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Modern Loads For Classic Cartridges: Federal Terminal Ascent

Federal Premium's Terminal Ascent bullet has given new life to some classic cartridges. Let's see how the ammunition fares in the field and at the range.

Modern Loads For Classic Cartridges: Federal Terminal Ascent

These days, if it ain’t “Creedmoor,” “PRC,” “WSM,” or maybe “.28 Nosler,” it just ain’t … well, you get the idea. Don’t get me wrong! The latest new cartridges are awesome, but not all of us have sprung for them. Some because we can’t afford to; others because, well, we’re happy with “Old Betsy.” Chambered to vintage cartridges, some younger readers may not have heard of old, tired numbers such as .270 Winchester and .30-­’06 Springfield.

Back in 1906 and 1925 when the .30-­’06 and .270 were each introduced, we didn’t know what we didn’t know. Modern case design — shorter and relatively fatter with sharper shoulders — is more efficient, demonstrably producing more energy per grain of powder burned. Burning efficiency contributes to accuracy. Thanks to precise modern manufacturing (not the cartridge the chamber is cut to), current factory rifles are, on average, more accurate than rifles made a century ago. That said, Col. Townsend Whelen’s .30-’­06 and Professor Jack O’Connor’s .270 got the job done just fine, without all the modern manufacturing processes of today.

Thanks also to precise manufacturing, factory ammunition is now better than ever. It’s more consistent, typically more accurate and loaded with an array of increasingly specialized bullets. We’ve long had “match” bullets and “hunting” bullets, and we still do. Now, with increased interest in long-­range shooting and expanding lead-­free zones, we have copper-­alloy bullets, and “low-drag” bullets with off-­the-­charts ballistic coefficients (BCs).

Today’s array of bullets can be complex and confusing. Choice of a sound projectile — for your purpose — is critical because, ultimately, it’s the bullet that does the work. Here’s something you may not have thought about: A given bullet doesn’t care what cartridge case it’s loaded into. Hunting bullets do care about velocity, though, because impact speed is a major factor in terminal performance. However, maximum practical velocities were reached at least by the 1940s, so our newest cartridges aren’t necessarily faster than those used by Col. Whelen (1877-­1961) and O’Connor (1902-­1978). I thought it would be fun to match up these classic cartridges with two of our most modern loads, which use advanced bullets that, for sure, Whelen and O’Connor never envisioned.

Classic Cartridges
(Mark Fingar photo)

Terminal Ascent

In January ’22, as the pandemic seemed to be wearing itself out, I had a chance to do a late-­season mule-deer hunt in Far West Texas. This seemed to offer a perfect opportunity to take a new look at Federal Premium ammo loaded with the Terminal Ascent (TA) bullet. I used this bullet when it was brand-­new in 2018. Then COVID-19 arrived and opportunities became scarce  — and supplies scarcer. With Federal’s J.J. Reich as a willing accomplice, I wanted to use the 136-­grain TA load in .270 Win., while he hunted with the 175-­grain TA load in .30-­’06.

Federal Premium ammo needs little introduction. Since 1978, it has been good stuff. Made with select components, it was the first factory ammunition to call out “name” bullets: Ballistic Tip, GameKing, Partition, Trophy Bonded Bear Claw and others. TA deserves more explanation. It is not the first bullet developed for Federal Premium, but it is one of the most unique bullets on the market. Although designed for aerodynamics with high BC, TA is unabashedly a hunting bullet — not a match bullet. TA is designed to continue to expand on impact at long range as it slows down, yet it retains its weight at close range and full velocity. The 136-­grain .270 TA has a G1 BC of .493; the 175-­grain .30-­cal TA has a G1 BC of .520. These are high BCs but, compared to various low-drag bullets, not off the charts by today’s standards. Remember, the Terminal Ascent is a hunting bullet, not a match or target bullet.

TA is a complex bullet. It’s a boattail, sort of dual-core like the Nosler Partition and Swift A-Frame. The lead core is up front, followed by a copper shank. The lead core upsets (i.e., expands), while the copper shank remains intact and drives penetration. The lead core is bonded to the copper jacket, which is also nickel-­plated and grooved at the base. This reduces both fouling and drag. TA is a tipped bullet utilizing Federal’s exclusive Slipstream hollow polymer tip. Upon impact, the tip drives down into the bullet, while target material is driven into the cavity. Both initiate expansion, even at long range after losing velocity. As is customary with Federal Premium ammo, cases are nickel-­plated, and the useful 10-­round belt slide remains in the package.

