With Lead-Free Projectiles here to stay, these are Eight Great All-Copper Bullets for Hunting, ShootingStory by Phil Massaro Photos by Massaro Media Group
I might be dating myself, but I am old enough to remember when unleaded gas was an option over regular (leaded) gasoline. Lead often gets a bad rap, due to its toxicity to people when exposed to high levels. However, the malleability of lead makes it an excellent choice for projectiles, especially during the centuries when firearms underwent radical developments.
The simple muzzleloader, firing a patched round ball, could be well fed with a bullet mold and a healthy supply of lead. Our earliest projectiles for what we consider modern cartridges were either pure lead or some sort of lead alloy, hardened a bit to resist premature deformation. To this day, the majority of our rifle and handgun projectiles are comprised of a lead core surrounded by a jacket of copper, and lead shot remains a popular choice for most anything other than waterfowl. As I stated, lead can be toxic, and it was in the mid-1980s that lead shot was first banned for use on waterfowl.
Leaded gas, lead paint; right on down the line, lead gets more and more removed from our everyday lives. But it wasn’t always a bad thing. Lead’s beneficial use in handgun and rifle projectiles is undeniable, however it does have certain limitations. It can be too malleable – as John Nosler found out in the 1940s when his bullets came apart on the shoulder of a bull moose – and for decades, bullet manufacturers have been engineering different designs to come up with the best balance of expansion and penetration.
It was Randy Brooks, then-owner of Barnes Bullets, who had the idea of removing the lead core altogether and using just copper for his projectile to avoid jacket/core separation, all the way back in 1979. By 1986 his idea had come to fruition when he took the first head of big game with his lead-free X bullet. That Alaskan brown bear fell to a 270-grain Barnes X from his .375 H&H Magnum, and began a whole new facet of the ammunition industry. Fast forward to 2013, and you’ll see California pass a bill prohibiting the use of all lead ammunition for hunting on public and private land, supposedly in an effort to remove the risk of condors and other scavengers being poisoned by lead bullet fragments or shot in gut piles. I’m not here to debate the validity of those studies or the merits of the subsequent laws, but to show the effects on the bullet industry, and that is to say that the lead-free projectiles are here to stay.
And, while Barnes remains a leader in the copper bullet industry, they are not the only player in the game. In fact, just about every major player in the bullet manufacturing industry has one sort of lead-free monometal bullet or another. Let’s take a look at some of the characteristics of the copper bullets, what makes them tick, and I’ll highlight a few of my favorite designs.
THE COPPER CONUNDRUM
Copper, by nature, is less dense than lead, so when comparing a lead-core bullet to a copper bullet – of the same shape, weight and diameter – the copper bullet will always be longer. This does a couple of different things: It changes the center of gravity and it usually requires the bullet to take up more space within the case. In those cases where the volume is already a bit compromised – like the .308 Winchester, 7mm-08 Remington and .350 Remington Magnum – the heavier copper bullet can pose an issue, as it will eat up a considerable amount of space.
In the instance that a lead-core bullet is at or near the edge of stable flight, many times a copper bullet of the same shape and weight will not be stable. For example, the 6.5mms will assuredly stabilize a 140-grain cup-and-core bullet with the standard 1-in-8-inch or 1-in-9-inch twist rates, but not a 140-grain copper bullet; the length is just too much to stabilize. This will pose an issue with the target crowd, who rely on that combination of bullet weight and conformation to retain every last bit of velocity for a flat trajectory.
For the hunting crowd, who require the proper terminal performance to ensure a quick, humane kill, the copper bullets really shine. Generally speaking, they are very tough – sometimes too tough – and will definitely reach the vital organs. Copper is not only lighter than lead, but is less malleable. Hence the reason it has been so successful as a jacket material: It is just soft enough to be engraved by the rifling in the steel barrel, yet is hard enough not to “smear” down the barrel like soft lead will.
