Precision Shooting – September Issue 2004
Barnes X-Bullets: Revolutionary
By: Fred Barker
The basic construction of bullets-especially those for rifles-has undergone several revolutionary changes in the past 100-plus years. Ones of pure lead or lead alloy were used by the world’s armies and hunters for almost half a millennium. These, however, lack the strength to resist rifle forces for velocities greater than about 1,800 ft/sec-they tend to strip and give poor accuracy. In the 1880′s to early 1890′s French and German military engineers perfected the metal-jacket lead-core bullet, which consists of a thin-walled cup of copper alloy or other swageable metal containing a core of soft or slightly alloyed lead, with the two swaged together to form a rounded or pointed ogive. The core could be inserted into the jacket cup from either the point end or the rear, depending on the purpose of the bullet. Such simple jacketed bullets, of course, have given excellent service to both military and civilian shooters—with the exception of hunters of large, soft-skinned game animals.
The familiar expanding-type game bullet of 1890′s design, having its lead core exposed at the tip, has been manufactured in great variety. Lightly constructed ones with thin jackets and soft cores made to take small or fragile animals, strongly built ones with thick jackets and alloyed cores for large, tough game, and so on-the design has been tweaked in many ways. But this simple design of bullet tends to have a major fault: as it travels through a game animal and its jacket peels back the lead core commonly separates from the jacket and further penetration is compromised.
In the 1930′s German designers modified the basic cup jacket to one having a thickened midsection, of H-form in longitudinal cross-section and termed the “H-mantle” bullet. Short lead cores were swaged into the H-jacket from both ends. In game the front portion of this bullet expanded and was ripped off but the central and rear unit continued to penetrate. After WWII Oregonian John Nosler developed his Partition bullet, which also is of “H” cross-section, but whose jacket was lathe-turned from solid rod stock and the forward and rear lead core pieces swaged in. Early Partition bulets were hollow-pointed and a shallow relief groove was made on the shank outside of the central partition. First marketed in 1948, the Nosler Partition bullet has been a resounding success-both in its concept and performance on most sorts of game animals. The Nosler bullet expands quickly, its forward part mushrooming and being ripped off in very tough tissue or bones, leaving a rear, near-cylindrical section to continue penetration. That rear section typically retains about 65% of the bullet’s original weight, and its diameter only slightly larger than its caliber size.
Other bullet makers have started with soft, thick jackets and soldered (“bonded”) a lead cores in them. Bill Steiger’s Bitterroot Bonded Core bullet of 30-40 years ago was one of the first of this type. The BBC bullet, whose jacket was of pure, soft copper, expanded to a large diameter, but its jacket and core remained intact.
At about that time Parker Ackley designed a game bullet consisting of a copper slug whose ogive contained a short lead core. Scattered reports indicated that Ackley’s bullet performed well on game-rather like Nosler’s Partition bullet-but that it’s accuracy was not on a par with conventional bullets. See Ackley’s Handbook for Shooters and Reloaders (Publishers Press, Salt Lake City, 1962) for an interesting discussion of bullets and killing power.
At this point we note that all of these limited-expansion bullets (and others I’ve not mentioned) used a lead core in their ogives-giving a relatively weak point to start expansion in a game animal’s body-and thus shared the general point design of the 1890′s cup-and core bullet.
