Elk Cartridges – Comparative Ballistics of Copper Bullets

federal premium ammo with barnes triple shok bulletI have been using Federal Premium Vital-Shok with Barnes Triple Shock X-Bullet for elk hunting, but my supply of 7 mm Remington Magnum cartridges is running low. Since Barnes Bullets was bought by the same company that owns Remington, the Federal Vital-Shok bullet has changed from the 160 grain Barnes’ bullet to 140 or 150 grain Trophy Copper Bullets.

I like the copper bullets because they shoot well in my Thompson Center Pro Hunter, they have demonstrated they penetrate deeply, expand well and they don’t fragment so I don’t worry about lead in the meat.

There are many options for copper bullets if you load your own ammo. I do some reloading with Lee Loader kits, (read post on Lee Loader) but for now, I prefer to stick with factory ammo for elk hunting.

7mm rem magnum ammo in buttstock holder

Federal Vital-Shok 7 mm Remington Magnum Ammunition in handy Butt-stock holder. The Ammo holder can also be worn on your forearm.

Now there are a few more options available for buying copper ammunition than a few years ago. But how do we decide which ammo to use without buying and shooting four or five different boxes? This is especially painful when copper bullet ammo costs almost $50 per box.

It seems logical to compare the ballistics for several different cartridges and choose a compromise between the flattest shooting and hardest hitting brands. Then buy a box or two of that particular ammo and test it to make sure it shoots well in my rifle. In my DIY Elk Hunting Guide, I joke about buying two boxes of ammo and shooting 39 times to get sighted in and to practice and save one bullet for the elk hunt.

The Problem with Comparing Ballistics

I would like to choose a new cartridge that performs at least as well as the Federal Premium Vital-Shok ammo (Barnes Triple Shock), but there are problems using ballistics to measure that performance. For example, the ballistics coefficient (BC) originally published by Federal was 0.508. But Barnes Bullets told me in an email that Federal calculated that BC at 100 yards and Barnes calculated a BC of 0.443 at 300 yards for better long range results. BC in this post always refers to G1.

I’m sure most of you know that BCs are not constant values, but change with velocity (which changes with distance). The simplest explanation of BC is the estimated fraction of 1,000 yards that a projectile loses about 50% of the initial kinetic energy. So, a bullet with BC = 0.508 will lose about half of the kinetic energy at 508 yards and a bullet with BC = 0.443 will lose about half of the kinetic energy at 443 yards.

Using the lower BC provided by Barnes Bullets in a ballistics calculator predicts the bullet will drop more, drift more in the wind and have less energy. Table one shows over 360 ft-lbs less energy at 300 yards than Federal used originally predicted. At 400 yards, the bullet has less than 1,000 ft-lbs of energy (based on BC calculated at 300 yards) than originally predicted.

Table 1. Comparative Ballistics with Corrected BC*

Bullet Wt. (grains) BC BC Calc. (yards) MV (fps) Add. Drop (in.) Energy (fpe) Wind Drift (in.)
Barnes X-Bullet     160 0.508a    100  2,940     6.4    2,524     4.3
Barnes X-Bullet     160 0.443b    300  2,940     6.6    2,160     5.0

*Federal Premium Vital-Shok 7 mm Remington Magnum Ammunition with published BCa and Barnes Bullets corrected BCb, 200 yard zero, Target at 300 yards, Temp 40°F, 8,000 feet elevation, 10 m.p.h. crosswind

Are Ballistics Coefficients Exaggerated?

There have been several publications by Michael Courtney, PhD (and others), that criticize ammunition manufacturers for inflating BC coefficients:

Dr. Courtney et al. said “bullet manufacturers exaggerate BC specifications for marketing purposes because BC is perceived to be important by customers, and because many manufactures rely on overly optimistic theoretical predictions that ignore the effects of the engraving of rifling, manufacturing defects, imperfect alignment of bullet axis and velocity vector, and other factors.”

Accurate BC estimates are important because as we can see from Table 1, any exaggeration of BC will cause errors in predictions of bullet drop, wind drift and impact energy.

Dr. Courtney’s 2007 paper The Truth about Ballistics Coefficients indicated some companies overestimate published BCs by as much as 25%. He didn’t compare Barnes’ 7 mm ammo, but did test .224 and .308 calibers and concluded BCs were overestimated by 17.3% and 22.6% respectively. If true, this is not useful to us as shooters and especially as hunters and it is not acceptable.

