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Boddington on Non-Lead Bullets

by Craig Boddington   |  December 15th, 2011 13
Boddington with wild boar

California wild boar hunters are required to use non-lead projectiles across much of the state.

Today’s political reality means some hunters across the country are required to hunt with non lead projectiles. It wasn’t always so, but non lead bullets have been with us for quite a while and have been quite popular with hunters wanting the utmost in penetration.

It must have been 25 years ago when Barnes Bullets’ Randy Brooks chanced to be in the old Petersen Publishing offices in Los Angeles, where I was working at the time. He was already making the homogenous-alloy non-expanding bullet called the Super Solid, and he had prototypes, fired and unfired, for an expanding copper-alloy bullet with a nose cavity skived so that the expanded bullets showed consistent expansion in four opposing petals. Interesting. He intended to call it the Super Softpoint.

Barnes Tipped Triple Shock bullets

The Barnes TTSX is the latest evolution of the X bullet. The tip helps initiate expansion while the grooves help with accuracy (and cleanliness).

The expansion, though consistent, wasn’t dramatic. It looked like a bullet that would be more of a penetrator than an expander, so I suggested that wasn’t a very good name, as it seemed to imply massive and rapid expansion. We kicked it around a bit. With those characteristic four petals deployed, the bullet had a cross shape to the front. Or, if you turned it a bit, it made an “X.” It was right there in my old office that the X bullet received its name.

It was, in fact, a bullet that excelled in deep penetration. Since copper is less dense than lead, the bullet has to be a bit longer to reach the same weight. Over time we learned that we had to play with the loads a bit and seat the bullet deeper, but the X-Bullet worked very well. It was also somewhat finicky. I shot some great groups with the original X, but some rifles liked it and others just hated it. It was also pure hell for copper fouling.

The next generation, the much more recent TSX or Triple Shock, made the bullet much less finicky and greatly reduced the fouling. This was done through the simple expedient of grooves (the number depends on the caliber and bullet weight) turned into the shank of the bullet, creating driving bands.

The finicky nature of the X, at least in some measure, comes from the fact that a copper or copper alloy bullet isn’t “compressible” like a lead-core bullet. There is a pressure spike as it takes the rifling, and some rifles didn’t like it. The driving bands reduce friction, thus reducing the pressure spike, and it also reduces copper fouling. No bullet groups equally well in all rifles, but in my experience the TSX shoots at least reasonably well in most rifles, and exceptionally well in quite a few.

The TSX is still with us, but it’s joined by a version with a polymer tip—actually a plug—inserted into the nose cavity. This is the TTSX or Tipped Triple Shock. As is the case with a traditional lead core bullet, upon impact the polymer tip is driven into the nose of the bullet, promoting initial expansion. In my experience the TTSX thus seems to expand a bit faster than the Triple Shock.

The principles of the homogenous-alloy bullet—the Barnes and those that have followed—remain much the same: Upon impact, the nose opens and peels back, forming the classic petals. Although petals will occasionally flake or break off, because of the elasticity of the copper and the homogenous nature of the bullet they generally remain intact—producing weight retention in the high 90 percent range.

The capability to expand is limited by the depth of the cavity. Essentially, the petals open to the depth of the cavity, and then they hit a wall. This is similar to the expansion of the Nosler Partition, which stops at the divider. However, because the petals only rarely break off and there is no lead to wipe off, weight retention is very high.

Over the years I have used the X, the TSX and the TTSX quite a bit. Especially with the latter two, the accuracy is usually pretty good and sometimes fantastic. Aside from component bullets from Barnes, Federal is the primary U.S. source for factory ammo with Barnes TSX and TTSX bullets, although Black Hills also loads Barnes bullets in its Gold line—along with several varmint offerings in its standard red box line.

Hornady GMX bullets

These Hornady GMX bullets show typical expansion at relatively fast (l.) to relatively slow (r.) impact velocities.

Since its introduction just two years ago I have used Hornady’s GMX (Gilding Metal Expanding) quite a bit. This is a polymer-tipped bullet with two grooves. Accuracy has been consistently good. In my experience, which is pretty considerable now, expansion characteristics are very similar to the X-type bullet. Hornady is obviously the source for both loaded ammo and component bullets.

