Comparing hunting loads

by Linda K. Miller & Keith A. Cunningham | July 25, 2019
terminal ballistics - feature

Do you know how your favourite hunting bullet behaves when it hits its target? We do.

We used gelatin to test the terminal performance of several popular hunting rounds, and to demonstrate how distance affects terminal energy – in other words, what happens to your bullet at its target.

Bullet science: a few things every shooter should know

Terminal velocity is the speed of the bullet at the target. For hunting big game in Ontario, we’re normally interested in target distances of 50 to 300 metres. For varmints, you may want to look at bullet performance a little further out.

Our set-up

The gel

For uniform results, we used 100% clear synthetic ballistic gel that complies with FBI and NATO protocols. (

We put the block on a board and used packing tape to secure it thoroughly. Then we clamped the board to a table. This provided sufficient weight to keep the block from flying off the table. For some ammunition at some distances, we needed a second block behind the gel to capture the bullet. We used a ‘poor man’s gel block’ (a box filled with newspaper) for that.


A key variable of velocity is your barrel length, so if the manufacturer’s tests use a 26″ barrel and you take your 18 1/2″ bush gun out, you won’t get the same bullet performance.

To measure the speed of the bullet in flight, we use the Canadian-designed LabRadar, which uses Doppler Radar. It’s easy to use and it’s accurate, with an MSRP of $559 U.S. (

The kinetic energy of a bullet is the energy that it possesses due to its motion. It is a product of the velocity and the bullet mass.

Because the formula calls for velocity squared, velocity has a greater bearing on the energy produced than does the mass. So, the velocity of your bullet is more important than how much it weighs. It also means that as velocity decreases, the bullet energy decreases rapidly. Heavy bullet fans will be quick to point out that heavy bullets have more momentum than light bullets and will tend to retain their velocity. A quick internet search will produce a great deal of controversy on this subject, but if you run ballistic software queries on light and heavy bullets, you’ll soon see where one is better than the other.

For example a big slow bullet like the shotgun slug (even the super-slug we tested) at 25 metres is as effective (energy-wise) as the .308 at three times the distance (75 metres).

Case in point

Years ago, we tested this with police sniper bullets and found that the lighter, faster bullets produced more energy than the slower, heavier bullets out to about 900 metres. Beyond that distance, the lighter bullets had lost too much velocity and the heavier bullets were able to surpass them in energy.

Muzzle energy and terminal energy

Energy at the muzzle is a good starting point for measuring you bullet performance. But energy at your intended target distance is more important.

For example, when we chose our WSM rifles, we looked up the energy charts to ensure that the bullet could produce what we wanted… sufficient energy at longer ranges. Then we decided on barrel length (26″ for Linda and 28″ for Keith), the longest barrels that would still be practical for a hunting rifle. Then we chose the bullet that would give the performance we wanted (154-grain Hornady Interbond).

Many countries (and some states) use energy at the muzzle to determine whether the calibre is legal for specific game.

The results

12 Gauge slug – Hornady SST 300 grain FTX (rifled barrels only)

We tested the slug at 25 metres, choosing the distance at which we’d be more likely to hit the 6″x6″ face of the ballistic gel block. The slug lost a great deal of its weight but provided a significant kill channel in the first two-thirds of its transit. Most hunters should have good accuracy out to about 100 yards.

Avg. Muzzle Velocity: 2,000 fps
Approx. Muzzle Energy: 2,664 ft-lbs (3,612 joules)
At 25 metres: 1,900 fps, 2,430 ft-lbs (3,296 joules), retained weight 218.2 grains (72.73%)

terminal ballistics - 12 Gauge Slug

Bullet behaviour matters, too

Penetration is how far the bullet goes in the game animal, especially how far it goes before it starts to expand.

Controlled expansion is also called the ‘mushrooming’ of the bullet, really just a peeling back of the front end which gives the bullet a bigger diameter, causing a bigger kill channel.

Weight retention refers to how much of the bullet’s original weight it still has when it stops.

