Regardless of the lead ammunition bans that are starting to occur across the country, my perspective is that there are enough reasons to thoroughly convince me to choose to use lead-free ammunition. Over the past few years, lead exposure has become a hot topic, particularly in our drinking water. We aren't going to touch on the politics of those issues, but rather take a long look at the benefits of using lead free ammunition compared to traditional lead ammo. We'll investigate topics such as lead exposure, projectile performance, and a few other ways to compare the differences between the two types of bullets. Our perspective is that there is a legitimate reason to choose lead-free ammunition in most, if not all, shooting activities.
Protecting My Family: Lead Exposure in Hunter-Harvested Wild Game
Let's start with what I perceive as likely being one of the major reasons why folks currently purchase firearms & ammunition: hunting. I am a hunter. Starting as early as I can remember I awaited the day that I could suit up on the first day of buck season and anxiously wait for an antlered beast to come into my view. I also recall my father taking a "four point" buck on the first day in the Eighties and marveling at the harvested animal. We ate well that winter, and we ate everything we killed. All game we took back in those days was taken with lead bullets. No big deal, right?
Since then, it appears that there is significant evidence to suggest that consumption of wild game harvested by traditional lead bullets increases lead levels. Studies by both the North Dakota Department of Health (you may need to copy/paste this link: https://www.ndhealth.gov/lead/venison/Fact%20Sheet%20Blood%20Lead%20Level%20Study%20Results.pdf) and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources specifically recommend that children and pregnant women should not eat venison harvested with lead bullets. This is because younger children & pregnant women are especially vulnerable to lead exposure - according to the CDC, "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified." -
Taking these two items into consideration - that lead isn't safe and eating game taken with lead bullets increases levels of lead in the blood - it makes it really hard to continue to use lead bullets when hunting. I'm not saying that this choice is clear to anyone. Even if the research above overestimates the risk, if my family is planning on eating with me, I'm going to use lead free ammo. Just ponder this thought for a second… how much would you spend to limit the lead exposure to your family? We’ll talk about the costs in a bit, but I can assure you that this is one of the absolute cheapest ways to do so.
One of the arguments I've heard against this risk is that since hunters traditionally cut out the wound channel because the meat from the wound channel isn't usable, doesn't that mean that they are cutting out the lead fragments? The answer is no. Most hunting bullets are traveling at such a high speed that when they hit the target, traditional lead bullets often lose >50% of its weight during impact, splintering into incredibly small pieces. In the Minnesota Bullet Fragmentation Study, they found that, on average, lead bullet fragments were found up to 11 inches away from the wound channel. Because these particles are incredibly small, they are not noticeable during normal eating or inspection of the meat.
I'm not sure there is any way to totally eliminate the lead in your harvested game unless, of course, you are using lead-free ammo.
Lead-free Ammunition Performs Well
I’ve heard a lot of stories that lead-free ammunition doesn’t provide the same level of performance as traditional lead ammo. I’d argue that on all fronts, lead-free ammo is as good as, if not a better option, in most situations.
Lead bullets are effective because lead is heavy and malleable - it hits something and it deforms. The unfortunate reality is that is doesn’t deform uniformly every single time. Additionally, during impact the lead bullets fragment, losing most of their mass. Neither of those are a big deal alone. When compared to many lead-free projectiles, however, it makes a difference.
Other than the hollow-point, the ammunition industry hasn’t seen a lot of innovation over the last hundred years. In recent years, the advances in projectile design in the lead-free ammunition space has been truly revolutionary. I’d argue that the lead-free bullets fit into two categories: Traditional Design and Innovative Self-Defense rounds. In most of the new rounds, copper is often used as the lead substitute, which is much harder.
In the traditional design, copper rounds & copper hollow points don’t fragment the same way lead does because of the increased hardness. By not fragmenting as much, the projectiles retain most of their bullet weight at impact. Because of this, you can use a lighter bullet. Copper has about 3/4 the density of lead, contributing to a lighter bullet that is the same size of a lead bullet. This enables one to craft much higher velocity rounds. Some side-effects of both of these characteristics are that there is less recoil with a lighter bullet, allowing you to follow-up an initial shot with a more accurate second shot. Hollow points function better at higher speeds, too. And, one could make the case that a lighter, faster bullet is more effective in self-defense situations, though that point is controversial. There are enough benefits without that added bonus.
