Gear Review: Hornady SST & AO Rifles

Earlier this week, I got a call that I’ve been waiting on for roughly a year. “Tyler, my dad needs some help hunting Axis out at a friend’s place. Any chance you can make time?” Why yes, yes I could.

Axis – The Greatest Game Animal?

To the uninitiated, Axis look like an enormous fawn. No really. Big deer, covered in spots just like a fawn. They’re truly majestic creatures that were imported to Texas in the early 30’s. They have established themselves quite well in Central Texas, to the point that some ranchers see them as a pest.

Unfortunately for cattle ranchers like the aforementioned, they love alfalfa hay. A determined herd like the one in question can eat a round bale of alfalfa in under two days. At $90/bale at the time of this writing, that gets expensive fast.

What the uninitiated also don’t know about Axis is that they make for superb eating. Truly, unbelievably good. I can’t tell you how many whitetail I’ve killed in my life, but I can recount every single Axis I’ve ever shot and eaten. Too few, and too delicious.

Planning 

I called my friend’s dad, a real nice guy by the name of Frank. I explained my schedule, and we set up a time to meet for a morning hunt in the middle of the week. Offhand, Frank asked me what I’d be hunting with.

TK: “I’ve got a sweet little .243 with a short can on it. Great little rifle that absolutely hammers”

Frank: “Oh do you have anything in .308 or .30-06? Those little .243s just don’t seem to put them down very well.”

In fact, I only own one .308 – my Accurate Ordnance built Testing Rifle. The rifle is an absolutely joy to shoot from the bench or prone. And it does pretty well at the local precision rifle matches, but at something like 15 pounds kitted out, it’s not an ideal hunting rifle. I have a nice little long action Savage with a 7 mm Rem Mag barrel screwed on, but I had literally dropped it off at UPS to head to AO the morning I got the call from my friend. For what it’s worth, it’s getting a 30-06 barrel screwed on as I write this. Irony!

No problem though- having an heavy but accurate rifle in the stand is always preferable to a featherweight that won’t shoot.

Ammo

The next problem was ammo. I had a bountiful supply of match ammo on hand, including a single box of 178 gr. Hornady A-MAX. Say what you will about the A-MAX, but people I trust more than strangers on the internet swear by them for CXP2 game.

Staring back at me from the shelf was a singular box of 180 gr. Hornady SSTs, ready to be loaded.

Given the time constraints (my hunt was in two days), the prudent course of action would have been to head down to the local gun shop, pick up any random box of hunting ammo, sight the rifle, and get a good night’s sleep. I am many things, but as it relates to ammo and rifles, I am sometimes less than prudent. Given that, I fired up the Chargemaster, lubed up my Rock Chucker, and set about working up a load with a bit of urgency pushing me.

Load Development

*****Warning – The loads shown are only safe in my rifle. Do not duplicate them and try to use them in your rifle.*****

I started with a once fired Black Hills case that I’d already resized, trimmed, and chamfered in the days before my son was born, primed it with a CCI BR2, and loaded Varget in the Chargemaster.

Hornady’s listed overall length is 2.740″. When I measured the max OAL my rifle could sustain, I found it to be 2.830″. That’s a lot of jump, .090″ worth, and I’ve had good luck seating bullets a bit long lately, so I elected to go to an OAL of 2.780, which put me .050″ off the lands. That’s a decent jump without being too long, and also reliably feeds from a magazine.

Hornady’s manual also listed the max powder charge at 43.2 gr. of Varget, good for a velocity of 2500 fps from a 24″ barrel. I expected that my 20″ barrel would see slightly lower velocities, but given that the SST has a minimum expansion velocity of 1800 fps, I felt like I would still end up with a workable load.

Case: BHA 1X
Primer: CCI BR2
Projectile: Hornady 180 gr SST
Powder: Varget (40.8 – 43.6 gr)
Book OAL: 2.740″
Chosen OAL: 2.780″
Max measured OAL: 2.830

This is where owning a custom built rifle makes life easier. Above is the target I shot at 100 yards while doing a velocity test using a MagnetoSpeed. All I do is strap the MagnetoSpeed to the muzzle, line up my sights, and start shooting rounds with progressively larger charges of powder while checking for pressure signs. I ended up shooting 9 rounds through a ragged hole across a 2.8 grain spread of powder charges!

My velocity testing showed that the low end of 40.8 served up 2510 fps and the high end of 43.4 netted 2625 fps. Many thanks to Rock Creek for the VERY speedy barrel.

I looked for “flat spots” in the velocity workup where a powder change didn’t do much to increase velocity and found a nice little node right at the top of my workup. From 43.0 – 43.4 gr, velocity was within 15 fps. Good enough for a hunting load.

