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Homogenous copper bullets can be inhumane

Please note that this article contains graphic pictorial evidence.

In recent years there has been a move by various governments towards legislation that forces hunters to use homogenous copper bullets. This has been proposed as a means to reduce lead contamination of carcasses in the hope that carrion eating birds will not ingest and suffer any potential lead poisoning.

This article is written in the hope that those who are responsible for making such decisions will think carefully before taking action because there are consequences to this. Animals have and will continue to suffer as a result of brash decision making.

My name is Nathan Foster and I have researched terminal ballistics for most of my adult life. I own a business called Terminal Ballistics Research. There are few others like it. I first took interest in this subject after witnessing slow, inhumane killing from certain rifle / cartridge combinations. From then on, I became engrossed in research, most of which I have published freely as a way to educate hunters worldwide. I have now taken well over 8,500 head of game during the course of research.

At this point, we need to have a basic understanding of how bullets kill. I will explain this as simplistically as possible for those who do not hunt. For those who wish to delve deeper into this subject, please see the online article Effective Game Killing on our website along with my book series.

A hunting rifle fires a high velocity bullet. Bullets used for hunting are designed to expand on impact. This causes an immediate transfer of energy to the body (or water content) of the animal. The bullet may expand to the diameter of a human finger however the rapid transferal of energy causes a hydraulic action. The action is such that rather than a ‘finger’ sized wound, the wound channel may be as large as a fist once the bullet enters the animal. Wide internal wounding ensures destruction of vital tissue and organs, fast bleeding and death. This type of wounding can render an animal unconscious in such a rapid fashion that little to no pain is registered.

Please understand that a hydraulic action can only occur as a result of high velocity. And while the muzzle velocity of a cartridge may be high, velocity is shed away very quickly. It is also important to understand that a good many cartridges are not all that potent to begin with. There are now many hunters using very mild cartridges. Factory ammunition can also be loaded in a very mild manner for reasons of extra caution. 

In the absence of high velocity, the bullet must be able to shed weight to maximize its wounding capacity. If the bullet cannot shed weight, the wound channel may be very narrow and proportionate to the ‘expanded caliber of the bullet’. If the hunter is less than a crack shot, this can cause very slow killing.
Barnes 308 168gr TSX WL

Narrow wounding created by a 30 caliber 168 grain homogenous copper bullet. This was a very slow kill.
223 FMJ WL

Wound created by a full metal jacket .223 military bullet. Note how the width of the wound is similar to the homogenous copper bullet wound.

Traditional lead core bullets offer optimum performance in that at mild to low impact velocities, the bullet sheds weight. This weight loss helps increase the size of the internal wound. In other words, it is possible to retain a wound channel that is between 1.5 and 3” in diameter, regardless of the impact velocity. A premium (including core bonded) bullet may lose 25% of its weight while other designs may lose up to 50% or more weight. Some weight is retained for penetration while some weight is shed which ensures very wide wounding for fast humane killing.

The cartridge above is loaded with a premium Woodleigh core bonded design.The recovered projectile (shown at left against the skin of the animal) shows a balance of weight loss for energy transfer versus retained weight for deep penetration.
Interlock and SST

Hornady Interlock (left) and SST (right). These are fast expanding lead core designs which transfer maximum energy for fast clean killing.

200gr FTX WL

Wound created by a lead core, weight shedding bullet. This particular bullet is designed for the low velocity .35 Remington (200 grain Hornady FTX).

The current copper bullets that are being pushed by various environmental organizations cannot achieve this type of wounding. These bullets do not shed weight (though some custom designs shed petals with limited effect). The trouble is, if the hunter does not strike the animal perfectly or does not have very high impact velocities on his side, there is a high risk of slow killing. In some cases, it may take days for animals to die. While it may seem that copper is the environmentally friendly choice, I would urge you to consider these facts that have not been explored in an open fashion.
IMG 1983WL

A .30 caliber homogenous copper bullet. Note the small frontal area. The bullet has retained all of its weight.

