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Non-lead Bullet Types & How to Find Them

Federal Trophy bulletExpanding hollow-point bullets open with four or six petals into a mushroom near twice the original diameter and retain their petals. They can have polymer tips that initiate rapid expansion on thin skinned animals, or be un-tipped for thicker skinned animals with equal expansion, but which open slightly deeper. The hollow-point opens with hydraulic pressure and retains most of the original weight (between 98% and 99.7% in tests). These bullets penetrate deeply because they do not fragment, they cause high amounts of shock due to the rapid and wide expansion, and they have sharp petals that cut effectively deep in the wound channel. These bullets differ from fragmenting-tip hollow-points in that they have high weight retention and a single wound channel. Examples include Barnes TTSX, Hornady GMX, Nosler E-Tip, Federal Trophy Copper, and Winchester Powercore 95/5.

GS Custom bulletFragmenting-tip hollow-points are similar in construction to the expanding hollow-point bullets, but the tip fragments intentionally and the shank remains intact. The tip uses the hydraulic pressure to open into several razor sharp pieces that cause separate diverging wound channels immediately upon impact. The shank then penetrates to deeper tissues and causes cavitation with a flat meplate that results in high amounts of damage to internal organs and produces an exit wound to increase blood loss and assist trailing. These bullets open quickly and can have very large initial wound cavities that dissipate energy into tissues as well as a deep wound channel. These bullets differ from expanding hollow-points with their multiple wound channels in the beginning caused by the tip fragments with the shank causing a similar deep wound and exit hole. Examples include: GS Custom bullets, Norma Kalahari, and Cutting Edge bullets.

DRT FrangibleThin-jacketed and un-jacketed frangible bullets are designed to break apart on impact with small animals. The immediate expansion is initiated by a hollow point. The core of the bullet is a metal powder bonded together to withstand the pressure of being fired, but soft enough to disintegrate on impact. The thin jacket on some bullets breaks into small pieces and reduces the chance of ricochet. These bullets do most of their damage through the high amount of shock they deposit quickly, resulting in extreme amounts of tissue damage that is best suited for animals which will not be consumed. At this point they are not made for big game. Examples are: Hornady NTX, CCI TNT Green, Barnes Varmint Grenade, Nosler Ballistic Tip Lead-Free, and Remington Disintegrator Varmint.

Rimfire bulletsRimfire ammunition comes with either solid bullets (for .22 LR) or frangible bullets (All other calibers).  The solid bullets are either copper matrix or tin and are accurate enough for hunting out to 50 yards.  In our testing they have been shown to stay intact and deform minimally.  The frangible bullets are as accurate as lead and fragment very similarly in our tests.  Examples are: CCI Short Range Green, Winchester Super X Lead-Free, Hornady NTX, and CCI TNT Green.

Manufacturers of Non-lead Bullets

Luckily, alternatives exist that are made of either 100% copper or copper alloys (gilding metal - 95% copper & 5% zinc) that expand similarly to lead-core bullets, but without all the fragmentation. These non-lead bullets give you the stopping power of lead, as the rapid expansion provides the hydrostatic shock needed to give a quick kill. But because they don't break apart, non-lead bullets continue to travel through the target further disrupting tissues and breaking bones adding to the stopping power. In addition, the non-lead bullets typically will pass through the animal leaving an exit wound close to twice the diameter of the entrance wound. This results in greater blood loss and a better blood trail.

Barnes Triple-Shock (left) and Nosler e-Tip (right) are two non-lead designs that both show similar expansion of nearly twice the bullet diameter.

Many companies now produce non-lead center-fire rifle bullets including Barnes, Hornady, Remington, Winchester, Federal and Nosler.





Find Bullets

We understand that finding ammunition for a particular rifle can be difficult, especially so with hard-to-find calibers.  While HWNL does not endorse any manufacturer or retailer over another, here are a few helpful tips to find ammo:

» To find common cartridges, use a search function such as or 

» If it isn’t found by using a search function, find a custom ammunition loader.  Custom loaders can make any known cartridge, and some will use once-fired brass from the client to reduce costs. 

» Bullets are widely available and we have found 293 cartridges loaded with non-lead bullets made by custom loaders. 

» Lastly, email and use our experience to help you find the cartridge for you.











Link to California DFG Website Listing Non-lead Ammo Certified for Use in State

Barnes Bullets Position Statement on California Lead Rifle Bullet Ban

Cost Comparisons of Lead and Non-lead Bullets

We've heard many comments from hunters and ranchers lamenting the high price of non-lead ammo compared to the prices they have been used to paying for traditional lead-based ammo. While prices have dropped considerably for non-lead in recent years, it's true that non-lead ammo costs more, but it must be pointed out that you need to pay attention to what exactly you're comparing.

For instance, if you compare factory loaded ammo loaded with a premium lead-core bullet with ammo loaded using a premium non-lead bullet you can expect to pay about the same as shown in the photo above taken at the Reno Cabelas in Fall 2010. In this caliber and bullet weight, the non-lead Barnes Triple Shock actually costs a dollar less than the well-known Nosler partition.

However, if you are comparing ammo loaded with a cheap soft-point lead bullet with ammo containing a premium non-lead bullet you will find that the non-lead ammo costs anywhere from 50% to 100% more. Of course, you have to decide if that extra price is worth the better weight retention, penetration and accuracy that the premium bullets offer. Many hunters feel that the cost of the ammo used represents a tiny percentage of the total costs involved with going on a big-game hunt. And arguably, the most important piece of equipment that you buy since the bullet's performance will influence how well your quarry is quickly and humanely killed.

When comparing bullets for reloading, again pay attention to which lead bullet you are comparing against. Premium non-lead bullets will cost from the same to 30% more than a similar caliber and weight premium lead bullet option.