Which came first, the firearm or the bullet? Historically speaking, the advent of firearms came centuries after bullets had already been in use. Our ancestors used sling bullets cast from clay, stone and lead in battle — sans firearms. And in the 2nd century A.D., the Romans went a step further with “whistling bullets” — one-ounce lead balls with 5-millimeter holes through their middles. As their name implies, the resulting bullets whistled intimidatingly and traveled at a rate of 100 meters per second. Words like dexai, which translates to “take this” or “catch,” were etched into the noisy projectiles. Although we don’t carve catchy words into our hollow-points today, our technology has advanced by leaps and bounds, bringing us all the way up to frangible bullets.
Frangible bullets were first created for mid-20th-century shooting galleries; fun from a bygone era. In fact, if you can get your hands on a copy of the 1967 edition of Shooter’s Bible, you’ll find Remington Spatter-Less and Winchester SpatterProof gallery cartridges. Can you imagine going to the fair today and shooting real firearms as part of a game? I unfortunately cannot — not even a little bit.
Of course, these rounds had uses beyond galleries. Around the same time, .30-caliber frangible bullets were used in machine guns for target practice. The military saw them as a way to make combat simulation safer — and they were right.
But wait, you’re thinking: Tales abound of these bullets damaging the breech faces of guns, fragmenting in barrels and offering wholly disappointing accuracy. Light strikes, failures to feed, unpredictable groups the size of dinner plates — the list goes on. Brave any social media gun group or forum and you’ll find the word “frangibles” invoked in the same tone as when referring to users of the teacup grip or guys carrying unholstered pistols in the waistband of sweatpants.
A surprising number of people in the gun world see them as antiquated, worthless and even dangerous. In recent years, several gun writers have proclaimed frangibles a poor idea for self-defense, never to be used for hunting and incapable of anything but shallow penetration. It’s been called a “fad” or a “trend.”
They’re ill-informed, and they’re wrong.
Just as the science behind hollow-points has advanced drastically, so has the technology behind disintegrating bullets. Six decades ago, those shooting-gallery rounds were made using iron powder. This created projectiles that not only penetrated far more deeply than the hype proclaimed but also were magnetic. There is no comparison between the frangibles of the ’50s and the bullets on the market today.
Modern-day bullets are manufactured using powder metallurgy — the process of pressing and sintering finely powdered metals into objects. Powder metallurgy is fascinating and includes benefits such as superior uniformity, which translates to more-consistent performance. Copper is the predominant metal used, primarily because it is so extraordinarily malleable and ductile. It easily deforms under tensile- and compressive-stress — pushing and pulling.
Other metals, such as tin, are used as binding agents. The result is a compressed-copper powder bullet capable of disintegrating back into its minuscule fragments when it strikes an object harder than itself. This frangibility makes the bullets ideal for steel-plate shooting, CQB training and close-range shooting. But that’s not all. They’re also ideal for home defense.
Frangibles are not only capable of stopping an attacker but also disintegrate or fragment drastically, reducing the risk of over-penetrating and potentially wounding innocent bystanders. Of course, not all rounds are created equal. Just as experienced shooters and hunters see wide variations in performance between soft- and hollow-points, there are differences among frangibles. In my experience, Sinterfire makes the highest-quality copper-and-tin frangibles currently on the market. The other brand that’s proven itself through the years is Inceptor, which uses polymer, rather than tin, as the binding agent.
The only way to assess ammunition is to use it, and I don’t just mean on paper or even steel. As fun and informative as range time is, if you want to know how your ammunition will or will not perform for self-defense, hunt with it.
I’ve harvested dozens of animals using frangible-loaded handguns. When I see a new defense-oriented cartridge, I ask myself this: Would I shoot a feral hog with this round? If the answer is no, I’m highly unlikely to ever be caught carrying that ammunition to defend my life. As ill-tempered as feral hogs can be, they have nothing on an adrenaline-fueled, drug-crazed assailant.
From badgers to hogs to deer, handgun-caliber frangibles have created consistently broad, deep and permanent wound cavities. Unlike the slicing through-and-through wounds typically seen in the flesh and hearts of animals shot with hollow-points, soft-points or any other hunting round, these wounds punch a hole in muscles and utterly shred hearts. There is often an entrance wound but no exit. And, yes, these are single-shot kills. These bullets work.
Penetration is one of many areas in which these bullets shine, despite what the social media “experts” claim. Consider the diminutive .380 ACP. During gel testing, Federal Premium Personal Defense .380 ACP 99-grain HST had an average penetration depth of 9.325 inches. Sinterfire .380 ACP 75-grain HP Frangibles penetrated an average of 11.13 inches. Frangible rounds either produced comparable penetration depth or outperformed other bullets across the board.
As far as accuracy goes, shooting off-hand from a distance of 10 yards using a SIG P320 loaded with Sinterfire 9mm 100-grain hollow-point frangibles, my best five-shot group was 0.3 inches. Also at 10 yards but with a Remington R1 Enhanced Double-Stack loaded with Sinterfire .45 ACP 155-grain hollow-point frangibles, the smallest five-shot group was 0.77 inches. When I moved out to 25 yards, that five-shot group broadened to 1.81 inches. Sinterfire 10mm 125-grain hollow-point frangibles fired through a Ruger SR1911 delivered a 0.69-inch five-shot group at 10 yards.
