October 13, 2022
Pointy end forward. That's how I was told to load ammunition into a gun, and it remains good advice. But over the past half century, the pointy end of ammunition—the bullet end—has gotten a lot pointier. The technical term for the forward end of a bullet is "meplat." It's derived from a French word that means the flat surface of cylinder. Few of our most modern bullets are flat on their pointy end, but the term remains in use.
Since we're discussing bullet anatomy, let’s dive in all the way. At the rear of the bullet is the base, and if tapered, it's called a boattail. If it's not tapered, it's simply called a flat-base bullet.
Ahead of the base is the bearing surface. This is the section of the bullet that engages the rifling in the barrel. It represents the bullet's diameter and caliber of the rifle. Sometimes there are grooves or cannelures along the bullet's bearing surface. They are there as a crimping spot when handloading or, in some cases—as with mono-metal bullets—to reduce fouling.
Forward of that is the head of the bullet and ogive. This is where the bullet tapers from caliber diameter to its meplate or end. The end—tip—of the bullet is either part of the bullet's jacket, the bullet’s core, or it is a separate tip that has been added.
There are many different bullet tips, but they all have one thing—and sometimes two things—in common. On target bullets, the tip helps to enhance external ballistics. On hunting bullets engineered to deform on impact, the tip can contribute to better external ballistics. However, it's primarily designed to enhance or initiate bullet upset. Bullet builders choose the best tip for the cartridge in specific applications. Understanding how these tips contribute to external and terminal ballistics can help you better select the ammunition for your hunt.
FULL METAL JACKET
The full-metal-jacket bullet does not have a separate tip. Its jacket tapers from the bearing surface to the meplat. The end/tip/meplat fully encases the bullet's core. Most FMJ bullets have a pointy tip, and they’re not designed to deform on impact. In most cases, they tumble during penetration.
The round-nose bullet is not very aerodynamic, but they remain popular because lever-action rifles that feed from a tubular magazine need them for safety purposes. The bullet's tip is part of the bullet’s lead or lead-alloy core; it's just exposed past the end of the jacket. The round-nose design also helps bullets that impact at low velocities deform.
Flat-point bullets have a very large meplat and are most often loaded for cartridges compatible with lever-action rifles. Like with the round-nose bullet, the wide meplat helps the bullet deform at lower velocities. However, some dangerous-game bullets of much more robust construction also have flat points. The wide meplat helps these non-deforming bullets—solids—create more tissue damage during penetration and helps them penetrate on a straight line.
Like with the round-nose bullet, the core of the spire point extends past the end of the bullet's jacket. However, this exposed lead or lead-alloy core tapers to a sharper point. Up until the introduction of Nosler's Ballistic Tip, this was the most common type of hunting bullet. While some consider spire-point bullets as conventional, several premium bullets, like the Nosler Partition, have spire points. Incidentally, the Nosler Partition for the .30-30 is a round-nose bullet.
When shooters think of hollow-point bullets, they often think of varmint bullets. This is because the hollow-point bullet is associated with dynamic deformation, wicked wounding and limited penetration. This is, of course, exactly the kind of bullet you need for varmints, but not all hollow-point bullets are varmint bullets. All mono-metal bullets—like the Barnes Triple Shock—that are designed to deform or expand are hollow points. With some, the hollow point is capped with a separate polymer tip.
In 1984, Nosler revolutionized bullet design with the introduction of the Ballistic Tip, which was a conventional lead-alloy-cored hollow-point bullet with a pointy plastic tip inserted in its end. Color coded by caliber, they became very popular. Now every major bullet manufacturer uses these plastic tips to increase flight characteristics and aid with controlled bullet upset. There is even a tipped version of the Remington Core-Lokt. The addition of a polymer tip can increase ballistic coefficient and help stoutly constructed bullets deform at lower impact velocities. These colored tips are also used for branding; Nosler uses a variety of colors, Hornady uses red, Barnes uses blue, and Swift uses black.
ALUMINUM or BRONZE TIP
The Remington Bronze Point bullet was sort of the forerunner to Nosler’s Ballistic Tip. It, too, was a hollow point but with a sharp bronze tip instead of a polymer tip. Recently, with the introduction of its A-Tip bullet, Hornady now offers a match bullet with an aluminum tip. This light aluminum tip moves the bullet's center of gravity and reduces drag variability. The Bronze Point was designed for hunting and the A-Tip for target shooting.
Hornady took Nosler's idea of the polymer-tipped bullet to the next level when it introduced the LEVERevolution line of ammunition. Instead of using a hard and pointy polymer tip, Hornady used a soft—malleable—pointy tip. This allowed ammunition loaded with these bullets to fly flatter due to a higher ballistic coefficient, and they could be loaded into tubular magazines. But, just as with all tipped bullets, these were hollow points, too; the tip just filled the open cavity at the bullet's nose.
Hornady also discovered that sometimes polymer tips could slightly erode over the course of their flight. This subtle shift in the size and shape of the meplat changed the bullet's ballistic coefficient on its way to the target. This made calculating drop at distance inconsistent. The Heat Shield tip that Hornady uses on the ELD-X, ELD Match and the new CX bullet is just another type of polymer tip, but one that resists heat during flight.
BEYOND THE TIP
The tip of a bullet will influence its flight characteristics, and it will also play a part in how the bullet reacts on impact with an animal. However, don't base your bullet selection on the tip alone. Core material, jacket thickness, the ogive and how the bullet is pre-stressed are also considerations. All these elements work in concert to provide specific terminal performance and trajectory, and to ensure compatibility with certain firearms.