Video: Testing Lead and Copper Bullets in Ballistic Gel

The debate has raged for as long as gun hunters have taken animals with tiny, fast-moving metal projectiles: what type of bullet is best?

These days, that debate revolves mainly around solid copper bullets and various jacketed lead bullets. Unfortunately, as MeatEater’s Janis Putelis pointed out, reliable, real-world information can be tough to track down.

“A lot of folks come up with very strong opinions about which one is best for what animals at what ranges,” Janis said. “But if you try to dig down into it, there’s not a definitive answer out there. So today, I’m out in Townsend, Montana, with my buddy Garrett Long to hopefully clear up the debate a little bit.”

The result of their efforts is one of the first video-documented comparisons of a copper, bonded, and cup-and-core bullet at distances out to 500 yards using both pure ballistic gelatin and gelatin molded around a whitetail scapula.

The Test

Garrett used his competition 6.5 Creedmoor rifle to take shots at 140, 300, and 500 yards. At each distance, he shot both the pure ballistics gelatin and the scapula gelatin with three bullets representing three common hunting bullet constructions.

All shots were recorded with a high-speed camera to capture how each bullet performed, frame-by-frame.

The Results

To analyze the results, Janis and Garrett were joined by Caylen Wojcik of Modern Day Sniper. Wojcik was a sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps and trained hundreds of military and law enforcement snipers during his time leading Magpul's Precision Rifle program.

You can check out the video for a full analysis, but a few things stood out.

At 500 yards through the scapula, the cup-and-core and bonded lead bullets produced far more hydrostatic shock than the all-copper bullet. The lead bullets were still traveling fast enough to fully expand while the copper bullet only slightly increased its diameter. But while the cup-and-core bullet broke apart and barely cracked the scapula, the bonded lead bullet destroyed the scapula and didn’t tumble.

“I like the bonded bullet at this yardage,” Garrett said. “It has a similar shock to the cup-and-core, but it doesn’t change trajectory. And the bullet mushroomed perfectly.”

At 300 yards, both the bonded and copper bullets wrecked the scapula to the point that bone fragments flew out from the top of the gel. But while both produced a large amount of hydrostatic shock, the bonded bullet maintained a straighter trajectory as it passed through the gel.

Much like at 500 yards, the copper and bonded bullets began to expand immediately after hitting the gel while the cup-and-core didn’t expand until after passing through the scapula. It also penetrated less deeply than at 500 yards, likely because it broke up more quickly after hitting the gel at a higher velocity.

“From my personal experience as a hunter shooting animals with all three different projectiles, we're going to see more consistent and reliable performance in a bullet that stays together,” Wojcick pointed out. “A bullet that’s not designed to stay together is going to have more propensity to do something weird.”

All three bullets would put down an animal at 140 yards, but Long observed that the copper seemed to be the most effective. It decimated the scapula, fully expanded, and maintained its trajectory.

Last Shot

“This test can’t account for all the factors of a real hunting situation,” Janis said. “But it’s shown me a couple of important things.” First, he said, bonded bullets expanded the most consistently of all three options, especially at longer ranges. But at distances within 300 yards, the copper bullet expanded more quickly on impact. Cup-and-core bullets, although unpredictable, have a bigger “shock factor” but with far less penetration.

“If I had to choose one style of bullet based on what we saw in this test, I’d have to go with the bonded bullet,” Janis concluded. “Overall, it was the most consistent in expansion, penetration, and damage.”

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