Despite all the brave new cartridges, my first exposure to Terminal Ascent in 2018 rounded up most of the usual suspects: .270 Win., 7mm Remington Magnum, .308 Winchester, .30-­’06 and .300 Winchester Magnum. These cartridges remain part of the TA line, but TA has expanded to include popular upstarts: 6.5 Creedmoor and PRC; .280 Ackley Improved; .28 Nosler; and .270 and .300 WSM.

Bullet weights are limited, and often “non-­standard”: 130-­grain in 6.5mm; 136 in .270; 155 in 7mm; 175 in .308 and .30-­’06; and 200 grains in the magnum .30s. If this seems odd, consider that today’s bullets are aided by computer design, which takes into account an extra-­long bullet, rifle twist, action length, and appropriate velocity at an acceptable pressure. TA usually isn’t the fastest or slowest load, but it is accurate. It produces good terminal performance across a spectrum of impact velocities.




Classic Cartridges
Terminal Ascent (TA) shown with a sectioned bullet. TA is a complex bullet featuring a bonded lead core surrounded by a copper shank. The copper jacket is nickel-­plated, and the polymer tip is hollow, which accelerates expansion.(Mark Fingar photo)

On my desk, I have boxes of 136-­grain .270 Win., 175-­grain .30-­’06, and 200-­grain .300 Win. Mag. I can see on the box labels: .270 TA, “0-­850 yards”; .30-’­06, :0-­1,000 yards”; .300 Win. Mag., 0-­1,250 yards. I’m not an extreme-­range guy, and I’ve never shot at game animals at those maximum distances. (Nor are you obligated to.) Just because your car’s speedometer goes to 180 mph, doesn’t mean that you have to drive that fast — but it’s nice to know the potential.

I can’t speak to terminal performance at such distances. However, except for the fact that the bonded lead core remains fused to the jacket, it appears to me that TA expands much like a homogenous-­alloy bullet: The skived nose peels back in petals, with the front lead core adhering. At closer range and higher velocity, expansion exceeds what might be expected from any copper bullet. At longer range and lower velocity, expansion diminishes, but the combination of the polymer tip still allows jacket petals to peel back. In other words, even at extreme range, it should not perform like a non-­expanding “solid.” Rather, the diameter of the razor-­edge petals (with front jacket attached) will gradually decrease with velocity, but weight retention remains high.

Classic Cartridges
Expanded TA bullets are similar in appearance to copper-­alloy bullets, with the nose peeling back in petals and expansion diminishing as velocity decreases. A big difference with TA though: The bonded lead core adheres to the petals, which increases weight retention. (Mark Fingar photo)

Where the Mule Deer Roam

Far West Texas is a magical place. Big, lonely, and with magnificent vistas, miniature Monument Valley has every background straight out of a John Ford western, missing only John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and a host of hostile Comanches! Ours was a four-­day hunt with High West Outfitter (highwestoutfitter.com), fully 60 miles southwest of Marfa, Texas, and most of that on gravel rock. This region is one of my favorite places; I love the desert mountains and the remoteness. I love the desert mule deer, too, and the free-­range aoudad they share their range with. I enjoy seeing big packs of javelina scampering through prickly pear, coyotes yipping, the remote ranchos that serve as camps, warm mesquite fires and Southwest cuisine. Between mule deer and aoudad, I’m a frequent visitor.

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Classic Cartridges
Steep rimrocks and deep canyons are characteristic of the Far West Texas mountains. (Author photo)

I’m happy to say that, thanks to educated, improved and effective management, I’ve seen mule deer blossom in Far West Texas. Desert mule deer (subspecies crooki) are not as big as the best Rocky Mountain deer, but the average bucks are bigger and monsters less uncommon. That said, late January is a tough time; it’s the end of season, end of rut, and bucks are tired, moving off on their own. Most bucks sport broken points by this time. It doesn’t matter; any time you can hunt in Far West Texas it is a good time. We were a group of five: Reich, me, Guns & Ammo SIP Editor David Faubion and gunwriter Eric Pickhart hunting mule deer. Federal’s Clinton Allen was after aoudad. None of us expected monsters, and we could deal with points broken in honest fighting. We were just happy to be out again.

