April 16, 2019
Photos by Mark Fingar
Bear hunting has been a fascination of mine since childhood. It began when I learned that bear hunting came with a measure of danger since bears can be especially aggressive in the spring when they first come out of the den. And old boars can develop an attitude while losing their fear of humans.
Last winter, I got a phone call asking me if I’d like to go on a black bear hunt in British Columbia. This province of Canada has a good mix of both black and brown bears, the latter of which are known to be especially dangerous. So, I leapt at the opportunity to hunt the northern portion where bears are plentiful. This hunt also afforded me the opportunity to evaluate Winchester’s new Expedition Big Game Long Range ammunition. This is a load with which I’ve only had the chance to evaluate at the range.
There is some mighty fine hunting in British Columbia. It’s a great place to hunt bear, moose and elk. The mountains also produce excellent Stone’s sheep and mountain goats. However, there are political forces in play that affect hunting in the province.
Prior to my arrival, Vancouver passed a new regulation outlawing hunting of all brown bear. It seemed like a good idea in the city, but residents in the northern part of the province were already having issues with the bear surplus. For example, a member of our hunting party sat next to a woman on the airplane who had to install thick plexiglass windows on the bottom floor of her house. It was the only way to keep the bears from smashing through windows and exploring the home’s interior. She is not alone in her struggles and, with the passage of the new law, there was nothing she could do about the curious and dangerous bears.
Black bear hunting is as safe as any type of hunting can be, but the presence of the larger and more aggressive brown bears means that hunters need to be aware of their surroundings, especially after firing a rifle. To a brown bear, a rifle shot means it could be dinnertime, and bears often show up to see what’s on the ground.
One of the guides in camp had been out a few months earlier with a client glassing for Stone’s sheep when they were attacked by a big brown bear fresh from hibernating in his den. While the injuries from the attack were serious, there were no fatalities thanks to the presence of a doctor in camp that had already tagged out.
That said, bear hunting is thoroughly enjoyable.
The Horse & Rider
Though each product shares the legendary name Winchester, the ammunition company is owned by the Olin Corporation and has been since the former Western Cartridge Company bought it in 1931. Today, Winchester, the firearms brand, is a licensed brand from Olin to the Browning Arms Company of Ogden, Utah. These days, both Winchester brands often work together to develop cutting-edge firearms and ammunition.
The Winchester XPR earned great praise after being proven afield by G&A’s editors in 2017, so it only seemed appropriate to field test Winchester’s new Expedition Big Game load by shooting it through the XPR. I opted for an XPR Hunter dressed in Kuiu Verde 2.0 and chambered in .300 Winchester Magnum (WM). It is capable of bringing down any animal in North America.
Winchester’s Expedition Big Game Long Range — perhaps the longest unabbreviated name given to a load — is complete with a Nosler 190-grain AccuBond-Long Range (ABLR) bullet. This line of ammunition capitalizes on technology that has emerged only recently thanks to the rise in popularity of long-distance shooting.
Bullet construction has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and that’s a good thing. The principle of a lead core surrounded by a copper jacket hasn’t varied much, but shapes and the technology used to make them sure has.
Winchester leveraged all of its engineering and manufacturing technology to come up with the Expedition Long Range ammunition. As soon as one of these bullets hits its target, it starts to open up (assuming it strikes with enough speed) thanks to the polymer tip up front that provides good terminal effects upon impact.
Small variations in bullet shape and weight will affect the bullet’s trajectory. What we’ve learned in recent years is that polymer-tipped bullets also have more consistent ballistic coefficients (BC) than those meeting the open-tip match (OTM) and full-metal-jacket (FMJ) descriptions. Historically, the way most bullets are made required a copper jacket to be drawn around a lead core. The process ends at the bullet’s tip meaning that there is some small variation in the shape of each bullet’s nose once the drawing process is complete.
Polymer tips, on the other hand, are made in molds and are as close to identical as it gets in today’s manufacturing world. That sameness helps ensure that each bullet’s trajectory is virtually identical to the one made before it, even when distances stretch beyond 1,000 yards.
I’ve found that the bullets Winchester uses in its new ammunition line have some of the most consistent tips available, all thanks to the use of polymer.
The ABLR bullets have a tapered jacket and a bonded core. These are an excellent choice for use across a wide variety of hunting distances. Do not be fooled into thinking that because the box says “Long Range” that this ammunition won’t perform at 25 yards should the buck of a lifetime makes a surprise appearance.
The tapered jacket is thin at the bullet’s nose and gets thicker towards the base. This is an emerging trend in long-range bullets and it makes a ton of sense. This bullet is rated to expand all the way down to 1,300 feet per second (fps). That low-impact velocity makes it hard for a bullet to open up unless it has a polymer tip, a thin jacket at the nose and uses a soft, bonded lead core. Nosler’s ABLR has all three.
