Are the Federal High Energy and Hornady Light Magnum hunting ammunitions worth their premium prices? We say no.
Choosing an off-the-shelf factory ammunition load for big-game hunting used to be straightforward. The serious hunter would go down to the local shop, buy a box of three or four different brands in the bullet weight he wanted to shoot, tested their grouping ability in his rifle on the range at 100 yards, and took the best round afield.
Then Federal introduced its Premium line of ammunition, which featured the Nosler Partition bullet, and the world of factory hunting ammunition was changed forever. Now virtually every major ammunition maker offers a premium bullet in factory ammunition. With high-performance bullets commonplace, the next step in the evolution of factory hunting ammunition was muzzle velocity. For many years, companies have been thinking about ways to make their bullets go faster without increasing pressures beyond acceptable SAAMI specifications. In 1995 Hornady accomplished the feat when the company unveiled its new Light Magnum line of ammunition. By using a special ball propellant manufactured by Winchester and a special method of dropping that powder, Hornady was able to increase the muzzle velocity of several cartridges enough to market new hunting ammunition to speed-crazy hunters and shooters. Federal soon followed, introducing its new line of Premium High Energy ammunition in 1996. Like Light Magnum, High Energy touts faster muzzle velocities and increased performance over standard loadings in the same caliber.
If you believe the advertising claims made about the Hornady Light Magnum and Federal High Energy ammunition lines, you believe that your .30-06 will now perform like a .300 Magnum—a claim both companies make. Furthermore, Hornady’s new television ads show a race car peeling rubber, implying that Light Magnum’s performance versus standard ammunition is comparable to a Formula One racer competing against a commuter clunker. Also, Federal’s High Energy ammunition was recently named 1996 New Product of the Year by the Shooting Industry Academy of Excellence, a 200-member academy comprised of dealers, manufacturers, and industry writers.
But can either of these products match their hype? Performance Shooter decided to take a close look at both Light Magnum and High Energy ammunition to see what, if any, benefits these new cartridge lines actually give to hunters.
The most important concern in upping velocities in any metallic cartridge is safety. Using handloads, we’ve tried to increase performance in many different hunting-rifle cartridges over the years, to the point where primers have been flattened or popped and cases split. Heretofore, achieving .300 Magnum performance from a .30-06 or 7mm Remington Magnum performance from a .280 Remington has not been safe.
Both Hornady and Federal emphasize that the powder used in their Light Magnum and High Energy ammunition is not available to the general public, nor do handloaders have the equipment or the skills necessary to drop the powder the same way these companies do. Trying to recreate the process at home is dangerous, and should not be attempted, we feel.
However, when we fired 150 rounds of Light Magnum and High Energy ammunition during our testing, we could find no obvious dangerous-pressure signs on the cases, such as flattened primers or case separations. Also, the cartridges fed and extracted easily from all four of our test rifles, so we don’t have any safety concerns about the supercharged factory fodder.
Still, there were plenty of performance issues we wanted to investigate.
Our first task was to chronograph our Light Magnum and High Energy test loads and compare them to standard cartridge performance in the same guns. As most Performance Shooter readers know, muzzle-velocity claims made by ammunition makers are achieved by using 24-inch pressure barrels, which almost always result in higher chronograph readings than can be achieved in hunting-rifle barrels. In our testing we were not concerned with measuring published velocity data; rather, we wanted to see how much faster the souped-up ammunition traveled compared to standard loads. To collect this data, we fired three shots each of 32 different loads through an Oehler Model 35P chronograph. The muzzle was placed about 5 feet from the chronograph for each shot.
We found that while both Light Magnum and High Energy do produce higher muzzle velocities, the results are not nearly as impressive as the advertising claims.
The .270 Light Magnum had a muzzle velocity of 3,083 fps. However, Winchester Supreme, also loaded with a 140-grain bullet, had a muzzle velocity of 2,967 fps, a difference of 3.8 percent. The Remington Extended Range 135-grain load had a velocity of 3,011 fps, a difference of 2.4 percent.
The .308 Light Magnum 150-grain load had a muzzle velocity of 2,708 fps. Compared to the other 150-grain loads in our test group, it showed a minimal performance edge, we thought. For example, Remington’s Core-Lokt 150 grain hit 2,656 fps, only 2 percent slower. Federal Classic (2,674 fps) was 1.3 percent slower, while the Winchester Super X Power Point (2,681 fps) was 1 percent slower. Also, the Winchester Supreme Silvertip Boattail round (2,689 fps) lagged behind the Light Magnum round by 19 fps—a 0.8 percent difference.
