As a young boy, I spent every day walking around the farm with my Daisy 880 .177 pump rifle. There’s no telling how many English sparrows I dropped with that rifle, but it was enought to fill several sparrow down pillows and maybe make 3 or 4 sparrow feather dusters. I used that rifle with Daisy wadcutter pellets simply because that’s all wally world carried. But they also delivered quick kills on sparrows. One solid “whap” and they were done.
Then one day, mom bought home Copperhead pointed hunting pellets. Not only was it something new and different, but it was labeled specifically as a hunting pellet. For I, the young hunter and bird assassin, was in need of specialized equipment to complete my covert operations with ease and precision. I excitedly ripped open the package, grabbed my rifle, and zeroed the Daisy. To the best of my memory, they shot about as well as the wadcutter pellets. Then I went on my black op.
I saw my quarry ahead, and walked a large loop around the house through the snow to close the distance. Finally, 15 yards away and full of hope, I took the shot I had been anxiously awaiting.
The sparrow flew away with a trail of feathers floating in thr breeze.
That was the first of three birds that did not receive a clean kill. Disappointment consumed my young soul and I never used the pointed pellets again. How could a pointed hunting pellet be so bad for hunting? This moment would become my first lesson in advertisements not holding up to their claim.
Flash forward 20 years.
Airguns have consumed all my free time.
Using the pointed H&N Baracuda pointed pellets during squirrel season, I made a few shots that I felt should have been kill shots, but I was unable to recover them. So I decided to test various pellets for their terminal performance. Here’s some results of that test, dealing specifically with 3 different head shapes and their performance in various targets:
The design… in 3 sentences or less
Wadcutter: Designed to be a close range target pellet. Cuts perfect holes in targets for easier scoring. Not aerodynamic so long range accuracy should not be expected.
Dome: Designed to be aerodynamic for good accuracy at all ranges.
Pointed: Designed for penetration. Disclaimer… with a high powered airgun, the hunter will have sufficient penetration on small game regardless of pellet type. For larger critters or low powered airguns you may want to try these out.
The wax block test
My infamous test media. It’s more dense than actual tissue, so the results won’t be the same as actual results, but they will parallel the results-to some extent. As the pellet passes through the media, it will show the shape of the temporary wound cavity, which demonstrates the energy transfer (realistically, it shows how it pushes tissue out of the way). The target was shot at 15 yards.
Complete pass through. Wound channel about 1/2″. Straight walled channel indicates little energy transfer and a clean slice through the target.
Again, complete pass through (unexpected). Wound channel 5/8″. Gradual channel diameter shrinkage indicates gradual energy transfer (it’s slowing down at a moderate rate).
Penetrated about 2″ Wound channel 3/4″. Rapid channel diameter shrinkage indicates… you guessed it… Rapid energy transfer (it’s slowing down at a rapid rate).
With the above test, you can see how the temporary wound channel grows as the nose of the pellet becomes flatter.
The paper test
As I was testing pellets, it was obvious that different head shapes cut different sized holes in paper. So I compared three selected pellets side by side:
The holes were measured by size of the empty space where the pellet impacted. Believe it or not, this is a very good representation of the permanent wound channel. Why? As tissue is hit, it will open up as the pellet passes through, then it will close back up to some extent. The paper reacts in almost the same manner as tissue. Also, it’s important to note, that the permanent wound channel is, I feel, the most important of the two. If you haven’t figured it out, I don’t believe the energy transfer theory, but that’s for another day.
Here’s the average hole diameter for various pellet head shapes:
Pointed-15% of original diameter
Domed-61% of original diameter
Wadcutter- 85% of original diameter
Percentage of diameter should be equal in all calibers… in theory of course.
Now that we’ve examined the temporary and permanent wounding characteristics of the 3 common pellet head shapes, let’s examine the pellets when they were used on critters:
This squirrel was shot with an H&N Baracuda Power (tapered dome) pointed pellet and was hit in the lungs. Quick kill (about 5 seconds). Very little external blood loss caused by the small wound channel. Complete pass through the target.
This was a 60 yard shot-executed perfectly. Nearly impossible with the expanding pellets I’ve tested. In spite of the non expanding nature of dome shaped pellets, this pellet created a significant amount of tissue damage, a fair sized permanent cavity, and delivered good penetration (about 2 inches). Overall, the dome is a good balance of killing power and penetration- with superior accuracy to add. I will say that in my experience, if a poor hit is made, it is not as forgiving as expanding or geometrically flat nosed pellets.
This squirrel was shot with a JSB Ultra Shock. Indeed, this is not a typical wadcutter, but the principle is the same…the head is flat. Liver hit was the most harmful event. Granted the liver is a blood bearing organ, but is not considered a good hit. Quick kill (about 5 seconds). What you’re seeing in the first photos is the entrance wound- second phit is exit. Much more forgiving than a pointed pellet. I have hit squirrles in that spot with pointed pellets in the past and was unable to recover them.
I hope the reader has learned something new about airgun terminal ballistics and applies it to their hunting set up. The data is pretty straight forward. While pointed pellets offer more penetration, their wounding characteristics are minimal. Geometrically flat pellets, while they don’t penetrate well and have a tendency to be less accurate than more streamlined pellets, offer more preferable terminal performance. Domed pellets are somewhere in between, and typically offer better accuracy.
Thoughts, comments, and questions are always welcome. Thanks for the read.