We refer to them almost interchangeably as “solids” or “FMJs,” meaning “full metal jackets.” Both terms are old and traditional…and neither is accurate. What we’re talking about is bullets intended to provide deep, straight-line penetration on the largest game on Earth. Some are indeed “solids,” made of homogenous alloy and sometimes literally turned from brass…but expanding homogenous alloy bullets such as the Barnes TSX and Hornady GMX are also “solid.” By Geneva Convention, all military bullets are “full metal jackets,” as are many match bullets…but these are not designed to penetrate an elephant’s skull.
We can call them what we like, but what we really mean is non-expanding hunting bullets designed purely and solely to penetrate through all resistance. With all the great hunting bullets we have today, campfire arguments center around how much a bullet expands, how much weight it retains and what it looks like when recovered. The solid for dangerous game is the opposite of all that. Perfect performance is essentially non-performance: When recovered it should be pristine except for rifling marks, and you should be able to take it to your loading bench, reload it into a case, and shoot it again.
Well, that’s perfection in a solid, and it’s not a perfect world. In my “bullet bucket” of recovered bullets I found 30 solids recovered from game. That’s not very many over the course of 30-odd years, but many solids exit…and do you have any idea how much work it is recover bullets from really large animals? I sorted through them, and although I didn’t put a micrometer on them, in a pinch I could reload 18 of the 30. The other 12 were a bit bent, squished or squashed, and several bullets with lead cores had extruded part of the core out of the base. Noteworthy is that, despite the bending, squishing and squashing, all noses were intact, and it’s the front of the bullet that leads in penetration!
Those 30 bullets range from .375 to .500 in caliber, and include several brands and most types of construction (steel-jacketed, homogenous alloy, heavy copper or bronze jackets, etc.). Interestingly, both groups, the perfect and the not-so-perfect, also included these different types of construction! There are three comments on this. First, since all of these bullets were recovered from game it’s a reasonable assumption that they did their job! Second, exactly what a bullet encounters during penetration makes a huge difference. As does, third, impact velocity. As with expanding bullets, a solid doesn’t have to finish perfect to have done its job…but that’s the ideal.
WHEN YOU REALLY MUST HAVE A SOLID…
In today’s hunting world the primary mandatory requirement for a solid is for hunting elephant. Our expanding bullets are awfully good today, and their makers are extremely proud of them. Over the years I have heard several of these makers opine that their expanding bullets are tough enough for elephant, and I know a couple of hunters have tried it and gotten away with it. I haven’t tried it and have no desire to, but we have tough-enough expanding bullets today that would probably work on behind-the-shoulder shots and perhaps on side-on brain shots.
This is asking for trouble, and throwing away a century of wisdom based on experience. In today’s elephant hunting, you often must get very close in thick cover to properly judge the ivory. Even in meat hunts and “PAC” (problem animal control) you often have to get very close to be certain you have the correct animal targeted. Close is good, but while you’re sneaking around to get a better look or a better angle, there’s a very good chance the elephant will sense your presence and then it becomes a confrontation. Now it’s the good old frontal brain shot or nothing. A good solid is the sensible and reliable choice for all shots on elephant, but a solid offers the only opportunity to get through the honeycombed mass of forehead bone to the brain.
I am less certain on hippo and rhino. The hippo is a huge animal, but its skull is fragile and can be penetrated by an expanding bullet from a fairly light caliber. Body shots are different. The same argument can be made as for elephant, but if a body shot is taken, the hippo is a large and incredibly dangerous bullet sponge. In water, I’d recommend a tough expanding bullet for the first shot, followed up by solids. On dry ground, solids all the way!
Traditionally, back when there was a lot of rhino hunting, solids were the way to go…but that was before we had the amazingly tough expanding bullets we have today. Come to think of it, I took my one and only rhino back when there was no room for discussion. I used solids! Today I’m sure we have expanding bullets that, with care, would do the job. On the other hand, for the few of us who have the chance, it’s pretty much a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so why accept unnecessary risk? I vote for solids.
WHAT ABOUT BUFFALO?
I started hunting Africa in a time when expanding bullets were still widely distrusted. A majority of African professional hunters insisted on “solids only” for buffalo, and quite a few recommended solids for eland. This has changed. Expanding bullets are much better today, and African hunters recognize this. Borne out by surveys I have done, most PHs today recommend expanding bullets on buffalo…at least for the first shot!
By the way, solids are better today, too. The most recent survey I did, in 2007, suggested that quite a few PHs are afraid of solids, especially in buffalo herds, because of the risk of over-penetration. However, solids are certainly not obsolete for buffalo. Many PHs recommend an expanding bullet for the first shot, backed up by solids, and a few prefer expanding bullets in herds but solids for bachelor bulls where over penetration is not a problem.
