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Heavyweight Hitters

American Rifleman – February 2004

Heavyweight Hitters: A History of Barnes Bullets

(Reprinted with permission from the February, 2004 American Rifleman. From the Loading Bench Column, by Bryce M. Towsley, Field Editor)

Barnes Bullets was started 1932 in Bayfield, Colorado by Fred Barnes. The company soon made a reputation for deep penetrating bullets that were heavy for caliber. For example 30-caliber 250-grain, 7mm 195-grain or .375 350-grain. The current owner of Barnes bullets, Randy Brooks told me, “One thing that Fred Barnes understood was terminal ballistics. His bullets worked very well in Africa and on big North American game because they had a tough .049-inch jacket so the bullets held together and penetrated deep.”

Fred Barnes ran the company for years and at one point he had as many as 125 employees. But, thirty-odd years is a long time to do something and when a big game hunter named Charles Burford, (who happened to be the man who invented the twist ties for bread bags) approached Barnes about buying the company sometime in the mid sixties, Barnes sold it to him. Barnes stayed on and continued to run the company for a few years. Then in 1968 Barnes Bullets was sold to Russ Cook and Rich Hoch from Montrose, Colorado. They moved the company there and changed the name to Colorado Custom Bullets.

Rogers White was an old friend of Randy Brooks who lived in Grand Junction, Colorado. He knew about the company and in 1972 suggested that Randy buy the company from Cook and Hoch. Randy had a small handloading business on the side, but his primary business was milking cows.

“I didn’t know anything about machine work or die making,” he told me, “so, I kind of ignored him. Instead, I went to New Mexico to learn to be a custom saddle maker. That didn’t work out so I went into the Indian jewelry business until the bottom dropped out of that. About 1974, I got to thinking about Barnes bullets again. My wife Coni and I bought the company and moved it to American Fork, Utah. We packed it all in a 16-foot horse trailer and a pickup truck and moved it into the basement of our little 580 square foot house, where we also lived with our two daughters. That was July 1974 and we grossed $12,000.00 that first year. It was tough, but we were young and full of energy.

“Rich came over and gave me a two-week crash course on bullet making and we jumped in with both feet. I was team roping then and that was paying the bills and putting food on the table. The bullet company was barely making the payments. I had gotten into it for all the wrong reasons and it might have been the dumbest business decision ever known to man.

“I had traded guns with Fred Barnes when we both lived in Grand Junction and kind of knew him, so in 1975 I contacted Fred and asked him if he was interested in coming over to Utah and showing me how to make bullets. He taught me how to make dies and how to turn out good bullets. It was really an education. He sold the name back to me to for one dollar and we changed the name back to Barnes Bullets. Fred would periodically come by to help me for years after that; he was just a great guy.

“About 1976 we built a 1,200 square foot shop and I had so much room I was wondering how I would ever fill it up, but it didn’t take long. We were still living off what I was making roping and we turned all the profits back into the company, trying to make it grow. We hired our first employee that year and by 1980 we were expanding again.

“We were still making bullets with a copper tubing jacket and pure lead core, primarily bullets that were heavy for caliber. We still make them in our Barnes Original line. About 1979 I started the development of our solids. At first they were copper tubing closed on both ends with a lead core, then I made them out of solid copper. By 1980 I had refined it to the homogonous brass solid we still make today. That started getting us noticed with the African hunters because nobody else was making solids for a lot of the big game calibers.

“In 1985 I got thinking that I had taken the lead out of the solid, so why not take it out of an expanding bullet? What gave me the idea was that Fred Barnes made a bullet in the early forties out of solid copper with a hole punched in the top that he filled with lead. He marketed it through P. O. Ackley, who called it the Ackley CE (Controlled Expansion) bullet. It didn’t shoot all that well because it was so nose heavy, but it had great terminal ballistics. I had some of those old bullets and I thought about maybe taking the lead out of them and moving the center of gravity back to make them shoot a little better. So I went home and developed an all copper bullet for the .375. I made the first bullets on a lathe and made a punch for the hollow point. I took it to Alaska, where I shot a 9-1/2 foot brown bear with the bullet, and that was the first game ever taken with the X-Bullet. It’s been refined over the years, but that was how it got started. I didn’t know what to call it then, but later I named it the X-Bullet because of the X shape the petals make after it has expanded.”

