Weighing Your Options

Is It Time To Abandon The Soft Lead Core For Bullets?

By Wayne Van Zwoll

Hornady FTX bullets are JHP’s with scored jackets and pliable polymer nose inserts to ensure upset.

At Portsmouth lies the Mary Rose. What’s left of her. Launched in 1511, she sank 34 years later battling the French navy in the Solent, between England and the Isle of Wight. She was raised by salvage operations in 1982. Her armament of 91 guns included cast bronze cannon weighing as much as 8,500 pounds apiece and hurled cast iron balls.

The superiority of lead balls was evident well before rifled bores made them all but imperative. Heavy for its diameter, lead “carried up” better than iron, and hit harder. Melting at lower temperatures, it could be molded more easily. Relatively soft, it conformed to irregular bores. When fired, it could “slug up” to fill a slightly oversize bore and better seal powder gas. Over the following centuries, propellants and projectiles evolved to become more and more effective. Black powder yielded to smokeless powder, and lead bullets changed to include jackets.

Lead-free bullets have appeared in target ammo for a variety of cartridges. Lead still wins matches.

Wayne found this fine .45 from Hill Country Rifles shoots mid-weight JHP’s very well. Lead works!

The DRT’s spray is clear in this gelatin block. Only bullet particles — and a shotgun wound — remain.

No Tie Required

While bullet jackets have been made of steel and of “pure” copper, most are now of copper/zinc alloy, or gilding metal. Common proportions: 95 percent copper, 5 percent zinc. Some bullets wear 90/10 jackets. Lead cores have a dash of antimony (up to 6 percent, but typically 21/2 percent) to make them harder. Full-jacketed bullets have been replaced for law enforcement use by expanding bullets that transfer more energy to the target and reduce the hazards of pass-throughs.

Black powder limited not just pressures and velocities, but velocity spreads. Today, with higher starting speeds and optical sights extending reach, there’s greater variation in impact velocities. A .45 bullet could be fired at 900 fps from a .45 Colt, or at 1,900 from a .454 Casull. Designing bullets to open at low speed on soft targets but hold together to penetrate bone and muscle after high-speed impact drives bullet designers to drink!

Soft-nose bullets with thin jacket mouths and lots of exposed lead excel at modest speeds, but can flatten or fragment when driven fast. Hollowpoints depend on mouth diameter and cavity design (and fill) to initiate and control upset.

In 1981, after traditional softpoints failed on a hunting trip, the now-retired CEO of Barnes Bullets, Randy Brooks, revisited the idea of a solid-copper bullet. The Barnes X-Bullet resulted; the Triple Shock (TSX) followed. Lighter than same-length lead bullets, they typically lose less weight in game and yield more symmetrical mushrooms. But Hornady’s chief engineer Dave Emary points out “copper is harder than lead; gilding metal harder still. You can’t drive lead-free bullets as fast as jacketed softpoints without hiking pressure.” Also, copper/gilding metal bullets are longer and can test the limits of magazines and throats. If seated deep, they reduce case capacity. Low sectional density puts copper at a ballistic disadvantage — especially when shortened to lead-bullet length.

Copper construction narrows the velocity window in which you get satisfactory upset. Dave told me, “We can make lead-core bullets perform at 3,000-fps impact and open at speeds down to 1,600. It’s hard to make copper mushroom at under 2,000 fps unless the mouth is so big it disintegrates at 3,000.” The same holds for handgun bullets, with lower velocity brackets.

Economical, with lethal terminal effect, fast JHP’s can also deliver fine accuracy from short pistols.

This wicked-looking G2 ammo marks a trend to lead-free ammo for defense. Triple-diameter upset!

From cast bullets in Cowboy Action loads to fast-stepping JHP’s for defense and hunting,
lead trumps copper bullets in most handgun circles.

Tumble, Toil & Trouble

Both jacketed and lead-free hollowpoints depend on hydraulic pressure to initiate upset. “Pliable” is as good as liquid. After all, softpoints open as the lead core mashes against the jacket. But a nose cavity filled with dry material won’t upset reliably. This is partly why some hollowpoint pistol bullets (Hornady FTX’s, for example) cradle soft polymer pegs. These inserts are common in rifle bullets to trigger upset — not, as commonly thought, to hike ballistic coefficient. Streamlining a bullet tip affects exterior ballistics less than the polymer’s “wedge” function affects terminal ballistics.

Once, in an effort to compare penetration and retained bullet weights of three handgun cartridges, I fired JHP’s from each into a railroad tie. To my astonishment, the bullets drove through, leaving tiny exit holes. On impact, wood had filled the nose cavities. Essentially solid bullets as they continued on, they’d also brooked heavy pressure from wood fibers pressing on the leading exterior surface of the ogive.

Trials using wall board, clothing and windshield glass in front of gelatin blocks help the FBI and other LE agencies sift bullets. When hollowpoints don’t open predictably, they don’t pass muster.

Recently Jeff Hoffman at Black Hills Ammunition conferred with Dave Fricke of Lehigh Defense to develop a pistol bullet that would drive deep but also destroy tissue away from its path. BHA’s HoneyBadger resulted. “We call this all-copper bullet a ballistic broadhead,” says Jeff, “There’s no energy used for expansion. The bullet drives straight on without mushrooming; but in gelatin the fluted nose delivers bigger temporary cavities than we get from jacketed hollow points!”

From .380 to .44 Mag., these machined bullets are lightweight for the bore, and fast. The 100-gr. .38 Spl. HoneyBadger clocks 1,275 fps, a 135 for the .45 ACP 1,325! Jeff, Dave and the Black Hills crew have tweaked loads to get desired penetration. “One of our first 9mm loads gave us more than would have been useful for self-defense. We pulled all stops on the .44 Mag., though. It’s a hunting round. For tough game, you want all the penetration you can get.” BHA stokes its 160-gr. .44 Mag. HoneyBadger ammo to 1,800 fps. “That’s from a 6″ revolver barrel,” Jeff points out. “We get 2,250 from a 20″ Winchester 94 carbine!”

One of the most respected JHP’s for LE, the Gold Dot bullet defines the ammo, produced by Speer.

These jacketed bullets show a variety of nose designs, all to help S&W’s big 500 pistol kill big game.

Heart Of The Matter

John and son Dustin Worrell of Dynamic Research Technologies took a different path, designing bullets with frangible metal cores. “In the 1990s Harold Beal did pioneering work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory with the .45 ACP,” Dustin explains. “By 2005 we had machinery to make bullets using Beal’s patents under license.” Most DRT cores comprise copper and tin. Tungsten excels but is, of course, more expensive. These bullets kill by fragmenting, the metal turning, literally, to high-speed dust. “Deer drop quicker than if struck with a softpoint. A DRT dumps its energy like a grenade. Vital organs well off the bullet’s track sustain lethal damage.” The design works at .223 and .45 ACP speeds. A DRT I fired from a muzzle-loader disintegrated in a whitetail buck. The deer tumbled mid-sprint, short yards on.

Copper and gilding metal bullets, and those made of sintered metal, cost more than lead — figure 20 to 40 percent more. They are another step away from the stones once hurled from warships and across battlefields. Much better than stones. But lead is not yet dead. So, you have plenty of options out there for your preferred handgun!

Black Hills Honey Badgers are fluted, non-expanding copper bullets. New, lightweight, fast, lethal.

DRT lead-free bullets disintegrate, kill with high-speed dust. They date to the 1990s in the .45 ACP.

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