The skill of the hunter is but one aspect of this. Non hunters need to understand that there are several factors which effect outcomes. For example:
  • If the rifle itself is only capable of shooting a 3” group at 100 yards, the rifle will group 6” at 200 yards. Any additional human error (as happens in the field) or distance can cause shots to miss the vitals. But if the hunter uses a bullet capable of shedding weight, the vitals may still be destroyed as opposed to a narrow gut-only shot which may take days to kill.
  • If the animal jumps as the hunter takes his shot (what you could call an act of nature), shot placement will be effected. Yet again, if the bullet cannot shed weight, game animals will and do suffer.
  • If the hunter is not adequately trained in anatomy and uses a more generalized ‘chest shot’, the kill may be slow if using the wrong bullet.
  • If the velocity of the cartridge is low as a result of its design or due to ranges (open country hunting), the kill may be very slow.
  • Copper bullets can produce lower accuracy than lead core bullets depending on the individual rifle. Without alternatives, the hunter may be forced to use an inaccurate load which can pose severe problems.

Get your facts straight

The following are two downloadable articles which argue that blood lead studies can and have been corrupted:

Click here to download - Eating game shot with traditional ammo (PDF).

Click here to download - Presentation on corrupted study data (Power Point).


The way forwards

If the studies of blood lead levels are indeed corrupted as has been suggested in the previously highlighted downloadable documents, then we should put this to rest. The timing of the initial studies was certainly suspicious as they arrived during a new wave of anti gun sentiment in the U.S, funneling hunters towards expensive yet often ineffective ammunition. One U.S politician was also caught out making statements to the effect that the best way to control guns was via the ammunition supply, which eventually caused the world wide panic buy and ammo shortages starting in 2008. A complete ban on lead is certainly the easiest way to strangle bulk ammo supply for AR-15 shooters. Any bans also have a dramatic effect of black powder and rimfire shooters who have no ammunition alternatives. It is in essence a very underhanded form of gun control.

For those who live in areas where bans have already been put into effect,  is vitally important that you understand that you may have some options however any new technology is still in its infancy and not yet widespread. The foremost example of this is Dynamic research Technologies (DRT). This U.S company produces compressed metal powder core bullets which perform as well as our traditional lead core bullets. But as suggested, this ammunition is not yet available in all calibers, nor it is available worldwide.
DRT offer both loaded ammunition and also reloading components. This is a truly environmentally friendly option. However, DRT are not yet making bullets for every caliber and need time to continue development of new projectiles including heavy weight bullet designs.

DRT quartering WL

A quartering shot with a DRT 175 grain .308 caliber bullet. This shot was taken at an extended range, typical of mountain hunting. The kill was very fast.

RWS also offer a powder metal bullet design. The Evo Green is based on the traditional H-Mantel projectile design and features a tough rear core and frangible front core. But again, this ammunition is not readily available worldwide and the technology is still very young. In the below video clip, an RWS representative admits to the problems of slow killing when using a typical high weight retention mono copper bullet and how the Evo Green bullet was designed in an attempt to overcome these problems.

Another bullet maker of interest is Lehigh Defense. This company produce 'weight shedding' homogenous copper bullets which offer much greater energy transfer than tradioonal homogenous copper bullet designs. Lehigh have indicated that my own research was instrumental in their product development. I would like to extend my thanks in turn to Lehigh for listening and being willing to go against the flow and do what is right (killing) rather than what is easy (marketing). In very plains terms, the more weight a bullet retains - the more energy it will retain in the absence of high velocity.  If the bullet cannot shed weight, its performance is dependent on hydraulic forces which in the small bores means high velocity. There is no point quoting energy figures if you cannot transfer this energy to the target. Yet with a weight shedding design such as the Lehigh combined with broad and deep hollow points, we can obtain clean and fast kills across the velocity spectrum. And by weight shedding I do not mean just the loss of petals at the ogive. Cutting Edge are yet another bullet maker working towards weight shedding copper bullet designs with their Raptor and Laser bullets.