I then shot the four highest charge weights for groups, and found that this rifle REALLY liked 43.6 gr of Varget. Taking a look at the target centers and their offset from the aiming point, I found that 43.4 and 43.6 were very close, so I split the difference and decided on 43.5 gr of Varget as my load. I recorded my zero, headed home, and loaded up 20 rounds at that charge weight.

The Hunt

At 3:00 the next morning, I tumbled out of bed, poured a large cup of coffee for myself, and pointed my truck south. Before long, I was down near San Antonio, meeting up with Frank, and walking towards my blind.

As my weather app so nicely predicted, 6:55 AM was when I got first light, and right at 7:15 the feeder went off. By then, I’d ranged the feeder and found it to be at 132 yards, dead on with what Frank had told me two days prior.

About thirty seconds after the feeder went off, a mass of Axis swarmed. I counted at least 30, but they were moving back and forth so quickly, jockeying for position that it was honestly hard to tell.

And that made finding one to shoot a chore as well! They just wouldn’t sit still very long at all. I probably put the crosshairs on four animals and started applying pressure on the trigger only to see them duck, run, and charge another animal to get a better bit of food on the ground.

Normally, I’d aim for the head or the high neck, but given the level of energy from the animals downrange, that simply wasn’t possible. I finally found a nice sized doe who pulled away from the herd long enough for me to center the crosshairs behind her shoulder and let one fly.

At the shot, I watched her jump a few feet in the air and take off running uphill, under a fence, and out of my sight. Her buddies under the feeder did the same.

“Shit”, was all I could mutter. I felt good about the shot. My position was good, breathing was even, and I’d watched the reticle all the way through recoil. I loaded up my gear, and made the short walk over to the feeder. I quickly found blood and tufts of hair. I’d definitely hit her, but now I needed to track her down. 

Around that time, Frank texted to tell me he was about to shoot an Axis over at his blind. Not much later, I heard the shot, and got a text, “Mine’s down”

I let him know that mine was bleeding, but I needed to cross a fence to go find her. He suggested that we work on gutting his deer while we waited on mine to lay down somewhere and die.

Tracking

With his deer all packed up, we headed over to my feeder, and started working the blood trail. Two things were immediately apparent. I had definitely hit a lung based on the bright, foamy blood on the ground, and whatever holes were in her weren’t that big as there was only sporadic spray along the ground. Luckily, the ground was fairly bare and rocky, so the trail was relatively easy to follow.

About forty yards up the hill, tucked behind a scrubby cedar tree, I found an Axis doe, deader than dead with a neat little entry wound behind her left shoulder.

Flipping her over, I found a larger exit wound, the source of the blood and hair I’d been following. Her belly was quite swollen which made me think that I’d put the shot too far back, and nicked some guts – never a fun time.

Postmortem – Warning! – Blood and guts lay beyond this point.  

Inside of Entry Wound
Inside of Exit Wound

The entry and exit wounds were unremarkable in the extreme. My ballistic calculator estimated my impact velocity at roughly 2380 fps, some 500 fps faster than required for expansion. However, it appeared that the bullet stayed together completely, breaking ribs on entry and exit while sailing through everything in between. I did not recover the projectile. Thankfully, no guts were compromised. The swelling I saw was contained inside the multiple stomachs present in an Axis.  Wounding to both lungs was severe, and consistent with a properly expanded, bonded bullet. While I’m no fan of lung shots, this is about as textbook as it gets. Bullet passed through a rib, stayed together, punched good holes in both lungs, and exited the other side. You really can’t ask for much more. She was dead the moment she was hit, but just didn’t know it.

That said, I think I’ll be reserving the SSTs for any future hunts involving tougher animals, namely feral pigs. I was pleased with the accuracy and velocity I was able to achieve with the SST, but I found the fully bonded nature to be a bit “much” for thin skinned ungulates like Axis and whitetail. I assume that hitting a large leg bone might have forced this bullet to do “more” from an expansion perspective. That’s something I’m willing to test in the future.

For now, I’ll be continuing my usage of Nosler Ballistic Tips for thin skinned game. They fragment violently and with authority in a shot like this, turning the contents of the thoracic cavity to mush. That sort of thing allows a bit more cushion for a hasty or poorly set up shot, a reality in the field. Luckily, I was able to get steady, and put my bullet just where I intended with these Hornady SSTs.

In several weeks, I’ll pick up the hide and meat from the butcher. The hide will be headed to the tannery to become a nice set of mittens while the meat will be destined for Steak Diane and Garlic Braised Shanks.

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