Open Tip Match: When a “Hollow Point” is Not a Hollow Point

Early boxes of Open Tip Match were marked ‘NOT FOR COMBAT USE’ as noted in the original box (top row, both sides) and bottom left. The unduly restrictive language was removed, as shown in the current box (bottom right).

In the 1950s Sierra Bullets introduced its MatchKing, a 168-grain .30 caliber (7.62mm) open tip bullet designed to maximize accuracy.  The open tip design employs a precision deep drawn jacket with lead inserted from the front tip and ogival forming from the open tip mouth.  The result is better manufacturing control and more consistent quality than possible with traditional full metal jacket (FMJ) bullet designs formed from tip to base.

The MatchKing design originated strictly for competitive match.  The open tip’s meplat diameter was kept as small as the manufacturing process allowed to maximize aeroballistic performance.  The dimension is process controlled as a critical dimension and is approximately 0.052” while the actual opening is less than 0.030”.  Minimizing the meplat minimizes aerodynamic drag, preserving velocity, reducing time of flight, and providing a high quality flatter shooting bullet.  The MatchKing’s extremely small aperture stands in contrast to traditional hunting bullet designs that depend on large or skived openings or other enhancements to improve terminal performance.  Throughout the years, Sierra Bullets has recommended against use of the MatchKing bullet for hunting because it was not designed for terminal ballistics.  Sierra’s Reloading Manual (5th edition) states, “The MatchKing bullets are designed for pinpoint accuracy, with no consideration given to what might happen after impact.  If the bullet has arrived on target accurately, its job is done at that point.”

The 168-grain MatchKing was used by the winner in its debut at the 1959 Pan American Games and soon dominated centerfire rifle competition.  Its broad acceptance and proven performance in competition and by civilian law enforcement agencies attests to its success.  As described in this article, military interest in the MatchKing and other open tip match (OTM) bullets, including sniper use in combat, developed slowly due to misunderstandings that persist to this day.

Sierra GameKing bullet (bottom) and MatchKing bullet (top).

The confusion began in 1899 at the First Hague Peace Conference, which adopted a Declaration Concerning Expanding Bullets in which governments agreed to abstain from military use of “…bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which do not entirely cover the core or is pierced with incisions [skiving].”  The declaration was more political than humanitarian, targeting the British .303 caliber Mk. III cartridge with its AL 9402 hollow point bullet in part due to the British War against the Boers in South Africa, notwithstanding the fact that the Mk III was never employed in that conflict.  Abstention in use of such bullets applied only between nations party to the declaration.  If a nation party to the Hague Declaration fought the military forces of a nation that was not a party or “savages,” as non-government forces were referred to in colonial times, no prohibition existed against their use.  Only thirty-four nations became parties to this treaty.  During its negotiation Captain William Henry Crozier, Ordnance Corps, U.S. Army (subsequently Chief of Ordnance, 1901-1918), and U.S. delegation member, argued against the declaration’s condemnation-by-appearance vis-à-vis a bullet’s terminal ballistics relative to other contemporary military bullets.  As will be seen, the error Captain Crozier criticized was repeated with respect to military adoption of the MatchKing and similar OTM bullets over the half century following its introduction.  The United States is not a party to the Hague Declaration, but has acted consistent with it.  Potential functioning reliability issues, particularly in machine guns, discouraged interest in projectile design other than FMJ standard ball.  Lack of military interest evolved into an assumption by many that military use of “hollow point” projectiles is prohibited in all circumstances, regardless of design intent and terminal ballistics.

Confusion existed with respect to MatchKing use because different entities used the same words differently.  Sierra categorized the MatchKing as a “boat tail hollow point” owing to its appearance, that is, its open tip.  The 1899 Hague Declaration does not use the term “hollow point” as such, but “hollow point” became the common lay term to summarize the Hague Declaration prohibition, neglecting the additional criteria that the projectile “expand or open easily” on impact with soft tissue at all distances.