The thin upper jacket on the nose allows the bullet to expand at low velocity, while the ever-thickening lower jacket ensures the bullet retains weight and stays together if it impacts at a higher velocity. As the bullet expands, the tapered jacket makes further expansion more difficult. This is one reason why it can perform well at 1,300 fps and not fly apart when it hits an animal at 2,800 fps.
The final contributing factor to the bullet’s wide performance window is the bonded lead core. The ABLR bullets have a small amount of antimony that allows the jacket to bond, yet not so much that the lead core becomes hard. This carefully balanced recipe guarantees the jacket stays attached to the core while still allowing the core to remain soft enough that the bullet will expand all the way down to 1,300 fps.
Running a few numbers shows how much performance Winchester packed into this new load. The BC of the 190-grain ABLR bullet is .640, and it leaves the muzzle of the rifle I hunted with at 2,897 fps. (That was just 3 fps shy of the 2,900 fps advertised on the box.) Using this number, I calculated that the bullet has to travel 1,325 yards in a standard atmosphere before it drops to the minimum 1,300-fps impact velocity to yield optimum terminal performance. At that distance, it also hits with 726 foot-pounds (ft.-lbs.) of energy.
Interestingly, it still retains more than 1,000 ft.-lbs. of energy out to 1,050 yards. Let me be clear here: I think a guy should have his ethics questioned to shoot at animals that far away, but the math says it is possible and it puts to rest any concern for lethality at closer ranges. The takeaway for us is that this line of new ammunition is an excellent choice for taking game at whatever practical range they deem ethical.
Spot & Stalk
Hunting black bear in British Columbia is done by spotting and then stalking. This means the hunter spends a lot of time on the move and searching through glass.
I’d recommend affording as many days as possible for a black bear hunt. As I’ve experienced, they can be everywhere you look one day and vanish the next. My guide and I spent a lot of time moving from one glassing location to the next. Adjusting to a black bear’s schedule also took some hunter adjustment.
Black bears in our hunting area didn’t start moving until around the afternoon. Then, they kept moving until there wasn’t enough light to shoot. Considering the northern geography, this meant I was out in hunting daylight at 10 p.m. By the time we returned to the lodge and had a bite to eat, it was past midnight. Mercifully, hunters up there don’t seem to get moving until 8 a.m. the next morning.
I saw my bear on the third day when he came into view nearly 200 yards away. It didn’t take my guide and I long to decide that he was a nice bear, so we started our stalk.
Only 40 yards later, it was time to get into a position where I had to set up for a clear shot. The bear was downwind of us, but he was old enough and big enough that he didn’t care we were in the area. All it took was one round from 178 yards and the boar was down for good. This hunt didn’t turn out to be an epic tale of physical sacrifice and savvy, but it does reflect the randomness that actually occurs in the fields and the effectiveness of the load’s performance.
I can estimate that the bullet that brought down my bear hit at about 2,650 fps, which is far above the 1,300-fps minimum advertised velocity as necessary from Winchester. Given the high impact velocity, I was curious to examine the bullet. However, with so much velocity, I expected that there would be a small chance to recover the bullet, or that it fragmented severely, perhaps failing to provide a sizeable exit wound. That wasn’t the case.
The Nosler AccuBond bullet entered just behind the shoulder of the bear, which was quartering away, traversed his body and passed through the shoulder on the far side. The exit hole was about the size of a quarter, which indicated that the bullet had expanded significantly and retained plenty of weight while punching through the animal. I couldn’t ask for better one-shot performance than what I saw.
At The Range
Performance of this ammunition at the test range was also exceptional. I used the same Winchester XPR Hunter that I took on the trip to further evaluate the ammunition.
The XPR has one of the best triggers on a factory rifle, but the 7-ish pounds of weight meant that felt recoil from the .300 WM was more than noticeable. While it was far from punishing (thanks to the recoil pad), a .300 WM this light is not a rifle I’d choose to plink with at the range.
My best group for three shots at 100 yards measured 1.08 inches, which is good accuracy from bonded bullets shot out of a SAAMI .300 WM chamber profile. With an extreme spread (ES) of 19 fps and single-digit standard deviation (SD) numbers, this load left most factory ammunition — to include match loads — fighting for second place.
If ever there’s been a so-called “all-range” bonded bullet, the AccuBond-Long Range is it. When loaded in Winchester’s Expedition Big Game Long Range ammunition, it becomes a factory-loaded option that’s readily available to every North American hunter.
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