Lead-free rifle ammunition: The big test
This article presents one of the most comprehensive tests of lead-free rifle ammunition ever made which was conducted in co-operation with ammunition experts from the Danish armed forces.
There are considerable differences between all the various alternatives to lead-containing rifle ammunition, but the tested cartridges all have one thing in common – they work as announced!
Jæger went to Oksbøl to conduct a comprehensive test together with the direct shooting section of the Danish Artillery Regiment's Safety and Ballistics Department. In the test, each of the 18 types of cartridge was velocity and accuracy tested and tried in shots fired at gelatine blocks placed at ranges of 100, 200, and 300 metres, respectively.
Why only factory loaded products?
Initially, the test was described as “test all lead-free rifle projectiles” – a simple and clearly defined task – right? However, a relatively quick search on Google soon revealed that the scope of the task would quickly become quite overwhelming. Through the Danish Weapons Dealers Association, we reached out to most of the country's ammunition importers and manufacturers, which was a great help in trying to grasp the big picture of an otherwise confusing market.
Since calibre .308 Winchester is one of the most frequently sold calibres, and presumably also has one of the widest ranges of matching ammunition, we decided to conduct the test using this calibre.
The purpose of the test was to check the assortment of factory loaded lead-free rifle ammunition available through Danish hunting supply stores – and to check whether the products work!
Since it would be next to impracticable to test 18 different types of cartridge on such amounts of live game as would be required to ensure a useful result – even though it would have been a very interesting test indeed – we decided to use gelatine blocks instead.
The benefit of gelatine is that in concentrations of 10% or 20%, it has the same density as live tissue. And if you then hang up a deer hide in front of the 25 x 25 x 50 cm large gelatine blocks, you get an effect which comes very close to the real thing in terms of shooting live game.
To ensure that all the shots were comparable, all 100-metre shots were taken on day 1, all 200-metre shots on day 2, and so on. Every day began with adjusting the equipment, optimising the aim and finally securing the test barrel, etc. After that, the equipment remained stationary without any further adjustments, which meant that for each round, the gelatine blocks and measuring frame had to be moved to a position in front of the target.
Since the Danish army-issued service weapon in this calibre is not a .308 Winchester but a 7.62 x 51 mm NATO, which resembles the .308 a lot but still differs from it in a number of ways, a dedicated test barrel in .308win was manufactured for the test by Danish gunsmith A.H. Larsen.
Furthermore, the Danish armed forces' 7.62mm test barrel has a 1:12 twist rate which is standard for this calibre but much slower than on most regular .308 rifles which are usually supplied with a 1:10 or 1:11 twist rate and thus deliver faster rotation.
What is the twist rate?
The twist rate is a technical term for the rifling's rotation inside a rifle barrel, and it indicates how fast a projectile rotates inside a given barrel. The twist rate is usually measured in inches (1" = 2.54 cm), and is expressed for instance as 1:10, meaning that the projectile makes one rotation per 10 inches, which in this case is equivalent to one rotation per 25.4 cm.
In recent years it has become increasingly common to express the twist rate in metrical units, which means that a 1:10 twist rate can be expressed also as a twist rate of 254 mm (2.54 cm x 10) or, for a 1:12 twist rate, as 304.8 mm (2.54 x 12).
Heavier and longer projectiles require faster rotation
Typically, the bullet weight has gone up in parallel with our preference for shooting at longer ranges, since a heavier projectile often resists the forces of wind better than a light projectile. Most of you who have shot with small calibres at longer ranges have probably noticed how sensitive to wind forces these projectiles can become, and how fast they suddenly lose altitude.
The logical assumption, then, would be to think that you simply need to shoot with the heaviest possible projectile. Unfortunately, though, this is not the case, for the heavier the projectile, the more energy it takes to accelerate it, and velocity is quite important, as a slow projectile will be exposed to the forces of wind and gravity for a longer time than a fast projectile.
Roughly speaking, a heavier and/or longer projectile requires a faster twist rate.
A good example of this development is the American M16 army rifle, which had a twist rate of 1:14 when it was originally introduced in the US armed forces in the 1960s. Shortly after, the Vietnam War revealed a need for the rifle to be able to shoot heavier bullets at longer ranges, and as a result, the twist rate was increased to 1:12.
Today, most M16 rifles are produced with a 1:7 twist rate, as the weight of the projectiles for these rifles has increased from 55 grain (3.56 g) in the 1960s to around 70 grain (5 g) today, partly because the soldier needs to be able to shoot also with longer tracer projectiles, etc.