Enter Barnes Bullets and Randy Brooks. In 1932 the late Fred Barnes started making bullets in which soft lead cores were swaged into jackets made from copper tubing. See the current Barnes Reloading Manual Number Three for history of this bulletmaker. Barnes became well known for his very long hunting bullets, such as 250-grain-.308 and 350-grain-.375 diameter ones, and made in both soft-point and full-metal-jacket styles. (In the late 1960′s I loaded some of both-the 250-grain FMJ ones from a .30-06 at 2.225 ft/sec would penetrate more than 21″ of dry phone books; and the 350-grain soft-point with 0.049″-thick jacket over 75 grains of IMR4350 in a pre-’64 M70 Winchester .375 H&H went through the Avtron screens at 2,390 ft/sec.) Some time in the 1960′s Barnes sold out to Richard Hoch (noted for his bullet molds and single-shot actions) who continued the business as Colorado Custom Bullets (CCB). In 1974 Randy and Coni Brooks bought CCB and renamed the company Barnes Bullets (remember that Big Bumble, the bee, in Phyllis McGinley’s poem said “everything is best that begins with a “B”). They continued to make the original Barnes-design copper-tubing-jacketed bullets. However, when Randy was on a grizzly bear hunt in Alaska he started thinking about an all-copper expanding hunting bullet, keeping in mind Parker Ackley’s earlier bullet. As is well known, many experimental and .50BMG shooters have made homogeneous target bullets of bronze, brass and other alloys, but (to my knowledge) no one had ever made a homogeneous bullet that would expand in game animals. Randy started experimenting with copper bullets and discovered that they would only expand if their hollow point is longitudinally scored or grooved. These scoring marks are stress raisers, they initiate fractures that extend down to the bottom of the hollow, and they allow segments of the ogive to peel back (like the petals of a flower) as far as the bottom of the hollow but no further. Development work by Randy and Coni, with input from many independent hunters, led to design details in the hollow points so that the bullets would expand over a large range of impact velocities and also retain their petals (as well their original weight) throughout the length of the wound channel in a game animal. They also learned to control the outer diameter of the petal configuration by varying the depth of the hollow point. The Brooks team, of course, were well aware of the extensive literature on bullet performance in big game by people like Bob Hagel, Finn Aagard, John Wooters and others, who had discussed such factors as the optimum expansion diameter of a bullet (esp., if it expands too much it will not penetrate enough), retained bullet weight vs penetration, performance of medium-weight bullets versus heavy ones, the need for a compromise between bullet weight and performance (esp., those very long bullets can’t be driven very fast and so they are not suited for long-range shots), etc. So they were guided by a large body of experience in making their new bullets for the market.
In 1988 the Barnes all-copper bullets, named “X-Bullets”, were offered to hunters. Reports on them from the game fields soon came in. Experienced hunters like Ross Seyfried, who used .30 caliber X-Bullets on feral donkeys in Australia, were surprised at their penetration and killing power. Perhaps the most impressive testimony came from Australian professional hunter and game manager Bob Penfield (in an unsolicited letter to Randy Brooks). Penfield mentioned a culling operation of several years duration that involved 130,000 rounds fired at 40,000 feral donkeys, 10,000 wild horses and many other animals. The cullers used a large number of rifles of all common calibers and bullets. They reported that the Barnes X-Bullets were more effective than any of the others, and that the slightly lighter bullets in a given caliber killed quicker than slightly heavier ones-e.g., the 165-grain .30 caliber bullets versus the 180-grain ones, or the 210 or 225-grain ones in .338 size versus the 250-grain ones. Penfield also gave comparisons of 300-grain Woodleigh bonded-core soft-point bullets and Barnes X-Bullets fired from .375 H&H rifles on feral water buffalo. He and his guides alternated these bullets on many buffalo and they concluded that, though the Woodleigh bullets indeed are very effective, the X-Bullets killed noticeably quicker. I also note that Penfield’s method of taking buffalo not only involves a carefully placed first shot, but rapid follow-up shots are made as quickly as possible-so that the animals are finished off before their adrenal systems begin to operate. Penfield’s letter states, “The Barnes X-Bullets simply anchored them on the spot, again and again. Only a couple of bulls ran a few yards before succumbing to the shots, whereas when we used the soft-point bullets, more shots were required to get the bulls off them feet-and when they were down, a follow-up shot was required.” Penfield’s personal rifle is a custom Mauser in .340 Weatherby Magnum loaded exclusively with 225-grain X-Bullets. This gun is used on all Australian species, including water buffalo, and he says its X-Bullets are effective at any range.
