Lead-Free, All Copper, High Speed
By Steve Tracy
Liberty Ammunition boldly states that its high-performance, lead-free ammo is the world’s fastest handgun round. The Bradenton, Fla. manufacturer holds multiple small-arms ammunition patents and claims to have developed cartridges that are exceptional in both accuracy and performance.
Their Civil Defense ammunition consists of a monolithic hollowpoint with increased velocity, accuracy, and barrier penetration. While the bullet’s speed is increased due to the combination of the powder used and its reduced weight, reduced recoil is also a benefit as a result. Their cartridges are created from all-new materials and non-corrosive primers.
Liberty’s Civil Defense handgun rounds are available in .380 ACP, 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, 10mm, .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .45 Colt. Their Silverado .223 Remington (also fires in 5.56 NATO chambered firearms) is a 55-grain, lead-free round for use in rifles/carbines.
Lead vs. Lead-Free
One-hundred percent copper bullets were first created by Barnes Bullets in the mid-1980s and used as a high-quality hunting round for big game in Africa. Consistent and rapid expansion with bullet weight retention and deep penetration resulted. Hunters found the lead-free rounds worked extremely well and proper shot placement provided the ability to crush and penetrate bone, create massive organ/tissue disruption, and often a large exit wound.
The shooting world has been using lead based ammo for so long, that it’s difficult to overcome our way of thinking. We’ve long known that a heavy bullet is needed to get the job done. Lead is a heavy metal and provides plenty of weight for its size. It is also a malleable material, being relatively soft. This makes it easier to produce and size. However, a lead bullet’s weight needs plenty of power behind it in order to get it moving. Knowledgeable police officers have experienced the difference in recoil when firing 115-grain 9mm rounds compared to 147-grain bullets in the same caliber. The heavier rounds usually produce more felt recoil. The same goes for 185-grain .45 ACP bullets, which feel much different compared to 230-grain bullets when fired through the same pistol. It takes a bit more oomph to get those heavier, lead-based bullets moving and therefore their subsequent recoil is increased.
Liberty is not the first bullet maker to offer lead-free, all-copper rounds. As government restrictions increase throughout the country, Liberty probably won’t be the last either. Hunting expert Craig Boddington has used non-lead bullets on all types of wild game and found it to be as accurate as any other round (although some firearms don’t like certain bullets, no matter what they’re made of) and often times to have even more effective killing power.
Liberty first came to my attention at the Make Big Noise event in Virginia during the summer of 2014. The demonstration of their ammo was impressive. As police officers, skepticism often becomes ingrained in our personalities. As a carnival fraud inspector for 14 years, my training forced me to search for ways the presentation could be scammed, fixed, gamed, or fraudulently skewed. I found none. During the 2015 SHOT Show in Las Vegas, I had another opportunity to fire Liberty’s Civil Defense cartridges and I was again impressed. I bought some during a recent sale and conducted some velocity tests on my own.
Scientific ballistics tests often utilize test barrels under extremely controlled laboratory conditions. Being a cop and not a scientist, my test barrels are actual firearms, and I just have a local range instead of a lab. Oh, and I don’t have a lab coat either.
To confirm Liberty’s velocity claims, I loaded up a Walther PPQ M2 9mm pistol sporting a 5-inch barrel with one of the newest law-enforcement duty rounds made of traditional copper jacketed lead. It’s a hollowpoint with a polymer tip to aid in consistent expansion and is advertised and sold as a police duty round. Firing five rounds of this 135-grain 9mm through the screens of the chronograph revealed an average velocity of 1082 fps.
A second magazine containing five rounds of Liberty’s Civil Defense 9mm 50-grain bullets resulted in an average velocity of 2265 fps. The speed of the Civil Defense rounds is quite high and attributable to the bullet’s lighter weight. While the numeric readout on the chronograph is impressive, so is the recoil. There was noticeably less recoil with the Liberty 9mm cartridges. To compare the felt recoil as much as possible, rounds of the 135-grain lead rounds were alternated in a magazine with Liberty’s 50-grain rounds. Firing them offhand from a two-handed hold, the difference was obvious. The Liberty bullets delivered much less felt recoil, meaning faster follow-up shots would be possible since the muzzle flip was less.