The secret to the best copper hunting bullets is to get them to expand properly and reliably. Brooks went through several designs with his hollowpoint Barnes X until he got what he was after; some of the earliest designs didn’t expand and acted much like a solid, whistling through at caliber dimension. With the TSX, TTSX and LRX, that is no longer the case. Most copper bullets will feature either a hollowpoint or a polymer tip inserted into a hollow cavity to get the bullet to expand. There are a few exceptions to that rule, namely the Peregrine Bushmaster and PlainsMaster, the North Fork Cup Solid and the Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilized Solid.
Additionally, most copper monometals will feature multiple grooves cut in the shank of the bullet to reduce the amount of bearing surface, in order to minimize the amount of copper fouling. The original Barnes X had no grooves and fouling was an issue. I spent a considerable amount of time using an ammonia-based bore cleaner and a nylon brush, scrubbing copper fouling out of the bore of my favorite rifles.
For the handloaders, you’ll often find that the copper monometals will perform best with powders on the faster end of the spectrum; I suspect the lesser amount of bearing surface creates a more even pressure with the faster powders. And, for reasons I cannot explain, I’ve had great success with copper bullets and ball powders.
The following copper bullet designs are some of my favorites. The Barnes TSX, TTSX and LRX. The Barnes bullets are among the best you could ask for, and they’ve never let me down in the field. I’ve either used them personally or loaded them for friends and clients in cartridges from .243 Winchester up to the .505 Gibbs. They are accurate, hit hard and kill quickly. For hunting at longer ranges, the TTSX and LRX – with the polymer tip – offer a bit flatter trajectory and will retain a bit more energy. Retained weight is usually in the 90-plus-percent range, if you recover a bullet at all, as pass-throughs are very common.
The Hornady GMX. Hornady’s GMX (Gilding Metal eXpanding) features their signature red polymer tip and has been a great bullet. I’ve loaded this in the .300 Savage for a California pig hunter, as well as in the .30-338 wildcat and the 9.3×62 Mauser; all the hunters were more than pleased.
The Federal Trophy Copper. Federal’s monometal is a tough, accurate and dependable bullet. I’ve used it in the .243 Winchester to put a big Texas whitetail down in its tracks, quite literally, and I’ve seen it bring a vintage .300 Holland & Holland to life. This polymer-tipped boattail is loaded in Federal’s Trophy Copper line, in cartridges from .270 WSM, 7mm WSM and .300 WSM to the 6.5 Creedmoor, .30-06 Springfield and .300 Winchester Magnum, to the .280 Ackley Improved.
The Woodleigh Hydrostatically Stabilized Solid. Hailing from Australia, Woodleigh has long embraced classic bullet designs, modeled after century-old designs, for vintage rifles. On the opposite end of the spectrum, their Hydrostatically Stabilized Solid is a radical design, using a small dish at the nose of the bullet to create a cavitation bubble ahead of the bullet. This both destroys blood-rich tissue in a 6- to 8-inch radius around the bullet’s path, and clears a pathway for the bullet. That dish expands ever so slightly, and if I were forced to choose just one bullet for all game animals, including hippo, buffalo and elephant, it would be this design. I took a huge Zimbabwean bull elephant with a 400-grain Hydro from my .404 Jeffery; the penetration and trauma from two body shots was very impressive.
The Cutting Edge Raptor. Here’s another very unique design, with the ogive of the bullet designed to break into small blades to cause massive trauma for the first 6 inches or so, while the base of the bullet stays at caliber dimension for deep penetration. They are accurate, and their terminal performance on thin-skinned game species is amazing.
The Peregrine BushMaster and PlainsMaster. Peregrine Bullets – from the Republic of South Africa – makes a unique monometal bullet that relies on the compression of air to guarantee expansion. Using a copper bullet with a hollow cavity that is capped with a bronze cap or plunger (depending on model), the bullet’s ogive is driven outward, radially, from the axis of travel.
You see, the air in that cavity under cap isn’t easily compressed, and the copper walls of the bullet will blow outward upon impact, giving excellent expansion, and the long copper base ensures deep penetration. I’ve killed four Cape buffalo with this bullet, and it’s become one of my favorites.
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