What is Terminal Ballistics? Definition

What is Terminal Ballistics?

Terminal Ballistics refers to the study of a projectile's behavior, performance, and effects upon impact with a target. In the context of big game hunting, terminal ballistics is critical for understanding how different bullets, velocities, and shot placement affect the penetration, expansion, and energy transfer of a projectile, ultimately influencing the efficiency and humaneness of the hunt.

Understanding Terminal Ballistics

When a projectile strikes a target, its terminal performance is determined by various factors, including bullet design, impact velocity, and target material. For big game hunting, the primary goal is to achieve a swift, ethical kill by maximizing the projectile's energy transfer and causing significant tissue damage to vital organs.

Key aspects of terminal ballistics for big game hunting include:

  • Penetration: The depth to which a projectile travels through the target, which is crucial for reaching vital organs and ensuring a quick, humane kill. Penetration is influenced by bullet design, weight, and impact velocity.
  • Expansion: The degree to which a projectile deforms or expands upon impact, creating a larger wound channel and increasing energy transfer to the target. Controlled expansion bullets, such as soft-point or bonded bullets, are designed to expand upon impact while maintaining their weight and structural integrity.
  • Energy Transfer: The transfer of kinetic energy from the projectile to the target, which is essential for causing tissue damage and incapacitating the animal. Higher-energy projectiles can deliver more damage, but excessive energy may cause over-penetration or excessive meat damage.

Bullet Selection for Big Game Hunting

Understanding terminal ballistics is vital for selecting the most suitable bullet for big game hunting:

  • Bullet Weight: Heavier bullets typically provide better penetration and energy transfer, while lighter bullets may deliver flatter trajectories and higher impact velocities.
  • Bullet Design: Controlled expansion bullets, such as soft-point or bonded bullets, are preferred for big game hunting as they provide a balance of penetration, expansion, and energy transfer.
  • Impact Velocity: The velocity of a projectile upon impact affects its terminal performance. Higher impact velocities can result in more rapid expansion and energy transfer, but excessive velocities may cause bullet fragmentation and reduced penetration.

Ethical Considerations in Big Game Hunting

Proper understanding and application of terminal ballistics contribute to ethical big game hunting by:

  • Shot Placement: Achieving a swift, humane kill requires precise shot placement to target vital organs, such as the heart and lungs, which necessitates a thorough understanding of both external and terminal ballistics.
  • Bullet Selection: Choosing the right bullet for the intended game species and hunting conditions ensures the projectile's terminal performance is optimized for ethical hunting.
  • Range Limitations: Knowing the limitations of one's firearm, ammunition, and personal shooting skills helps hunters avoid taking shots beyond the effective range, where terminal performance may be compromised.


  • Barsness, J. (2006). The Big Book of Ballistics. Skyhorse Publishing.
  • Litz, B. (2011). Applied Ballistics for Long Range Shooting. Applied Ballistics LLC.
  • Wieland, T. (2006). Bullet's Flight From Powder To Target: The Internal, External and Terminal Ballistics of Small Arms. Sportsman's Vintage Press.
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