Scattered comments have reported two downsides to the original X-Bullets: 1) more-than-usual copper fouling builds up in some barrels; and 2) their accuracy, again in some barrels only, is not as good as obtained with other hunting bullets. The fouling problem was first addressed by Barnes offering their CR-10 Bore Cleaner, and later by offering the XLCTM coated X-Bullets. The blue coating on these bullets is proprietary; it contains neither moly sulfide or graphite and it doesn’t rub off on one’s fingers. Barnes’ catalog claims that the XLC coating reduces bore fouling, does not leave a residue in the bore, gives reduced pressure with a given powder charge (or gives more velocity with slightly more powder), keeps barrels cooler (with extended shooting of XLC-coated varmint bullets, especially), and gives better accuracy. I’ve put 200 rounds of Barnes coated varmint bullets through a .22-250 Kimber rifle without cleaning it and then looked at the bore with a Hawkeye bore scope. There was little fouling. The velocity aspect can be found in Barnes Reloading Manual Number Three: loads with velocities (as determined in the Barnes lab) are given for many cartridges both for uncoated and coated X-Bullets. Maximum loads with the coated bullets need one to several more grains of powder and give 50 to 100 ft/sec more velocity than the bare X-Bullets. In my .270 Win. rifle, built on a 1950′s FN action with 25″ stainless heavy sporter-weight PacNor barrel fitted by benchrest smith Dan Dowling, the 130-grain XLC X-Bullet needs 2 to 4 more grains of Accurate MagPro than any other bullet of this weight and (at about 3,180 ft/sec) gives 50-75 more ft/sec than any other bullet except the new Barnes Triple-Shock bullet. Three-shot groups with the XLC are mostly 0.8″-1.0″ @ 100yards, or almost twice those given by Nosler’s 140 AccuBond and 160-grain Partition bullets.
As mentioned above, the X-Bullets may or may not shoot accurately in some barrels: each shooter has to determine this for a particular barrel. One example comes from gunsmith Greg Tannel (Gre-Tan Rifles, 970-353-6176). Greg is a serious hunter of Colorado elk and mule deer who takes Bob Ruark’s maxim Use Enough Gun very seriously. Greg’s main elk rifle is built on a McMillan Talon action (i.e., controlled-round feeding) with a Wiseman barrel in .416 Weaterby. He uses a large charge of Reloder 22 under the 350-grain X-Bullet, getting 2,844 ft/sec on average and 3-shot test groups well under 0.5MOA. Greg has taken almost a dozen bull elk with this load and each has died very quickly. One could call this gun of Greg’s a Timber Rifle: those 350-grain X- Bullets shoot through 6-inch cottonwood trees giving an exit hole not much bigger than the entrance hole!
However,Barnes Bullets took a serious shot at the accuracy aspect of their X-Bullets in 2003 by offering the Triple-Shock X-Bullets, which have 3 or 4 grooves on their shanks that are slightly less than land diameter. As of February 2004 15 weights of Triple-Shock bullets in ,22 to .338 caliber are available, and more in the offing. I’ve tried the 130 and 140-grain Triple-Shocks in my .270. In shooting 2 and 3-shot test groups with varying powder charges of MagPro and Norma MRP-2 I soon found that the 130-grain Triple-Shock needs about 2 grains less powder than the XLC bullet for about the same velocity of 3,180-3,190 ft/sec for near-max loads (i.e., easy extraction and no primer cratering). The big surprise with both 130 and 140-grain Triple-Shocks was that most of the 2 and 3-shot sequences went into 1/4″- ½” arrays (no, they’re not “groups”) at 100 yards (photos of two are given). These are the most accurate hunting bullets I’ve ever shot!! (And Pete Forras, who has shot this FN-PacNor rifle, says it’s easily the most accurate .270 he’s ever seen.) Also, loads of both MagPro and MRP-2 1 to 2 grains over max (i.e., giving slightly stiff extraction and primer cratering) drove the 130-grain Triple-Shock bullet more than 3,300 ft/sec with sub-MOA accuracy. Near-max loads for the 140-grain Triple-Shock are about 3,150 ft/sec (no, I don’t need a Magnum!). Fouling with the Triple-Shock bullets in this barrel is light, about like with Nosler bullets. So the grooves of these bullets definitely cure both the fouling accuracy problems of the original X-Bullets.
