All-Copper Handgun Bullets: Are They Worth It?

all-copper bullet expanded

Firearms projectiles have come a long way. Early firearms propelled whatever could be shoved down the barrel, from polished stones to arrows.

Lead bullets of bore diameter were a big advancement. Lead is easily molded and dense. It is also relatively inexpensive.

However, lead has limitations concerning how fast it may be driven through the barrel without shedding its surface in the form of leading.

Some lead bullets are hardly lead at all. The hard-cast bullets used by Buffalo Bore Ammunition, as an example, are truly hard due to the alloy.

They are superbly accurate and well-suited to serious chores. As for early lead bullets, when smokeless powder was developed, high velocity became possible.

We sheathed rifle bullets in a thin copper jacket to prevent leading in the barrel. The lead bullet could be cast soft and the jacket remained thin, allowing excellent expansion with rifle bullets.

We are concerned with pistol bullets, however. Their advancement hasn’t always been trouble-free.

As an example, the pointed lead Minié ball improved accuracy and range, but cut wound potential severely.

The round soft lead bullets used in revolvers during the Civil War expanded when they hit flesh much like modern hollow points.

Later, some of the factory hollow-point bullets either did not expand or expanded too soon.

It was a long time before we had the XTP, Gold Dot, and other reliable projectiles with a balance of expansion and penetration.

Copper Bullet and Cartridge
The Lehigh controlled fracturing bullet retains its base and penetration while the nose shards break off after cutting through the target.

All-Copper Handgun Bullet History

Pistol bullets were given a harder jacket in order to ensure feeding in the slam-bang action of self-loading pistols.

The technology of bullets remained the same for the most part for 80 or 90 years. Hollow point lead and jacketed bullets were developed as much as 100 years ago, perhaps earlier.

The big news in copper bullets over two decades ago, was the Barnes X Bullet. This is an all-copper rifle bullet.

Eventually, the technology was developed for handgun bullets as well. An all-copper bullet is long for the caliber.

Weight is less than lead. The use of all-copper bullets in handgun bullets revolves around two types of bullets, expanding and non-expanding.

The hollow-point type expands, creating a larger wound, much like a cup and core hollow point. But the all-copper bullet doesn’t lose weight or fragment and may expand to impressive diameter.

The consistency of performance is impressive. The Barnes TAC XP is a consistent performer with a good balance of expansion and penetration.

The velocity need not be as high as a conventional bullet for good performance. Since the all-copper bullet may be longer for the caliber than a lead bullet, it takes up more of the cartridge case interior.

This means that pressure is relatively higher and the bullet may not be loaded to the same velocity as a conventional copper-cup and lead-core bullet.

No matter, the bullet is designed for expansion and performs well. An advantage is that the TAC XP-type bullet tends to penetrate light cover and layers of clothing, and expands properly.

Contrary to the fears of some, when they were first introduced, all-copper bullets are as accurate as most JHP bullets and certainly accurate enough for any conceivable defensive need.

In common with many bullets, the quality of manufacture and the firearm it is used in determine the level of accuracy.

As for expansion, an all-copper bullet will not fragment when hitting heavy bones or when driven to high velocity and caused to expand.

The nose of the hollow point all-copper bullet may expand widely, but stops at the monolithic shank of the all-copper bullet.

The Hornady Hunter, as an example, using the MonoFlex bullet, expands well and doesn’t fragment.

.44 Magnum all-copper bullets
This .44 caliber Cutting Edge bullet features a nose that breaks into shards.

How All-Copper Handgun Bullets Perform

All-copper bullets perform differently than what we expect from conventional bullets.

As an example, if a standard hollow point is driven at greater velocity, the bullet mushrooms more and this may stall penetration.

An all-copper bullet will penetrate to a greater depth after the velocity is increased in a +P or Magnum loading. Simply put, the thinner nose opens and expands well.

Once it reaches the solid shank of the base, there is no further expansion and penetration is solid. Some all-copper bullets are designed with a bullet nose that breaks into shards.

This isn’t as desirable as a fully-penetrating mushroom. The effectiveness of the all-copper bullet in personal defense was proven some years ago by the famous 9mm Blunt Action Trauma bullet developed in Germany.