Classic Cartridges
High West Outfitters Guide Steven Ryan worked the spotting scope. Desert mule deer country is vast, and deer densities are low. This made for an optics-­intensive hunt. (Author photo)

Reich’s buck might have qualified as a monster if but for a broken right beam. It didn’t mean much. Midmorning on the first day, it was too good to pass. Something beyond 300 yards, his clean, bright Savage 116 — chambered to the dusty, tired .30-­’06 — performed just fine. Even with the broken beam, it was a fantastic desert mule deer with huge bases. Reich didn’t exactly beat me to him, but part of being old means that you no longer need to hurry. I didn’t care who, but somebody needed to shoot that buck, and I enjoyed watching Reich take him.

With all hunting, you need to take ‘em when you see ’em; at the end of any season you may not see a bunch. Strong winds came up, which didn’t help. For two days, Reich’s was the only animal in camp. (It looked bigger by the day.) Things can change in seconds, and it happened late in the morning on the third day. We jumped a small herd, four bucks and a half-­dozen does, and had them stringing up a ridge, starting and stopping. To my eye, two of the bucks were similar but one was older; the other too young.

Classic Cartridges
J.J. Reich and Boddington sit with Reich’s desert mule deer taken with a Savage 116 in .30-­’06 using 175-­grain Terminal Ascent. Reich’s shot was about 350 yards. (Author photo)

Just behind me on the spotting scope, my excellent guide Steven Ryan did a fine job calling the correct buck as they switched back and forth. I was afraid they’d go over the top, but they stopped in a thick patch near the crest. My old .270 has a vintage Leupold 2-­7X. I was approaching the limit of my optic and knew it. It took some doing, but I finally got straight on the oldest buck, quartering to me at 325 yards. Holding on the leading edge of the on-­shoulder, I put the crosshairs about 4 inches below the withers and pressed the trigger.

The buck took the bullet hard, made three steps to the right and dropped. The bullet entered midway on the shoulder, cut across the top of the heart and exited behind the off-shoulder. Perfect!

Classic Cartridges
Despite a couple of broken tips, Boddington’s desert buck was a good four-­by-­four taken at 325 yards with a single 136-­grain Terminal Ascent bullet from his vintage .270. The custom rifle was made by Joe Balickie on a rare left-­hand Carl Gustav action. (Author photo)

Accuracy

Since 2018, despite limited supplies, I’ve grouped TA ammo in several rifles and cartridges. It would be untrue to say it was consistently the “most accurate.” Like any factory load, TA is just one assemblage of components. Some rifles shot it great, most average, and a couple did not like it at all. You never know until you try!

For this exercise, I secured enough ammo to group three .270s: a Blaser R8, my wife Donna’s light MG Arms, and my old Joe Balickie custom. I also grouped our a .30-’­06 in my left-­hand M77 Ruger with standard walnut.

I had already decided this would be a good hunt for the Balickie rifle. Made 30 years ago, it’s stocked in gorgeous walnut, so I have to be careful where I take it. The Texas mountains are rough, but I figured most of our glassing would be near ranch roads, sort of a perfect excursion for the Old Gentleman. The action is an unusual left-­hand Carl Gustav, and the only LH Gustav action I’ve seen. The rifle came with a vintage Leupold 2-­7X compact in old Buehler mounts. My initial thought was to switch to a modern scope, but it shot so well that I have left it as Joe Balickie made it. This did not end up being a mistake; that old scope is still clear and adjustments track perfectly. However, it’s not a long-­range rig, and on my plus-­300-­yard shot I was approaching the limit.