The .308 165-grain and 180-grain speed tests produced mixed results. While both the Light Magnum (2674 fps) and High Energy (2,673 fps) had almost identical velocities, they were ahead of the Remington Extended Range round (2650 fps) by 20 fps, a paltry 0.9 percent difference. However, the Federal Premium 165-grain load (2,469 fps) was 7.7 percent slower. Also, there was a measurable 8.1 percent difference between the .308 180-grain Federal High Energy load’s 2,646 fps and the Supreme load at 2,434 fps.
In .30-06 150-grain loadings, the Light Magnum clocked in at 2,893 fps. However, these results were closely matched by our other test loads. They included the Federal Classic (2,793 fps, 3.5 percent difference); Remington Core-Lokt (2,868 fps, 0.9 percent difference); Norma SP (2,838 fps, 2 percent difference); and Hornady Custom (2,815 fps, 2.7 percent difference.)
We had the most samples in the .30-06 180-grain loadings, and we found significant muzzle velocity differences between Federal High Energy and standard loads. Both High Energy loads tested—Nosler Partition (2,831 fps) and Trophy Bonded Bear Claw (2,819 fps)—outperformed the rest of the cast. These included Winchester Super X Silvertip (2,623 fps, 7.4 percent difference); Speer Nitrex (2,690 fps, 5 percent difference); Hornady Frontier (2,557 fps, 9.7 percent difference); Winchester Supreme (2,663 fps, 6 percent difference); and Federal Premium Nosler Partition (2,620 fps, 7.5 percent difference).
There were two groups of .300 Winchester Magnum loads tested, one featuring 180-grain bullets, the other 200-grain bullets. Here the differences were not that large. In the 180-grain load, the Federal High Energy clocked 3,080 fps. However, the Winchester Super X Power Point (2,957 fps, 4 percent difference), Winchester Supreme (2,991 fps, 2.9 percent difference), and Federal Premium Nosler Partition (2,947, 3.4 percent difference) weren’t far behind. The High Energy 200-grain load clocked 2,933 fps, 1.7 percent faster than the 2,886 fps produced by the Remington Safari Grade load.
More important than the speed tests were the accuracy tests, we thought. Not being able to place a bullet into a target animal’s vitals is simply not acceptable. This is especially true when shots are taken at extended ranges, which in big-game hunting we define as anything over 300 yards. The variables involved in making long shots are many, and while there are many shooters who have the skills to make quarter-mile shots on game when everything’s right, most people do not.
With any given factory load, accuracy in hunting rifles is iffy. One rifle may show a fondness for load A while another shoots load B. In our hunting rifles, we are not comfortable heading afield unless we can consistently achieve 13/4-inch three-shot groups at 100 yards. This gives us sufficient accuracy to make shots out to 400 yards under ideal conditions.
To try and simulate the rifle/load combination used by many hunters, we chose three production and one custom rifle for our accuracy testing. These included a Browning Model 1885 High Wall .270, Remington Model 7 SS .308, a Browning A-Bolt II Stainless Stalker .30-06, and a Brown Precision Pro Hunter in .300 Winchester Magnum. All accuracy results listed in our Accuracy/Chronograph Results table are the average of three-shot 100-yard groups fired under ideal outdoor conditions from a concrete bench.
In our testing, we achieved no sub-1-inch group average. Both were in .308, the 150-grain Winchester Supreme Silvertip Boattail load and the Hornady Light Magnum 165-grain load. Several of the ammunition lots we fired produced groups that bettered our 13/4-inch group standard, including some of the High Energy and Light Magnum loads. In addition to the Light Magnum .308 load, those that passed our accuracy litmus test included the .270 Light Magnum, .308 165-grain High Energy, and .300 Winchester Magnum 200-grain High Energy loads. Those that did not shoot accurately enough include the .308 150-grain Light Magnum, .308 180-grain High Energy, .30-06 150-grain Light Magnum, both .30-06 High Energy loads, and the .300 Winchester Magnum 180-grain High Energy load.
We realize that loads which didn’t shoot well in our guns might shoot better in yours. However, we didn’t see any uniformity that suggests the supercharged rounds are more accurate across-the-board than standard rounds, and we think that is a substantial downside.
