Should you Hunt Bear with Copper? (Guy’s Back Country Bear Hunt) – Ultimate Reloader

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I was both surprised and pleased to get a call from Gary Cameron, owner of Cameron Outfitters. I’d hunted bear with him last year, but hadn’t gotten a shot at one. He called in late May, saying that he had an opening at his backcountry bear camp and asked if I wanted to go hunting. Well of course! The only rub was that I had to get packed and to his base camp in a remote section of Idaho in just a few days. Fortunately, I hike on a regular basis so I was in decent physical condition, but what rifle, scope, and ammo did I have ready to use? 

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My Answer: .30-06 and a Copper Bullet!

Knowing that I had very little time to prepare, I selected my “go-to” hunting rifle. My .30-06 Remington 700 CDL topped with a 6x Leupold has proven itself reliable, accurate, and easy-to-pack. I’ve taken antelope, mule deer, black bear, elk, and even grizzly with this gun.

It has a 24” 1:10 twist Remington barrel that Gavin threaded for a suppressor; walnut, pillar-bedded and free-floated stock; and a 2.5 lb. Timney Trigger. I have used both bipods and tripods with it, but generally prefer to not attach it to anything. I’ll usually shoot my game animals from either a sling-supported position or by resting the rifle on my backpack or other improvised field rest. 

I had several different boxes of handloaded .30-06 ammunition available, but one came instantly to mind. I’d handloaded the 165 grain CX ammo for an African Plains Game hunt that I had to cancel and it had been sitting there in my loading room for two years, waiting to be fired. I wanted to give the copper-alloy bullet a try, but had several questions about its potential performance on game. Would it provide the penetration, expansion, and accuracy necessary to ethically harvest a bear?

It’s not that I’m dissatisfied with more conventional lead-core hunting bullets. Well-chosen lead core bullets can perform superbly, producing quick kills, penetrating well, expanding well, and shooting accurately. They’ve been filling freezers and feeding families for a very long time.  I’ve had excellent success with bullets from Hornady, Sierra, Nosler, and Berger, but there are also some possible shortcomings in their performance.

Lead core bullets can over-expand and fail to adequately penetrate to the vitals. They can also fragment, leading to inadequate penetration and leaving lead particles in the meat. 

Success with Lead Bullets

A copper-alloy bullet typically provides deep penetration and excellent weight retention. In the past, I’ve taken game with the Barnes TSX, but now there are more lead-free bullets on the market, like the Hornady CX. One particular shortcoming of copper bullets is that they often don’t expand as broadly as a lead-core bullet will, particularly at lower velocities. This is a concern when impacting game at longer ranges. 

About the Hornady CX Line

Hornady jumped into the world of lead-free copper alloy bullets with their GMX line years ago. They earned a good reputation in the hunting fields, but the good folks at Hornady learned that they could be improved. They added their proprietary Heat Shield bullet tip and optimized the groove geometry to increase the BC of the bullet for better retained velocity. 

It’s easy to get confused because the published BC figures aren’t always higher than those for the older GMX bullets. What happened is that Hornady changed the way they measure BC, moving to a more accurate method. The new CX bullets do indeed have a higher BC than their GMX predecessors, whether the BC number indicates it or not. 

Hornady’s lineup of CX bullets is extensive, starting at the 50 grain .224” and working up all the way to the 250 grain .375” CX. These bullets tend to be on the lighter-for-caliber side which is not surprising as copper is less dense than lead. Lighter  bullets can produce a higher muzzle velocity which flattens the trajectory at traditional hunting distances. 

I asked Hornady’s Seth Swerczek what happened to Hornady’s Interbond line of bullets, a bonded lead core hunting bullet. He explained that Hornady was satisfied that the CX line covered that niche better than the Interbond bullets had, so they discontinued the Interbond line.

A couple of years ago, shortly after Hornady announced the CX line of bullets, we tested the 150 grain version from my 26” barreled 7mm Remington Magnum, a Ruger Number One single shot rifle. We fired these bullets into Clear Ballistics Gel at both 2800 fps and 3200 fps to test their penetration and expansion. While synthetic ballistics gelatin will not 100% reflect what a bullet will do to a human or animal, it provides us with valuable data and allows us to compare the performance of different bullets and different loads. 

