Accurate? Lethal? Affordable? Bullets without lead bear close scrutiny, but they are here to stay.
By Wayne van Zwoll
Randy Brooks, founder of Barnes Bullets, was glassing a hill for bears in Alaska when it occurred to him that bullet failures on tough animals all involved lead loss. In that “Aha!” moment, he realized: “To prevent lead loss, I just had to eliminate the lead.”
Back at his Utah shop, Brooks built an all-copper bullet with a small nose cavity to initiate upset. “There was no lead to fragment or slip from a jacket,” he says. “If the bullet stayed in one piece, I was sure it would penetrate.”
The following spring, he went back to Alaska and killed a brown bear with that handmade bullet. He named it the X-Bullet because the nose peeled into four petals, forming an X.
Brooks and his wife, Coni, bet their business on the design, and took the X-Bullet with them on safari in 1992. “Coni used her .338 Winchester with the 225-grain X-Bullet to kill 62 animals, all but one with the first shot,” he says.
Shooters, however, noted that the unalloyed-copper X-Bullet fouled bores more quickly and stubbornly than the gilding metal (copper/zinc) of jacketed lead bullets, and the then-available coatings were only able to partially remedy the problem. So Brooks machined three grooves in the shank to decrease friction and give the rifling lands “somewhere to push the displaced copper.”
The result: lower pressure, less fouling. In 2003, this new bullet became the TSX (Triple-Shock). It delivered the deep penetration and near 100 percent weight retention of the X-Bullet, but with better accuracy and less fouling. The Tipped TSX followed, along with the MRX bullet with a tungsten-based Silvex core.
Now available in more than 60 configurations, from 45-grain .224 to 750-grain .577, the Triple-Shock has replaced the X-Bullet in the Barnes line. It also appears in ammunition by Federal and Norma.
Brooks emphasizes that he developed lead-free bullets to give hunters better bullets, and “not for any other reason.” As he notes, in the 1980s, when the X-Bullet first appeared, the unproven allegations now being made about lead ammunition weren’t on anyone’s radar. But in recent years, the use of traditional bullets made with lead has drawn some public attention. For example, on July 1, 2008, California instituted a ban on ammunition made with lead in the parts of the state that were deemed California condor range. The ban resulted from concerns that lead residue in hunter- harvested animals could poison California condors scavenging on carcasses.
A LEGACY OF LEAD
For centuries, lead has been the near-ideal bullet material. It is dense, malleable, and relatively cheap. The advent of smokeless powder in the 1890s hiked bullet speed, which presented manufacturers with a design issue. To maintain performance, jackets of copper alloy kept fast bullets from losing their shape and shielded bores from lead smears.
Early jacketed softpoints were blunt, with lots of exposed nose lead, so they’d open readily at modest impact speeds. But they came apart when pushed fast. To remedy this, Charles Newton developed a spitzer bullet with a wire nose insert to control expansion. In addition, Newton’s bullets had paper insulation between jacket and core to keep cores from melting from barrel friction.
Before World War II, the Western Tool and Copper Works manufactured a small-cavity hollowpoint bullet that drove deep in heavy game even when fired from the .30 Newton or the .300 H&H Magnum. DWM had a “strong-jacket” bullet, its long, narrow nose cavity lined with copper tubing and capped. Remington’s Bronze Point featured a bronze peg in the nose cavity to start expansion. Winchester’s Precision Point had a gilding metal cone over the bullet tip and locked into the jacket proper.
Then Peters developed the Protected Point. A cone capped its flat-topped lead core, the front third of which wore a “driving band” under the jacket to control upset. There was just one problem: A Protected Point bullet took 51 operations and three hours to make. A less costly design, minus the driving band, became Winchester’s Silvertip.
As velocities climbed, bullet makers tackled the problem of core-jacket separation. The Peters Inner-Belted and its successor, Remington’s Core-Lokt, were designed with cores that would stay put. In 1947, after failing to take a moose quickly, John Nosler fashioned a bullet with two cores, the H-Mantle. A dam of jacket material protected the heel against breakup. In the 1980s, Texan Jack Carter developed his Trophy Bonded bullet, distinguished by a thick, ductile jacket chemically joined to a lead core. Swift’s bonded Scirocco features a streamlined profile with a conical polymer tip. The Swift A-Frame shares the Partition’s two-core design.
Bullets for tough game are commonly touted as “controlled expansion” bullets. But truly, all expanding bullets are designed for specific upset. Some unload their energy quickly, disintegrating in the lightest game. Others are built to break big bones and maintain their integrity in long wound channels. All bullets begin to expand at about the same time–on impact, when the force on the nose is greatest. Bullet designs are distinguished by the rate and degree of bullet upset as well as weight retention.