Trajectory, Kinetic Energy, and Felt Recoil
The Velocity and Kinetic Energy Comparison table highlights the differences between 19 of our 32 test loads, including seven of the 10 Light Magnum/High Energy loads we tested. These numbers were calculated using our test data in the Barnes Ballistics computer program. In most cases, we found differences in trajectory at 400 yards to be less than 4 inches, which in our opinion is an insignificant number in the field. The sole case where there was a substantial difference in trajectory at 400 yards was between .30-06 180-grain loads. The High Energy Nosler Partition load dropped 42.68 inches at 400 yards, while the Federal Premium Nosler Partition load dropped 50.01 inches and the Speer Nitrex load fell 48.32 inches.
Kinetic-energy differences between Light Magnum, High Energy, and standard loads are also not significant in terms of producing kills, we think. More important would be the choice of bullet, where a premium bullet design will probably produce deep penetration at extended ranges.
The Accuracy/Chronograph Results table shows the felt recoil for each ammunition lot we tested as calculated by the Barnes Ballistics computer program for the specific rifles in which we fired each load. And while the cartridges we tested generally do not produce enough felt recoil to impair our shooting ability, there are some big differences between the Light Magnum and High Energy loads and standard ammunition. The biggest gap was between the .308 180-grain High Energy load, with a muzzle velocity of 2,646 fps. It produced 21.9 foot/pounds of recoil in our 7.25-pound Remington Model 7 SS, and the 180-grain Winchester Supreme load, with 16.9 foot/pounds of felt recoil generated in the same rifle—22.9 percent less.
Besides the objective recoil data, we noticed that the High Energy and Light Magnum loads kicked a bit harder than the standard loads, but the differences weren’t bothersome.
Determining ammunition pricing at the retail level is difficult. All ammunition makers contacted by Performance Shooter for this test refused to discuss pricing, citing the variations found at different retailers, seasonality, and pricing differences in different regions of the country. Therefore, to arrive at a benchmark pricing list, we visited a local gun shop and used two of their wholesale pricing books, which also list a suggested retail price (SRP) for each box of ammunition. We did this knowing that in most cases an SRP is a fantasy number, and ammunition is rarely sold at this price.
However, some pricing generalizations can be made from these numbers, as well as our own experiences in buying ammunition in stores across the country. First, the factory ammunition that features premium-grade bullets costs more than ammunition that features conventional bullets like the Remington Core-Lokt, Winchester Silvertip and Power Point, and Federal Hi-Shok. Second, pre-hunting season sales at many stores feature common calibers like .30-06 and .308 at rock-bottom prices, often under $10 a box for nonpremium bullet loads. And third, premium-bullet cartridges almost always sell closer to SRP than do nonpremium bullet rounds.
Thus, hunters who want to shoot the High Energy and Light Magnum ammunitions are going to have to pay for the privilege. Is a box of Light Magnum .30-06 rounds loaded with the 150-grain Interlock bullet worth its $23.99 SRP when it delivers a 21/4-inch 100-yard group? Or would the hunter be better served spending $5 less for Hornady Custom ammunition with the same Interlock bullet that produced our best three-shot group size of 5/8-inch, and an average group size of 11/8-inch, and a measured muzzle velocity just 78 fps slower? Or how about Remington .30-06 ammunition with the 150-grain Core-Lokt bullet, which produced our second-best over-all three-shot group of 5/8-inch and an average three-shot group size of 13/8-inch, and which has a measured muzzle velocity just 25 fps slower. It can often be purchased on sale just before the hunting season for less than $10 a box.
PS Says: Don’t Buy
We don’t mind paying top dollar for products that deliver top-of-the-line performance. However, we certainly don’t want to pay extra for products that aren’t demonstrably better. Based on the results of our tests, we think that, in general, the performance of the Hornady Light Magnum and Federal High Energy ammunition lines do not justify their higher cost.
Our reasons for making this judgment are simple:
With few exceptions, muzzle velocities were not significantly greater with Light Magnum and High Energy rounds when compared to standard factory loadings.
Accuracy in the high-speed rounds was certainly no better, on average, than that provided by standard factory ammunition.
Felt recoil was somewhat higher, and noticeable, in the Light Magnum and High Energy cartridges.
In hunting, the bottom line is being able to place a well-constructed bullet precisely on target. With both Light Magnum and High Energy cartridges at present, shooters will pay more money for small performance gains that will, in all probability, not significantly help them harvest more game.