Can I use lead-free ammunition in my rifle?
One of the questions often raised when the talk is about lead-free rifle ammunition is, “do I need a new rifle barrel to use lead-free ammunition?”.
No, probably not, but you have to be aware that not all projectiles will fit your current rifle barrel. That is not very different from the situation where you are using lead-containing ammunition. Therefore, you should always test your new ammunition at the shooting range before taking it out to hunt.
For this particular purpose, the German ammunition manufacturer RWS, currently a subsidiary of RUAG Ammotec, has made a terrific product in the form of a test package containing 20 cartridges with four different projectiles in the same calibre – so you can get right out and do your own testing at the shooting range.
You are also advised to check the recommendations on the cartridge packaging. If the manufacturer recommends using a barrel with a 1:10 twist rate, and your rifle has a 1:12 twist rate, you risk ending up with a wide spread. We originally intended to test all 18 projectiles using the Danish armed forces' 1:12 barrel at a range of 300 metres to determine the level of variation compared to the 1:10 barrel. However, we had to give that up after just a few shots, as the 1:12 barrel delivered such a wide spread that we were unable to keep our shots within the relatively large measuring frame. In some of the first shootings with the 1:12 barrel, we saw spreads of nearly 700 mm when fired at a range of 300 metres – which must be considered quite a wide spread, since all the projectiles shot with the 1:10 barrel showed spreads of just 19-54 mm when fired at the same range. So the barrel's twist rate has an enormous influence on the proper choice of ammunition!
The tested cartridges all feature projectiles designed with alternatives to lead. We did, however, include a single lead-containing product, i.e. Lapua's “Mega” cartridge, which is among the most frequently sold types of projectile in Denmark. The Lapua Mega is a projectile which has been in use for many years and which has delivered everything it was supposed to. This is why we included it in our test as a reference cartridge.
Unfortunately, our test did not include Blaser's lead-free CDC cartridge (CDC = Controlled Deformation Copper), although the Blaser CDC is a really interesting projectile developed by Barnes and loaded by Norma. The projectile was designed for the European market and targets smaller and medium sizes of game, i.e. the sizes found in Europe.
For each of the cartridges tested, you can see the average velocities at the muzzle (V0), at 100 metres (V100), etc. In addition, you can see the average energy delivered by the projectile at the muzzle (E0), at 100 metres (E100), etc. – please remember that under the current legislation, the E100 value defines which species of game a given projectile can be used for.
What to choose?
All the projectiles in this test delivered sufficient performance to allow them to be used without any worries for hunting in Denmark at hunting-relevant ranges. In this context, hunting-relevant is defined as the average range at which most cloven-hoofed game is shot in Denmark, i.e. up to a range of about 150 metres.
So when you are choosing ammunition, you should always base your choice on what you will be using it for. For instance, if you are hunting for roebuck, a calibre 9.3 x 62 mm will probably be at the upper end of the recommended range, and practically any projectile in this calibre which hits the shoulder blade instead of the heart region will cause excessive damage to the meat.
However, once you have chosen the optimum calibre, you can fortunately rely on the guidance given by most ammunition manufacturers who are kind enough to specify – either on the packaging or on their websites – which types of game the ammunition is best suited for. When it comes to the decision to switch to lead-free rifle ammunition, there are many good reasons for making this switch.
There is no doubt that at some point in the future, a ban on the use of lead-containing projectiles for hunting will be introduced in Denmark, but that need not be your only reason to switch. Speak to fellow hunters who have already made the switch, and learn from their experience. The offer of available alternatives to lead-containing ammunition is relatively large today, but the more of us who switch, the larger and less expensive the range of available options will be.
So our general advice is the following: Always test your ammunition at an approved shooting range, and always use your common sense.
The first of the three Danish-made projectiles is manufactured in brass alloy, and unlike traditional projectiles, it does not deform. In other words, it does not “mushroom” like traditional lead-containing cartridges. Instead, about two to three centimetres into the animal, the front half will break off in three parts which then release the majority of their energy within the initial 15 centimetres or so. The remaining part of the projectile then passes through the animal, making an exit wound. According to the experience of hunters who have already tried DK Bullets, the projectile's three petals will remain inside red deer, fallow deer, etc., whereas they will come out on the other side when used to shoot roe deer with a .30-06. The DK Bullets projectiles had just about the same fragmentation at all three ranges and fully proved the manufacturer's claim that they will deliver “full performance all the way down to 400 m/sec.”, unlike many deforming projectiles which rarely deliver optimum performance at velocities below 600 m/sec.
