the NRA 100 yd. Smallbore target and the second was 20 shots at 500 yards on the NRA MR65 500 yd. target (both have a 2 moa 10 ring and a 1 moa X ring). All of the shooting was done prone, with iron sights, with the Eliseo Tubegun mentioned above.
Due to the limited quantity of these bullets on hand, I couldn’t do any specific load development, so the 180 gr. and 185 gr. bullets were loaded with 52.5 gr. of IMR 4350 and the 195 gr. and 200 gr. bullets were loaded with 52.0 gr. of IMR 4350. These are mild loads as confirmed by chronographing them on the day of the test. It’s possible, even likely, that accuracy would have been better with some load development, but that just wasn’t possible.
180 gr. Arizona Bullet Co.The day of the 100 yard test was hot (109 degrees) and windy with a stiff wind from left to right. However, at 100 yards, that shouldn’t have much of an effect. The first target fired was with the Arizona Bullet Co. 180 gr. and it was not an especially promising start. I expected a bit better performance given the very uniform bases and the overall good appearance of the ABC bullet. Shots alternated between the group at 10:00 and the rest of the shots with no rhyme or reason.
180 gr. Sierra Match King.Knowing how popular this bullet was in its day, my expectations were high. Unfortunately, it performed erratically, throwing shots off call despite putting a reasonable group together in the X ring. The irregular bases or some other factor was at work here, in any event, I wouldn’t call this a great bullet.
185 gr. Lapua D46.Enough disappointment, it was time for my favorite bullet, the Lapua D46, 185 gr. FMJ. Actually, when I was shooting, I didn’t know which bullet I was shooting; I color coded them with a stripe on the back of the case and left the code sheet at home. Once I saw the target, though, I was pretty certain this was the D46 since I shoot it all the time and know how it performs. I don’t hesitate to shoot the D46, at any distance up to and including 1000 yards. The D46 and the 190 Sierra are my “standard” .30-06 bullets.
195 gr. Lapua B406.Now we have the 195 gr. Lapua FMJ. I’ve never shot this bullet and was pleasantly surprised by how well it shot. I sure wish I had a lot more of them, but the one box I have is the only one I’ve ever seen. It shot very well and I hope to try it at 1000 yards later this year when our long-range season begins.
As we moved to the heavier bullets, the rifle really seemed to perk up, maybe the load was a little more suited to them. In any event, the Sierra 200 shot very well, much better than it’s 180 gr. sibling. The shot at 7:00 was all my fault, right on call. The bases on this bullet were not especially good, yet the performance at 100 was excellent.
200 gr. Western International.
The 200 gr. Western tied the 185 gr. Lapua for high score (100-9X) although it didn’t seem to bunch them up quite as tightly as that bullet or the Sierra 200 gr. Overall, there is really nothing wrong with this target, and it reflects a well made bullet and a reasonably useful load behind it.
The 100 yard testing was worthwhile and relevant, because if a bullet won’t shoot well at 100 yards, there’s really very little to be learned by shooting it at a longer distance. Time and range availability are always a consideration and in the end, I decided that the two 180 gr. bullets, the Arizona Bullet Co. and the Sierra, just weren’t worth shooting at 500 yards. Given how things turned out, I think it was a good decision as you will see below.
The “finalists” were the Lapua 185 gr, D46, the Lapua 195 gr. B406, The Sierra 200 gr. Match King and the Western 200 gr. International. The 185 gr. Lapua was fired on a different day than the other three due to time and temperature constraints; it’s summer in Phoenix and there’s only so much shooting you can do in a heavy coat when it’s 110 degrees (43.5 C). As it turned out, the second day of testing was substantially windier; however, since were mostly looking at elevation dispersion and the presence or absence of off-call shots, a bit more horizontal dispersion from wind won’t affect our analysis. The NRA MR65 repair centers were tacked lightly to the target with spray glue so they could be removed for analysis and photography and I’m very grateful to Oliver Milanovic and John Lowther for their help with this delicate operation. As before, all firing was prone, iron sights, .30-06 in the Eliseo Tubegun. The 500 yard MR65 target’s X ring is 5″ in diameter (1 moa), the 10 ring is 10″ (2 moa) and each successive ring is 5″ larger than the previous one. All of the pictures can be enlarged by clicking them.
185 gr. Lapua D46. This bullet is part of my normal selection of 30 cal. bullets and in fact is the reason I began this test. The D46 has always shot well in every rifle in which I’ve used it so naturally, I began to wonder about FMJ bullets generally. The good performance (199-10X) on this target is actually very typical for this bullet. I don’t have much more to say because I expected it to shoot well and it did. It isn’t the highest BC 185 gr. bullet out there (it might be the lowest) but its reliable accuracy puts it very high on my list.
195 gr. Lapua B406. This big brother to the D46 is very sadly out of production. I would make this my standard 1000 yard bullet in a heartbeat if I could get a good supply. With no load development, this bullet held outstanding elevation and the score (198-5X) would have been several X’s better had I not been so wary of the gusts that were blowing; as you can see, the group is distinctly on the right side of the bull. Both the D46 and the B406 show what a well designed and carefully manufactured FMJ can do; frankly, I think they’re the equal of any hollow point with similar profiles. Both of these bullets have a rebated boat-tail which some people believe aids accuracy or BC; Bryan Litz dispels that theory in his book and I place a great deal of confidence in Bryan’s work. So there’s no magic boat-tail here, just a darn good pair of bullets, one overlooked and one discontinued.
200 gr. Sierra Match King. Sometimes you have to work awfully hard just to get a mediocre score (196-4X) and that was the case with the Sierra 200. The two 8’s were not on-call, they just went there on their own, probably caused by base irregularities. In general, this bullet just didn’t seem to want to go to the middle. I worked the windage knob carefully to keep the group centered in shifting wind but there was no way to tame the elevation spread. I don’t think it was a matter of load tuning either, it’s just one of those bullets that doesn’t want to shoot. It would have been fine on the old 5V target with its very generous scoring rings, but on the modern decimal target – forget about it….
200 gr. Western International. Better than the Sierra is probably the best thing I can say about the Western (199-5X). It’s a good looking bullet, long boat-tail, sharp break between shank and boat-tail, nice point, good, clean fold-over at the base – it just didn’t shoot great. The Western was more consistent than the Sierra and didn’t have any wild shots, but it also suffered from excessive elevation dispersion and shots slightly off call. I’ve shot quite a large number of the 197 gr. Western hollow point that replaced this bullet and the HP is definitely more accurate. Like the Sierra, the Western 200 belongs in the day of the 5V target.
Sometimes change is driven by genuine process improvements, other times it’s simply following the fad of the day. In 1959 when the Sierra 180 Match King was a very popular mid-range match bullet, the 168 International was a definite improvement in all respects and Sierra’s move to hollow point match bullets was well justified. All of the current Sierra Match King bullets are very accurate and don’t suffer from any of the erratic behavior of their FMJ predecessors. Similarly, Western made a good change in going to the hollow point design, especially since the focus of the ammunition in which those bullets were loaded was 300 meter ISU shooting. On the other hand, Lapua has always made absolutely fantastic FMJ match bullets and it is truly a shame to see the D46 languish on dealers’ shelves and to discover that the relatively new B406 has been discontinued. Unfortunately, too many match shooters think that no FMJ bullet can shoot well and therefore won’t buy them based on that misconception. In reality, the FMJ is just as dependent on careful manufacturing as is the hollow point: without it, neither design is capable of match-winning accuracy, but when made right, either can, has and will win matches.