History of the Match Grade Berger Hunting VLD

Posted March 1, 2011

The story of the Berger Hunting VLD is a story of discovery rather than design. The VLD bullet design was created by Ballistician Bill Davis during a project that also involved Dr. Lou Palmisano and Ferris Pindell of PPC fame. Bill’s goal was to produce a bullet design that performed better in the wind than the 30 cal 168 gr SMK. He was asked to do this by the US 300 meter shooting team, who had discovered that they were losing points late in the match due to recoil fatigue. They wanted a lighter bullet (less recoil) that would fly with the same or better trajectory.

After Bill came up with the VLD design, he asked Walt Berger to make the bullets. Walt understood the vision of this concept and even though this bullet required a faster twist barrel than was readily available, Walt decided he would make these bullets. They were a huge success in that they had a much better trajectory than the 168 gr SMK, so the goal of this particular project was achieved and surpassed.

Slowly but surely, word started to get out about the VLD concept. Shooters who cared about flatter trajectories and reduced wind drift started ordering barrels and over the next several years, the VLD’s popularity grew rapidly.

From the beginning and to this day Walt (Berger Bullets), made/makes only match grade bullets. For a very long time, Sierra Bullets has communicated the message that you should not hunt game with “Match” bullets since this is true with their MatchKings. Since the Berger VLD is a match grade bullet, Walt took the same position and recommended that shooters should not hunt with the match grade Berger VLD.

Over the years, we would get reports from hunters who would use the Berger VLD to successfully take game of all sizes. We dismissed these reports as the exception rather than the rule and would tell these hunters that we do not recommend that they use them to hunt.

Through the 90’s, we tested several different concepts for a Berger “Hunting” bullet which had to meet two criteria. The first was that it had to retain at least 80% of its weight (since weight retention was the conventional wisdom for hunting bullets at the time), and the second was that it had to be capable of ¼ MOA in an equally capable rifle. We were not successful in meeting both goals at the same time in any of our tests.

As the century turned, we had all but given up on the notion that we could make a “Hunting” bullet which is also match grade. In 2005, everything changed. While attending the SHOT Show, we were approached by John Burns who at the time was with The Best of the West TV show. He asked if we would be interested in sponsoring their hunting TV show. Walt replied “We don’t make a hunting bullet”. John’s response was “Oh yes you do.”

John pulled out a portable DVD player and showed us 45 minutes of bang flop after bang flop. Being a long time hunter, Walt was very impressed with how quickly the game was dropping after each of the hits. John relayed that every animal was taken with Berger VLD match grade bullets and that he’d taken or watched personally hundreds of big game taken with Berger VLD over the years.

Obviously, this got our attention, but we were not ready to jump in with both feet without testing this report for ourselves and confirming the results we’ve been shown. Over the next year, numerous tests were done in media using every caliber and every weight VLD bullet in our line. The results were consistent and led us to decide to try them on game. In the next 6 months, we either shot or witnessed over 50 animals of various size being taken with the Berger VLD. Each animal acted in the same way as the animals in the video John showed us at the SHOT Show.

Autopsies of these animals would confirm what we observed in the media. The bullet penetrates through the initial 1” to 3” of tissue and bone (depending on impact velocity) and then quickly fragments, sending a tremendous amount of hydrostatic shock and fragments into the surrounding vital organ’s tissue. The tremendous amount of internal damage created by these bullets was far more than had been seen by all of the experienced hunters who were with us during these tests. We came to realize that we in fact had been making one of the most quickly lethal hunting bullets since Bill Davis asked Walt to make the 6mm 105 gr VLD he had designed decades earlier.

After these tests confirmed the results we had heard about for years, we decided to start making it public that our Match bullets (that we have been telling people for years were not recommended for game hunting) are actually recommended for game hunting. This was no easy task at first. Fortunately, between the hunters who had already been using them and our sponsorship of The Best of the West TV show, word spread more quickly than expected. While more hunters were learning about how well our bullets work on game, we were wrestling with a completely different situation that had nothing to do with hunting but would affect our entire line.

For decades, our bullets have been growing very popular among target competition shooters. The vast majority of those who used our bullets were happy with the results. On a few occasions, a competition shooter would be shooting a string, doing very well and unexpectedly a fired shot would come up as a miss. When a top level shooter is pouring bullets into the 10 ring and for no obvious reason the next shot is a miss, it is clear that something bad just happened and we needed to find out what so we could prevent it from happening again.

As it turns out, the bullets were heating up to the point where the cores would actually melt. Once a bullet leaves the barrel with a melted core, it is certain that the molten lead will burst through the jacket under such high RPM. Obviously this was a problem that we needed to resolve, so we decided to test a thicker jacket. Making the jacket thicker did not make it strong enough to contain molten lead; but rather, it moved the lead away from the source of the heat. The source of the heat that can melt a core is the friction between the bearing surface and the rifling as the bullet travels through the barrel.

The thicker jacket was a complete success. Since its introduction, we have received no reports of a bullet failing to reach the target unless extreme circumstances were present (very rough bore, excessively high velocity case far beyond even the largest standard case, or improper loading practices which damaged the bullet before it was fired). Resolving this issue presented us with an important question. Now that we are making bullets on thicker jackets, do we need to make the original thickness jacket anymore?

To answer this question, we went back to testing in media. Again, the results were consistent and clear. The standard jacket had been thoroughly tested, proving that after initial penetration the bullet fragments into a wide primary and secondary wound channels in the animal’s internal tissue. The thicker jackets acted similarly with one key difference. The area in which the fragmentation is distributed is narrower and the amount of fragmentation is less. Sure it is true that this result can kill game, but it is clear that the standard jacket consistently performs much better in its ability to spread as wide a primary and secondary would channel as is possible making it a more quickly lethal bullet.

It was this consistent difference that led us to the decision to keep making both jackets. The standard jacket produces the most lethal wound channel deep inside the organs, and the thicker jacket keeps competition target shooters from losing 10 points with a miss. Now we had to figure out how to explain this to the shooters. Since both are match grade, we had difficulty in figuring out how we would distinguish one from the other.

Our first attempt was to simply label the bullets made with the thicker jacket with the word “THICK”. Wow, was that a mistake! Very few people understood what “THICK” meant. When we were asked to explain, we would relay that the thick jackets were made to keep the bullets from blowing up before they hit the target. Nearly every time, the shooters response was “what do you mean the bullets blow up before they hit the target?!” This result had happened infrequently enough that many shooters were not aware of the situation at all. Clearly we were creating more confusion rather than helping people understand the difference, so we took another look at the situation.

We needed a way to quickly and simply tell shooters something that would help them understand the difference in a way that lets them know which bullet is best for them. That is when we decided to separate them into application based lines: Target, Hunting and of course Varmint (which was not affected by any of these situations). Instead of trying to explain what the difference was between the bullets (which took some time and didn’t always sink in), we decided instead to tell shooters what the bullet should be used for (application).

Thus was born the Match Grade Berger Hunting VLD, which is the same bullet that we have been making since Bill Davis asked Walt to make bullets with this innovative design. The Match Grade Berger Target VLD (and other designs in the Target line like the BT and Hybrid) are the newest members of the Berger family. The Target line started production in 2007 with a thicker jacket. The Match Grade Berger Varmint bullets have remained unchanged, but have earned the Varmint designation for the same reasons as the Target and Hunting groups. Each line’s designation describes the application we recommend for a given bullet. What the shooter decides to do with them is entirely up to each shooter (which in a way is why the different lines exist today).

Eric Stecker

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