Classic Cartridges
Boddington hunted with the 136-­grain TA load for .270 Winchester. It is an aerodynamic bullet that shot well and performed in the field. (Mark Fingar photo)

You can view the chart, but there are no revelations. The single best group was an awesome .58-­inch five-­shot cluster from Mr. Balickie, which reinforced my decision to use that rifle. That said, I was unable to duplicate that group. (Remember, flukes can be bad or good!) The average was solid, 1.29 inches, but skewed by that one spectacular group. Of the three .270s, I consider the Blaser R8 to be the most accurate. Not with this load, but that’s a possibility with any factory round. Some rifles love it, some don’t. The best of the three was Donna’s MG Arms; its weight with the scope was 5.7 pounds, yet non-­finicky. At 1.06 inches, it came close to the magic 1 ­MOA, which is asking a lot for five-­shot groups from a light sporter.

For mule deer hunting, I had my pick of the three .270s. The 136-­grain TA load provided plenty of accuracy in all three. I was disappointed in the accuracy of my .30-’­06 with the 175-­grain TA load though. It’s gone through a lot of hard use and the rifle is not a tack-­driver, but I figure it’s usually 11/2 MOA. With this load, it fell short; that can happen with any rifle with any factory load.

I don’t have Reich’s accuracy results with his Savage 116 in .30-’­06, but he told me the rifle grouped well. From a newer Savage, that’s no surprise.

All my barrels were 22 inchers. Velocities ran a bit below published numbers, which I anticipated because Federal’s specs use 24-­inch barrels. In all four rifles, velocities were extremely consistent; extreme spreads (ES) in the 20s to ­30s, with single-­digit standard deviation (SD). This is good ammo, but accuracy is bound to vary from rifle to rifle.

Classic Cartridges
On the bench the classic .270 Winchester and Federal’s ­modern 136-­grain Terminal Ascent load were paired to print 11/4-inch groups from 100 yards. (Author photo)

The Train Station

The last day got busy. While I took my buck, Faubion and Pickhart both took nice management mule deer. Not young, but they were unlikely to grow into monsters. Reich used my old .270 to take his first javelina and, around evening, Allen took an awesome aoudad with a long, perfectly executed shot.

Since TA is intended as an “all range” hunting bullet, terminal performance is critical. The difficulty with this in America is acquiring enough experience to have a valid opinion. A writer friend from Australia, with legions of overpopulated feral animals to deal with, used to laugh at American gunwriters. “You guys shoot one deer and call it ‘testing,’” he’d say. “We shoot several dozen hogs or goats. That’s testing!”

Classic Cartridges
Boddington’s Blaser R8 is usually his most accurate .270, but you never know with factory ammo in any rifle. Blaser’s barrel didn’t like this load, which cemented the author’s decision to hunt an old .270. (Author photo)

My first experience with TA back in 2018 was questionable. I shot a small-­bodied buck, a Coues whitetail, going up an opposite ridge at 100 yards. I shot down through the spine into the chest. It was a dead deer, but the bullet didn’t exit. We couldn’t find the bullet, which happens, so I’m not suggesting it came apart. Full velocity, it obviously hit heavy bone, but I figured a 200-­grain bullet from a .300 Win. Mag. should have exited! I kept that experience as a mental note.

Classic Cartridges
Javelina are a plentiful bonus in Far West Texas. Reich had never taken one, so he used Boddington’s custom .270 to take this nice boar on the last day of the hunt. (Author photo)

Since then, I have seen only excellent terminal performance from the TA. So, it appeared my fears were unfounded. In our Texas camp, we took six animals in total: four good-­sized bucks, a large aoudad and a small javelina. That’s a great start to a useful sampling. In addition to my 136-­grain .270, and Reich’s 175-­grain .30, the other three hunters used 130-­grain 6.5mm’s, both Creedmoor and PRC. Some were shot more than once, but given shifting animals at distance, they were pure shot-­placement issues.

More significant: All but one bullet fired into game exited! The lone bullet we recovered was Allen’s 130-­grain 6.5mm, which dropped his aoudad at long range. His bullet looked just like the photos; expansion was limited because of decreasing velocity. The rest did what I expected from good bullets fired from adequate cartridges for deer-­sized game taken at 200 to 400 yards. They entered, penetrated, expanded through the vitals, continued to penetrate, and exited. At this train station, Terminal Ascent was impressive. For sure, I was very happy with the performance of my tired old .270 — while using a ­super-modern bullet!

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