When it comes to innovative self-defense round, there are many options. Because copper is harder than lead, in order to cause maximum damage, we need the bullet to fully expand. In order to accomplish this, some manufacturers often machine fault lines or build the bullets for specific ballistics, such as mushrooming or splitting deliberately and then spinning end over end throughout the wound channel. This can be effective at causing larger wound channels than normal lead bullets. Coupled with lighter, faster rounds & one can get incredible penetration along with multiple wound channels, always a benefit when trying to incapacitate an attacker.
On top of all these self-defense implications, more often it is the hunting use of lead-free ammo that garners the most attention. There are some fantastic options out there. Because of the reasons listed above, i.e. a lighter, faster bullet, lead-free ammunition can be the perfect component to your hunt. A faster bullet gets to your game faster. Simple. That means if you are shooting a moving animal from even a mid-range distance (<100 yards), you will have to lead the animal by significantly less. That translates to higher precision and more humane kills - easy to lead by one foot vs. two feet.
But, don’t just take our word for it! A study was done to check the efficacy of multiple copper rounds vs. a traditional lead round. It appears that the ammunition matters a lot. Two of the copper rounds didn’t perform as well as the lead one, but the other copper round performed in line with the lead round. What does this suggest? Probably not much right now because there was only one lead round. However, it could mean that when choosing lead-free ammunition, there are wider variances the consumer has to consider. Finding the correct round for your weapon probably means more than anything else, too! And, that is traditional guidance when choosing ammunition.
Isn’t Lead-Free Ammunition Expensive?
Because lead-free ammo is not as common as traditional ammo, lead-free ammo is “small batch”, which drives up the cost per unit. They cannot be compared to traditional lead cartridges that are made by the billions (exaggeration). It’s simply not an apples to apples comparison. You wouldn’t compare Pappy Van Winkle with Old Crow, would you?
Because of the smaller quantities, there is often more precision in the manufacturing process, much like what is done for premium lead ammunition. Lead-free ammo will almost always cost more than the cheapest lead ammo, but when comparing premium lead ammo to lead-free ammo, they are very closely aligned. All in all, us hunters spend a lot of money on our gear, but often don’t spend much thought on ammunition or just buy what’s on the shelf at Walmart.
Think about it, we buy blinds, guns, gear (add extra for cold weather gear), some of us buy guided hunts, even hunting licenses are expensive these days. If I start spending an extra 10-20 cents per round on my hunting ammunition, that’s not going to even be a drop in the bucket. It’s just another opportunity for sportsmen to further optimize their hunting experience, whether using premium lead or lead-free ammo. And, consider all the benefits to having cleaner harvested game that’s safer for your family. You are spending a lot of money to make sure your hunt goes well, why not invest in higher quality, cleaner ammunition.
But, some of you might pause here… and think: “I don’t hunt”. Why would I care about using more expensive ammunition for plinking? How much does a box of 50 9MM rounds cost at your local Cabela’s or Bass Pro? I just did a quick search on Cabela’s and, for a 50 9MM round box, I couldn’t find anything cheaper than $13.99. Funny, we have some Zinc ammunition made by high-quality manufacturers Alchemist Ammunition for $13.75. While it currently isn’t available in all calibers, it’s a realistic option for available calibers. And, Polycase has started to product the PolyCase Inceptor RNP. It’s a training round, meant to perform like the ARX and it comes in at a super reasonable price for 50 rounds - $15.99. That’s the same range of your traditional lead ammo, even the base varieties. Furthermore, if your preferred defensive round is the Inceptor ARX (which is a great choice), why not try shooting the RNP to see if your gun shoots them similarly? That way, you can train with a round that is handled comparatively to your non-training round, which isn’t what we can say about all other training rounds.
