Plastic bullets? No — they’re not plastic, but apparently that’s what more than a few people seem to think. Polycase Ammo has introduced some very different new bullets to the market, and suffice it to say my inbox blew up when these were announced. Partly, I assume, because there are some lofty claims made by the manufacturer, but moreso (I think) because I recently published a test of the Lehigh Defense Xtreme Penetrator bullet. For those who are familiar with that particular Philips-head-screwdriver-resembling projectile, these PolyCase ARX bullets bear enough resemblance that people wanted them tested now . . .
Well, it’s now.
A reader sent me both .380 and 9mm versions of the Inceptor, so I gave them the full going over. Let me say up front, these are rather unusual bullets. Perhaps even moreso than the Lehigh XP’s, which I will make frequent references back to. The XP is a solid copper bullet which is largely reminiscent of a flatnose FMJ, with flutes cut out of it. The ARX Inceptor bullets are also lead-free, but they’re not solid copper; instead, they’re a blend of copper and polymer.
Polymer? As in … plastic? Well, polymers are used in plastics, but the subject of polymers is vastly more complex than that (there are also biological polymers, such as DNA). These bullets are not made entirely of polymers, they are a blend of copper and polymer. I can’t tell you exactly what they are, but I can make a couple of easy observations — these bullets are LIGHT, and they don’t really feel like metal. Nor do they feel like plastic. They’re — different.
I smacked one with a sledgehammer to see what would happen — would it mush like metal? Would it fragment like plastic? Neither; it just broke in three pieces. It seems to be halfway between metal and plastic.
So, on to weight — generally these bullets weigh a bit over half as much as a typical heavy lead bullet. In .380 ACP, a heavy bullet would be something like the 99-grain HST or the 102-grain Golden Saber; the Polycase Inceptor ARX weighs just 56 grains. That’s lighter than a typical .32 ACP bullet; heck, it’s lighter than some .22LR ammo. And the 9mm is similar; a heavy 9mm bullet is usually 147 grains, but the Polycase Inceptor ARX weighs just 74 grains. That’s about the weight of a .32 ACP.
The bullets aren’t small, they’re about the same size as conventional bullets, but copper bullets are generally lighter than lead bullets and (clearly) copper/polymer bullets are even lighter still. In exchange for the light weight, the Polycase ammo delivers increased velocity. The .380 ACP averaged 1133 feet per second, and the 9mm version delivered an average of 1409 feet per second from these short barrels. For comparison, most .380 ammo I’ve tested clocks in at around 800-850 fps, and most 124-grain 9mm’s usually hit around 1100 fps.
Now, at this point I should mention that there are generally two schools of thought regarding bullet performance — there’s the “light and fast” school which argues that velocity is everything, and minimizing bullet weight to achieve higher velocity is a common tactic. These folks will frequently invoke terms such as “energy transfer” and “hydrostatic shock”. The marketing on the Polycase site would be quite appealing to “light and fast” adherents, there’s plenty of discussion of “rapid energy transfer” and whatnot. “Light & Fast” proponents want to see large temporary cavities, and tend to not be all that worried about how deeply the bullet penetrates.
The other school of thought is generally classified as the “slow and heavy” group; people who follow this school tend to prioritize the weight, momentum, and observable damage that the bullets actually do. In car terms, these people would be the type who would say “there’s no replacement for displacement.” These folks value deep penetration, followed by as much expansion as possible, to create large deep damage to stop the threat. This group demands that the bullets have the capability to reach and damage the vital organs, and the bigger the bullet that reaches deep, the more damage will be done.
I generally find myself in the “fast and heavy” camp — I want the biggest, heaviest, biggest-caliber bullet I can get, moving as fast as possible. Hence I prefer the .308 over the .223, the .45 over the 9mm, and I like my revolvers in .454 or higher. I like the bullets heavy, and moving as fast as possible, but if I had to be corralled into one of the two prevailing groups, I’d definitely be in the “slow & heavy” group.
Which is why it seems bizarre to me to be writing this next part, but the results are what they are. These Polycase bullets seem to satisfy both groups. They are very light and quite fast, they make big temporary cavities, but they also penetrate deeply and, due to their fluted nose and also their engineered tendency to tumble, they do more damage than a regular solid bullet (such as an FMJ) would do.
Remember, this is a solid bullet. It doesn’t expand. You might expect it to punch a small wound path, like an FMJ does. But they do much more damage than that, primarily through two different wounding mechanisms.
First, they use a fluted nose somewhat similar to the Lehigh Xtreme Penetrator’s nose, to redirect the incoming tissue/blood/gel outwards and channel that material into creating radial damage. This causes a big nasty initial damage cavity that is quite similar to what we normally see from hollowpoint bullets, and lasts for the first 6+ inches (in the .380 version) to 10+ inches (in the 9mm version) of penetration through gel. That’s really impressive.
Then, after the initial impact and large initial damage, the bullet seems to settle into a tumbling run. Nearly all the bullets I tested were found facing backwards in the gel. Clearly they didn’t just fly nose-forward on their whole travel path; they were thrown for a loop and tumbled end over end. Polycase says in their marketing material that the bullets are engineered to tumble, and that’s exactly what I observed. Which is, by the way, just fine.
A solid bullet like an FMJ would normally overpenetrate grossly; a .380 flat-nose FMJ will penetrate 23″ to 27″, and a 9mm FMJ will do well over 32″. But if you can get that bullet to tumble, it slows the bullet down and really reins in the penetration, while simultaneously doing more damage. The bullet is much longer than it is wide (it’s .355″ wide, but the 9mm version is about .63″ long), so as the bullet tumbles, there’ll be times that it’s cutting a .355″ wide hole, but at some point it’ll be pushing sideways through the body, and cutting a 5/8″ hole at that point. That creates more drag which slows the bullet down, and the larger bullet cuts a larger hole (while not having to have expanded to do it).