Hornady 7mm 150gr CX Bullet 2800fps Penetrated Gel

The 2800 fps results have a similar performance level to .30-06. The 150 grain 7mm bullet retained 99.8% of its weight and expanded from 0.284” to 0.539”. It penetrated 30.5”! I kept those two spent bullets on my reloading bench and have looked at them many times since, thinking about how effective they must be on game.  

About the Load

I’ve always liked the 165 grain bullet weight for both the .308 and the .30-06 cartridges. It’s light enough for a good muzzle velocity and heavy enough to perform well on most game. For years, my standard .30-06 hunting load used a 165 grain lead core hunting bullet that handled antelope, deer, black bear, and elk just fine. Now and again I’d use something different, but most of my .30-06 hunting was accomplished with the 165’s. 

Two years ago, in preparation for taking the .30-06 to Africa for plains game, I’d worked up a modified version of my good old 165 grain hunting load. This time I used the new 165 grain Hornady CX bullet. This required me to drop the powder charge substantially!

I used 55.4 grains of Hodgdon H4350 in once-fired Hornady brass with CCI 200 primers. I loaded my ammunition on a Lyman All-American 8 Turret Press using standard RCBS dies and simply threw the powder charges with the Lyman Brass Smith Powder Measure. It was a very basic and simple handloading process that produced excellent results. 

The data I used came from Hornady for the 165 grain GMX, which was quite similar to the CX bullet. Handloaders should not assume that their favorite load for a lead core bullet will work with a copper bullet. As always, start low and work your way up safely towards your intended hunting load. From the start I felt like I could get more accuracy from the CX bullet than what it was showing me. I contacted Seth Swerczek at Hornady and he recommended I seat them deeper, no closer than 0.050” off the lands. That’s quite a jump! When I seated them deeper, the CX bullets began shooting like match-grade bullets. Apparently these CX bullets like a good jump to the rifling. 

Three Shots fired from 100 Yards off a Bench

The chronograph results particularly impressed me! Good velocity at 2863 fps promised a reasonably flat trajectory to 300 or 400 yards and the very tight standard deviation figures hinted at excellent accuracy potential.  I saw an average of 2863 fps muzzle velocity with a 15 fps ES and 5 fps SD! 

Hornady’s Ballistic Calculator

Normally I sight in the .30-06 at 200 yards which makes hits at 300 and beyond much easier. For this hunt, I anticipated a rather close range shot at a bear drawn by bait, so I sighted in at 100 yards and practiced out to 300 yards just in case I got a longer range shot. 

Note that according to Hornady’s online Ballistic Calculator, the CX bullet slows to 2080 fps at 400 yards. Hornady states that the minimum impact velocity for adequate expansion of the CX bullet is 2,000 fps. For me, this load is limited to shots 400 yards and in. This is not a handicap as the farthest I’ve ever shot at big game was an elk at 405 yards. I’m not against long range hunting, it’s just never been necessary for me to do so to fill my tags. If I wanted  a load  for longer range hunting, there are better bullets for that application including Hornady’s own ELD-X lineup which have very high BC figures and are able to expand and perform well on game at extended ranges. 

Cameron Outfitters

I hunted with Cameron Outfitters last spring for bear and although I didn’t get a bear, I was impressed by their operation. Everyone, from the owners on down, was friendly and very competent. The accommodations are deluxe for such a remote setting.

The food is good and timely. We’d often eat well before dawn to get to our blinds before sunrise and eat dinner after 10:00 pm, staying in the blinds until it was truly dark. The cooks made it all cheerfully happen! 

Gary and Sherri Cameron moved up from Texas and bought an existing outfitter business. They are headquartered in Darby Montana and guide on over 800 miles of Idaho backcountry in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness area. The base camp is not in the official wilderness area so it can be driven to. The backcountry camps are in the wilderness and cannot be legally accessed by motor vehicle. Cameron Outfitters use surefooted mules to reach these camps. 

Gary and Blue

One outfitter, one mule, and one dog helped make my stay in Idaho even better. Gary Cameron gave me a quick lesson on how to ride Roscoe the mule. I hadn’t been in the saddle in over 20 years! Roscoe carried me diligently to and from the backcountry camp and also to my hunting blind and back every day.

I do highly recommend doing some stretching if you contemplate riding…Sam the dog is a pleasant fellow, always willing to play a game of fetch, hunt down field mice, mooch some food, and most importantly, to track down game after it’s been shot! 