12 gauge 00 buckshot – Winchester Ranger 2 3/4″, 9 pellets (45- grains total weight)

Avg. Muzzle Velocity: 1,325 fps
Approx. Muzzle Energy: 210 ft-lbs (285 joules per pellet)
At 10 metres: 1,225 fps, 179 ft-lbs (243 joules per pellet), retained weight 448 grains (99.55%)

The shot sailed through the gel, producing .33-calibre holes. Because of the group size, most hunters don’t use buckshot beyond 30 metres. At 10 metres, there is a significant concentration of shot to produce significant internal damage.

terminal ballistics - 12 gauge 00 buckshot

For a big game bullet, you want one that penetrates sufficiently to get into the ‘boiler room’ before it expands. And if it’s designed to retain its weight, it’ll continue to provide a good kill channel until it finishes its passage.

.223 Hornady 53 grain superformance varmint

We shot the .223 from a Remington 700 CDL with a 24″ barrel, delivering a very fast muzzle velocity. This provided excellent performance at all distances, but certainly most spectacular at 5 metres. The main part of the bullet broke up and released most of its energy in the 4″ to 6″ of its transit, perfect for the small varmints for which this round is intended. Even at 200 metres, where the bullet is going considerably slower, the gel performance is very good.

Avg. Muzzle Velocity: 3,361 fps
Approx. Muzzle Energy: 1,330 ft-lbs (1,803 joules)
At 100 metres: 2974 fps, 1038 ft-lbs (1407 joules) Bullet broke up

terminal ballistics - 223 100m hornady

.308 – Hornady 150 grain superformance GMX and .30-06 Hornday 150 grain superformance GMX

The .308 and the .30-06 test rifles were virtually identical, so they provided an excellent opportunity to compare the performance of the two calibres. The .30-06 gave us a slightly higher muzzle velocity and so, slightly higher energy, but at the cost of a significant amount of felt recoil.

.308 – Avg. Muzzle Velocity:2,901 fps
Approx. Muzzle Energy: 2,804 ft-lbs (3,802 joules)
At 100 metres: 2654 fps, 2342 ft-lbs (3175 joules) retained weight 149 grains (99.33%)

terminal ballistics - 308 100m

.30-06 – Avg. Muzzle:2,947 fps
Velocity Approx. Muzzle Energy: 2,893 ft-lbs (3,922 joules)
At 100 metres: 2,698 fps, 2,419 ft-lbs (3,280 joules) retained weight 149.4 grains (99.6%)

terminal ballistics - 30-06 100m

.270 – Hornady 130 grain superformance GMX

Avg. Muzzle Velocity: 3,168 fps
Approx. Muzzle Energy: 2,898 ft-lbs (3,929 joules)
At 100 metres: 2,931 fps, 2,475 ft-lbs (3,356 joules) retained weight 129.6 grains (99.69%)

With a relatively light bullet, the .270 has the speed to produce muzzle energy very similar to the .30-06 and the .308. Its kill channel at 100 metres is very similar to the .308 at the same distance.

terminal ballistics - 270 100m

Here are a few of the bullets we retrieved from the blocks.

terminal ballistics - .270

.270 (100 m)

terminal ballistics - .300WM

.300WM (100 m)

terminal ballistics - 12 gauge slug

12 gauge slug (25 m)

.300 Win Mag – Hornady 150 grain superformance GMX

Avg. Muzzle Velocity: 3,397 fps
Approx. Muzzle Energy: 3,844 ft-lbs (5,212 joules)
At 100 metres: 3,121 fps, 3,238 ft-lbs (4,390 joules) retained weight 148.6 grains (99.06%)

The .300 Win Mag with a 150-grain bullet produced outstanding muzzle velocity and excellent energy. Of the calibres we tested, this round produced the best permanent cavitation (wound channel) at 200 metres. As with most of the GMX bullets we tested, the weight retention was over 99%.

terminal ballistics - 300WM 100m

Bottom line

The shotgun limits your range and is not an easy firearm to shoot accurately (at least not more than once) because of the recoil. Modern slugs in a rifled barrel help, but generally speaking slow-moving bullets with a ‘rainbow trajectory’ need to be close to the target to be effective.

The .223 is perfect for varmints, with high velocity and rapid release of energy.

The big game rounds are all good. We’d probably choose the .308 because it performs well as well as the .30-06 but with less recoil and almost as well as the .270, but with better access to lots of good cheap practice ammo.

The .300 Win Mag was excellent at 200 metres, and would be great for longer-range shots on moose, which you might get on a lumbering site or across a muskeg.

Originally published in the Fall 2016 edition of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine

To learn how to make a DIY shooting box, click here