The results were pretty impressive as far as penetration. The .380, from a tiny 2.8″-barrel pocket pistol, hit the desired 12″ minimum in three of the four shots I tested; the fourth shot went 11″. Not picture perfect but — heck, for a 56-grain .380, that’s really very good and better than I was expecting. I feel certain that if fired from a longer barrel (such as on the GLOCK 42), all bullets would have easily reached 12″. And the 9mm, well, its penetration was simply outstanding, ranging from 14″ to 16″, with a clearly observed exaggerated damage track stretching past 10″. And that’s from a 3″-barrel pocket pistol. From a longer barrel gun, you can expect that there would be even more penetration and damage.
Overall it paints a really nice picture. But it’s not all picture-perfect. I did observe a couple of cases of the bullets wandering off course in the gel. This is something that I’ve encountered frequently with .22LR bullets, and occasionally with .380’s. Lighter weight bullets can sometimes just veer off course. They don’t need to hit a bone to do it, they just — for whatever hydrodynamic reason — turn and go in a different direction.
Watch the video, you’ll see where I trace one of the bullet paths and show how it ends up a few inches off course. Is it a big deal? Probably not, but it’s just something to be aware of. It would be disappointing to have absolutely perfect shot placement, but have the bullet miss the vital organs because it arbitrarily changed course once inside the body, for example. Then again, keeping it real, you’d have to wonder just how frequently does a self-defense shooter make an absolutely-perfectly-placed shot in the stress of a life-or-death encounter?
So the results are great, but then the next question becomes: how do these results compare to the Lehigh XP’s? Pretty well, but not for the same reasons.
Even though they seem similar, the more I studied them, the more I realized that the Polycase ARX and the Lehigh XP really aren’t all that similar. The Polycase has angled flutes, the Lehigh’s are straight on. The Polycase is a round-nose bullet, the Lehigh is a flat-faced projectile with a sharp meplat. The Polycase is a low-weight, high-velocity bullet, the Lehigh is a heavier, slower load. But the biggest difference to me is the way the damage is done — the Polycase seems engineered to create a big initial cavity and then to start tumbling. The Polycase doesn’t rely on its fluted nose to do the damage, other than in the initial impact — after all, as soon as the bullet starts tumbling, that fluted nose isn’t working anymore to exaggerate the damage through radial dispersion.
The Lehigh, on the other hand, is designed to fly nose-forward the entire time, relying on the flutes in its nose to create a wider damage path than a solid projectile should normally be able to do. They both succeed in creating larger damage paths than conventional solid projectiles, but they get at that destination by different means.
I was very impressed with the 9mm version of the Inceptor. The penetration was outstanding, and the damage done was equally outstanding. When compared against the Lehigh XP in 9mm, I think the Polycase is probably the more responsible choice for personal protection against human attackers.
The Lehigh XP, in tnoutdoors9’s recently published video test, penetrated well over 32″ on every shot he took. Given that the normal cutoff limit for penetration is 18″, that represents significant overpenetration (and, hey, seems like they named ’em “Xtreme Penetrators” for a reason).
The Polycase, from a small pocket pistol, penetrated very deeply while staying comfortably within the prescribed 12″ to 18″ range, and did excellent damage. In general I do prefer a heavier bullet, but the overpenetration issue and the potential (however unlikely) liability issues that overpenetration may cause, make me lean towards the Polycase ARX as the more appropriate choice for a solid bullet for self defense.
In .380, I think the Polycase was a very good performer, and probably worthy of entering my Ammo Quest’s “Winner’s Circle.” However, I think the Lehigh XP is simply a superior choice. The Lehigh penetrated much deeper (up to 19″), it weighs more, and it cuts a larger wound path for longer.
The Polycase did fine, but it just barely made the 12″ minimum distance. The Lehigh always easily exceeds the 12″ minimum, and penetrates closer towards the maximum. Penetration is the most important factor in defensive ammo performance, and while 12″ is good, it’s also the bare minimum acceptable distance. It is preferable to have the bullets going further, up to 18″ is best. After 18″, any additional penetration distance will just be wasted energy. With the Lehigh XPs frequently hitting 16″ to 19″, they offer almost perfect penetration with very little risk of overpenetration, and a lot more penetration than the Polycases do. Not that the Polycase is bad, but it just barely met the minimum. It’s good; I just think the Lehigh XP is the better choice in .380.
Finally, while I am giving high praise to Polycase for blowing my mind in showing that a light and fast bullet can accomplish what I normally expect from a slow and heavy bullet, I confess to being a little uneasy about just how light the bullets are. The lighter the bullet, generally the more susceptible to deflection it will be, whether off of a bone or, bizarrely enough, just through gel or tissue itself. To me, that’s not a desirable trait, and I am not entirely convinced as to how these lightweight bullets will do when faced with having to penetrate through a forearm to get to the chest of the bad guy, where they’ll then have to get through a rib or sternum. They may do fine, but history and big-game hunters have taught us that big, solid, heavy bullets do best at that job done.
Overall I am very impressed with the Polycase Inceptor performance; far more impressed than I thought I was going to be. This ammo really is quite different from most any other bullet I’ve tested, and it delivered very good performance from the .380, and excellent performance from the 9mm. And, it seems to be that rarest of all bullets, one that can appeal to both the “light & fast” proponents and also do the type of tangible damage that will appeal to the “slow & heavy” proponents. And it does so with a new type of bullet, which is lead-free to boot. This is a really impressive debut for Polycase, and I look forward to trying out their ammo in other calibers to see how they perform.