Barnes Bullets and the Aussie connection behind their success

How buffalo hunters in the Top End did crucial work as Barnes developed its copper bullets

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Barnes Bullets have become a bit of a legend amongst serious hunters worldwide, both for the performance of their hunting ammunition and for making pure-copper, lead-free projectiles and ammunition. In Australia they have a great following — a fact that has a lot to do with the Australian connection behind their development.

Barnes Bullets is represented in Australia by Raytrade, but it remains a family-based business based in Mona, Utah, a small rural community. Thankfully, it is still run by dedicated hunters and shooters rather than accountants and financiers.

Barnes was founded in 1932 by Fred Barnes, but it was not until the company was acquired by Randy and Coni Brooks in 1974 that Barnes began to really shake up the shooting world.

Randy came up with a revolutionary concept while he was hunting in Alaska. He believed he could make an all-copper bullet that would perform much better on animals than the copper-jacketed lead-core bullets then available.

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Randy Brooks proved his theory about all-copper bullets by shooting a trophy grizzly bear with his first X Bullet

He began experimenting and turned out his first bullets on a lathe by hand from a solid copper rod, then drilled out the nose cavity and scored the inside of the hollow point cavity with a hand punch so the bullet would reliably expand into four sharp petals. Hence the name X Bullet, which is now famous for its ability to quickly and cleanly drop animals.

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The pure copper bullets made by Barnes are designed to expand exactly as these two have done

The X Bullet claimed its first kill in 1986 when Randy took a huge Alaskan Brown bear with a single shot using a .375 H&H with a 270gr projectile and the rest, as they say, is history. Since the X Bullet hit the shelves in 1989 it has become one of the most famous bullet designs ever.

Today Barnes produces literally dozens of different bullet and ammunition types for virtually every situation on a target range or in the hunting field, in almost every calibre. Their pure copper projectiles and loaded ammunition still account for 85-90% of their sales and they are universally recognised as the leader in copper bullets.

Most people are not aware of the very strong Australian influence on Barnes development since the invention of the X Bullet in the late 1980’s. 

In fact, as Randy Brooks’ daughter (and Barnes senior marketing manager) Jessica Brooks-Stevens told me, “Without Australia we would simply not have been able to develop our bullets so quickly to become so effective”.

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Early days: Randy Brooks makes projectiles by hand; Coni and the kids hard at work on the production line. Barnes is still a family business

Randy was a close friend of legendary Australian hunter and guide Bob Penfold. Bob took on the task of shooting literally thousands of buffalo in the NT to test the bullets. He sent recovered projectiles back to Barnes HQ in Utah. This extensive and rapid field testing on large, dangerous animals was critical to Barnes being able to rapidly test and develop bullets and ammunition that worked every time. 

Jessica told me that Barnes remains very grateful for all the work Bob and other Australians undertook to assist them. 

Australia is a very strong market for Barnes, high up in the top 10 countries they export to. The Triple Shok is their biggest seller here, followed by strong sales of the amazing little Varmint Grenade which is formed from copper powder and seems to vaporise inside any thin-skinned game, causing instant and sometimes spectacular kills without damaging skins.

Jessica was recently in the Pacific, hunting with her husband (former ballistics lab manager at Barnes) and she took an excellent buffalo in the NT before flying to the South Island of NZ, where she took a SCI free-range world record red stag. She is definitely a chip off the old block and is just as keen a shooter and hunter as her dad was when he invented the all-copper bullet.

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Jessica Brooks-Stevens with a world-record red stag she shot in New Zealand

Jessica was just three years old when her parents bought Barnes bullets, but her mum soon put her and her sister to work inserting bullet cores into jackets and placing them on baking trays so they could be squeezed into bonded projectiles ready for the range. 

Barnes has not rested on its laurels and is now a large producer of the hugely popular 6.5 Creedmoor round for both hunting and targets. Jessie explained how she enjoys using the 140gr Match Burner projectile to shoot in competition out to 1000-1200 yards. Both that projectile and the 127gr LRX are becoming very popular with Precision Rifle shooters.

I was fortunate enough to spend a day touring the 7000 square metre Barnes manufacturing facility near Mona, which is about two hours south of Salt Lake City. It is a state-of-the-art facility where you could eat off the floor and I have no idea how they keep it all so clean. Truly a testament to the people behind Barnes and their commitment to constant improvement of bullet production.

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The lobby of the Barnes building has some seriously impressive trophies on display

I especially loved seeing the 300 yard underground range at Barnes, my idea of the perfect accessory for every home, though I’m not sure my wife agrees. It is used to test all their ammunition. Barnes has literally hundreds of barrel blanks that can be inserted into a fixed-action firing block, allowing them to test virtually any caliber and chambering they wish under perfectly controlled circumstances. The range has chronographs fitted every 25 yards out to 300 so they can monitor both accuracy and velocity at every distance. 

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Left: Copper rod is used to make the projectiles. Right: Hundreds of barrel blanks are kept for testing and development

I was fascinated to see lengths of pure copper rod being fed into machines which first cut it to length, then press it into a bullet shape with cannelures before final processing and polishing to become the bullets we happily shoot downrange. 

Barnes is a major local employer in a rural area and their staff all seemed totally committed to quality and all seemed to have fantastic hunting and shooting stories to share with me. They shoot what they make. The lobby is a testament to Barnes hunting heritage with an amazing collection of trophy animals that have been taken by management and staff over the years. 

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Finished Barnes projectiles at the end of the production line

As I was leaving the building I asked Jessica whether she felt the current push for lead-free ammunition was driving the company’s growth and her reply says it all about Barnes’ philosophy.  

“We are all about projectile performance, not about political pressures. We are growing because our projectiles perform better.”

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