Lead Ban Chronicles – Copper Vs Frangibles, Check The Facts
October 20, 2016
Been a while since you’ve seen this, huh? Trust me, it’s not because the lead ammo ban movement is dead. Oh no, not by any means. While the anti-lead forces have run into road blocks (e.g. the European Commission recently announced that it would not pursue a ban on the use of lead ammunition), they’re still pushing… and in some cases, they’re making headway (I’m looking at you, Wolverine State). And, of course, California is well on its way to completing its implementation of the statewide ban of lead ammo for all hunting.
The thing that got me to dust off the familiar little icon above, though, is an “article” I saw this morning (courtesy of my friend Albert, at the SoCal Bowhunter blog). The title of the link is what caught my eye, of course, “Copper Bullets Can Be Inhumane“.
The argument isn’t new, and as I read through the first part of the “article”, I recognized most of the talking points, such as:
- Copper bullets don’t expand sufficiently to leave a major wound channel.
- Copper bullets don’t perform well at lower velocities.
- Copper bullets don’t deliver enough “shock” to kill with imperfect shot placement.
- Copper bullets are inaccurate.
- Copper bullets kill slowly (due to the aforementioned factors).
I won’t argue with some of these points. For example, I don’t believe copper performs its best at low velocity. Anecdotal evidence is pretty overwhelming, when talking to friends who are shooting game with copper shotgun slugs and muzzleloaders, especially when shooting at the longer ranges afforded by modern guns and powders. This is why I recommend (when asked, and sometimes when not asked) that if you’re hunting with these, traditionally short-range firearms, you use them as such. Even lead slugs or muzzleloading bullets don’t offer consistently good terminal ballistics outside of a certain distance (modern sabots may extend that range… slightly).
I also recommend that, if you don’t have to use lead free slugs or muzzleloader bullets, don’t. Most of the studies have shown that these big, slow-moving projectiles present very little risk when it comes to environmental impact, such as being consumed by scavenger birds. They seldom fragment or disintegrate due to their low velocities, and when they don’t pass through, they are relatively easy to recover from the carcass.
But when you load a modern copper bullet in a centerfire rifle, and deliver the bullet at modern velocities, it generally performs quite well. While I can’t claim, as the “article’s” author does, to have killed over 8000 head of game in my research, I’ve killed a lot, my friends and hunting companions have killed a lot, and as a guide, my clients have also killed a lot. I’ve seen field performance enough to feel that I can make a pretty valid comparison between lead ammo and copper. In that comparison, copper has consistently held up very well.
To be completely up front, over the course of that experience I’ve seen occasional “failures” with copper bullets. But, and here’s the kicker, I’ve also witnessed a fair share of anomalous performance from lead projectiles. When you look at the physics involved in propelling a relatively tiny projectile, at supersonic speed, into a target composed of a mix of bone, soft tissue, and muscle, it’s amazing that ballistic technology has achieved any semblance of consistency. The tiniest factor can affect the outcome.
And sure, copper bullets don’t kill quickly when they’re poorly placed. Neither does any bullet, though. If you shoot an animal in the gut, you’re probably going to have to track it. If you shoot it in the ass, you’re probably going to lose it. It doesn’t matter if the bullet is copper, lead, or uranium. Animals are made up of all sorts of blood vessels and vital organs, though, and you don’t have to thread a needle to hit those vitals. As much as I hate the saying, “it’s not the bullet but the placement,” I have to say it fits here. Take the good shot, not just any shot, and you’ll kill cleanly and humanely.
It’s also a fact that copper ammo has come a long way, but it wasn’t always great. Despite the author’s contention that copper ammo was originally presented as an environmental boon, the truth is that monolithic copper solids were designed, and effectively used, for dangerous big game for years before serious, public discussion of lead’s effects on the environment began. It may be somewhat true that the introduction into the US was padded by ecological considerations, but I think it was primarily a plan to expand the market share. However, those monolithic bullets are not made to expand, and many US hunters who adopted the early version complained of “pencil hole” wound channels and lost game. Barnes, the primary producer of copper bullets at the time, stepped up their game and improved the bullets, overcoming various shortcomings. The current variations of copper and lead-free bullets on the market today offer impressive terminal performance and accuracy, both in the lab and in the field.
How impressive? Well, you’d have to fight me to make me give up the Nosler E-Tips I shoot in my 30-06 or the Barnes TSX that I use in my .325 wsm. Even though I could switch back to lead ammo since moving out of California, I have no desire to do so.
