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Lead vs. Lead-Free Bullets

Updated note for October 2017: 

Throughout 2017, there have been many moves (controversial or not) on the front of lead-free ammunition, from President Obama enacting an order that lead free ammunition must be used on federal lands to new Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke rescinding said order.

That stirring of the pot has clearly caused some uncertainty in the market and, as a result, more manufacturers have started to product lead-free ammunition, anticipating that at least some locales and states will create their own laws around lead-free ammunition.  

This has caused some interesting changes:

  • Lead-free ammunition is cheaper than it was a year ago
  • More people know that lead-free ammunition actually exists or is a "thing"
  • With new products and wider range of calibers, lead-free ammunition is more accessible to more people
  • You can buy a lot of lead-free ammunition in big box stores, like Cabela's
  • Hunters are starting to learn about the high quality performance of the lead-free ammunition

Please read below and check out a more recent post on why we choose to use lead-free ammunition.

Interviewed by Sawyer Clark
Written by Alex Gates

Lead-free bullets have caused much controversy in the hunting community over the past few years. Even though they may reduce health risks for scavengers (a statement that ignites much debate), there is plenty of doubt concerning the effectiveness of lead-free bullets, including high costs, accuracy and terminal performance.

Clark Armory interviewed Ben Smith, the Non-lead Outreach Coordinator for Institute for Wildlife Studies, on the some of the most common questions concerning Lead v. Lead-free bullets.

Ben received his college degree from Humboldt State University, and has spent the majority of his life hunting pig, deer, and duck. “[Those] experiences have prepared me well for my position here at IWS promoting the use of non-lead ammunition.”

Q: There is a lot of talk about the downsides of lead-free bullets: cost, lower grain weight, etc. What are some of the benefits?

Ben: Non-lead bullets offer several benefits over conventional cup-and-core lead bullets. The one everyone is aware of is they are not made of lead, and they are safer for scavengers who feed on the gut pile.

The biggest benefit to performance is weight retention; non-lead bullets routinely retain >98% of their weight. When a lead bullet is recovered, it is routine to find them weighing 65-75% of their original weight. When bullets lose weight they lose their ability to do damage.

Most non-lead bullets open to 2X-2.5X their original diameter. This is similar to most lead bullets and the resulting wound channel will be a similar diameter. The permanent wound cavity may be longer for the non-lead bullets as a result of their better weight retention. The fragments from the lead bullets will mostly be contained in the permanent wound cavity where the tissue has already been destroyed.

Non-lead bullets normally open into a stable propeller shape and go in a straight line where the lead bullets will typically become destabilized and make a “J” shaped wound channel. When taking quartering shots, it is important to get the bullet through tissue in a straight line to get it to the vitals. Non-lead bullets tend to crush through bone without much deformation, where a lead bullet may not even go through heavy bone.

In short, the retention of non-lead bullets results in deep penetration. This lets smaller bullets do bigger jobs, but it also gets non-lead bullets through thick bone more reliably than traditional bullets.

As far as accuracy is concerned: they work great.

 Q: Is there one particular caliber that you think is optimal for lead-free bullets? 

Ben: Great question. I wouldn’t say there is a “right” caliber. Anything from .243 Winchester to .30-06 Springfield is fine for deer and pigs, and I still wouldn’t go over .30-06 for an elk.

I see more user error from using too much gun for the job. The concept of “appropriate” caliber isn’t something many hunters are used to. Keep in mind that these bullets are hitting harder than most “traditional” bullets do. Using a reasonable sized rifle for the job at hand is important.           

Non-lead bullets are mostly hollow point bullets and they require resistance to open that hollow point. Bigger bullets are harder to open. Smaller game just doesn’t provide the resistance required to open big bullets quickly. A .30-06 will take an inch or so more to open than a .243 WIN with the same bullet. Both will exit the deer, but the .243 WIN will open quicker and start causing major tissue disruption sooner. Every inch counts when the animal’s vitals are only a few inches thick.


Q: Does a hunter need to make any caliber adjustments to hunt the same game when switching to copper bullets?

Ben: As long as people keep it at or under a 30 caliber for deer sized animals, the performance will be fine.

