If you’re an avid shooter, you may have encountered ammunition with differently colored plastic tips. There are a variety of reasons for this, from improved aerodynamic performance to increased hunting lethality. But why plastic, and why does the tip of the bullet have such an important effect on ammunition? Let’s find out.
Why Are There Plastic Tips on Bullets?
Plastic tips create a more streamlined and aerodynamic profile to reduce air resistance in flight, allowing the bullet to retain its energy more efficiently. Plastic is also compressible, increasing safety in some firearm magazines, and can promote reliable expansion without sacrificing accuracy.
What is a Plastic-Tipped Bullet?
A plastic-tipped bullet is generally a jacketed hollow-point (JHP) projectile with a polymer insert in the nose cavity. Most polymer bullet tips are composed of polyoxymethylene (POM), an engineering thermoplastic commonly used in the consumer electronics and automotive industries. POM is also used in some industrial applications (e.g., gears, ball bearings) as an alternative to metal.
External Ballistics — Aerodynamic Efficiency
To understand why polymer-tipped ammunition is so popular among hunters, it’s important to discuss some of the factors that affect the accuracy of rifle bullets. The study of how projectiles behave in flight is external ballistics.
When a bullet leaves the barrel of a gun, it is susceptible to two forces. The first is gravity, a constant force that pulls the bullet toward the earth. The second is air resistance or drag, which slows the bullet. Among the two, air resistance has the most significant effect on projectile stability and velocity retention. As a result, ammunition manufacturers have worked tirelessly to create bullets that achieve a flat trajectory, travel farther, and transfer more energy to the target.
Aerodynamic efficiency is generally expressed in terms of ballistic coefficient (BC). The higher the BC, the more aerodynamic the bullet and the less susceptible it is to both drag and wind deflection. Wind drift or wind deflection is the lateral deviation of a bullet’s trajectory caused by crosswinds. For a projectile to have a high BC, it must have a specific kind of profile. A bullet that has a pronounced ogive will be more stable in flight and retain its energy more efficiently.
The ogive is the curve or taper from the full-diameter bearing surface of the midsection — the shank — to the bullet tip. Traditional rifle bullets often have a tangent ogive, which uses a more gradual taper, but some newer projectile designs use a secant ogive.
The secant ogive bullet has a more abrupt tapering from the midsection. The advantage of this design, all else being equal, is that it increases the BC. The Hornady Flex Tip (FTX) bullet uses a secant ogive to maximize aerodynamic performance in centerfire rifles.
For those who hand-load their own ammunition, the secant bullet profile does not self-align as effectively when engaging the rifling; therefore, it’s more sensitive to seating depth.
Safety in Tubular Magazines
In most lever-action rifles, the magazine is a parallel tube located below the barrel. In this magazine type, you load the cartridges into the tube bullet nose to cartridge primer. Traditionally, lever-action rifle cartridges — e.g., the .30-30 Winchester — use relatively blunt-nosed bullets with exposed lead points to increase safety. If the bullet has a sharply pointed metal tip, there’s a risk that it will detonate the primer of the cartridge in front of it under recoil, causing a catastrophic failure.
Because of this, lever-action rifles are generally classified as short- to medium-range weapons, as the flat- or round-nose bullets create a rainbow-like or parabolic trajectory with pronounced drop. This is adequate for hunting deer at ranges of 150–200 yards, but it’s not ideal for greater distances.
To counter this problem, the ammunition manufacturer Hornady introduced its LEVERevolution line of ammunition. To increase aerodynamic efficiency without compromising safety in a tubular magazine, LEVERevolution ammunition uses both Hornady’s Flex Tip and MonoFlex bullets. The MonoFlex uses both a polymer tip and a solid-copper projectile for increased penetrating power on heavy game. These bullets have the added advantage of improved wounding potential at subsonic velocities. Whether you own a rifle chambered in .357 Magnum, .45 Colt, .30-30 Win., or .444 Marlin, there’s a polymer-tipped load available.
Reliable Feeding and Lead-Free Construction
Bullets with narrow points feed more reliably in some semi-automatic actions than bullets with flat points. Round-nosed bullets with exposed lead tips may also catch on feeding ramps, as the lead is relatively soft and may deform.
Polymer-tipped ammunition is sometimes available in lead-free configurations, such as the solid-copper Hornady MonoFlex. This is both environmentally friendly and a legal requirement when hunting in certain jurisdictions, such as California. In addition, the harder metal is more penetrative.
Terminal Wounding Performance
Increased terminal wounding performance is relevant to both self-defense and hunting applications. To see why a plastic-tipped bullet increases wounding performance relative to other bullet types, it’s worth discussing how these other types function.