The lead bullet weights most commonly encountered in the 9mm Luger cartridge are 115, 124, and 147 grains. Liberty’s 50-grain projectile weighs less than half of the standard 9mm’s lightest bullet. Again, cops are even more skeptical than the layman. The 9mm vs. .45 ACP and heavy vs. light bullet arguments have gone on for decades. Carrying 51 rounds of 9mm in magazines on your duty belt (a Glock 17 with 17-round magazines) at 124 grains each compared to Liberty’s 50-grain each bullets is a considerable weight savings. The same goes for .45 caliber bullets and just having officers hold a box of 20 rounds of Liberty in their palm compared to a similar box of lead bullets proves the difference.
Pretty much anyone who claims to be reasonable understands that bullet placement is the all-important factor in stopping a threat as quickly as possible. With this in mind, there are still those who cannot get past how light the Liberty bullet is. Wound cavities, penetration, and bullet weight retention all come into play when discussing ballistics.
There are those who desire a bullet’s ability to penetrate (whether it be walls, steel, glass, etc.) and there are those who desire a bullet’s ability to create hydrostatic shock and transfer all of its energy without exiting the target. There are those who believe in only one or the other and some who believe in both. Neither of these matter much if you shoot someone in the calf. Cartridges for police duty use are often focused on penetration since we’re around vehicles so much during the course of performing our jobs. Self defense, off-duty cartridges are often more focused on initial tissue and organ damage without as much concern for penetration.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Penetration Test protocol for handgun cartridges consists of firing bullets into bare gelatin and through clothing, steel (car door type), wallboard (drywall), plywood, and automobile glass. These are the standard tests conducted by the agency and by ammunition manufacturers under scientific conditions.
At a Las Vegas SHOT Show range event, I reached out to Liberty’s representative to inquire about The Police Marksman conducting a test of Liberty’s Civil Defense ammo. I advised him that I had a friend’s Jeep Wrangler windshield (he had it replaced after a small rock cracked it) and that the GTR Sporting Club in Waukegan, Ill. would allow me to conduct a version of the FBI Protocol ballistics test. Liberty agreed and soon gelatin, car doors, drywall, and plywood were obtained for the test.
Shooting and Testing – Ballistic Gel
With law enforcement and civilians witnessing the various tests, we started with bare gelatin. This would be a test of Liberty’s Civil Defense ammo, so we didn’t want to get into a major comparison of other maker’s rounds, as information on them is available elsewhere.
A 9mm Civil Defense round was fired into the center of a gelatin block from 10 feet away. It was fired from a Walther PPQ with a 5-inch barrel. The round entered the gel and then it did what it was designed to do after traveling just 1.5 inches into the block. The copper hollowpoint opened up. The hydrostatic shock created a temporary wound cavity approximately 3 inches long and 1.5 inches wide. The eight petals of the hollowpoint broke off and formed eight different smaller wound channels, while the solid bullet core penetrated 10 inches before stopping.
The cavities left in the ballistic gel were very dark, almost dirty looking. Liberty stated that the 9mm projectile moves so fast that it actually ignites the gelatin, causing the blackened appearance. Everyone was impressed with the Civil Defense 9mm’s performance. There are those who call the petals that break off “gimmicks.” Looking at them inside the clear gel block made them look serious.
Two lead-based hollowpoint 9mm rounds were fired into the gel at the same distance from the PPQ. The first was a 147-grain round and the second was the same 135-grain police duty round with a polymer tip designed to cause consistent expansion of the bullet. The standard round penetrated 14.5 inches into the gel and expanded as designed. However, the wound channel was not very impressive, being not much bigger than the opened bullet itself. The polymer tip duty round penetrated the entire 16 inches of the ballistics gel and was recovered in its expanded shape. The wound channel was again just slightly more than the expanded width of the projectile.
A paramedic was on hand to observe the test and he related that he’s seen plenty of “through and through” wounds like those caused by the lead bullets. Pressure is applied front and rear to the patient and they’re taken to the hospital where they’re patched up. He pointed at the wound channel from the Liberty 9mm round and said, “Those guys don’t make it to the hospital. They usually don’t even make it into the ambulance.”