Currently, three lead-free bullet designs predominate: bronze and brass solids, copper or gilding metal hollowpoints, and sintered metal bullets with a jacket. Your customers will likely focus on these. The bronze (Woodleigh) and brass (Barnes) solids for big-bore “stopping” rifles are an alternative to steel-jacketed lead-core bullets. They’re designed to drive through an elephant’s skull without deforming, so they penetrate deep. I found a Norma-loaded Woodleigh in the flank of a cow elephant that was facing me at 16 paces when she took that .375 bullet between the eyes.
|Currently, three lead-free bullet designs predominate: bronze and brass solids, copper or gilding|
The solid-copper hollowpoint is more versatile, an alternative to lead-core softpoints. It might be made of unalloyed copper (Barnes), but it can also be of gilding metal (Winchester, Nosler, and Hornady).
Winchester and Nosler have collaborated over the last couple of decades to come up with “CT,” or Combined Technology, products co-engineered to sell under the Winchester label. The E-Tip is a lead-free Ballistic Tip look-alike. Conceived in 2007, the gilding-metal E-Tip now appears in 13 Winchester loads, from 130-grain .270 to 200-grain .338 Magnum. Nosler catalogs E-Tips as handloading components.
“E-Tip’s design is best suited to bullets of at least .25 caliber,” says Glen Weeks, for years a centerfire authority at Olin’s plant in East Alton, Illinois. “We chose an alloy of 95 percent copper and 5 percent zinc because it’s as malleable as copper, but won’t foul bores as readily.” The Lubalox coating further reduces fouling.
Weeks claims that the design of the E-Tip allows it to drive as deep and retain as much weight as any of the manufacturer’s traditional jacketed bullets. He also says that the E-Tip will deliver the kind of accuracy hunters are accustomed to from traditional rounds. I tend to agree, as the groups I achieved with E-Tips in a .30/06 matched those of traditional hunting bullets.
Such accuracy, says Weeks, is due to E-Tip’s one-piece design. “More components mean more variables,” he says, and a consequent loss of accuracy. Another asset of the E-Tip is a nose cavity that extends below the ogive. The bullet yields to acceleration by “bumping up” into the rifling.
In flight, E-Tip bullets are ballistic champs. Their sectional density is lower than that of traditional lead-core bullets, so they’re longer for any given weight. E-Tips also have very sleek profiles. A 180-grain .30/06 E-Tip exiting at 2,750 fps clocks 2,099 fps at 400 yards. Compare that to 2,082 fps for svelte 180-grain Accubonds started at the same speed. Thank the E-Tip’s .523 ballistic coefficient.
As for terminal performance, E-Tips open reliably but zip through ballistic gelatin as if it were Crisco. They won’t pancake under stress.
“That’s good,” Weeks points out. “A bullet gains frontal area at the expense of shank, which you need to ensure penetration. A big nose plows a wide, but short, wound channel.” An E-Tip doubling its diameter creates a cavity deeper than one produced by frangible or flattened lead bullets. “E-Tips need more impact speed than most lead-core bullets to upset perfectly,” he says. “But at long range, we get expansion with the remaining velocities of most cartridges.”
In Africa, I hunted with a pal who used a .30/06 with 180-grain E-Tips to take outstanding kudu and gemsbok bulls, each with one bullet. No lead-core projectile could have performed better.
Last year, Winchester followed its E-Tip with the Power Core 95/5. A gildingmetal hollowpoint, it lacks the E-Tip’s polymer nose and Lubalox finish. In cross-section and performance, however, it is much the same. (It performs so well that Field & Stream awarded it a coveted Best of the Best Award.)
Hornady announced the GMX bullet early in 2009, first as a 150-grain .308 component. The GMX (for gilding metal expanding) is 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc, “the same as what we’ve used for decades in bullet jackets,” confirms Jeremy Millard, who headed the project. Cut from wire and swaged to tight dimensional tolerances, GMX bullets cost roughly 40 percent more than lead bullets. The price of lead has risen, but it’s still a fraction of the cost of copper, which has climbed to record levels.
Because gilding metal is lighter than lead, matching lead-bullet weight would make GMX bullets too long. (In order to make up the weight lost by using lighter materials, manufacturers need to fashion a longer bullet, which can cut down on the amount of powder that can be used, so they utilize a lighter bullet.) But the GMX is designed to drive deep with negligible weight loss, so lighter, faster bullets still penetrate. In tests, GMX bullets expand at impact speeds down to 2,000 fps.
“We get 99 percent weight retention in ballistic gelatin, at velocities as high as 3,400 fps,” says Millard. “All we lose is the plastic tip.”
|Hornady’s GMX (gilding metal expanding) bullets weigh less than their lead cousins, requiring less powder to propel. They’re designed to drive deep and keep their weight.|
The GMX looks like Hornady’s SST and flies on nearly the same track. But the shank has two cannelures to reduce bearing surface. They give displaced metal a place to go, keeping pressures in check. The GMX’s nose cavity also differs from the SST’s. An .11-inch parallel-sided tunnel up front, it tapers to a point even with the base of the ogive. Expansion stops there.
The next logical step at Hornady was to marry the GMX shank with the soft polymer tip of FTX bullets in LeverEvolution ammunition. Hornady engineer Dave Emary told me such a union had been arranged early on, to give lever-gun buffs a lead-free option. Called the MonoFlex (MFX), this new bullet (announced in 2011) resembles an FTX. Like the GMX, the MFX features cut, not rolled, cannelures. Because of its lighter material, the .30-caliber MFX for the .308 Marlin Express weighs 140 grains, 20 grains less than its leadcore counterpart. Also, the nose cavity differs.