Standard Jacketed Hollow Point vs. Polymer Tip
In a standard jacketed or lead hollow-point bullet, the nose has a cavity and an opening in the front. When the bullet strikes a target, tissue enters this cavity and, through a buildup of hydraulic pressure, causes the core and jacket to expand. Skives — stress points in the jacket — promote symmetrical expansion. As the JHP expands, the jacket may appear to deploy multiple flower-like petals or the bullet may mushroom.
However, at relatively low muzzle velocities, such as when fired in short-barreled handguns for concealed carry, some JHP bullets fail to reliably expand. An unexpanded JHP crushes minimal tissue, behaving more like a full metal jacket flat- or round-nose bullet. This has the added effect of increasing penetration, which may be excessive.
When a polymer-tipped projectile strikes a target, the impact forces the polymer tip into the bullet, causing it to expand. This causes the bullet to become less dependent on entry velocity and hydraulic pressure to achieve a fight-stopping terminal effect.
For rifle ammunition, a full metal jacket spitzer boat tail (FMJ-BT) is stable in flight and, thus, accurate. However, unless the bullet yaws, tumbles, or fragments in soft tissue, it won’t cause as much damage as a flat- or round-nose bullet (all else being equal). At the same time, if the bullet yaws too early or loses too much weight, this can limit necessary penetration. A plastic insert can balance the two goals, allowing the bullet to achieve increased penetration relative to a jacketed hollow or soft point, while still promoting controlled expansion.
Hornady Flex Tip
Based in Nebraska, Hornady Manufacturing Company is an American manufacturer of ammunition and reloading components founded in 1949. Hornady introduced its flagship Flex Tip in 2005, and the company offers it in various calibers and gauges. The Flex Tip contains Hornady’s signature red-colored polymer insert and InterLock ring, which secures the lead-alloy core to the jacket for superior weight retention.
Nosler Ballistic Tip
Founded in 1948, Nosler, Inc., is an American ammunition manufacturer based in Oregon. Nosler has been supplying polymer-tipped rifle and handgun ammunition for decades, and owns the trademark for “Ballistic Tip.” The tapered jacket, engineered core, and internal and external skives promote rapid, controlled expansion, ensuring a balance between penetration and permanent wound cavitation. According to Nosler, the thick base of its Ballistic Tip bullets acts as a platform when the projectile expands.
The Nosler Varmageddon line is an example of a polymer-tipped ammunition line specifically designed for hunting varmints — e.g., prairie dogs, coyotes. A lead-cored jacketed hollow-point bullet with a black Ballistic Tip, the Varmageddon is available in a variety of light calibers, ranging from .17 to 7.62×39mm, and bullets weighing from 20 grains to 123.
Nosler balances the thickness of the jacket to achieve desirable terminal effects. As these bullets need to expand rapidly to be effective on small game, the jacket is thin toward the mouth of the hollow point. At the same time, they need to remain intact until they hit the target. For increased structural integrity in flight, especially at high velocities, the bullet has a uniform jacket that is thicker toward the midsection. The bullet’s flat base contributes to bench-rest accuracy when fired from a varmint or target rifle.
Shotgun slugs differ from other common types of shotgun ammunition — birdshot and buckshot — by consisting of a single, solid projectile. They are available in two types: rifled and sabot.
A rifled slug is a full-caliber unjacketed lead projectile with a flat or concave nose that you fire in a smoothbore shotgun barrel. While capable of inflicting devastating wounds, rifled slugs have a limited effective range — approximately 80–100 yards — compared with centerfire rifle ammunition. This is due to the blunt, almost wadcutter-like shape.
A sabot slug is a sub-caliber projectile, typically jacketed, enclosed in a sabot that you fire in a rifled shotgun barrel. A sabot is a sleeve that engages the rifling and carries the projectile through the barrel, breaking apart as it leaves the muzzle. Sabot slugs are usually more aerodynamic than rifled slugs, increasing the effective range of the ammunition.
Hornady SST (Super Shock Tip) Shotgun Slugs use the company’s Flex Tip technology to compete against traditional centerfire rifle cartridges. Available in 12 and 20 gauge, this slug design is capable of achieving sub-2-MOA (minute-of-angle) groups at 100 yards.
In 12 gauge, the FTX slug weighs 300 grains and can deliver almost 1,800 ft-lbs (foot-pounds) of kinetic energy at 100 yards — more than a .30-30 rifle at the muzzle. In 20 gauge, the 250-grain slug has approximately 1,200 ft-lbs at the same distance, which is equivalent to a .223 rifle at point-blank range.
In addition to shotgun slugs and centerfire rifle projectiles, you can also find polymer-tipped bullets for black-powder muzzloading firearms. The Hornady SST-ML projectile uses a sabot to properly engage the rifling of your weapon and centralize the bullet inside the bore. The sabot also creates a consistent gas seal to minimize velocity loss on firing. Simple to load, this type of bullet also benefits from the polymer insert terminally, which ensures reliable expansion on game animals at distances up to 200 yards.