Penetration tests of both XLC and Triple-Shock 130 and 140-grain bullets at 3,050-3,100 ft/sec in dry phone books was 9″-10″, or about the same as 160-grain Nosler Partition bullets at 2,950 ft/sec. This dry paper is a severe test, which causes most old-style hunting bullets to separate into a ripped-back jacket and a fragmented core, with penetration only 50-70% that of modern premium bullets. In dry phone books the 160-grain Nosler bullet loses its entire forward portion, leaving a 100-grain near-cylindrical stub. The X-Bullets, however, retain their petal form to the end of the penetration channel and their original weight.
So how does Barnes Bullets make their X-Bullets? Industrially pure copper (ca. 99.98% Cu) wire slightly larger than bullet diameter comes from the supplier in large spools. This is run through a squeeze die to bring it near to final diameter and to give it proper roundness. Next a cutter trims the trued wire into ingots whose weight must be within 0.2-0.3 grains of final bullet weight (unlike most lead-core bullets, all-copper bullets do not lose any weight during forming). The ingots are placed in a hopper above the bullet press, lightly sprayed with oil, and fed downward into a series of 12 forming dies. A nose punch makes a hollow or depression in the ingot and scores it 4 or 6 places-giving the stress-raisers mentioned above. Other dies form the ogive and, on some bullets, a boat-tail base. Forming bullets of pure copper, we should note, requires much more force than making conventional lead-cored bullets. The 3 or 4 grooves on the shank of a Triple-Shock bullet are cut by rotary cutting wheels in a separate machine. After a run of 5,000 bullets comes out of the bullet press samples are loaded into cases and fired into a 10-foot-deep water tank at both low and high velocities. In the low-velocity test they must expand a minimum amount, and at the high velocity they must not only expand to the full petal configuration but must retain 100% of their original weight. Copper, like cartridge brass, hardens when deformed, so the hollow-pointed swaged ogives of the X-Bullets are harder than the starting ingot metal. The expansion tests at low and high velocities thus will detect any bullet that is too soft or too hard. However, some of the larger bulets that must expand at velocities as low as 1,000 ft/sec (e.g., the muzzleloader bullets) may need to be softened by a mild anneal in an oven. Tumbling completes manufacture of the X-Bullet, except for the XLC ones getting their baked-on coating.
I asked Randy Brooks if there are any secrets to making Barnes X-Bullets. He said, “No”, but then emphasized that surface finish of the forming dies is very important and went on to say that his group of machinists and technicians who make all the dies and any machines needed (such as those that cut the grooves in the Triple-Shock bullets), and run the presses and other machines do a superb job.
Barnes Bullets also makes-in addition to their X rifle bullets-several other categories of copper or copper-zinc-alloy bullets:
1) pointed solids of Cu-Zn alloy in .22 to .30 cal. for varmints and fur-bearers;
2) round-nose solids of Cu-Zn alloy from .30 to .60 cal. for dangerous game;
3) four sharp-ogive target-grade bulets for the .50BMG cartridge;
4) eleven X-Bullets for handgun cartridges from 9mm to .50 cal.; and
5) seven all-copper bullets enclosed in plastic sabots for muzzleloaders of .45,
.50 and .54 cal.
The original Fred Barnes soft-point bullets having pure copper jackets of 0.032″ wall thickness also are made in 14 weights for seven calibers, as well as a 600-grain thumper in .458 diameter with 0.049″ jackets. (Note: if your friends are pestering you to let them shoot your 12-pound .460 Weatherby Magnum rifle, use the max load in the Barnes Manual for this 600-grain bullet-114 grains of H4831 for 2,496 ft/sec-as a dissuader, for it gives an even 100 foot-pounds of free recoil.) Barnes Bullets also may offer X-Bullets for the new Remington 6.8 Special Purpose Cartridge, for both military and civilian use. Lastly, Barnes makes match-grade varmint bullets in .22 and 6mm sizes, 4 coates and 4 uncoated in each caliber, that shoot as well as any and are competitively priced. See their catalog (1-800-574-9200) or website (www.barnesbullets.com).
In closing I: 1) congratulate Randy and Coni Brooks for creating, developing and marketing their revolutionary X-Bullets (esp. the new Triple-Shock ones); and 2) note that in going after Colorado deer and elk this Fall my .270 and .35 Whelen will be loaded with Barnes X-Bullets.
*This article was used with the permission of Precision Shooting.