Getting acceptance for the bullet was tough. It was just too radical a design and people wouldn’t give it a chance. As with any new product, it went though an evolutionary process. There were some problems early on with high pressure and with barrel fouling. The technological evolutionary process eliminated or vastly reduced those problems over the years, but it was a struggle to recover from the damaged reputation. Randy was persistent and he worked hard to get the bullets into the hands of some world-traveled big game hunters. The performance was too good to ignore and word spread. The X-Bullet soon became a favorite bullet for serious big game hunters because it would penetrate deep and track straight on big game while creating a large wound channel. It has often been said that the introduction of the X-bullet changed the rules, that it acts like a heavier bullet than it is.

One of the strong points of the X-Bullet is that it will perform over a wide range of impact velocities. It will expand well at long range and lower velocity, but still hold together at high velocity impact. When I was developing my wildcat .358 UMT, the biggest hurdle was finding a suitable big game bullet. The velocity was so much higher than most other 35-caliber cartridges that even some of the best bullets came apart on impact and no lead core bullet was entirely satisfactory for big or dangerous game. The X-Bullet was the only bullet tested that expanded, held together and penetrated well.

The latest refinement is the new Triple Shock X-Bullet. The most noticeable change has been the addition of three or four grooves in the shank of the bullet. These act to reduce friction and fouling and also provide a relief area for the displaced copper to move to when the bullet engraves the rifling. The Triple Shock also features a few refinements to the nose area to aid in easier expansion. This boattail bullet effectively eliminates many of the criticisms of the original X-Bullet. The Triple Shock X-Bullets are accurate, fouling is minimal and pressures are reduced. The result is that they can be driven faster than the standard X-Bullets with a given chamber pressure level. The field reports that I have heard have all been outstanding. and this bullet has been accurate for me in most rifles.

Barnes also makes all-copper X-bullets for handguns, as well as solid copper muzzleloader bullets. I have probably shot more game with this bullet than with any other muzzleloader bullet made, and it still amazes me each time I check out a wound channel. Barnes manufactures bullets for other companies who private label them, and one bullet of note is for the new Knight 52-caliber disk rifle; the .470, 375-grain X-Bullet that Knight calls the Red Hot. When pushed with 150 grains of Hodgdon’s Triple Seven power the bullet exits the muzzle at nearly 2,000 fps. It’s accurate enough that I have fired several sub-inch, three shot, 100-yard groups, and on a recent Manitoba hunt all seven caribou hit with it fell onto the tracks they were standing in. That included one record book bull that I shot at 260 yards. I would not have considered taking that shot with any other muzzleloader, and what makes the performance of this muzzleloader great is the Barnes bullet.

While Barnes manufactures bullets primarily for handloaders, Barnes X-Bullets and new Triple Shock X-Bullets are also available in factory-loaded ammunition from Federal and PMC.

A few years back Barnes entered the varmint bullet market with their VLC-coated Barnes Burner and recently added non-coated Varmin-A-Tor bullets. These bullets are accurate, explosive on the target and less expensive than most of the competition. Last summer I shot prairie dogs in Montana with the Varmin-A-Tor bullets pushed by Ramshot powder. The Cooper rifle was one-hole accurate and I was able to make my longest shot ever. Also my second longest, and third. All three witnessed and confirmed hits were past 800 yards. You can’t do that with anything but the best bullets and the persistence to keep trying against almost ridiculous odds. That same kind of persistence and dedication to performance has made Barnes one of the most respected names in hunting bullets today.