June 19, 2020
Today’s hunters demand more from their bullets than any past generation. Not that long ago, 400 yards was a very long shot and there were only a handful of hunters targeting game past that distance. Many consider shots that far unethical. Hunting bullets, therefore, were only required to work within a relatively narrow velocity window. Some contemporary hunters want their bullets to kill game effectively at distance, but they also need the bullet to function at close range. That seems like a simple request, but it’s not.
What a lot of long-range hunters have learned is that even if they can predictably hit a target as far as 600, 700, 800 yards or more, traditional hunting bullet designs don’t expand properly at those ranges due to a sharp drop in velocity. When a bullet fails to expand properly, it doesn’t shed energy efficiently, and in many instances, the result is a wounded animal. To remedy this, bullet companies have developed projectiles that are specifically designed to expand at low velocities, but that oftentimes means softer construction and dramatic bullet blowups at close ranges.
The engineering team at Federal Premium Ammunition (federalpremium.com) set out to design a single projectile that would work at widely varying distances. After considerable testing and development, the world’s largest ammunition manufacturer believes they’ve finally created the most versatile hunting bullet. Meet the Terminal Ascent.
Best of Both Worlds
The Terminal Ascent represents the evolution of Federal’s very best hunting bullets from years past. Like Federal’s Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Trophy Bonded Tip bullets, Terminal Ascent has a copper jacket that is electrochemically bonded to the lead core.
It is known that electrochemical bonding is an effective means of preventing jacket-to-core separation, which can result in irregular and unpredictable bullet performance. Additionally, the bullets listed above — including Terminal Ascent — all have a copper shank below the lead core that maintains straight-line penetration and drives the bullet deep into the target. For these reasons, bonded bullets have become standard for use on the largest, toughest game including Cape buffalo, elk, moose and bear, to name a few.
Bonded bullets are durable and retain much of their weight, but they present problems for long-range hunting. First, most bonded bullets don’t have particularly high ballistic coefficients (BC) and, therefore, don’t resist wind effects or shoot as flat as their more aerodynamic competitors. Additionally, the tough construction of a bonded bullet means that at low velocities they don’t open up and shed energy effectively.
Federal wanted the Terminal Ascent bullet to benefit from bonded construction, while simultaneously performing at long ranges and low velocities. To accomplish this, the engineers at Federal began adjusting bullet profiles, jacket thicknesses and grain weights to maximize the potential of each bullet. Terminal Ascent bullets all have a boattail construction, a secant ogive and a small meplat (i.e., where the flattened area at the front of the bullet meets the polymer tip) to further reduce drag and improve ballistic performance.
Terminal Ascent bullets also feature the same AccuChannel design that first appeared on the company’s Edge TLR bullet. Adding grooves to the shank of a hunting bullet helps reduce friction and fouling while improving accuracy. However, the traditional grooves cut in most hunting bullets feature a 90-degree angle, and this can increase drag. That, in turn, results in greater bullet drop and wind drift. Using fluid dynamics modeling, the team at Federal determined that an angled cut at the rear of the groove could increase performance.
“The AccuChannel has a sloped rear wall which lets the air flow in and out of the groove, reduces pressure on that point and reduces drag on the bullet,” says Justin Carbone, Federal’s rifle ammunition product engineer.
The AccuChannel match-bullet profile, polymer tip and boattail design of Terminal Ascent give these bullets a very high BC for a bonded-core hunting bullet. Federal’s 200-grain, .30-caliber Terminal Ascent bullet has a G1 BC of .608, which is markedly better than the company’s 200-grain Trophy Bonded Bear Claw bullet with a G1 BC of .395. That’s also better than Nosler’s 200-grain, .30-caliber Accubond’s .588 G1 BC. What’s more, all Terminal Ascent bullets have relatively good BCs: The 130-grain 6.5mm/.264-inch bullet carries a BC of .532, and the 155-grain 7mm/.284-inch Terminal Ascent bullet has a BC of .586. Federal worked hard to develop a bonded bullet that’s designed to go the distance, as these numbers reveal.
Carbone and his team’s greatest challenge was to develop a durable bonded bullet that could open up at far distances and low velocities. To accomplish this, the engineers at Federal developed a new patent-pending polymer tip known as “Slipstream.” Since it’s constructed of heat-resistant polymer, the striking blue Slipstream tip won’t deform at great distances. The interior of its heat-resistant core is hollow, so once the tip impacts the target, it breaks up and fluid enters a narrow channel cut into the nose of the bullet. The force of the hydraulic action causes the bullet to open up even at low velocities and energies, and that initial expansion is enhanced by skives cut into the jacket.
How effective is this design? Consider for a moment that most bonded hunting bullets expand at a minimum velocity of 1,800 feet per second (fps). That means 200-grain .300 Win. Mag. loads, such as the Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and Nosler’s Partition, have effective ranges limited to between 400 and 600 yards, depending on velocity and environmental factors. By contrast, the Terminal Ascent 200-grain .300 Win. Mag. load will expand down to 1,400 fps and at distances of more than 1,000 yards.