His 2012 paper Comparing Advertised Ballistic Coefficients with Independent Measurements indicates that the BCs of some bullets (especially hunting bullets) were still slightly overestimated between 1% – 6.3%. The exaggeration of BCs of Barnes Bullets averaged just under 2%. Since Courtney claims the average measurement error for BC can as high as 1.5%, I can live with a 2% error.

Note: I was hoping to find the BCs for the same bullets (especially Barnes Bullets) in both publications, to see how the BCs had changed, but only found one bullet (Hornady, 0.244, 40 grain, VMAX) listed in both publications.

Back to Search for New Elk Cartridge

In addition to Federal Ammunition and Barnes Bullets, other companies (Remington, Nosler and Hornady) also load copper ammunition, shown in Table 2, which is sorted by total ft-lbs of energy at 300 yards.

Table 2. Comparative Ballistics of Copper Bullets for 7 mm Remington Magnum Ammunition*

Brand Bullet Wt. (grains) BC BC Calc. (yards) MV (fps) Add. Drop (in.) Energy (fpe) Wind Drift (in.)
Remington (N.A.) Copper   140 0.468   ??? 3,175   5.5  2,268   4.2
Federal Premium Vital-Shok Trophy Copper   150 0.498   100? 3,025   6.0  2,239   4.3
Barnes Vor-TX TTSX Boat-tail   150 0.450   300 3,060   6.0  2,217   4.6
Nosler & Winchester E-Tip   150 0.498   ??? 3,000   6.1  2,200   4.3
Barnes Vor-TX TSX Boat-tail   160 0.443   300 2,950   6.5  2,175   5.0
Hornady GMX Full Boar   139 0.486   ??? 3,100   5.8  2,168   4.2
Federal Premium Vital-Shok (N.A.) Barnes X-Bulleta   160 0.443b   300 2,940   6.6  2,160   5.0
Remington New Barnes TSX 140 0.394   300 3,085 6.1 2,003 5.3
Barnes Vor-TX TTSX Boat-tail   140 0.412   300 3,100   8.9  2,060   5.0
Remington Lapua Naturalis Copper   160 0.280   ??? 2,950   7.5  1,751   8.3

*200 yard zero, Target at 300 yards, Temp 40°F, 8,000 feet elevation, 10 m.p.h. crosswind
aNote: Federal Vital-Shok Ammo is no longer available with the Barnes X-bullet. bBarnes Bullets calculated the BC (0.443) at 300 yards.

The heaviest copper bullet available in 7 mm Rem. Mag. has been 160 grains. That is lighter than many lead, jacketed and bonded bullets because the weight retention of copper bullets is nearly 100%.

Barnes Vor-TX Performance

If I use the 160 grain bullet/cartridge combination now available from Barnes, I will have the same basic ammo I have been using. Compare the Barnes Vor-TX 160 grain TSX boat-tail to the 160 grain Federal cartridge (high-lighted row) in Table 2. Also, if I stick with Barnes ammunition, I know the basis for the BC calculations are the same (300 yards) and therefore can be more accurately compared.

The 150 grain Copper bullets appear to be more common and the Barnes Vor-TX 150 grain bullet (tippet boat-tail) has a higher BC and muzzle velocity than the Vor-TX 160 grain bullet (boat-tail; not tipped) and is predicted to deliver more energy than the original 160 grain bullet I have previously used. These bullets require about 2,000 fps velocity for good expansion and that speed holds up out to about 600 yards. Since the Vor-TX 140 grain bullet (tippet boat-tail) has less energy than the 150 and 160 grain bullets, it will not be considered. Nor will the Remington Lapua Naturalis Copper bullet (last in Table 2), because elk hunting is no place for a round nosed bullet.

Remington Copper Ammunition now uses Barnes TSX BT bullets

The original Remington 140 grain Copper bullet was predicted to have the most energy at 300 yards, but I don’t know the distance used to calculate the BC The muzzle velocity (MV) of that round was very fast, but I doubt the BC was really that good. It doesn’t matter since the Remington 140 grain Copper ammo is no longer available.

But since the Freedom Group, which also owns Remington, bought Barnes Bullets in 2009, I was hoping there would soon be more Remington 7 mm Rem. Mag. ammunition available with the Barnes’ bullets.

Update: It took a while, but Remington now uses 140 grain Barnes TSX bullets for 7 mm Rem. Mag. ammunition, so look for the ballistics table (Table 2) above to be updated soon.