The outside diameter of the sabot is .45 or .50 caliber. In the .45-caliber low-drag sabot, the projectile is .40 caliber and weighs 200 grains. In the .50-caliber sabot, the projectile is .452 caliber and weighs between 250 and 300 grains. This variety allows you to choose the ammunition that you need for the particular game animal you’re pursuing.
Handgun Ammunition for Self-Defense
Jacketed hollow-point handgun bullets usually consist of a lead-alloy core enclosed in a copper, cupro-nickel, or gilding metal jacket with an open cavity in the nose and a flat base. In low-velocity handgun bullets, expansion may be limited if the velocity does not meet or exceed the expansion threshold. In the past, if you carried a short-barreled handgun, such as a snub-nosed revolver, the answer was to use wadcutters. Thanks to developments in self-defense ammunition, including plastic-tipped bullets, that advice is less applicable.
Penetration and Permanent Wound Cavity
In the aftermath of the 1986 FBI Miami shootout, two special agents were dead and five were left severely wounded. As a result, the Bureau re-evaluated its duty weapons, ammunition, and training. What followed was a series of tests to determine the best selection criteria for a new cartridge and bullet. The FBI established standards for penetration — minimum (12 inches), optimal (15 inches), and maximum (18 inches).
For a handgun bullet to be suitable for self-defense or law enforcement, it must be able to penetrate to a depth of at least 12 inches in 10% calibrated ordnance gelatin. This test medium simulates muscle tissue, and there tends to be a close correlation between results in laboratory testing and real-world shootings. Provided the bullet meets this standard consistently, the only way to reliably increase the effectiveness of the bullet is to increase the volume of tissue that it crushes and destroys. This is the permanent wound cavity — i.e., the hole left by the passage of the bullet. The greater the frontal surface area of the bullet, the more tissue it will crush.
Ammunition manufacturers have constantly sought to improve the performance of defensive handgun loads for decades, resulting in several successful product developments.
Glaser Safety Slug
One of the most famous polymer-tipped handgun cartridge loads is the frangible Glaser Safety Slug. In this design, the projectile is hollow and contains a charge of birdshot. A blue plastic ball seals the opening. When the bullet hits a target, the shot pellets move forward due to inertia, exiting the projectile body. However, this round was developed and marketed before the FBI established its minimum penetration standards. Thus, its penetration in soft tissue is limited compared with modern JHP handgun bullets. At the time, gun writers touted this as an advantage — the Glaser Safety Slug would not overpenetrate. Unfortunately, this also limits its effectiveness, as it only creates shallow wounds.
Hornady Critical Defense and Critical Duty
In recent years, Hornady developed and marketed two types of self-defense/tactical ammunition for handguns and carbines: Critical Defense and Critical Duty. One of the most difficult challenges to overcome with regard to defensive handgun ammunition is reliable expansion following penetration through clothing.
Hornady uses the FBI’s four-layer clothing test protocol to ensure its ammunition expands consistently. In this test, the FBI covers a block of 10% ordnance gelatin with one layer of cotton to simulate a T-shirt (5.25 ounces per yard/48 threads per inch); one layer of cotton to simulate a thicker collared shirt (3.5 ounces per yard/80 threads per inch); one layer of fleece (Malden Mills Polartec 200); and one layer of cotton denim (14.4 ounces per yard/50 threads per inch).
The nose cavity of a conventional JHP bullet, unless the company specifically tests it using this protocol, may become clogged by cotton, fleece, or other clothing materials. If the bullet becomes clogged, it will likely behave the same way as a full metal jacket, which defeats the purpose of using expanding ammunition.
Hornady introduced Critical Defense to provide the private citizen with reliable defensive ammunition, achieving sufficient penetration and consistent expansion. Critical Duty is Hornady’s law-enforcement ammunition, which the company has optimized for increased barrier penetration. While Critical Defense is suitable for use in relatively short-barreled handguns, such as compact and subcompact concealed-carry weapons, Critical Duty is intended for use in full-size service pistols.
Nosler Defense handgun ammunition is available in jacketed hollow-point or polymer-tipped variants. The bullet uses the company’s AccuBond manufacturing process to increase weight retention and preserve structural integrity. The polymer-tipped bullet allows it to feed reliably in a wide variety of handguns, simulating the round point of a full metal jacket round nose (FMJ-RN).
For self-defense, hunting, and tactical applications, bullets with plastic tips are more penetrative than standard all-metal jacketed hollow-point bullets. They’re also safer to use in tubular-magazine weapons than bullets with sharply pointed metal tips. If you own a rifle fed from a tubular magazine, you no longer have to settle for short-range accuracy. When compared with full metal jacket ammunition and low-velocity JHP handgun bullets, plastic-tipped ammo strikes an essential balance between expansion and penetration. They also tend to be less dependent on velocity to achieve their terminal effects.
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