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.
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.
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.
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.