As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, I consider myself more a hunter than a competitive shooter. As such, I feel that I have a critical responsibility to get game animals down as quickly as possible. In other words, they need to be killed as efficiently as is humanly (and humanely) possible. This is a touchy subject for some of my friends – even those who love guns, but who don’t hunt.
On multiple occasions, I have been chided by friends for “killing wild animals.” The ironic nature of this chiding is that it often comes as they sit at my table eating my rib-eye steaks, sausage pizzas, hamburgers etc. However, their concerns and criticisms are a good reminder that I have a duty as an ethical hunter to use the appropriate equipment and components to kill my quarry as near to instantaneously as possible.
I am also a research scientist/professor and so I do analyses for a living. I need data collected before I feel comfortable forming an opinion about a product used for shooting or hunting. On a recent Namibian trip, with Jamy Traut Hunting Safaris, I used a bullet with which I had not previously hunted – Hornady’s Extremely Low Drag – Expanding, or ELD-X.
This particular Safari centered around hunting a mature, tom leopard. Having no experience with leopard hunting, I reached out to my buddy Mark Haldane of Zambeze Delta Safaris to ask his advice on whether this bullet was appropriate for these dangerous cats.
Over the past 35 years, Mark has guided clients to 79 leopards. He knows his stuff and what works on these predators. Our interaction was comical, yet reassuring, concerning the appropriateness of my caliber and the use of ELD-Xs.
Me: “I am using a 162-grain ELD-X in the MG Arms Ultralight in 7mm Remington Magnum.”
Mark: “Niiiiiice – 300 or 7mm perfect with nice softs!”
Me: “I don’t want big exit holes!”
Mark: “Big holes are never an issue…wounded cats are…”
OK. So, I now knew two things about the rifle and bullet combination. First, it was very accurate (see bar graph and TTAG review).
Second, one of the most experienced leopard guides affirmed that, if I put the ELD-X where it needed to be, the bullet was soft enough to do damage to a thin-skinned animal and get it down quickly.
But this last point brought up another concern. I would also be shooting heavy, big-boned and muscular animals on my Safari; zebra and wildebeest would be taken for leopard bait and camp meat. Would this so-called ‘soft’ bullet be capable of sufficient penetration to anchor these tough animals, or would it disintegrate on impact and just wound?
Hornady’s claim on their website is that the 162-grain 7mm ELD-X was sufficient for whitetail and elk. I have great respect for the folks at Hornady and their products, but I reached out to another authority to check out this claim, Craig Boddington. His answer as to the appropriateness of the ELD-X for tough African game was: “I have taken a big elk, and two eland bulls, no issues! Both [Swift] A-Frames and Scirocco will retain more weight, but ELD-X will be fine for anything you are hunting!”
OK then. Two experts (plus, of course, the people at Hornady), two confirmations of the utility of the ELD-X for the game I would be hunting. I still wondered about the engineering required to make a bullet ‘soft’ enough for leopard and ‘hard’ enough for zebra, but direct testing of that attribute would have to come on my Safari.
A Springbok, a Zebra, a Hartebeest and a Wildebeest: First Soft, Then Tough
The first animal taken with the ELD-X bullet was a Damara Springbok. The shot was made as the ram quartered away from me through a window between Mopane trees at a distance of approximately 80 yards. The bullet-sized entry wound can be seen just behind his rib cage. The ram went only 25 yards after the shot.
In the following photo, my PH, Kabous Grünschloss is about to cool the ram down using water. There were several exit wounds from fragmentation of the ELD-X. Yet, as can be seen in this photograph, damage to the exit-side skin was minimal.
Though the skin wasn’t damaged, the action of the bullet internally was why the ram died within a few seconds of being hit. This pattern of limited external, but extensive internal damage was seen in every animal taken.
The result on this soft-skinned, light-boned Springbok gave me hope about the effectiveness of the ELD-X if I got a chance at a leopard. However, the fragmentation of the bullet on the Springbok had me worried about heavier animals.