Inceptor delivered similar accuracy, although its 10mm 91-grain ARX through the same Ruger nailed a 0.538-inch five-shot group at 10 yards (that made my day). Using the same guns and distance listed above, Inceptor 9mm 65-grain +P ARX produced a nice, clean 0.67-inch five-shot group, and Inceptor .45 ACP 118-grain ARX’s tightest five-shot group was 0.88 inches.
Keep in mind these groups were fired at a sedate pace under no pressure. Ramp up the adrenaline and speed and your groups widen. It is also dependent on the firearm; not all guns love all ammo. I’ve fired more than 10,000 rounds of frangibles and, although some brands disappoint, many are fantastic. Again, that is just like any ammunition on the market. Brands such as Sinterfire feed reliably, strike targets precisely and powder when they impact a surface harder than their own sintered composition. The risk of ricochet or splashback is markedly decreased, if not eliminated.
Over-penetration is often mentioned when discussing ammunition selection for home defense. Worries of bullets blowing through doors and walls to then hurt or kill a loved one are understandable but mostly exaggerated. All projectiles have the potential for over-penetration. There is no magic bullet. That said, if you would like to reduce the risk, use frangibles.
In my years of hunting and shooting a wide variety of stationary objects with all sorts of ammo, frangible rounds are the only type consistently proven to fragment or powder. If a frangible bullet strikes the stud in a wall, it powders. If a hollow-point strikes a stud, it either passes clean through or ricochets, depending on the angle, design and caliber.
I’ve seen the aftermath of a frangible hitting bone too. Although the bullets are capable of passing through bone, they tend to fragment as intended. Feral hogs shot once in the head with Inceptor .40 S&W 88-grain ARX drop and have no exit wound. Whitetails shot through the heart using Inceptor 10mm 90-grain ARX also go down on the spot with no exit wound. Yes, there are exceptions to every rule, but years of using Inceptor and Sinterfire have shown me these brands perform precisely as high-quality frangible bullets should.
These are not your grandfather’s bullets. They’re not your father’s frangibles. These are not even the same as rounds produced 10 years ago.
My home-defense guns are loaded with frangibles, with brands varying by caliber. There was a time when my defense ammunition was Speer Gold Dots across the board, but times change. Experience teaches you to shift potentially incorrect viewpoints, and consistency convinces you to move forward. I trust these rounds with not only my life but also the life of my daughter.
One of the less harmful false notions floating around the internet is that no law enforcement agencies use frangible ammunition. This is false. The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, United States Coast Guard and FBI, among others, use Sinterfire. There have also been discussions between Texas and Sinterfire regarding the use of the company’s disintegrating bullets for the state’s School Marshal Program. Frangibles are ideal for self-defense in close quarters, such as in schools, hospitals and, yes, your home.
Then we have the issue of precisely how these rounds work. As discussed above, frangible bullets are manufactured using powder metallurgy to transform copper and a binder, such as tin or polymer. They’re designed to powder upon impact, which they do. Unfortunately, words like “rupture” and “explode” are often thrown around regarding these bullets. Frangibles neither rupture nor explode. “Rupture” implies they burst like overstuffed sausages, and “explode” conjures up visions of hand grenades.
The myth that they retain a solid lead core which continues to penetrate after the rest fragments is also patently untrue. If a bullet has a lead core, it isn’t frangible — end of story. In fact, the use of incorrect terms for marketing campaigns highlights a significant issue. Very few errors are more frustrating than an inexperienced company repackaging good frangibles, then saturating the marketing campaign with blatantly erroneous information.
Over the years, I’ve used numerous brands of frangible ammunition. I’ve fired rounds at AR500 steel plates from as close as 10 inches. I’ve fired frangible .50 Beowulfs at steel from 7 yards and .50 BMG bullets while prone at 40 yards. Frangibles have carried me through high-round-count classes with handguns and carbines. Then there are the hunts. If I don’t trust ammunition to stop an angry, charging 255-pound feral hog, I must seriously consider whether or not it is a viable option for self-defense.
Keith Porco, Sinterfire’s head of new product development and ballistic technical services, said it best: “As law enforcement, military or everyday people, we are responsible for every bullet we fire. Sinterfire frangible hollow-points can greatly reduce the chance of ricochet from a missed shot fired in self-defense.”
You are responsible for your own safety. In all likelihood, no one is coming to save you. You are also responsible for every single bullet fired from your gun. If you are forced to defend yourself, wouldn’t you prefer doing so with reliable ammunition that creates incapacitating wound cavities on tissue but powders when striking solid objects? I certainly do. My goal is to stop the threat, and frangible bullets do so while also significantly reducing the risk of harm to innocents. To me, this is a win-win.
About Kat Ainsworth
Outdoor writer Kat Ainsworth has been carrying concealed for 15 years and hunting for more than 20 years. She writes for a variety of industry publications, covering hunting, ballistics and self-defense, though she has a background in K9 Search-and-Rescue and emergency veterinary medicine. Kat enjoys traveling as part of her gun-related lifestyle. She has yet to find a firearm she didn’t want to fire.