The Hunt 

It was important to be in the blind early in the morning before sunrise and late in the evening until after sunset. Staying all day is an option, but so is returning to the backcountry camp for food and a midday nap. Don’t expect some elaborate box blind! These blinds are just places where a camp chair can be set up behind some foliage. Nonetheless, they’re effective. 

This year I essentially watched a nearly nonstop wildlife show at or near the bait! All day long various groups of whitetail deer, both does and bucks, would come to the bait. Some passed quite near my blind. I thought one doe was going to walk right into the blind with me. There were some amusing squabbles among various deer at the bait site. 

On the first evening in the blind, about 9:00 PM, a large-bodied bull elk with velvet-covered antlers passed about 20 yards below my blind! He had no idea that I was nearby. I made some small squeaking noises and he stopped moving. He looked all around to try to determine the source of the noise and even looked directly at me, but couldn’t see me. After a bit, he moved on and reappeared at the bait site to enjoy a snack. After 14 minutes on the bait stand, he suddenly bolted forward and vanished. I thought that perhaps he’d scented a bear, wolf, or cougar and I prepared myself to shoot, but nothing else appeared. By 10:00 pm it was too dark for me to see the bait site with or without optics. By the way, kudos to Leupold— their simple 6x scope was brighter and easier to see through in low light than my well-regarded European binoculars! 

After sitting through a rain squall on the second afternoon, I was waiting quietly in the blind as the shadows deepened and the sun set. Then a bear silently appeared at the bait! I put the crosshairs just behind the bear’s shoulder with the intent of getting a double lung shot and squeezed the Timney trigger. The rifle spoke. The bear bolted forward diagonally down into the gully. After a few seconds, I could hear it breathing hard, then silence. It was a small bear, in fact the smallest bear I’ve ever shot, but it was a bear. With my radio I contacted my young guide Caden at the backcountry camp and he quickly mounted up to come help me find the bear. He brought Sam the tracking dog with him and three mules, one for each of us to ride out and one to pack the bear out. Sam was air-scenting the bear as soon as he got to my blind. I had a rough idea which way the bear had gone, so we worked our way down into the gully and quickly located my harvest. 

We got back to camp late that evening, enjoyed another fine backcountry meal, and the guides skillfully skinned and quartered my bear. The meat looked and smelled terrific! Contrary to rumor, bear meat can be excellent and healthy food. It’s important to cook it thoroughly to avoid trichinosis. Bear roasts and chops are particularly tasty, and good sausage can also be made from it. 

The bullet’s exit hole was about 1.5” diameter and it looked like it had gone through a bear rib, ruining very little meat. The bullet seems to have expanded well even in such a small game animal, maybe 90 or 100 pounds. 

Conclusion

I’m glad I tried Hornady’s CX bullet on this hunt. Hodgdon’s H4350 continues to be a favorite .30-06 powder for me, producing extremely tight ES and SD figures in my handloads, along with good muzzle velocity.

The load was accurate both on the range and in the field. The small bear provided an interesting test. The bullet penetrated completely through as expected, but what impressed me was that the CX bullet obviously expanded well in the smaller game animal. After this experience, I’ve selected the 165 grain Hornady CX as my standard .30-06 hunting bullet and have every confidence that it can be successfully used on any North American big game. I’m looking forward to using more CX bullets in different cartridges. Gary and Sherri Cameron have become friends, not just outfitters. This was my second hunt with them and I hope to hunt with them again. They offer hunts for elk, mule deer, black bear, wolves, and mountain lions. I saw photos of the lions they took last winter—some are huge! 

Get the Gear

Hornady .30 Caliber .308 Diameter 165 Grain CX Bullets at Midsouth Shooters Supply

Hodgdon H4350 Smokeless Gun Powder at Midsouth Shooters Supply

CCI #200 Large Rifle Primers at Midsouth Shooters Supply

Hornady .30-06 Springfield Unprimed Rifle Brass at Midsouth Shooters Supply

RCBS .30-06 Springfield Full Length 2 Die Set at Midsouth Shooters Supply

Lyman All-American 8-Turret Press at Midsouth Shooters Supply

Lyman Brass Smith Powder Measure at Midsouth Shooters Supply

Hornady Ballistics Calculator

Clear Ballistics Gel

Cameron Outfitters

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Thanks,
Guy Miner

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