I am a product of southern hunting seasons, so I’m a gun hunter at heart. For the last 15 years, I have almost exclusively used copper bullets while hunting big game. I continue to use lead bird shot on occasion and lead bullets in my 22 LR, but for deer I use copper.
The photo above shows a 6½ -year-old Texas buck I killed with a 6.5 Weatherby RPM and a 127-grain Barnes LRX copper bullet, one of many whitetails and other big game I have taken with copper. Here’s what I’ve learned about copper bullets for deer hunting.
My Introduction to Copper Bullets
In 2008, after graduating from college, I spent a season in Africa working for Lake Safaris. While our clients showed up with their .300 and .338 magnums usually loaded with Nosler Partitions or Swift A-Frame bullets – which are great premium lead-core bullets – the professional hunter I worked for used his grandfather’s pre-war Mausers in 7×57 and 9.3×62 (similar to a 7mm-08 and a 35 Whelen) loaded with Barnes TSX copper bullets.
After witnessing their effectiveness in Africa and returning home to the states, I bought a box of TSX bullets loaded by Federal for my 270 WSM and used them that deer season. In the ensuing years, I’ve used many different brands and models of copper bullets and stayed attuned to the issues surrounding them.
A few years ago, while attending the International Hunter Education Association Annual Conference, I ran into Chris Parish and Leland Brown of the North American Non-Lead Partnership, an association of wildlife agencies and sportsman’s groups focused on increasing the coalition of hunters, anglers and other conservationists dedicated to improving ecosystem and wildlife health by choosing non-lead options. The key word there is “choosing.” They are not for bans on lead ammunition. They are for education and outreach.
“Hunters have been leaders in wildlife and habitat conservation for over 100 years,” said Leland. “This new information is another opportunity for us to demonstrate our continued commitment to stewardship of wildlife and be proactive in protecting our conservation history and the future of the hunting tradition. By addressing accidental impacts from our hunting bullets, a choice every hunter can make, we will leave a stronger, more sustainable tradition for the next generation, while getting some great hunting bullets at the same time.”
Chris and Leland put on a demonstration on the rifle range the next day. They had built bullet traps with the explicit purpose of catching the bullets and all fragments. We used a .243 Winchester to shoot at the target with a factory 100-grain Winchester Power Point (lead) round and the other with an 80-grain Hornady GMX (copper alloy) round. The 100-grain lead bullet shed 35.3 grains of its weight, weighing only 64.7 grains after impact. Those 35.3 grains were collected in the form of numerous lead fragments. The 80-grain GMX still weighed 80 grains and had penetrated farther than the lead bullet.
Lead bullets work great for their intended purpose, but lead fragmentation is a downside for me. I prefer not to shoot my food with lead, which is a neurotoxin. Seeing this demonstration made me feel even better about my decision to use copper ammunition for deer hunting.
My Experience With Copper Bullets
My experience shooting, reloading, and hunting with copper bullets has left me only one complaint: they’re a little more expensive. But remember, these are premium hunting bullets. When I talk to older hunters who may have tried or read a review of early copper bullets, they always mention flaws, and I am sure early designs weren’t as good as the modern ones. I have obviously only used the more modern copper bullets – again since 2008 – but they have evolved significantly during that time just like lead-core bullet design.
I don’t shoot many Barnes TSXs anymore. The newer version, the TTSX (the extra T stands for tipped) has a larger nose cavity and a ballistic tip. Even more recently, Barnes released the LRX line for longer range. Barnes sells loaded ammunition as well as copper bullets to Federal and Remington for factory-loaded ammunition with their bullets. Federal also has their own Trophy Copper line. Hornady has the GMX and CX bullets, which are non-lead options. Nosler has the E-tip and there are also others, such as Hammer and Lehigh Defense bullets.
In my experience, Barnes bullets have shot well in every gun I’ve tried. I honestly don’t own a rifle that doesn’t shoot a 1-inch, 3-shot group at 100 yards with Barnes bullets and most are significantly smaller than that. Copper bullets retain most of their weight and usually penetrate further. Copper is lighter than lead, so in bullets of the same weight a copper bullet is typically longer. Therefore, it’s often best to shoot a copper bullet a little lighter than you would choose in a lead-core bullet.
Copper bullets may require more velocity to fully expand, so you need to be aware of that. Within normal hunting ranges and typical deer hunting calibers, you shouldn’t have any concern. I prefer my bullets exit game, as I believe it creates a better blood trail. I’ve killed deer with 300 and 270 magnums, a 7mm08 (my preferred deer caliber) and even an AR-15 using copper, only recovering a couple bullets. I’ve also killed larger animals from African game to elk and nilgai. My bull elk and nilgai were killed with that original 270 WSM and 129-grain Barnes LRX bullets. The elk was a pass-through, but I recovered the bullet from the nilgai. It still weighed 128.8 grains (it lost the ballistic tip) and was a perfect mushroom expanding to over a half inch in diameter.
I also had a chance to help with some doe management for a large property where I decided to try out a smaller caliber. I took an AR-15 in 5.56 using factory-loaded Black Hills ammunition with 62-grain Barnes TSX bullets. Within a couple hundred yards, a 5.56/223 is an okay deer rifle. Of the two does I shot that evening, I dropped one in its tracks with a broadside shot which exited. Feeling confident, I decided to shoot the second doe in the vitals while she was facing me. She ran about 50 yards and fell over. I would not advise taking that shot again as it didn’t exit or leave a blood trail. Luckily, she was still in view as she expired, and I was able to recover the bullet.
Beyond the Target
The fourth rule of gun safety is “Be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.” You’re responsible for that bullet and its impact down range, and on down the food chain. That’s why I choose non-lead where I can. I may still shoot lead at targets and out of my 22 LR, but where I can, I’ve made the switch to copper. Not only are they better bullets in my experience, but I also feel better about the impact I leave behind.