“Lead grips soft polymer stems tightly,” says Emary. “And hard tips can be secured in gilding metal. But copper allows soft tips to slip. The longer MFX stem bottoms out in a deep cavity, which helps ensure full upset.”
|THREATS, REAL & NOTBanning lead bullets may seem like a painless way to protect condors, but only to the uninformed. Unlike waterfowl, which pick up spent shot with grit in shallows fronting waterfowl blinds, condors don’t seek grit. They also lack muscular gizzards to aid in digesting or assimilating lead. Then, too, the relatively small deer in most condor habitats seldom stop rifle bullets, and hunters carry their carcasses from the field. California Fish & Game records show that deer harvests in condor country were higher in the 1950s and 1960s than they are now, but there’s no evidence of epidemic lead poisoning in condors then, when all commercial hunting bullets had lead cores. Many lead sources in deer range, from paint to discarded batteries and lightbulbs, have nothing to do with hunters. And some condors treated for lead poisoning in recent years foraged in areas not open to hunting.Still, litigation on the lead-bullet front will probably spread. A condor study proposal at Portland State University included these objectives: 1) Conduct biological assessments for re-introductions in Oregon; 2) Eliminate lead in condor release sites. So much for objective research.Calls for lead-free bullets come from the same quarters that object to hunting. Threats to condor populations by spent bullets have yet to be proven, but threats to wildlife and sport hunting is a copper Trojan horse. See more information on Traditional Ammunition.|
Emary adds that because the MFX intrudes deeper into the casing than does a traditional bullet of the same weight, it can’t be accelerated as quickly. “So 140-grain MFX bullets exit about as fast as 160-grain FTXs,” he says. The MonoFlex costs a little more than the FTX, partly because it’s made of more expensive material, but also, according to Emary, “because it requires more burnishing at the end to remove tiny scratches.”
I’ve taken two elk with MFX bullets in .308 Marlin Express loads. They performed beautifully.
Sintered metal–particles fused under pressure–forms the core of a third type of alternative bullet. Winchester’s Ballistic Silvertip comprises a gilding metal jacket around a compressed- copper core that disintegrates in animals. A polymer tip has a stepped peg securing it to the jacket. Space around the peg below the jacket mouth delivers the effect of an open hollow nose. The 35-grain Ballistic Silvertip bullet is loaded in .223 and .22/250 ammunition to 3,800 fps and 4,350 fps, respectively. Nosler’s Ballistic Tip is essentially the same, and the firm’s colorcoded tips allow quick diameter identification.
|The Barnes MPG (Multi-Purpose Green) employs a core of powdered copper and tin. It’s available in weights to 140 grains (.308) for deer-size game.|
The Barnes MPG (Multi-Purpose Green) and Varmint Grenade employ cores of powdered copper and tin. The MPG is available in weights to 140 grains (.308) for deer-size game. Hornady’s .204 and .224 NTX bullets are tipped hollowpoints with sintered cores.
Alternative varmint bullets have practical advantages over traditional bullets. First, a reduction in recoil. Second, since a 35-grain spitzer leaving in a blink doesn’t bounce the barrel as hard as would a 55-grain bullet, shooters can the see target reaction to bullet impact. Third, in rocky places, there’s a reduced chance of ricochets.
A new entry in the alternative bullet game is DRT, Dynamic Research Technologies. Its roots run to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where, during the 1990s, Harold Beal worked on frangible metal cores for .45 ACP service ammo. Fast-forward to 2005, when John Worrell and his son Dustin developed machinery to make bullets using Beal’s patents, under license. DRT builds bullets with compressed-metal cores, primarily copper and tin. “We’ve used tungsten too,” Dustin told me during a visit to his Missouri digs. “On a Texas hunt, we took 11 nilgai with our 79-grain .223 tungsten bullets.”
Heavier than lead (and more costly), tungsten bullets offer more thump within practical length limits. I’ve used .223 DRT bullets to take deer. Bullet-weight retention is negligible, as bullets revert to dust. Exit holes are rare, but wound channels are long enough to destroy vitals on quartering deer.
DRT’s 170-grain .45-caliber muzzleloading bullet is of similar design. A thin tin cap tops the sintered core at the base of a generous nose cavity. “Body fluid initiates upset,” says Dustin. “We control it with the cap.”
Two deer I shot with this bullet, driven to just over 2,000 fps by 85 grains of Black MZ powder, died quickly. DRT .30-caliber bullets have killed brown bears. Dustin points out that DRT makes one of very few sintered-core bullets for tough game.
So, where does that leave the retailer? For most hunters, traditional ammunition made with lead-core bullets is hardly out of fashion. But as the accuracy and ballistic performance of alternative bullets made with other metals continues to improve, you will see a growing interest in this category. The result is simply more choices, and more chances to sell.
What’s not to like?