There are some rifles that non-lead bullets will be “hard” to find. There will be some that non-lead isn’t made for. That being said, in August of 2014 we found 332 cartridge designations available for sale, in stock, ready to ship.

 Q: Many hunters have heard stories about how copper passes through animals and does little damage on its way, is there any lead-free ammo that reduces the chance of pass through?

Ben: There are some frangible bullets that work great for animals when someone doesn’t want the bullet exiting. Barnes, CCI, Federal, Hornady, Nosler, and Winchester all make great frangible bullets that are all available as loaded ammo in a variety of calibers.   

With larger animals an exit hole leaves a better blood trail (than an animal without an exit) and can help in subduing the animal quicker. If a bullet stops within the animal it is hard to pinpoint where it is going to stop; sometimes it goes deep enough, sometimes it doesn’t. When someone knows their bullet is going to penetrate an animal in a straight line, they can use the bullet in a more precise manner than if they have to guess how their bullet will work.

Q: What would you say is the biggest hesitation that prevents hunters from switching to lead-free bullets?

Ben: Most people trust “their” bullet. When someone goes hunting, trust in their equipment is important. There is a common idea that non-lead bullets are a “substitute” for lead bullets and are somehow inferior. Bullet choice is really important to most hunters and once someone finds a bullet they like it can be hard to change.

 Q: Are there any particular lead-free bullets/ammo that you personally use or recommend?        

Ben: For work, I shoot dozens of different brands of bullets. I literally try every bullet I can get my hands on. I shoot a .270 Winchester, and I have several different rifles in the same caliber and all like different ammo. I let the rifle choose for me. I don’t feel that bullet selection needs to go beyond that. If the bullet hits where it needs to, the animal is going down.

I recently shot out to 300 yards with my Savage Lightweight Hunter, and I got 2.5-inch groups with Monolithic Munitions ammo. Until I find a bullet that beats that, that’s what I’m using.

 Q: Lead-free ammo is hard to find and often out of stock.  Do you have any recommendations on where to buy lead-free ammo?

Ben: We surveyed people and found that 50% of people went to brick-and-mortar gun stores. While some of the stores can have a great selection, some don’t. Even worse than poor selections, some of the stores we have been to mark up non-lead ammo by 300% over online prices.

While there are great stores out there, there are still stores that think they can get away with charging hunters extra to use non-lead. I always recommend people to at least research prices and availability online before they go to their local store.

The Internet has overpriced sites as well, but the market is much more competitive. The larger sites can make it hard to find non-lead ammunition because there are too many options and none are listed as non-lead. Sites like Clark Armory who specialize in non-lead make things easy.

 Q: Where can hunters find more information about lead-free bullets and ammo?

Ben: I maintain a website just to help hunters switch to non-lead. We try to make it easy to find info on whatever bullet people are interested in.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife maintains a list of “certified” bullets. This isn’t all of the non-lead bullets available, but it’s a good place to get an idea of what’s out there.

 Q: What other things should people know about switching from lead to non-lead bullets? 

Ben: I give 5 tips that seem to help people a lot:

  1. You aren't going to find lead-free bullets in your grain of choice.  Go down in grain weight 20% from the lead bullets that worked best for similar results. There are a lot of reasons to go lighter.
  2. Aim for the front of the vitals. Non-lead bullets are most effective against fluid filled organs and bone, and the lungs are filled with air. Aim for the heart, and if the bullet misses by an inch or two it’s still going to hit something that will bring the animal down quickly.
  3. Go to the range and check the point of impact. Any time different bullets are used, than the point of aim may change too. It’s best to get that out of the way with paper instead of an animal.
  4. “Delayed expansion” is unnecessary, even on the biggest pig that ever roamed. Use an appropriate caliber for the job.
  5. Shop online. It’ll save time, and money.

 Q: Any other thoughts?

Ben: I have been working to help hunters switch from lead to non-lead for the past three years. While there are tips I use to help people, it’s not too complicated. Most people who have trouble are expecting poor results and are compensating for a problem that doesn’t exist. Don’t over think it. Once people find a bullet their rifle likes, it’s all about shot placement. Shot placement has always been and always will be the most important factor in making a humane kill. Non-lead bullets as a group work great. They stand on their own.

 Thank you Ben Smith for the interview!  We really appreciate your expertise.

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