Much the same applies to Nosler’s answer, the E-Tip (“E” for “eco-friendly”). The E-Tip is a cool-looking bullet with a green polymer tip, no grooves, and, as loaded by Winchester in its Supreme line, signature black coating. Component bullets from Nosler lack this coating.

I have only limited field experience with the Nosler E-Tip, one elk and two sheep—all 150-grain 7mm bullets from a 7mm Remington Magnum. I had high hopes of recovering at least one bullet to admire and photograph, but all zipped right on through, showing only moderate expansion at the exit wounds—similar in performance to other homogenous-alloy bullets I’ve used. Accuracy has been very good.

Winchester Power Core bullet

The new Power Core from Winchester, shown here recovered from ballistic gelatin, shows the most expansion the author’s ever seen from a homogenous-alloy bullet.

And then there’s Winchester’s new Power Core unleaded bullet, just now being released. It’s part of the Super-X standard line of ammo, so it won’t come at a big price premium. The other thing that’s exciting about it is the Power Core was designed as a deer bullet, with expansion characteristics similar to the good old Power Point.

Also called the “95/5”—a copper alloy of 95 percent copper—it has a larger, deeper, contoured nose cavity. Demonstrations I’ve seen in ballistic gelatin show that it actually does produce dramatic expansion, more than I’ve seen in any homogenous alloy bullet.

For the guys who like exit wounds, through-and-through penetration, they are all very good choices. I think they come into their own on larger, tougher game where penetration becomes the most essential characteristic. For instance, last year in Greenland I wanted to use a CZ .270 on both reindeer and muskox. The .270 is perfect for reindeer but marginal for muskox. I hedged my bet with a Triple Shock bullet, and the muskox went nowhere.

In Turkey in the fall of ’09, when the GMX was brand new, I had to borrow a rifle when my primary scope came apart. The rifle was my wife’s .270, and the GMX grouped well in her gun. I shot a massive Anatolian stag at 400 yards. I shot him twice, the second unnecessary. He went nowhere, and the bullets exited.

Because of their toughness and the fact they lose almost no weight, homogenous-alloy bullets also break the rules about bullet weight. On both the muskox and the stag, I used 130-grain bullets with confidence; in a lead-core bullet I would have been much more comfortable with 150-grain slugs. This offers the ability to use a faster load with less recoil.

However, while they’re ideal for large, tough game—and for pushing the caliber envelope as I did on the muskox—I don’t think they offer quite enough expansion to be ideal for deer-sized game, which includes sheep, goats, pronghorn and so forth.

On game such as this, homogenous-alloy bullets will expand as much as they can, then they will penetrate and probably exit, expending a great deal of energy on the far side.

On thin-skinned big game with this type of bullet, perhaps the most important thing you can do is change your hold slightly. To get the very best performance from this type of bullet, instead of the behind-the-shoulder lung shot look for the center of the shoulder. The bullet will absolutely penetrate and probably still exit.

As for meat loss, this type of bullet is actually much less destructive than most lead-core bullets. Because of limited expansion, the wound channel is narrower, and there is very little fragmentation. Bone fragments do become secondary projectiles, but a lot of the time you can “eat right up to the bullet hole.”

As in all bullet selection choices, it boils down to: What game are you hunting? What kind of performance are you looking for? Where do you like to place your shots? As time goes on, I predict our choices in lead-free bullets will increase, as will their performance parameters.

  • Jack

    Great info, however would like some more on how non-lead work on coyotes and other varmints.

    • usatfus

      Check out Barnes website and watch the video of the Varmint Grenade going through a grape.

  • jim

    Man…. Hornady does it again.

  • Bill K

    I need them to put out one for the .20 calibers i.e. 204 Ruger, 20 VarTarg and others.

    • Scott Rupp

      Hi Bill: Nosler has Ballistic Tip Lead Free component bullets for .204 and also loaded ammo for .204 Ruger. Hornady now offers the NTX in .204 diameter and also loaded ammo for .204 Ruger. There may be more, but that's what I'm aware of. Scott

  • Snug

    I would prefer to eliminate all the nonsense be it P.C.,greenie,or whatever,and use the best possible bullet for a quick ,clean kill ! I don't expect to see that happening with our current Very High Idiot Factor in schools(K-phd),politicians( local-president) or "journalists".