I realize that I shouldn’t doubt Craig Boddington, but I just could not see how a bullet that came apart like that would have the penetration necessary to bring down something like a 750 pound zebra. What I didn’t understand was the engineering that went into producing a bullet that’s front-half fragmented, while retaining a core and base that didn’t come apart.
I ‘tested’ this feat of engineering by taking a series of animals that served for both leopard bait and camp meat. The first was a Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra taken to feed the big male leopard that was chewing his way through a huge amount of meat at one of our bait trees. We stalked the herd of zebra for 30 minutes until they finally hesitated within a Mopane woodland.
Kabous identified a stallion that was quartering slightly away. I asked for the distance and he looked through the rangefinder and called out “342 yards”. I adjusted my hold for the ~15 inches of bullet drop I expected and held just behind his on-shoulder. At the shot, Kabous yelled “You hit him!” The stallion ran approximately 50 yards and Kabous yelled again “He’s down! I see his hooves in the air!”
As expected, the entrance wound was bullet-sized in diameter. Unlike the Springbok, there was no exit wound. When we reached camp, I asked the skinners if they would mind trying to find any bullet fragments in the big stallion.
When they began skinning, we discovered two ribs broken at the entry site. There were small bullet fragments found along the path from the entry wound; the base and core were found intact resting against the off-shoulder. In answer to those who might wonder about tracking animals with only an entry wound from this bullet, there was a clear blood trail leading from near where the stallion was standing when shot to where he went down.
Hornady’s website describes their ELD-X bullets this way:
“Devastating conventional range performance: With high velocity 0-400 yard impact, the bullet continually expands throughout its penetration path. The thick shank of the jacket and high InterLock® ring keep the core and jacket together providing 50-60% weight retention.”
The portion of the ELD-X retrieved from the zebra weighed 88 grains, or 54% of the original 162 grains.
Along the bullet’s path, there was extensive damage to both lungs and the heart. Before turning to the bullet’s performance on a leopard, I want to mention two other ‘tough’ animals taken with the ELD-X.
The first was a Red Hartebeest shot just behind the shoulder at 280 yards. There was a small entry wound and, like the Springbok, several small exit wounds. With extensive damage to lungs and heart, the Hartebeest traveled around 50 yards after the shot.
Likewise, a Blue Wildebeest was taken with a nearly identical side-on shot at 300 yards. It too had several small exit wounds, with the fragments and base/core heavily damaging heart and lungs along the bullet’s path. This animal expired after only 30 yards.
Pièce de Résistance: Leopard
The dream part of my Safari was the pursuit of an African leopard. Though this is an ‘analysis’ article, I have to state that successfully matching wits with such an amazing animal brought feelings of both great sadness and unbridled joy. If you hunt, you will understand what I am trying to express.
As for the ELD-X bullet, it again performed extremely well. The bullet entered at the point of the on-side shoulder. The big tom was quartering strongly towards me at 64 yards when I fired. The small entry wound is easily visible in the following photograph.
The on-side shoulder was shattered on impact. Again, the bullet fragmented, causing several exit wounds. But, unlike what I had feared before using this ‘soft’ bullet, none of the exit wounds were large. Each of the multiple exit wounds are located just below my left arm in the following photograph.
Most importantly, after he fell from the branch on which he was standing, he was able to right himself, but then only ran for 15 yards before expiring. Upon skinning out the big cat, it was discovered that the lungs had been fragmented, the aorta perforated.
I think the results are clear. The ELD-X performed exactly as Mark Haldane, Craig Boddington and Hornady claimed it would. The engineering that went into this product has apparently resulted in a ‘both-and’ type of projectile.
The forward portion fragments upon expansion thus providing enormous shock energy within the animal. Yet no major skin damage is caused when the fragments exit. The base and core hold together providing deep, straight-line penetration on animals considered to be some of the toughest in the world – i.e. Zebra and Blue Wildebeest.
I intend to keep trying ELD-X bullets in my various calibers with the hope that they will be one of the most accurate for each of my rifles. That will give me another bullet in my reloading toolbox.