The gel block was then covered with a T-shirt, a dress shirt, and a pair of denim jeans. The Liberty 9mm round performed exactly the same through this clothing as it did in the bare gelatin.
While not all Civil Defense rounds were tested in the gelatin blocks, the .380 ACP round was fired from a Smith & Wesson Bodyguard with a 2 ¾-inch barrel. This was done out of curiosity because so many officers carry the Bodyguard or the Ruger LCP that we wanted to see how the Liberty .380 performed. The five rounds fired did not expand, but rather tumbled through the gel until they stopped at around 7.5 inches. When recovered, they were pristine, with only rifling grooves from the gun’s barrel in evidence. When asked, Liberty stated that it’s difficult to get a .380 bullet up to enough speed from a short barrel like the Bodyguard’s or LCP’s. It’s too bad we didn’t have a Walther PPK with a 3.3-inch long barrel to see if the .380 would expand like the other Liberty rounds. Liberty said they are working on obtaining better performance out of their .380 cartridge for super short barreled semi-automatics.
Two pieces of standard drywall were secured with 2×4 studs to simulate the typical walls inside a home. Civil Defense cartridges were fired into the wallboard in .380, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm, .40 S&W, 10mm, .45 Long Colt, and .223 out of various firearms chambered to shoot each round. Every round passed easily through the walls and impacted the target positioned behind. The .223 Remington Civil Defense round is an all-copper, 55-grain hollowpoint. These rifle rounds were fired out of an IWI Tavor with a 16.5-inch barrel.
The same firearms were used to fire one round of each of the Civil Defense cartridges through the Jeep windshield, which was held at a 45-degree angle and an additional 11 degrees canted to the side. There is never a guarantee when bullets come into contact with laminated safety glass windshields. Many lead-based bullets will not reliably penetrate windshields and stay intact. Bonded bullets will more likely pass through a windshield, but are often caused to follow a downward trajectory when fired into a vehicle and follow an upward trajectory when fired from inside a vehicle. The angle of the glass causes all kinds of havoc.
Liberty’s claim is that their rounds not only penetrate windshield glass reliably, but they are so fast that the point of aim is also their point of impact. I had seen this demonstrated, but the carnival fraud investigator in me wanted to do it myself before I believed it. Sure enough, each round punched a clean hole through the windshield and impacted the target right where it was aimed. Even the .380 Civil Defense round went through the Wrangler’s laminated glass from the 2 ¾-inch barrel of an S&W Bodyguard. Many didn’t think the little .380 cartridge could do it. A veteran officer with extensive SWAT experience was amazed and impressed with the POA-POI impact of the Liberty bullets. He said he’d never seen a bullet that wasn’t deflected by a vehicle windshield before.
A gelatin block was placed behind the windshield when the 9mm round was fired to see how the projectile performed after being asked to punch through the tough laminated glass. The wound channel was not as impressive as before, but the bullet did penetrate 7.5 inches. It didn’t come apart and flake off its petals. It did take a tumble downward in the gel. Obviously, bullets lose a significant portion of their ability to behave as designed when encountering laminated automobile glass. But the Liberty round, despite its low weight, still did damage and penetrated the gel after smashing through the windshield.
The sheet metal of car doors really isn’t all that tough. Each Liberty caliber went through the car door and out the other side into the target without a hitch. Usually bullets can hit steel gears and other window crank and safety features inside of car doors. We must have missed all of those because the Liberty rounds penetrated easily, including the .380 out of the Bodyguard.
The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) awards an “NTOA Member Tested and Recommended” to products that receive a rating of 3.0 or higher when tested in the field by their law enforcement community. Liberty’s Civil Defense 9mm Luger round received a perfect 5.0 (defined as a product that performs at a level above advertised specifications and demonstrates its usefulness and quality of workmanship every time it is used and can be used for other purposes) and the NTOA’s Gold award. It is the first time any ammunition has received such a high rating by the NTOA.