In 1980 I had responsibility for conducting the legal review for new military weapons and ammunition required by the Department of Defense to ensure compliance with our treaty obligations.  The Army Marksmanship Unit (AMU) contacted me to ask if it would be permissible for it to acquire the 168-grain MatchKing for competition.  My examination of the MatchKing determined that notwithstanding Sierra’s characterization of it as a “hollow point,” it was not a hollow point in the sense of the prohibition contained in the 1899 Hague Declaration.  Its extremely small aperture stood in obvious contrast to an “expanding bullet” such as the Sierra GameKing.  The GameKing contains a larger aperture than the MatchKing and skiving, that is, cuts to enhance expansion in soft tissue.  Referring to the MatchKing as an “open tip” projectile to get away from the confusion caused by the manufacturer’s description of it as a “hollow point,” acquisition for competition was approved.  The legal review suggested a request for sniper use in combat would be favorably considered.

Left to right: cut-away views of Sierra MatchKing, M80 and Sierra GameKing projectiles.

Military evaluation of the MatchKing (designated M852) proved its superiority over the 173-grain M118 FMJ projectile that preceded it.  Army tests noted a 36% increase in accuracy with the MatchKing at 300 meters and a 32% accuracy increase at 600 meters.  Marine Corps tests produced similar accuracy figures.  The National Guard determined that the M852 provided better bullet groups at 200 and 600 meters than the M118 under all conditions.

Confusion continued within military circles.  In 1985 the AMU sought assistance from Colonel Martin L. Fackler, Medical Corps, U.S. Army, an experienced combat surgeon and chief of the Army’s wound ballistics laboratory at Letterman Army Institute of Research.  Dr. Fackler’s tests – firing the M852 into ordnance gelatin (20x25x50 centimeter blocks of a 10% weight concentration shot at four degrees centigrade calibrated to reproduce the crush and stretch seen in living animal tissue, a protocol developed by Dr. Fackler widely accepted today) – prompted him to suggest that the MatchKing’s terminal ballistics would be improved by expanding the aperture because M852 terminal ballistics were like those of 7.62mm FMJ M80 Ball.  Dr. Fackler’s suggestion was not accepted.  But his test proved the M852 did not “expand or open easily” as proscribed by the 1899 Hague Convention.  Confusion continued.  In the late 1980s Naval Weapons Support Center Crane procured and tested 7.62 and .300 Winchester Magnum OTM ammunition with specially manufactured polished closed tips for possible sniper training and combat use, based on the belief that the OTM was prohibited for combat use because of its “hollow point.”  Although tests results were positive, Crane officials expressed concern that the projectile might violate the Hague Declaration because of bullet break up at close range, notwithstanding the fact that fragmentation of the polished closed tip M852 was no greater than U.S. military FMJ M80 Ball, and appreciably less than M80 Ball projectiles used by some NATO militaries.

Individuals judging the MatchKing solely on its appearance failed to consider the foundation law of war principle of distinction.  It obligates a government and its military to develop and apply force against an enemy military in a manner that limits risk of injury to innocent civilians.  A well-trained military sniper equipped with a contemporary sniper rifle, including its optics, using the most accurate ammunition, is the epitome of distinction.  A civilian law enforcement agency using something less than the most accurate sniper ammunition could face potential liability were an innocent civilian killed or injured by a police sniper’s shot during a hostage situation, as plaintiff’s attorneys would argue that using less-accurate ammunition was negligent when ammunition with significantly greater accuracy was available.  This rigid standard does not exist in a combat environment.  Nonetheless an important legal obligation was neglected by those who hesitated in requesting approval for combat use of the MatchKing, particularly given the significant increase in accuracy it manifested over the M118.

Caution regarding MatchKing projectile fragmentation was unwarranted.  Twentieth Century terminal ballistics history established that FMJ military rifle projectiles sometimes fragment in soft tissue at distances up to 250 meters, dependent upon velocity, angle of projectile yaw at impact, and similar factors.  Governments have acknowledged and accepted this phenomenon in international conferences over the past four decades, declining to extend the 1899 Hague Declaration’s prohibition beyond bullets designed to “expand or open easily” at every distance.

Hesitation in requesting authorization for M852 combat use faded in 1990 in the lead-up to Operation DESERT STORM, the U.S.-led Coalition effort to liberate Kuwait following Iraq’s invasion.  The request for legal review was answered in the affirmative the same day.  The logistics system was not as responsive.  M852 use in DESERT STORM cannot be confirmed.