    • Leland

      The problem is that the old lead core bullets were killing our target and then anything that happened to eat the lead fragments that remained behind in the gut pile or in animals that are left behind. The new non-lead rounds give us high performance and allow us hunters to continue our tradition as conservationists. I don't want what I leave behind in the field responsible for killing anything. 1 shot, 1 kill.

      • David

        Yet, even California admits in our literature from the DFG that there is no evidence whatsoever that lead bullets are causing any harm to animals or birds in the area where lead-free bullets are required.

  • Mike

    I am now afraid that the copper bullets will corrode, leaving a dense coating of copper sulfate on the surface, which some animal will ingest and die from sulfate poisoning. Does anyone know where I can buy silver bullets; and should I be concerned that the American Dental Association may protest the linking of silver to a shooting event?

    • jerimiah

      I think the previous statement concluded to other animals eating the gut pile and consuming lead fragments, not consuming fragments that have been left for a period of time sufficient to corrode. Not a fan of the political reasoning for mono-metal bullets but do like the performance and lack of fragments of lead in the meat I consume.

  • Richard

    I am 73 years very young. If you are taking care when shooting game you may never recover a traditional lead-jacketed bullet much less a copper one. I have yet to recover a bullet from game and I have never shot more than once. I am not saying that premium ammo is not needed for larger game than deer. I am in favor of this. In fact, last year I loaded some old 160 grain Nosler Partitions that I once bought for an elk hunt. Since I am a littler older I just hunt deer, because it is easier. The eight point whitetail never took another step. But, I could have stopped him with a 1957 Winchester slivertip.
    Why don't we admit that non-lead bullets is the tactic of the anti-hunting-gun left to drive up prices of ammo. This is a very discouraging to pay upwards of $3.00 per bang. I have only killed one deer with a non-lead 120 grain, (old style) Barnes X in my .270 Win. My shot was thru both lungs, but never struck a rib. This my first test of my blood tailing skills. I recovered the deer some 400 yards from impact. Would I shoot Barnes bullets again? Yes, and I have hunted in Black bears in California with my .338 Win. Mag. last year. I decided not to take my only shoot because it was not a good one. Maybe I will have a better shot this year.
    Shooter/hunters have a million different views on our sport, but, we must stick together an agree on one thing.
    If we are to survive, we must vote all those who are waging war on our freedoms to hunt,shoot, own our tools etc. Be informed, Stand up, Be counted at the POLLS and VOTE.

  • Tony

    I am 63. I do agree with Richard on his post. I have recover a lot of shot from deer and elk. The lead bullets do brake up and we as hunters do leave this in the field. I will do my part and will change over to copper. The lead we can do with out.

  • Born in cali

    Well as an avid hunter stuck in Ca. I can say that my experiences with non-lead shot and now non lead bullets has been dismal. After 40 years of avid duck hunting I gave it up. Why? Well I used to go out with about 20 shells and come back from my blind with 5 to 10 shells left and my limit of birds. However after switching to non-toxic shot I found that I was using as many as 2 boxes of shells to get the same limit. Now that doesn’t mean I was missing more birds it really means that I was hitting them hard but having to shoot them 2 or 3 times to bring them down. It also meant that I was wounding a few each time that flew off to die someplace else. SAD!

    Now I have switched from the Nosler Partition lead bullet to non-lead bullets. Where with the partition I almost never had to track an animal more than 50 yards and most were dead right there. Clean humane kills! Now after 2 seasons of trying the various lead free ammo I am as dis-appointed as I became with lead free shot. I have taken 3 deer all of which took hours of tracking to recover as the bullets just blew straight through and let the animal run several hundred yards. Also the blood trail to track them was almost non existent. I have not recovered a bullet yet to do a comparison but from my personal observation these bullets are going to result in a considerable amount of lost animals that will die a slow death rather than clean humane kills. SADDER!

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