Those of you who are non-hunters need to understand that neither the Lehigh or Cutting Edge brands are as yet loaded by major ammunition manufacturers. This is not the sort of thing that can be obtained as loaded ammunition worldwide. So again, to ask for a ban on lead without giving hunters such options and only allowing the use of slow killing copper bullet designs is irresponsible.
Lehigh BLK

A Lehigh 300 Blackout bullet- designed to kill rather than produce a pretty mushroom and not much else at low impact velocities.

I would also urge you to understand that our current major lead core bullet companies which include Hornady and Sierra both understand that a bullet which sheds weight is the major factor in fast killing. Hornady for example produce their environmentally friendly GMX copper bullets however the bulk of their recent research has gone into the fast killing ELD-X lead core bullets. Why? The staff of this company are themselves hunters and I can tell you first hand that a slow kill makes a hunter feel terrible. When a hunter kills, he must face his own mortality as he confronts his downed quarry. The truth of this brings about the utmost level of compassion towards ones game. It affects all hunters, whether they are consumers or bullet manufacturers. Yet there is still room for growth, room for the development of metal / copper powder cored bullets.

If bullet makers are to make changes, then they need time and encouragement. Those who really care about our environment and the animals within must understand this. Non lead bullet technology is still in its very infancy. It is not yet available to hunters worldwide. A greater concern is that much of the driving force behind studies is simply anti-gun. In this instance, misunderstanding and hatred towards one group of people and a rush to 'ban' certain bullets has and will cause suffering of game species via potential slow killing. I have even seen some anti sentiment towards DRT ammunition from California officials which is doubly suspicious.

The point I really wish to drive home is that it is not acceptable to make changes to laws that will directly cause suffering to other species of animal.

If you are a veterinarian, please for the sake of our animals take the time to study my research in wider detail. If possible, perform your own tests so that you can see results for yourself. And by tests, I mean game killing tests- not ballistic gelatin blocks.

Further thoughts

I would like to mention that when homogenous copper bullets first arrived on the scene, it was the bullet makers that utilized the ‘environmental card’ as a way to promote their bullets. Many people walked right into this- and still do.

The one factor that makes this subject very difficult to relay, is that unless you have been in the field for yourself and witnessed slow kills, it impossible to drive home just how badly things can go wrong.

Traditional 'mushrooming' homogenous copper bullets can be useful and they do excel in certain roles. They are most useful where deep penetration is required and can at times out perform specific traditional bullet designs. But they also have limitations and should not be a sole option. Even those which are supposedly designed to work at slower impact velocities have severe limitations. I have seen these limitations within my own research but now that we have a worldwide audience, I have received ongoing emails from hunters the world over, stating similar problems.

UK government cullers have recently been asked to change to copper bullets. When game animals are lean versus a supplied bullet which is too heavy and contains too much momentum, the bullet zips through, allowing game animals to run away. In many instances, cullers have lost track of animals and failed to find out whether the animals expired.

In Europe, tracking teams have been busy with their dogs, attempting to locate wounded game shot by hunters who were forced to use copper bullets due to local legislation. This past season (2015) was one of the worst on record for tracker dog call outs. The most pitiful aspect of this, is that many areas of Europe have laws which impose minimum bullet weights. These laws have been very useful for lead core bullets but are hopelessly out of date regarding 100% weight retaining bullet designs. As an example, the 6.5x55 tends to perform much better on lean game with a 120 grain homogenous copper bullet than a slow and high momentum (energy retaining) 140 grain bullet. If these laws are to remain the same- then the bullet designs need to evolve, whether that means using a compressed metal powder core or utilzing a machined weight shedding copper bullet as produced by Lehigh. 

One comment I have heard is that "homogenous copper bullets are great because they cause less meat damage". This statement must surely speak for itself. The narrower the wound, the greater the risk of a slow kill.

Again, please do not attempt to eliminate the suffering of one species of animal, only to put others through greater suffering.

I believe hunting is a fundamental aspect of our genetic makeup. It is not for everyone but many do feel the calling in the same way a woman can have a deep desire to become a mother. My one desire is to see game animals, the very animals which give us energy and replace our very cells, treated with the utmost love and respect.



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We are a small, family run business, based out of Taranaki, New Zealand, who specialize in cartridge research and testing, and rifle accurizing.