While cost may have been a significant hurdle in the past, the reality is that today lead-free ammunition has some incredibly affordable options. And, when comparing hunting ammunition, understand that the higher quality the ammo, the more you’ll generally pay for that ammo - whether that ammo is lead-free or not. And, if you happen to compare similar quality ammunition, you’ll find that lead-free ammo isn’t much different than traditional ammo.
It’s Safer for Everyone Involved
Let’s say that you go the local range pretty often, you make some friends, especially the folks that work there. That’s what the shooting sports are all about. Seems normal. Well, did you know that folks who work at the shooting ranges are at a much higher risk for lead exposure because of lead in the air? The reason is that when you shoot traditional lead ammo, you are putting small lead particles into the air in many ways:
- Vaporized via the primer, which often contain lead compounds
- The friction between the barrel and the bullet
- When the powder explodes against the base of the lead bullet
- When the bullet fragments at the point of impact
We’ve all been the range, and the ventilation systems are one of the most noticeable experiences for an indoor range. They are there to minimize a lot of the exposure for both the shooters and range cleaners. But, it doesn’t do a perfect job. Even with great ventilation, the air around shooters is often above toxic lead levels (over 50mg/m3), with ranges as low as 14mg/m3 to about 35,000mg/m3! That means, by shooting lead bullets at the range, you are putting your friends at the range at risk. Not a really hard conclusion to make. That said, it is their choice to work there - they probably enjoy the comradery and the knowledge that they are helping folks improve their ability to defend themselves.
On top of that, you also put yourself at risk when using the range, but unless you are there as much as the workers (or even police officers), you probably don’t have to worry as much. But, maybe you should at least get yourself evaluated if you are at the range often, even if you are shooting lead-free ammo. And, if you are taking youngsters to the range, remember the CDC says that there is no safe blood level for children. So, potentially think twice about taking your child or take extra precautions when going to the range.
I’m not trying to scare you away from lead ammunition… people have been using it for years! That said, the dangers due to lead exposure are real. You can lower your risk for lead exposure by using lead-free ammo (your direct breathing space will be cleaner).
While using lead-free ammo will reduce your impact, you’ll still want to take proper precautions when using or returning from the range (indoor or outdoor), such as:
- Use lead-free ammunition (of course)
- Do not eat, drink or smoke while at the range
- Wear gloves while shooting
- Have dedicated ‘range clothing’ to wear for each trip
- Always wash your hands after shooting
- Take a shower immediately after using the range
- Wash your clothes immediately after using the range
And, it isn’t just indoor ranges. You are at similar risks outdoors, depending on a number of factors, such as wind direction (in an indoor range, the ventilation system should be pulling the toxic air away from the shooters.
Because of all the issues with lead exposure, and the large cost that some ranges pay to reduce that exposure to their employees and customers, some ranges are opting for a lead-free only policy. We don’t necessarily advocate for that - we think that choice is the best option out there, but we do see the merits of it. If we were to establish a new shooting range (outdoor or indoor), we’d probably take that lead-free option because of the peace of mind for our employees.
It’s Better for Specialized Training and Realistic Self-Defense Training
When I was recently looking into purchasing some heavy steel targets to set up a permanent outdoor range (for personal use). I noticed some warnings from manufacturers that I shouldn’t shoot within 50 yards or more sometimes. Apparently, ricochets are a real problem and that is why they recommend shooting at heavy steel targets from distance.
There is an option for safer shooting at short distances, even at less than five yards. It’s called frangible ammo & it happens to be lead-free! Simply, most frangible ammunition is a compressed copper powder projectile. Heavy duty presses combined with some bonding additives allow for a usable projectile to be created. Because the round is copper powder, it basically disintegrates whenever it impacts something harder than itself. No ricochet, no deflection, just powder. How cool is that? So, you can shoot at incredibly close ranges with no risk of being hit by a ricochet from a lead fragment or copper jacket. I haven’t personally experienced it, but folks with experience shooting at close ranges tell me that ricocheted copper jackets hitting their hands is not out of the ordinary.
Most rooms in homes are less than 30 feet long (10 yards). I don’t really expect to have many situations where I have to defend myself against someone who is greater than 10 yards away. Why not train in close quarters? Using frangible ammunition enables you to have more realistic self-defense training: It’s not just as good as traditional ammo, it’s actually better.