This loading earned an excellent reputation with its 86-grain bullet at 1,400 fps. This BAT featured a hole drilled completely through the bullet in order to incise plugs out of car tires, preventing the escape of terrorists.

While similar loads exist, they do not have the hole in the bullet completely through. A modern BAT with the tire-deflating design would be a good choice for service use.

The BAT used a polymer cap over the cavernous hollow point to ensure feed reliability. The cap was blown off as the bullet exited the barrel.

Modern ammunition is much more affordable — I paid a dollar a bullet for the BAT in 1985 or so when limited to the 9mm in institutional use.

Modern expanding bullet loads are much more affordable in comparison to those hard-earned 1980s dollars.

Underwood .380 Ammo Box
The Underwood .380 ACP load has great feed reliability and modest recoil, while producing sufficient penetration.

Other Types of All-Copper Bullets

A relatively new design is the all-copper fluted bullet. The design of the projectile is intended to cut and excise flesh, rather than simply push flesh aside.

The bullets may be lightweight and high-velocity, which results in less penetration — penetration on the line with standard hollow-point bullets.

They also use flutes machined in the nose as a wound mechanism. While these flutes cut flesh, they also stir-up a hydraulic force that ruptures organs.

Another advantage — they do the damage designed into the bullet whether or not they meet intervening barriers. A hollow point may plug up and fail to expand.

The solid-copper bullet does not. As for over-penetration concerns, the solid-copper bullet doesn’t over-penetrate in my testing. It isn’t like a high-velocity FMJ bullet.

The nose design with three or four flutes and often a flat spot on the nose of the bullet slows the bullet down.

A lightweight bullet at high velocity tends to stop short compared to a relatively heavy bullet. The use of copper bullet loads is a personal choice.

Based on my testing, they are viable choices and, in some scenarios, offer the best performance possible.

Have you ever tried any all-copper bullets? Tell us what you thought in the comments section below!

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (4)

  1. I’ve tested most of the popular factory loads in a 45 Shield. The only loads that expanded reliably gel with 4 layers of denim were the Hornady critical defense, and anything loaded with the 185 gr Barnes DPX. This included the Barnes factory ammo, as well as offerings from Corbon, and Buffalo Bore. In total I’ve fired over 40 loaded with this projectile and 100% of them expanded beautifully with good penetration. Final diameter ranged between 3/4″ and 7/8″. I fired 5 rounds of the Hornady CD, and all 5 expanded but the expanded diameter was only 5/8″ which isn’t much for a . 451 projectile. The DPX has become our standard defensive round for 45 ACP.

  2. Interesting discussion and new info for me about copper heads. Out here in the boonies such stuff is unheard of because we can’t even get plain FMJ or hollow points. Stuff like this is exotic. Along with ultra high prices and scarcity of ammo, even target shooting doesn’t happen. when and where will i find replacement ammo and at what price. While 9mm might be easy to find, 22 Mag., .380, .32 cal. stuff is non-existant. While i read about these different types of ammo heads, i wonder who is it that has any in stock? Exotic indeed.

  3. I read a lot of reviews and analysis articles along with multiple video presentations before I bought G2 Research’s R.I.P. (Radically Invasive Projectile) for consideration. When they arrived, I found them to have lessened felt recoil (at least to me, compared to some of the rounds I have fired). This .45 ACP round has a 162 gr projectile that breaks up into 9 would channel with apparent excellent penetration. I replaced the ammo I was carrying in my EDC.
    Then I met another vet, a young man who had just got back from a tour in Afghanistan. In the course of conversation, we talked about our different eras of service, almost 50 years apart and he told me about what he was then carrying, DRT (Dynamic Research Technology, not Dead Right There as we called it in the ER.) Terminal Shock rounds. I did further research. It, too, has good penetration. The .45 ACP has a 150 gr projectile that also has lessened felt recoil compared to other rounds that I have fired.
    Decisions, decisions… After much consideration, I came to this conclusion. Each one of my EDC 1911’s (depends on the activity of the day) have stacked magazines with the R.I.P., DRT, and some 185 gr Mag-Tech to finish it all up. I hope it is never needed, but I want to be prepared should the situation arise.
    BTW, I still practice with a heavier 230 gr FMJ to keep my game up.

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