Monolithic Bullets

Superb Performance And Reliable
Expansion Are THE NEW “Normal.”

One of the interesting terms used today is “monolithic bullets.” Mono meaning one and lithic meaning stone, so the primary meaning of the word literally means an object comprised of one large stone. Over time, however, meanings expanded to include not just rocks but unvarying societies, certain silicon chips and even bullets made of one metal. The last is intriguing because originally all bullets were made of one material, and aside from lead many were stone.

The bullets called monolithic today are made of copper or the copper-zinc alloy brass, including the mild brass known as gilding metal, consisting of at least 90 percent copper. Brass and copper bullets are considered non-toxic when ingested by animals or humans. Non-toxic bullets are required by law in some parts of the US, particularly where California condors might eat parts of animals killed with lead-cored bullets, but are required for all hunting in several European countries. (Europe also often has higher standards against toxic ingredients in primers and powders, but that’s another story.)


Many hunters use relatively light monolithic bullets to hunt large
game with the reputation for being very tough to put down. Eileen
Clarke used a 150-grain Nosler E-Tip from her custom Kilimanjaro
.308 Winchester to take a South African zebra.


Monolithic bullets are also harder than lead, so don’t deform as much when striking a target, particularly useful when hunting larger animals, since they usually penetrate deeper than lead-core expanding bullets. They also act differently inside firearms, again because they’re harder. Even the toughest jacketed lead-core bullets can be more easily squeezed down in a slightly under-sized bore, or “bump up” to fill slightly over-sized grooves.

Copper and brass are far less flexible. This resulted in problems with the first Barnes X-Bullets, made of copper with uniform, ungrooved shanks. The biggest problem was accuracy, since their lack of flexibility only allowed them to match certain bores precisely. When they did match bore diameter, accuracy was excellent, since unlike lead-cored bullets, the uniformity of the copper made bullet balance very consistent.


Brian McCombie used a single 150-grain Hornady GMX from a
Mauser Model 12 in .300 Winchester Magnum on his South Texas nilgai


But copper is softer and “grabbier” than gilding metal, the standard material for bullet jackets, so it tended to not only strip off in the bore, but also raised pressures. All-copper bullets are also longer than lead-cored bullets of the same weight and caliber, resulting in more contact between the bullet shank and bore. As a result, after a few shots, copper often built up inside the bore to the point where accuracy soured, and the copper fouling was difficult to remove.

The first solution tried by Barnes was a friction-reducing coating. This reduced pressure and fouling, but the bullets still had to match bores closely for the best accuracy. The eventual solution, of course, was grooves in the X-Bullet’s shank, resulting in the Triple Shock X-Bullet. The grooves reduced both pressure and fouling, and as a result TSX’s normally rank among the most accurate hunting bullets made.

Eventually hunters got used to using lighter bullets, since monolithics penetrate just as deeply as heavier lead-core bullets with the side-benefits of flatter trajectory over normal hunting ranges, plus lighter recoil. My wife Eileen has used monolithics on pronghorn ranging in weight from the 40-grain Cutting Edge Raptor in the .22-250 to the 90-grain Nosler E-Tip from the .243 Winchester with no problems, and many hunters of 500+ pound animals regularly use monolithics from 120 to 150 grains.

The same benefits usually apply to handgun bullets, and today quite a few companies make monolithic bullets for handguns. Partly this is because of environmental requirements (most larger American bullet companies also sell bullets in Europe) but it’s also because today’s designs work very well for various kinds of shooting.


Because they’re perfectly balanced, monolithics tend to be very accurate.
This Sako .280 shoots 120-grain Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullets just as
well as Sierra GameKings.

Weight Retention

One side effect of the Barnes X-Bullet was acceptance from a group we might call “weight-retention junkies.” During the first part of the 20th century, lead-cored bullets were plagued for years by excessive weight loss during expansion, especially at high terminal velocities. This was exactly the reason for the development of “premium” hunting bullets, starting with the Partition in the late 1940’s, and also for handgun bullets such as the Speer Gold Dot, made by plating the jacket to the core. As a result, higher weight retention became synonymous with deeper penetration, though in reality the frontal area of expanding bullets has more effect.

Barnes X-Bullets got their name because of serrations inside the hollowpoint allowing the front of the bullet to expand into four “petals,” forming an X-shape. Early X-Bullets often lost some petals and, due to the fixation on weight retention, the loss of even one petal was often judged a partial failure, even if whatever the bullet hit died quickly. This was because many shooters assumed higher weight retention and deeper penetration meant quicker kills, something that isn’t true. If it was, hunters would only use non-expanding “solid” bullets.

In fact, an expanding bullet shedding some weight usually creates a larger wound channel, and a bigger hole means faster results, something generally confirmed by forensic science. This was why John Nosler designed the Partition with a softer, disintegrating front core combined with harder rear core, so it would kill smaller big game like deer quickly, yet penetrate deeply on large animals like moose. Yet today some hunters consider any Partition that loses the front core a failure, like a Barnes X-Bullet that loses its petals, even after recovering either bullet from an animal that died quite suddenly.

The fixation on 100 percent weight retention even slightly puzzled Randy Brooks, but he gave his customers what they wanted, adjusting the X-Bullet design until they almost always retained all four petals. As a result TSX’s do penetrate very deeply, and while they kill very well if placed correctly, if off a little (say in the rear half of an elk’s lungs) they don’t tend to kill as quickly as bullets that lose some weight. Consequently quite a few of the fans of the TSX and similar bullets often “aim for bone,” meaning shoulders and spine, instead of the lung cavity.

One virtue of 100 percent weight retention is less meat loss on game animals, but this is compromised when shooting bone, since bone fragments act very much like bullet fragments, and shoulder and spine are surrounded by far more meat than the rib-cage. Consequently, other bullet makers have constructed their monolithic expanding bullets to lose the petals. The list includes Norma’s Kalahari rifle bullet, and both the rifle and handgun Raptors from Cutting Edge.

When handloading monolithic bullets it’s imperative to use loading data for the specific bullet, since both the metal, whether the shank is grooved or solid, and a possible coating will have major effects on pressure. Lighter bullets are usually preferable, since their shanks are shorter, reducing pressures due to less bore contact and leaving more powder room inside the case, particularly important when loading handgun cartridges. If we follow those basic guidelines, monolithic bullets can provide very fine performance, both in rifles and handguns.

Four of John Barsness’s nine books are on firearms and shooting. His latest, Rifle Trouble-Shooting and Handloading, was published in 2012 by Deep Creek Press, and is available through, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644-0579, (406) 521-0273.
By John Barsness

Barnes Bullets
38 N. Frontage Rd.
Mona, UT 84645
(435) 856-1000

Cutting Edge Bullets, LLC
75 Basin Run Road
Drifting, PA 16834
(814) 345-6690

GS Custom Bullets USA
(269) 861-2553

Hornady Mfg. Co.
3625 Old Potash Hwy.
Grand Island, NE 68802-1848
(800) 338-3220

Norma USA

Nosler, Inc.
P.O. Box 671
Bend, Oregon 97709
(800) 285-3701

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