Federal Vital-Shok Trophy Copper Performance

The Federal Vital-Shok 150 grain Trophy Copper comes in second place in Table 2 with 2,239 ft-lbs of energy. Until told otherwise, I assume Federal calculated the BC for this cartridge at 100 yards just as they did with the original Barnes X-Bullet, which overestimated the BC by about 15%. If so, then the BC of this bullet would be about 0.434. But even if the BC were the same as the Vor-TX 150 grain bullet (0.450) in Table 2, the energy would still be less because muzzle velocity is less.

Hornady GMX Full Boar and Nosler E-Tip Ammunition

The Hornady GMX Full Boar Copper bullet is only available in 7 mm Rem. Mag. at 139 grains. I need to know more about how the BC was calculated, but I would be interested in a Hornady cartridge if they made 150 grain bullet.

The Nosler E-Tip has gotten rave reviews for penetration and expansion, but the bullet needs to hit the target at 2,600 fps or more for good expansion (See photo at Nosler’s site). According to my ballistics calculator, the Nosler E-tip will slow to 2,600 fps just short of 300 yards (Nosler & Winchester ammunition). I wish they included a photo of expansion at 2,200 fps, which would be out past 550 yards. As with the other manufacturers, I need to know more about how the BC was calculated, but if the BC holds up, it will be a cartridge I would consider, but with the knowledge that shots should be limited to 300 or 400 yards even at high altitudes.

I still have a couple of boxes of the original Federal Vital-Shok with the Barnes X-Bullet. That should be enough to make sure my rifle is sighted in and allow for more than a few practice shots in realistic hunting conditions (read post on realistic target practice). If I shoot well, I will have enough ammo for the 2016 elk rifle season. If I don’t shoot well, I will run out of ammo and have to choose a new elk cartridge, re-sight the rifle with the new ammo and make time for more realistic shooting practice before the elk season.

As of now, I will probably choose the Barnes Vor-TX 150 grain bullet. If I get more information about the BCs used by Federal, I will also consider that ammunition as well. I will also update Table 2 if and when I get more information.

bdc scope reticle with elk in
Check out My DIY Elk Hunting Guide

Comments

  1. Mark Baker says:

    This article was so on point with my google query. I am struggling with the identical issue, only difference is 300 win mag vs .30-06. I have two remaining boxes of the Federal Vital shock with TSX 180 bullets, which I am saving for elk. I have re-zeroed my rifle for the Barnes Vor-tx TTSX 180 grain for pig hunting this Spring/Summer, but I prefer the TSX for elk. We don’t need the tip function on such a big animal, and I’ve heard of tipped bullets fragmenting.
    Anyway, I agree with your analysis and my experience has been tremendous with Barnes TSX on pigs and elk. Up to 450 yards on elk with perfect expansion and penetration to the hide on the opposite side. And pigs at all ranges, including a real long shot at 565 yards with 168gr TSX (.308).
    Any thought on the downside of using the tipped bullets on elk?
    Mark

    • Mark: Thanks for the feedback.
      Tipped bullets are designed to decrease wind resistance and help the bullet shoot flatter. Barnes copper bullets will not fragment, but I have not tried other tipped bullets. I use Barnes tipped muzzleloader bullets (T-EZ).
      Check out the video. The discussion of tipped bullets begins at about 2:35 and recovered bullets are shown at about 3:00.
      Also this video shows how tipped bullets open.
      Good luck with your pigs and elk.

  2. Great article.

    We recently published a new paper explaining how the LabRadar can be used by shooters to measure their own BCs from the same rifles and at the same velocities they will be using them with. See:
    https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1608/1608.06500.pdf

    • Thanks Dr. Courtney: Interesting paper. Don’t think I will be getting a radar to calculate more accurate CDs, but I am glad you did.
      Thanks for your earlier work that exposed exaggerated CDs. Every shooter should appreciate the importance of the CDs reported by bullet manufacturers.

  3. Mike Loehr says:

    Thank you for the informative article. Just as information: Last season I shot and elk with the Barnes 180 grain at 460 yards (longer that I would prefer). He fortunately dropped on the first shot. I then shot 5 – 7 shots which I thought were missing, but it turned out were hitting and making mush of his front shoulder. This makes me wonder if copper does not have the impact of a bonded bullet. The copper was certainly accurate. I was using a 300 RUM, which I have switched from my faithful Remington 7 mag of 25 years in recognition of older age and likely longer shots.