Keep in mind, quality matters here (like always). There may be some drawbacks from lower quality frangible rounds, such as losing projectile material in the barrel, causing uneven trajectory. By using higher quality frangible rounds, you can mitigate this risk. Then, you can have an incredibly exciting shooting experience and improve your ability to defend yourself in more realistic self-defense scenarios - something you can’t get reliably with traditional lead ammo.
The Impact to our Environment
I often tell my non-hunting friends that hunters were the first conservationists (I used to have a bumper sticker that said the same thing). They laugh and think that is the funniest thing in the world because they think that killing animals is the opposite of preserving them. Then, I go on to explain how hunting licenses started and that our plentiful game in the US is a results of hunters wanting to self-regulated. Then I share some facts about whitetail deer population in North America around 1900 vs. today (500K vs 30M+) and some of these other reasons. It is often an interesting lesson for them. I'm of the thought that we need to continue to preserve our own legacy as hunters, and I think that means being great stewards of our landscape. Traditional lead ammunition has an impact on our environment, whether we want to believe it or not. And, the cost to stop that isn't outrageous.
The berm behind my house has thousands of lead bullets in it. While that seems like a lot, consider places where folks actually shoot often, like outdoor ranges. For safety reasons, a lot of outdoor ranges have built up dirt backgrounds to absorb most fire. Consider how much lead has actually been deposited in that hill? Whether or not the lead has leached into groundwater (it can), that’s probably not an area that I’d like to reclaim and plant my garden in there.
Furthermore, let’s think about one of the reasons why the army has abandoned traditional lead ammo. Cleaning up the berms used as shooting backstops is costly if done right. They’ve also found that the new, lead-free round is more effective!
Taking it one step further, the military has called for biodegradable bullets. How incredible of an idea is that? Why would the military go to those lengths if the traditional lead ammo didn’t have ill effects for the environment?
Lead Bullets Unintentionally Kill Bald Eagles and Other Wildlife
As a hunter and lover of nature, it hurts me when animals are put at risk due to actions taken by humans that are easily and cheaply preventable. Again, as a hunter, I often think we can only count on hunters to make the right choices because we are often those that get the most utility out of nature and the outdoors.
People always reach out to me to tell me about every lead-poisoned bald eagle they hear about. In 2011, 21 eagles with measurable levels of lead (6 with toxic levels) were admitted to the Wildlife Center of Virginia.
I’m sure that throughout the US, hundreds of Bald Eagles are sickened by lead every year and perhaps hundreds die of lead poisoning. It is believed that the majority of these birds get the lead poisoning because they eat the entrails & carcasses of hunter-harvested game taken with lead bullets. It’s sad – that’s our national symbol, and there is nothing more American than a bald eagle. That’s all I can say.
California instituted its lead bullet hunting ban to protect the condors. It’d be a shame if, just by using lead-free ammunition, we’d be able to get better return for our investment in saving these incredible birds.
Since 1991, there has been a ban of lead shot for use in waterfowl hunting because of the toxicity to the waterfowl. It’s been estimated that since that ban, one to one-and-a-half million waterfowl have been saved annually. Think about how many more hunters get into hunting because of the excellent experiences they have out in the field - I’m sure a million extra waterfowl per year has increased that number. While there have been some hiccups, the ban has largely been successful.
All in all, if using lead-free ammunition increases the opportunities for all of us to experience the majesty of nature even better, then count me in.
We’ve covered a lot here. I think the issues around my family’s health are the most important to me. And, given it isn’t substantially more expensive to shoot with lead-free ammunition, that’s an easy choice to make because I still get to spend time in the hobby I enjoy. It’s also important to me that the performance of the rounds is just as good. The research clearly shows that there is no drop-off in performance on both the hunting and self-defense front. Another incredibly compelling reason is the impact lead ammunition has on the environment & wildlife (the ones you don’t intend to harvest). Forget about the bans & the politics, that doesn’t change the fact that lead-free ammunition is simply better for most all scenarios. And, because of that, I choose to use ammunition that is lead-free.