Even if you aren’t into long-range rifle hunting, the new Terminal Ascent bullet can still offer you improved performance in most firearms. Carbines with short barrels chambered for mild calibers, and even handgun hunters who carry the new Remington 700 CP, or Nosler’s Model 48 NCH, would be well-served by the new Terminal Ascent.
Federal’s Terminal Ascent is essentially a bullet within a bullet: Initial expansion happens rapidly and at slow velocities, but its bonded core ensures that the bullet will work at close ranges and high velocities on big, tough animals. Once the bullet design was complete, the team at Federal nickel-plated both the bullet and the cartridge case and rounded out the package by using superior propellants and reliable Federal Gold Medal primers. There are currently 11 cartridge options available in the Terminal Ascent line, but it’s likely that additional loads will be added soon.
“Essentially, Terminal Ascent is a high-BC version of the tried-and-true Trophy Bonded Tip, but with improved low-velocity expansion,” Carbone added. “Terminal Ascent incorporates the external bullet geometries of modern match bullets but maintains the internal construction of the toughest bonded bullets available.”
In the Field
I tested Federal’s Terminal Ascent while hunting Coues deer in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains, and I can’t imagine a better way to evaluate a long-range hunting bullet’s performance. Coues deer are smaller than their whitetail cousins and are gray in color, allowing them to blend in with the dry ocotillo and manzanita bushes of the Sierra Madres.
Finding these deer and getting into position for a shot can be challenging, and shots at these small targets can range from 50 to more than 600 yards, though 200 to 400 yards is average. These challenges are what makes Coues deer hunting so addictive, and also what made a Coues deer hunt the perfect platform for Guns & Ammo to test Terminal Ascent.
My rifle for this hunt was a Mossberg Patriot Predator chambered in 6.5 Creedmoor and topped with a Leupold VX-5HD 4-20x52mm side-focus scope. That may seem like a lot of glass for a sporting rifle, but Coues deer hunting is optics-driven. If you can’t see these deer clearly at any range then you’re handicapped.
The range tests prior to that hunt were my first opportunities to evaluate Terminal Ascent ammunition. Because it was early in Terminal Ascent’s production cycle, Federal’s new Custom Shop handloaded some ammo for this adventure. Their load was a 130-grain 6.5 bullet at a muzzle velocity of 2,825 fps matching factory loads. When I chronographed those initial loads, I found that the published velocity was very close to what I achieved.
There were no issues with feeding or cycling, and accuracy was superb. My first group with the Terminal Ascent measured .77 inch and the next group went .70 after allowing the barrel to cool completely between shots. I’d be hunting with this rifle, after all, so I was most interested in cold-bore performance.
The third group was slightly larger for an overall average of .83 inch. That’s not bad for a factory rifle. These were the best groups I’d achieved with any load from that gun. I moved to 200 yards and adjusted the dial on the VX5-HD. The next shot was a bit left, but otherwise it was dead-center. The group at that distance averaged roughly 1½-inches.
While in Mexico, we hunted on Rancho Mababi, a sprawling cattle farm that covers tens of thousands of acres in the state of Sonora. Much of the ranch comprises of steep canyons and high peaks, some reaching almost 7,000 feet. On the third morning of the hunt, it snowed on my guide Ron Shelton and I as we glassed from a tall bench. Some of the hills are covered in dense manzanita bush, and these tight-growing plants provide perfect cover for deer. Farther below in the dark canyons, oaks and bleached-white sycamore trees provide food and additional habitat for deer, cougars, turkeys, javelina, and perhaps even a few Mexican grey wolves.
There is no shortage of deer on Mababi, and the trophy quality there is second to none. There could be a very good chance of harvesting a Boone and Crockett buck if the hunter is patient and shoots well. But by day three, I was growing tired from long hours of glassing on the wind-blown peaks. We’d had some close calls, and one record buck had slipped through our fingers the day before. I needed my luck to change. When it did, my luck changed in a hurry. Outfitter Ted Jaycox spotted a buck on a peak not far from where Shelton and I were glassing, so we made a move on the deer.
After scrambling to the top, I scanned the ridgeline, but didn’t see the deer in the overhanging oak trees. It was Shelton that spotted it first at a range of 180 yards. Some would consider this distance a chip shot for a Coues deer hunt. I centered the crosshairs of the Leupold scope on the point of the shoulder and fired. The Coues buck dropped forward and never took a step.
The Terminal Ascent bullet performed well. It struck where intended and exited the opposite side, breaking the deer’s shoulder in the process. The exit hole was roughly a ½ wide, which would indicate a roughly two-times bullet expansion, the same type of performance that the 6.5 Terminal Ascent displayed on another Coues buck shot by a friend of mine, and Javelina at ranges from 80 to 200 yards. Oddly, there weren’t any unusually long shots on my hunt, but gel tests of Terminal Ascent bullets recovered at long ranges are convincing. They perform reliably on game of varying sizes and at different distances.
Decades of product testing has led to the development of what may be the world’s most versatile hunting projectile, and Federal claims that Terminal Ascent is the best hunting bullet they’ve ever built. I find no reason to doubt it and wouldn’t hesitate to use this ammo on any big game animal in an appropriate caliber. For long range, short range, or anything in between, Terminal Ascent is an excellent hunting load.
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