Caption: Even when the shot goes all the way through the block, this picture clearly shows one of the three petals which break off.
Norma – Ecostrike
Like all the other manufacturers, the huge Swedish ammunition manufacturer Norma offers an alternative to lead. Norma have dubbed their version Ecostrike. After phasing out their first alternative, ”Kalahari”, they have now opted for a projectile which deforms without becoming fragmented – i.e. the projectile maintains a residual weight of up to 100 per cent. Ecostrike is made from copper with nickel plating on the surface to limit the amount of “fouling” and thus the need to clean the inside of the barrel. Norma has equipped the projectile with a polymer tip, partly to minimise air resistance, and partly to assist in the deformation of the projectile. In the test, the projectile lived up to all of Norma's specifications, including the statement that it does not expand optimally at 300 metres.
In the test shots from 100 metres and, to some extent, from 200 metres, the projectile expanded perfectly, but from 300 metres, the projectile went almost straight through the 50 cm long gelatine block – almost like a full-jacket projectile.
Caption: Clearly visible release of energy 3 - 28 cm inside the block, but still the shot goes clean through.
Powerhead II is the lead-free projectile from the Finnish manufacturer Sako. Sako have chosen not to develop a projectile themselves, but instead use one of the world's most frequently sold lead-free projectiles, i.e. the Barnes Tipped TSX (TTSX). The first version of Powerhead was based on the popular projectile TSX (Triple Shock X), but after the TTSX projectile was introduced, Sako also switched to this American lead-free projectile, whose polymer tip (similarly to the Ecostrike) ensures improved expansion and minimised air resistance. Barnes introduced their TTSX projectile back in 2007, so it is relatively safe to assume that after 13 years on the market as one of the most popular lead-free products worldwide, this projectile will deliver to its promise. At less than 600 m/sec, however, even this projectile does not expand optimally, and for precisely that reason we noted that at a range of 300 metres, it released less than the preferred amount of energy inside the gelatine block. For the same reason, Barnes has developed a projectile such as the Barnes LRX (Long Range X) which is designed specifically for those long ranges.
Caption: With a powerful release of energy within the first 25 cm, the TTSX clearly demonstrates its high quality.
The American manufacturer Federal has made rifle ammunition since 1922 and they are renowned for their high quality. If you have ever watched the 'Meat Eater' TV show, you will have noticed the efficiency of Federal's bullets, as the show is sponsored by Federal. The Power Shok Copper is a copper alloy projectile with a hollow-point tip which causes it to expand in the same way as a traditional lead-containing projectile. The Power Shok Copper was one of the deforming projectiles used in the test and delivered the best energy release inside the gelatine block at the 300-metre range.
Caption: The Power Shok clearly lives up to its name, delivering a powerful and fast impact.
The Lapua Naturalis must be considered a thoroughly-tested product, as this lead-free expanding projectile has been on the market since 2002. These 18 years on the market, however, have not caused the Finnish company to rest on its laurels. If you buy their ready-loaded cartridges today, they feature the third generation of this popular projectile. The Naturalis is designed with a wider “polymer valve”, which is Lapua's term for the tip. On impact, the valve is pushed back into the projectile, and thanks to Lapua's high-tech design, this ensures a controlled expansion. Lapua is one of the few companies that have really made a point out of stating that their product is designed for hunting Scandinavian species of game, and not for hunting at really long ranges. Right from the start, they have published picture after picture of the projectile's expansion at different velocities, so it was no surprise that at a range of 300 metres, this projectile almost whipped through the gelatine block like a full-jacket projectile – but it does not really matter, as those are not the ranges it was designed for.
Caption: At 100 metres, Naturalis delivers according to its design.
Germany is known for its order and quality, and similarly, the German company RWS (formerly known as Rheinisch-Westfälischen Sprengstoff before it was acquired by Dynamit Nobel in 1931 and later became a subsidiary of RUAG Ammotec) is known for a very high quality in ammunition. RWS manufactures all kinds of ammunition, ranging from pellets for air guns and spring-loaded weapons to cartridges for the largest rifle calibres. The RWS HIT is just one of their many alternatives to lead-containing ammunition – and indeed, what else would you expect from a company domiciled in a country where the use of lead-free ammunition is mandatory at nearly all state forests? The projectile is a Barnes copper projectile with a nickel-plated surface and was developed for hunters who prefer not to use fragmenting projectiles – so this is of the expanding type. To ensure satisfactory expansion, RWS has equipped the projectile with its own special RWS TC tip, a twin compression tip that ensures fast deformation and a high level of directional stability inside the animal.