I’m convinced that several of our good, tough, modern expanding bullets are quite capable of stopping any buffalo charge…but that isn’t the point. After that first shot is fired, a buffalo is unlikely to charge. Far more likely is that he’ll turn away and head for cover; if there’s a chance for a follow-up shot, it will probably be at a terrible angle. So, despite my confidence in modern expanding bullets, I’m usually ready to back it up with a solid. To follow up a potentially wounded buffalo I prefer solids all the way. Again, this isn’t necessarily just to stop a charge. When a wounded buffalo is spotted, you want to be able to take the shot, regardless of angle. The goal is now to recover the animal before it is either lost or hurts someone, so the niceties of shot presentation no longer apply. On buffalo, a good solid from an adequate cartridge will penetrate to the vitals from any angle…and will also stop a charge if that becomes necessary.
JUST IN CASE?
My entire life I’ve heard about using solids for smaller antelope to reduce meat and cape damage. This is absolutely true; on smaller antelope a 300-grain solid from a .375 is dramatically decisive, but does little damage. Hearing this advice, I’ve carried them many times…but it hasn’t worked out very often. Realistically, if a steenbok or duiker appears as a target of opportunity there usually isn’t time to reach for a different cartridge, and all too often, the shooting opportunity will be lost while you’re fumbling. But if you have the opportunity to hunt specifically for various pygmy antelopes in the course of a safari, there is value in using solids.
Just one caveat: Be certain they shoot to the same point of impact as your expanding bullets, at least out to a hundred yards. This is a matter of luck; some rifles will and some won’t, and in any given rifle, some solids will and others won’t. The problem is that, on the smaller antelopes, you need more accuracy, not less. When hunting buffalo or elephant, it really doesn’t matter if your solid prints a couple inches off at a hundred yards…but that can matter on a dik dik.
The days are long since over when anybody recommended solids for eland. But to this day I’ll have a solid in the bottom of my magazine when hunting this largest of antelope. Just last week, in coastal Mozambique, we made a long stalk across open ground and the closest we could get was nearly 300 yards. The first shot looked good, but the bull turned away and headed for cover. The second shot was a miss, and that brought up the solid. I hit him in the left hip and the Hornady DGS exited in front of the right shoulder. No tracking in heavy cover!
There are situations in Africa where you may load with solids as a matter of safety…no matter what you’re hunting. In all elephant country, your PH is probably loaded with solids only, but safety is his job. In much of the forest zone, everybody carries solids! Of course, you try to avoid encounters with elephant, but it’s so darn thick that intentions don’t always matter. Both of my bongo were taken with solids because there were a lot of elephants in the areas. Of course, this is serendipitous with the smaller forest antelope. Because it’s the forest and there are elephants you’re probably carrying a bigger gun than you really need—with solids—and you’ll do just fine on the forest duikers!
WHICH TO CHOOSE?
Well, from what I’ve seen there is no solid made that cannot bend, squish or squash if it encounters just the right resistance at the right angle and velocity. Consistent perfection is elusive. That said, after a full century of development for a very specialized but incredibly demanding market, I don’t think there are any bad solids out there. The homogenous alloy solids are very good. Those include the Barnes, Nosler, North Fork and Woodleigh’s newer Hydrostatically Stabilized solid. Since there is no lead core, these bullets don’t have as much “give,” so a pressure spike is inevitable as they take the rifling. This is mitigated by driving bands, but there can be concerns with older rifles, especially older doubles with thin barrel walls. Steel-jacketed solids, meaning a lead core surrounded by a mild steel jacket covered with standard copper alloy jacket material, are very good. The Hornady DGS and traditional Woodleigh FMJ are steel-jacketed solids. Federal’s Jack Carter-designed Sledgehammer Solid and Swift’s new Breakaway solid are lead-core bullets with the core protected by a very heavy jacket.
One thing that has evolved with solids is the shape of the meplat or nose. A generation ago, all big-game solids were round-nose bullets. The Sledgehammer was the first flat-pointed solid I’m aware of. The initial concept was that, just like a flat-pointed .30-30 bullet, it transferred more energy on impact and dealt a heavy blow. This it did, and the difference in impact is noticeable. Although it seems counter-intuitive, today it is generally accepted that a flat meplat is also conducive to straight-line penetration. The majority of modern solids, including the Hornady, North Fork, Nosler and more, have a flat-point design.
One challenge with this is that if the meplat is too flat there can be feeding issues in some bolt action rifles. Swift’s brand-new Breakaway solid solves this with a discarding polymer tip that makes the bullet a round-nose for feeding. The tip breaks away on impact and is underlain by a concave surface that flattens out, transferring energy, and then drives forward as a flat-nosed solid. I just took a wonderful old elephant bull in Caprivi with a 400-grain Breakaway in a .416 Rigby; performance was perfect, and the one bullet we recovered could definitely be reloaded and fired again.
Unfortunately, the opportunity to hunt elephant is shrinking again right now, as it was in the 1980s. This means that the necessity to use solids is dwindling, so I find it interesting that development continues. I guess this makes sense because here’s the thing about the solid for the largest game: When you need one, you need it really bad, and it better be good! Fortunately, there are several great choices, and no poor choices. Most important, then, is to choose a solid that gives you confidence. Secondarily, since there are multiple good choices and few of us will shoot solids all the time, you can experiment a bit and find one that prints close to the same point of impact as the expanding bullet you’re using.–Craig Boddington