The Sierra Open Tip Match on the left and the Sierra GameKing on the right.

The .300 Winchester Magnum 190-grain Sierra MatchKing  (MK 248 MOD 0) was adopted by the Navy in 1993.  In 1993 the Marine Corps identified its expectations for 7.62x51mm accuracy.  U.S. Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command, Armaments Research, Development and Engineering Center, in conjunction with Lake City Army Ammunition Plant, requested Sierra Bullets to design and build prototype projectiles to meet Marine Corps performance objectives.  The M852 was succeeded in 1997 by the 7.62mm Special Ball Long Range M118LR with 175-grain Sierra MatchKing.  The 175-grain Sierra MatchKing exceeded Marine Corps requirements.  When shooters properly accounted for environmental factors, the 175-grain Sierra MatchKing loaded as the Federal Premium Gold Medal Match reliably struck targets at one mile.

The 5.56mm 77-grain Sierra MatchKing MK 262 MOD 0/1 (DODIC AA53) was fielded in 2000.  Navy (Crane) product improvement programs led to the 7.62 MK 316 MOD 0 Special Ball, Long Range (DODIC AB39), continuing to employ the 175-grain Sierra MatchKing, and the 220-grain Sierra MatchKing .300 Winchester Magnum Match MK 248 MOD 1 (DODIC AB43) in 2008.  In each case wound ballistics tests based upon Dr. Fackler’s protocol, today an integral part of the legal review of new military small arms ammunition, reconfirmed Dr. Fackler’s 1985 conclusion that the terminal ballistics of OTM projectiles are similar to those of FMJ Ball, that is, they do not “expand or open easily” in soft tissue.

Experts in The Netherlands and Switzerland further confirmed the legality of OTM ammunition for military sniper use.  In 2001, a Swiss ballistics expert at the Swiss Low Noise Ballistics Facility described the OTM as a “hollow point that doesn’t perform like a hollow point” with respect to its terminal ballistics.  Today OTM ammunition is offered by a number of manufacturers for law enforcement and military use and has been adopted and employed by other militaries in the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts.  OTM fielding in other calibers, such as .300 Norma Magnum and .338 Lapua Magnum are under consideration.

Misunderstanding through ignorance persists.  In 2006 a U.S. Army sniper approached his ammunition supply point in Iraq to request a re-supply of the M118LR.  The civilian contractor took the ammunition out of its storage space, looked at the marking on the box stating “NOT FOR COMBAT USE” and refused to issue the ammunition to the sniper, instead instructing him to down load less-accurate linked M80 ball for use in his sniper rifle.  The sniper turned to an Army judge advocate (JAG) for assistance.  The JAG agreed with the ASP contractor.  When provided a copy of the 1997 legal review of the M1118LR containing a detailed explanation as to its legality and rationale for approving its combat use, the JAG questioned the legal review’s value because it was “nine years old.”  Legal reviews of weapons and ammunition do not have a “shelf life,” but are “forever” documents.  The situation ultimately was resolved in the sniper’s favor, but not before it gained national media attention.

This incident was avoidable. The “not for combat use” language was placed on OTM ammunition boxes in 1980 when it was approved for military competition use.  When the M852 and M118LR were approved for combat use, no one told the contractor who made the boxes to remove the offending language.  It was deleted when the current box was ordered (illustration, lower right corner).  Confusion bred by ignorance continues in some circles.  An ally recently (and quickly) rejected a private citizen’s assertion that OTM ammunition violated the 1899 Hague Declaration.

The adage “don’t judge a book by its covers” is applicable with respect to the Sierra MatchKing and comparable open tip match projectiles.  Sierra Bullets’ characterization of the MatchKing as a “hollow point” likely exacerbated the practice of judging the projectile based solely on its appearance.  Sierra Bullets has remedied this somewhat by referring to it as “open tip match” in its invoices.  The problem was further aggravated by the failure of many to read and understand the text of the1899 Hague Declaration, and to incorrectly assume that any projectile with a “hollow point” would “expand or open easily” at all distances.  The International Criminal Court limited the prohibition to military use of bullets designed to expand or open easily only when employed to “uselessly aggravate suffering or the wounding effect upon the target.”  In this respect the international community belatedly arrived at the point argued by Captain Crozier in 1899.