Over the past couple of decades, hunters have enjoyed a bounty of improvements in bullet designs. It might be difficult for younger shooters to imagine, but not long ago when you picked up a box of loaded ammunition, your choices were pretty much limited to one of the many basic cup-and-core bullets such as the Remington Core-Lokt or Winchester Power Point. Hornady always had the Interlock, which mechanically locks the lead core and jacket together, but rounds loaded with anything more advanced such as the Nosler Partition were essentially handloading propositions.
Europe had the RWS H-Mantle factory load and there were small companies loading boutique bullets for anyone who had the money, but for the masses, the ammunition world changed forever when Federal introduced its Premium line. Hunters no longer had to be handloaders to enjoy the benefits of specialized bullets such as the Barnes-X, and other companies responded in kind by loading other premium bullets such as Swift or even developing their own in-house such as the SST.
That in-house development is a continuum with one recent development being a .223-caliber, 62-grain Trophy Bonded Tipped bullet from Federal that’s loaded in the company’s .223 Rem. Premium Vital-Shok ammunition. “Trophy Bonded Bear Claw is one [bullet] that basically put Federal Premium on the map for performance,” says J.J. Reich, Communication Manager, Shooting Sports, Vista Outdoor, the parent company of Federal Ammunition when explaining the evolution of the Trophy Bonded Tip line. “We took that design and put it into this,” he says holding up a shiny all nickel-plated cartridge.
The original Trophy Bonded Bear Claw was good in its own right, but since bringing it in-house, Federal has made a number of improvements. The biggest is the incorporation of a polymer tip that, along with a small cavity underneath it and external skiving, facilitate bullet expansion. That expansion is controlled by the solid copper rear shank and, of course, the bonding process that chemically bonds the lead to the jacket material for increased bullet weight retention. “[The] bonded bullet process is an electromagnetic chemical process that actually uses heat ovens and chemicals to bond those two metals together,” explains Reich. Because the shank is solid, it does not compress easily when passing through rifling, which is why larger diameter Trophy Bonded Tip bullets have grooves. That reduces the bullet’s longitudinal surface area and pressure.
When asked why make a bonded bullet for the .223 Rem. at all, Reich explained that in their opinion, the market needed a premium hunting bullet in the .223 for deep penetration. “It’s designed for any medium-sized, thin-skin game,” says Reich. “I would say a Coues [deer], smaller Texas whitetail, pronghorn for sure, springbok….”
Most hunters associate the .223 Rem. cartridge with frangible bullets and predators or varmints where you don’t want much in the way of penetration because the animals tend to be small and an exit wound will further damage a pelt. But there is a growing segment of hunters who use the .223 for hogs or deer-size game where instead you want the bullet to hold together, retain weight and penetrate deeply to vital organs.
“Bonded is the best way to achieve weight retention,” says Reich as he explains the reason for going with bonded construction in the new load. “We were already making bonded bullets…. It is something that we do well. It is something that we have mastered, so to convert that technology, innovation and design was fairly simple.”
SCI recently had the opportunity to try the new 62-grain Trophy Bonded Tip bullet both on the range and in the field with SCI Convention exhibitor Jamy Traut. Just admiring the cartridges in the box, the total nickel plating conveys a jewelry-like presence that’s also functional as it adds to weather protection, resistance to corrosion and increases shelf life. “If you’re putting a premium name on it you want to pull that bullet out and have it look pristine,” says Reich.
Fired from a Savage Model 16 Lightweight Hunter the load delivered accuracy, too, as three-shots consistently clustered into sub-one-inch groups at 100 yards. Muzzle velocity is 3,050 fps generating 1,281 ft.-lbs. of energy.
In the field, we used the new .223 bonded bullets on game ranging in size from jackal to springbok. Though it is heavily constructed, the Trophy Bonded Tip is designed to expand rapidly and we found it too destructive to use on jackal as the exit hole was excessive. Conversely, that rapid expansion was beneficial on the diminutive steenbok, which is a large enough an animal that the taxidermist has only a small exit hole to sew up and little meat was destroyed on a double lung shot. Similarly, the bullet exited a springbok shot broadside at 100 yards. That ram dropped in its tracks with very little meat damage.
At long range, we took another springbok at 380 yards with a frontal chest shot. Estimated velocity at that distance was 1,850 fps with the bullet retaining approximately 425 ft.-lbs. of energy. The ram didn’t exhibit so much as flinch when hit—but it didn’t go anywhere either as it feebly wobbled while trying to walk a few steps before dropping. Penetration was sufficient for a clean kill, but we’d throttle the maximum effective range for the .223 bullet back to about 250 yards to ensure reliably clean kills, especially if a shoulder blade could be encountered.
Larger caliber Trophy Bonded Tip bullets, however, extend one’s maximum effective range accordingly. For example, our group also used Savage Weather Warrior rifles in .338 Federal with 200-grain Trophy Bonded Tip bullets and consistently experienced complete penetration on game as big as zebra, kudu and oryx at distances approaching 300 yards. Surprisingly, the only bullets that didn’t exit tended to be ones on large plains game shot at close range.
As Reich correctly points out, Federal invented the “premium” category that most hunters now take for granted when they walk into their gun store. To him, “premium” means more than just using a more sophisticated bullet. “The lots [of ammunition] that we make get checked twice as much,” says Reich. “Our powders are premium grade and more expensive, the same with our primers. The nickel plated case is more expensive and time consuming to make and the bullets are more time consuming to make.”
Considering all the steps to make the components, and then all the steps to make the actual ammunition and then all the steps to check them multiple times it’s no wonder Federal calls this ammunition premium. With the popularity of ready-to-shoot premium ammunition, it’s sort of an unfortunate irony that Trophy Bonded Tip bullets are not available as handloading components. “We make as much as we can just to load,” says Reich. “You can get away with cheaper ammo, but if you’re going on a trip of a lifetime, or you’re really wanting to get that accuracy and those other benefits, then you’re going to want to step it up and get premium over anything else,” he added.–Scott Mayer