Whenever a bullet reaches a certain speed, there is concern about its ability to penetrate common soft police body armor. We were not able to test the Civil Defense ammunition against body armor. Liberty’s representative stated that the tested rounds would not penetrate police body armor. However, individual officers and departments should consider the fact that various handgun calibers (due to their bullet design and velocity) and many rifle calibers will defeat soft body armor.
Each police officer with an interest in firearms has an opinion concerning carry ammo for duty and off-duty. The officers involved and witnessing The Police Marksman’s test of Liberty’s Civil Defense ammunition all came away impressed. The 9mm was the focus of the experimentation and that round passed every barrier and convinced us of its ability to deliver devastating energy and stopping power to the closest example of human tissue (the ballistic ordnance gel block) we have and through common clothing.
While some traditional bullets perform well in gel, they fail at penetration tests like drywall, windshields, and car doors. Others penetrate well, but don’t deliver a large wound cavity created by hydrostatic shock. Most bullets are a compromise in their design—penetration vs. expansion. After the 1986 FBI Miami Shootout, penetration was deemed most important by that agency. Many law enforcement agencies agree with that assessment. However, over penetration can be a concern for police officers.
There are also those who do not believe in the ability of hydrostatic shock to actually cause a person to stop being an immediate threat. Striking the balance seemed to be the Civil Defense round’s attribute. The hollowpoint opened and the petals flaked off to create an impressive temporary wound cavity. The core bullet also penetrated 10 inches. Is that deep enough? You and your agency can make that decision.
Regardless of which you believe in more, Liberty’s 9mm did everything it was asked to do and it did it with less recoil. Liberty Ammunition’s Civil Defense cartridges launch a properly designed and executed lightweight projectile at very high speeds. The goal of The Police Marksman test of Liberty’s new ammo wasn’t to prove or disprove any of the theories of ballistic stopping power, but rather to verify Liberty’s claims about their Civil Defense rounds. Their rounds were found to be a functional proposition for law enforcement carry, both on and off-duty. PM
Steve Tracy has over two and a half decades experience as a police officer and firearms instructor. He is also a tactical rifle, use of force, less-lethal, and scenario-based training police instructor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. The 9mm Civil Defense round punched right through the Jeep Wrangler windshield without deflection. The bullet penetrated the gel block 7.5 inches, though the tough laminated glass slowed it enough to make the wound channel not as impressive. However, this happens often to most bullets when fired through a windshield as long as they make it through.
2. All of the Liberty Civil Defense bullets penetrated the car door and impacted the target standing behind.
3. Liberty Ammunition’s Civil Defense line of monolithic copper, nickel-plated cartridges is available in .380 ACP, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, 9mm Luger, .40 S&W, 10mm, .45 ACP, .45 Long Colt, and .223 Remington.
4. The 9mm Liberty round entered the gel and caused a spectacular hydrostatic shock wound channel that was 1 ½ inches wide and 3 inches long. Eight petals of the hollowpoint separated to form eight more wound channels and the solid core penetrated 10 inches into the gel.
5. The bullet moves so fast that it ignites the gel, causing the dark appearance.
6. A local officer inspects the gel block after witnessing several different rounds for comparison.
7. Test firing the 9mm 50-grain Civil Defense round into bare ballistic gelatin.
8. A common, police-oriented 147-grain lead 9mm bullet (bottom) penetrated 14 ½ inches but did not create a dramatic wound channel.
9. Another 135-grain lead 9mm also oriented for police use penetrated out the back of the entire 16-inch gel block and was recovered in the berm. Its wound channel was not as impressive as the Liberty 9mm’s.
10. 380, .38, .357, .40 S&W, 9mm, .45 ACP, 10mm, .45 Colt, and .223 all penetrated the windshield cleanly. Even the .380 ACP Civil Defense round fired from a tiny S&W Bodyguard went through the windshield.
11. Liberty’s Civil Defense bullets are moving so fast, they punch through automobile windshield glass and their point of aim equals their point of impact.
12. Liberty’s 9mm bullet performed virtually the same through clothing (T-shirt, dress shirt, and denim jacket) as it did into the bare gelatin.
13. The Civil Defense rounds all penetrated double drywall simulating an interior wall. Top row: .38, 9mm, .380; Middle row: .357, .40, .45; Bottom: .223.