Caption: Fast deformation and a highly even energy distribution.
Unlike the RWS HIT, the RWS Evolution Green was designed specifically for partial fragmentation, which results in an impressive impact – just look at the gelatine blocks shown in the pictures to see the amount of energy released, and the short distance at which the energy release begins. And unlike the DK Bullets and the Sonic Hunter, whose tips break off in three pieces, the tip of the RMS Evolution Green comes off in a number of smaller bits. The fragments' limited size prevents them from travelling very far, which means that they release their energy very quickly and efficiently.
The EVO Green, like its brother, the RWS HIT, is a copper projectile made with a nickel-plated surface to reduce wear on the bore and hopefully extend its service life. In the test, the projectile worked perfectly at all ranges. Under the current legislation, this projectile, like Geco's Zero, cannot be used for hunting e.g. red deer in Denmark, as the projectile in the .308win calibre comes only in an 8.8-gram version.
Caption: Very fast fragmentation with the majority of the energy released after 3 cm.
Serbia is not usually the first country to be mentioned when the talk is about environmentally friendly rifle ammunition, but the well-known company PPU (Prvi Partizan at the town of Uzice) has also launched a lead-free alternative for rifle hunting. The Z-Grom is an improvement of their original Grom projectile, a copper projectile with a lead tip. In the lead-free version, the Z-Grom, they have replaced the lead tip with a tip in tin. The Z-Grom is an expanding bullet which retains 100% of its bullet weight, and it consists of 99 % copper, with the remainder of the projectile being constituted by the tip made in tin. The company's 2018 catalogue states that the Grom projectiles are intended for “big game hunting”. However, the package shows a picture of deer game, so would it not be relatively safe to assume that they regard red deer as “big game”? The 11.02-gram projectile did not deliver a convincing performance in the gelatine blocks – when compared to the other products imported by Guntex. That said, I still believe that the projectiles will deliver a satisfactory performance in an actual hunting situation, but they are most certainly up against a highly competitive market.
Caption: The energy release occurs after 6-7 cm but is relatively limited compared to that of the other products.
Like RWS, Geco is a subsidiary of RUAG Ammotec and thus another German ammunition manufacturer. Geco has been manufacturing ammunition for much longer than 100 years and instead of having a huge range of products, they have chosen to focus on fewer products of the highest quality. The Geco Zero is their lead-free projectile, which has ’zero’ content of lead and is built around a copper jacket with two separate tin cores. The projectile is a fragmenting projectile which thanks to its hollow tip and pre-fragmented front half releases a large share of its energy relatively shortly after impact. The front part opens up, and while the front tin core is left inside the animal, the rear part of the projectile continues through. In our test, the projectile worked perfectly at ranges of 100 and 200 metres, but at 300 metres, it is relatively obvious that the product does not release as much energy as at the two other ranges.
Caption: Remains of the front tin core are visible in the powerful energy release.
The next of the three Danish candidates are two products manufactured by JCP Ammunition ApS. In addition to the Wolf, they also market the Sniper, a full-jacket match cartridge. Both types are available in calibres from .222 to 458 Win MAG. As the producers put it, the JCP Wolf offers “… a powerful energy release inside the game, while at the same time providing assurance of shooting through.” At both the 100 and 200 metre ranges, the JCP Wolf is certainly up to its promise, as is evident in the pictures of the gelatine blocks. Unlike the two other Danish manufacturers, JCP decided from the start to supply only factory loaded ammunition, as this allows the company to ensure that the ammunition works optimally. The specified energy (E100) and velocity (V0) are clearly delivered – nice for a change to see a manufacturer which does not state the maximum obtainable values in its specifications.
Caption: At the standard hunting ranges in Denmark, the Wolf releases its energy quickly and reliably.
In addition to manufacturing the terrific copper-alloy lead-free projectile Hornady GMX, the American giant Hornady was also among the first to realise that it is not unimportant which material to use for the projectile's ballistic tip. Hornady relatively quickly subscribed to the theory that ballistic tips melt in mid-flight due to the projectile's high velocity and the resulting friction. As a result, Hornady was among the first to make a polymer tip capable of withstanding the high temperatures. With its 10.7 grammes, the GMX projectile delivered a deadly amount of energy at all test ranges. There isn't much to say about Hornady's GMX projectiles, except that they simply do their job!
Caption: The GMX released its energy at nearly the same depth for all ranges.