Back to the “article”…
You have probably noticed, by the way, that when I reference the “article”, I use quotation marks. Yes, it’s intentional, because as I continued to read, I soon came to the realization that it’s not an entirely objective piece at all… it’s an opinion piece, and on some level, an extended advertisement for DRT frangible bullets. DRT, by the way, is officially Dynamic Research Technologies, but most folks recognize the short form of Dead Right There… a term popularized on certain hunting television programs. It’s a slick bit of marketing, and kudos for coming up with it. Also, note that what I’m writing here is not intended as a hit on DRT. I’ve never used them, but by all accounts I’ve heard, they deliver exactly what they advertise. In fact, not only am I not taking a pot shot at DRT, nor am I taking issue with Mr. Foster’s (the author) credentials, I’m going to step right up and say that, technically, the point he finally makes here is pretty solid… even incontrovertible.
What is that point?
When he gets to it, Foster is saying that the only way to ensure a quick, humane kill is to inflict massive tissue damage. The best way to do that is with a bullet that not only hits hard, but expands explosively… e.g. frangible bullets such as those made by (surprise) DRT. That’s an impossible point to argue, because even the least scientific mind can recognize the practical truth in it. If you shoot an animal, even if you don’t hit vitals directly, a round that leaves a hole as big as a man’s fist, or bigger, is certainly more likely to result in quick death than one that leaves a wound channel that is only as big as a finger.
I hunted with frangibles in Texas, in order to test some ammo from a certain manufacturer. My experience though, is that the additional tissue damage these bullets create is unacceptable for the meat hunter. In one case, I lost over half the meat on an animal with a single shot. In other instances, immediate meat loss was significant, but worse, the tiny fragments spread through a broad area. Even though the meat was not mangled, it was peppered throughout with little bullet bits. The manufacturers will tell you that these fragments are harmless, but the thought of it was enough to put me off my appetite. (Tungsten, which was a component in the particular ammo I was testing, was later determined to be a carcinogen, and less stable than metallic lead. Even the US military won’t use it. The manufacturer I was testing for is no longer in business. I do not know what DRT or other current manufacturers are using in their projectiles. ) In addition to meat damage, if you’re shooting for fur, consider that the damage may make any hides you collect worthless.
Frangible bullets do offer a specific level of safety, in some situations. Since they are designed to pretty much disintegrate, they are not likely to ricochet or pass through the target and carry on downrange (which is why they are popular for home defense and some law enforcement applications). For folks shooting in more densely populated areas where a ricochet or pass-through might be risky, frangibles are actually not the worst idea in the world.
A more important consideration, however, is the legality of frangible projectiles for big game hunting. DRT is approved as a lead-free projectile by the CA DFW, as is Sinterfire, another manufacturer of frangible bullets. However, CA regulations prohibit the use of frangible projectiles for the taking of big game. So, my Golden State friends, remember that it’s not enough to simply see a bullet manufacturer on the “Lead Free List“. Make sure that the projectile is legal for the game you want to hunt. Not all states prohibit frangibles, by the way, but if you want to give them a try, you’d better check your local regs.
At the end, Foster does circle back to the argument that lead ban regulations that require a switch to copper are ill-considered, based on his argument that copper bullets are not humane… the unintended consequences of a well-intentioned regulation. It’s an argument that was, and still is, trotted out regularly in the discussions of lead ammo bans, and while I think the reality trumps the theory in regards to copper bullet performance, it’s not entirely without merit. I think there are, or should be, questions about the long term effects of lead alternatives, such as tungsten. I also agree, at a higher level, that general bans on lead ammo are misdirected and unnecessary.
But if you do have to use lead free ammo, don’t believe the negative hype.
Like any other ammo change, you need to experiment until you find something that is accurate for your firearm, but between the major manufacturers, Barnes, Nosler, and Hornady, as well as Winchester and Remington, there’s almost certainly a bullet or cartridge that works well. It’s certainly more expensive than the basic lead ammo. For some hunters, that is a very real issue, but for most of us it is not, honestly, a limiting factor. An awful lot of folks shoot “premium” ammo already, so we’re talking about a potential difference of a few bucks. The biggest real issue I see is that it’s still difficult to find, except in the most common calibers. If you don’t handload, you may have to start. For example, it’s the only way I can feed my .325 wsm.
But when it comes to terminal performance, copper works, and it works well.