    Mike’s response to my response:
    Thanks for the feedback. Unfortunately I did not see how far the bullets
    penetrated. I am relating what the guides said when he came back from the skinning
    area, commenting on the emancipated shoulder. They did bring back one cartridge
    that expanded just like the pictures. I agree about the softer tissue just behind
    the leg, but I was apparently somewhat off at that range which is a new distance for
    me.

    As an aside, I have killed over 30 elk over the past 21 years of hunting them (bull
    cow permits) until recently with a Remington 700 7 mag. I never lost a one (thank
    goodness). My shots were generally 200 to 350 yards. I used Federal Trophy bond,
    and of course loved them. The copper is new to me since I purchased the RUM, thus
    my question. The copper was selected by an employee of mine (a former sniper) who
    set up my rifle. I’m sure he was focused on accuracy. So I stuck with the load,
    and it is accurate.

    Another aside that may be of interest to you: the first year I used the RUM, I shot
    an elk at under 100 yards (a cow). It ran into the trees maybe 150 yards which
    surprised me. I hit it perfect as later proved. The entire side the bullet entered
    was totally bruised (shock?). I don’t think it would have gone that far if any
    distance with the 7 mag. Maybe too close for the cartridge? Expansion?

    I really appreciate your input.

    • Thanks for the comment Mike. Were all those extra bullets in the shoulder punching all the way through the elk, or did you find them somewhere in the shoulder or behind it?

      I sure feel better when an animal drops instantly and never moves again. Elk are big, tough animals and I think we are fairly lucky when this happens no matter what cartridge or load and bullet we use.

      I also think shot placement is more important than caliber and/or velocity. Heart and/or lung shot elk are going to die, no matter what caliber. We just don’t like having to track them more than a few yards.

      The last four elk I shot were with Copper bullets. Two elk (cow and calf) with the Barnes Vor-TX 160 grain bullet (Federal ammo) and two elk (cow & calf) with Barnes 290 grain Muzzle loader bullet.

      All were hit broad-side in the heart-lung area, which is a vital spot, but may not allow for full expansion of the bullets.

      All elk hit with the slow heavy muzzleloader bullet dropped instantly, both stood back up but dropped again before I could re-load.

      The calf elk I hit with the 160 grain 7mm Rem Mag bullet, dropped, stood back up and probably would have dropped again, but since I had the ability, I hit it again.

      The cow elk hit with the 160 grain 7mm bullet never even flinched. I knew I couldn’t have missed, except I wondered if an unseen twig deflected the bullet.

      The elk moved behind cover before I got a second shot. I could see the brisket from under some thick tree limbs, so took another shot that was low because there was no way to shoot under the tree limbs and still hit the elk. I could see the elk was getting wobbly before it walked off, but it only made it about 30 yards.

      There was a small entry hole and a gaping exit wound (2 – 3 inches), but very little blood trail because all the blood was filling the body cavity and not spilling out.

      In fact, all 4 elk had large exit wounds even though all were shot in soft tissue (some had broken ribs, others did not).

      The elk hit with 160 grain 7mm bullets were at 120 and 133 yards with an estimated 2,650 – 2,732 foot-lbs of energy (based on ballistics at elevation, temperature and distance).

      The two elk hit with 290 grain muzzleloader bullet were hit at 25 and 35 yards with an estimated 1,770 – 2,100 foot-lbs of energy.

      Since the energy of a Copper bullet and any other bullet of the same mass would be the same, the real question is about terminal/wound ballistics.

      Maybe the question should be Do Copper Bullets open up and expand the same as lead or bonded bullets, but we already know the nothing opens up like soft lead.

      But we also know lead fragments like crazy, contaminates the meat our families are going to eat and could potentially kill every eagle and vulture (and condor) that feeds on the carcass.

      Design, velocity and sectional density of each bullet determines the permanent wound channel and the temporary wound cavitation the bullet makes.

      Can bonded bullets do a better job of delivering more energy into the animal instead of through the animal and into the tree or dirt behind it? Maybe and maybe not.

      If we knew the exact distance we were shooting and what part of the animal we were shooting into, we could design the perfect bullet (Copper or otherwise). But we don’t know if we will be taking a broad-side heart-lung shot or if we will have to shoot through a shoulder or if we need to take a 460 yard shot or a 25 yard shot.

      In each of my cases with both 7mm and muzzleloader bullets (and your case), the elk dropped and died quickly.

      Would the result have been any better with a bonded bullet? Not measurably. And bonded bullet still means significant amounts of lead. I for one am done with lead for my hunting bullet.

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