The American company Barnes Bullets has been manufacturing lead-free projectiles since 1979. So it is not without reason that all the big players approach Barnes whenever they need alternatives to lead. In 1979, Barnes made their first lead-free projectile which they named Barnes X. Since then, they have launched quite a few different lead-free products. After the X, they presented the XLC (X Lubricating Coating) with a surface coating to reduce friction. Then, in 2001, it was time for the world-famous TSX, in 2007 its successor, the Tipped TSX (TTSX) with a polymer tip, and finally, after a large number of other products, they launched the VOR-TX Euro in 2016. As the name indicates, the VOR-TX Euro is designed for the European market, and like many of the other expanding lead-free products, it requires a minimum velocity of around 600 m/sec to deliver the optimum expansion. If you need to hunt at longer ranges, there is another version, known as VOR-TX LR (Long Range), which can deliver at ranges up to, and presumably beyond 700 metres – which means that suddenly the limiting factor is the shooter, not the ammunition!
Caption: There is no doubt that this is a thoroughly tested product.
As one of the world's oldest ammunition manufacturers, the Czech company Sellier & Bellot from 1825 is of course also marketing a lead-free alternative. Sellier & Bellot's TXRG, also known as Exergy Blue (due to the light blue ballistic tip), is an expanding projectile made from a copper alloy with a 10% content of zinc. Overall, the TXRG delivered everything that Sellier & Bellot had promised, and should you accidentally drop one of their projectiles on the forest floor, it is even designed in a colour which is remarkably easy to spot. Previously, Sellier & Bellot was often associated with varying quality levels, but after 2009, when the company was acquired by the Brazilian company Companhia Brasileira de Cartuchos (CBC), commonly known as Magtech, the quality has really been given a boost. This quality enhancement is highly evident in their lead-free Exergy Blue (TXRG), which did really well in this test.
Caption: Releases its energy both early and deep inside the target.
The Sonic Ballistic – Hunt is the last of the three Danish-made projectiles in the test, and the inventor is probably well-known to many. His name is Jørgen Nielsen – and he is the man behind i.a. the Sonic silencers. Is there anything left that Jørgen Nielsen does not produce for rifle hunting? The Sonic Ballistic – Hunt is a hollow-tip projectile with a nail (wedge) at the tip. The front of the projectile consists of three milled petals which break off when the projectile hits the game. Like many of the other projectiles, the Sonic Ballistic – Hunt is equipped with a tip which helps the projectile expand, after which the three milled petals break off the rear end and continue their travel at an angle of 20-40 degrees relative to the direction of the shot. Unlike all the products fitted with different polymer tips, the wedge or tip on this one is made in the same material as the rest of the brass projectile. When the petals have broken off, the remaining part of the projectile continues its travel through the game, ensuring that the shot goes through, which is a feature requested by many hunters. In our test, there was no doubt that the Sonic Balistic – Hunt performed as promised at all ranges.
Caption: This picture clearly shows the three petals and the tip of the projectile.
Dynamic Research Technology
The last lead-free product is actually an American projectile developed by the company Dynamic Research Technology (DRT), but it is loaded in Denmark for the European market. What makes DRT's Terminal Shock stand out from the others is that it has a copper jacket and a tungsten composite core. The projectile, a so-called frangible projectile, rotates at a rate of around 160,000 rotations per minute, which turns the composite core into a powder inside the animal. In effect, this means that you can shoot at most types of game without shooting through, but still deliver a lethal shot because all the energy is released inside the animal instead of going straight through it. One of the main benefits of this type of projectile is that it effectively minimises the amount of collateral wounding which often occurs when the projectile goes through the first piece of game and hits the next or something even worse. One would assume that since all the energy is released inside the animal, a lot of good game meat would be spoiled, too. However, if we are to trust the reports of those who have tried this projectile – and why shouldn't we – it does not cause any more meat damage than traditional projectiles.
Caption: There is hardly any doubt about the effectiveness of this projectile.
Lapua's soft-tipped lead projectile Mega is one of the most frequently sold lead-containing projectiles in calibre .308 and was included in this test as a reference cartridge.
This projectile has been so thoroughly tested that it is highly suitable as a quality standard for alternatives to lead-containing products.
Caption: For comparison, this picture shows the thoroughly-tested lead-containing classic.
Best in test
We have deliberately refrained from nominating any of the products as best in test, since all the tested projectiles proved beyond any doubt that they satisfy all the requirements on rifle ammunition for hunting in Denmark.