Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hunting With Lead or Copper?
An Alternative Ammunition Comparison

What follows is a guest essay by Shawn Ferdinand of the New York State Department of Conservation (DEC). Traditionally, hunters have actively contributed to the conservation of wildlife. With new advancements in ammunition technology, they can now use state-of-the-art bullets and slugs for big game hunting that reduce the potential of harmful lead contamination and pollution. 

Sportsmen and women seek to harvest big game by means of a quick and humane kill. To achieve an ethical harvest, hunting bullets have been designed to be both accurate and lethal. The lethality of a hunting bullet depends on the rate of expansion and amount of penetration within an animal. The design of an effective big game rifle bullet allows the bullet’s nose to peel back upon impact, expanding to create a “mushroom,” which delivers hydrostatic energy and shock within the animal. Traditional lead rifle bullets have been designed to do just that. Lead rifle bullets are made with a lead core encased in a copper or copper alloy (containing 90-95% copper and 5-10% zinc) jacket. There are several lead bullet designs and grades developed to achieve maximum expansion penetration effectiveness. Often, standard grade lead bullets expand rapidly upon impact, but have limited penetration, compared to premium grade lead bullets, which rapidly expand with deep overall penetration.

Although lead core bullets successfully deliver a fatal blow to big game animals, they do so at the cost of lead fragmenting throughout the animal. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has found that lead based rifle bullets significantly fragment inside the cavity of a big game animal. Fragmenting bullets may be effective at achieving a quick and humane kill, but small lead fragments can taint the harvested meat and organs, which later on may be consumed by humans or scavenging wildlife.

The degree of fragmentation is variable between ammunition brands and bullet design, but results show that lower grade lead bullets can lose up to 35% of their original weight by fragmentation and premium grade lead core bullets can lose 5-20%. Further results show that lead fragments that are often too small to be seen or felt, can travel 2-18 inches away from the wound channel. Lead bullets were found to fragment greater at: faster velocities, in lighter weight bullets for respected calibers, upon impact with bone and in bullets designed to rapidly expand, such as a bullet with a ballistic tip or non-bonded core. For slower velocity ammunition used in shotguns and muzzleloaders, fragmentation is greatly reduced, but still can occur within the animal. In either case, lead fragmentation reduces the amount of clean venison that is available to hunters.

A 2006, report published by Grainger Hunt and others in the Wildlife Society Bulletin (a leading publication for many professional, state and other wildlife biologists) discussed the impact that lead bullet fragments can have on scavenging birds. Although lead ammunition was effective for harvesting big game animals, the report found significant potential for scavenging birds, such as the bald eagle or turkey vulture, to be exposed to lead through bullet fragments in offal (gut) piles and unrecovered deer carcasses. These feeding conveniences may also be taken advantage of by other mammalian scavengers such as the black bear or raccoon, creating a potential pathway for poisoning a variety of scavenging wildlife.

A 2008 study conducted by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources surveyed the presence of lead fragments in commercially processed venison. In a sample of 1,029 packages of ground venison and 209 packages of whole cut venison, 27% of the ground and 2% of the whole cut venison were found to contain lead fragments. A similar study by North Dakota Department of Health found 5.94% of commercially processed ground venison to contain lead fragments. Most fragments in processed meat cannot be seen, tasted or felt, making complete removal nearly impossible.

Statistics such as these are not aimed to thwart hunting or the consumption of venison; they should raise the awareness of the hunting community and venison consumer, about the possibility for lead fragments to be harvested meat. The potential for lead fragments to end up in processed venison can be highly variable and there are multiple steps one can easily take to avoid any risk of exposure.

Alternative non-lead bullets have been around since the 1980s with a small variety of calibers originally available to hunters. A recent ban in California on the use of lead ammunition in the range of the California condor (a critically endangered species) and voluntary use of non-lead ammunition by hunters in Arizona has allowed the non-lead ammunition market to expand. Monolithic bullets are now manufactured by multiple companies in a large array of calibers for muzzleloader, shotgun and rifle commonly used for big game hunting. Non-lead bullets are made of solid copper or copper alloys, depending on the brand. Further development of non-lead ammunition has also created a line of buck shot sizes that are made with tungsten. Manufactures have even designed the non-lead bullets to meet standard reload data to similar lead bullet lines. Always check the manufacturer reload data to confirm specific requirements when reloading a new style bullet.

The non-lead bullets are designed to meet and exceed traditional lead core ammunition in accuracy, penetration and terminal performance, while maintaining 95-100% of their weight. Non-lead bullets are harder than traditional lead, which keeps the bullet from heavily fragmenting upon impact. Mike Burger, a professional conservation biologist and avid Adirondack deer hunter stated “I am a huge fan of copper bullets and slugs. My largest buck was taken cleanly at 100 yards with a solid copper 12 gauge slug. I find their accuracy and performance to be superior to traditional lead, and I just feel better knowing that I am not poisoning eagles or other wildlife or my family.” A 2006 survey of Arizona hunters found that non-lead ammunition performed better than lead for 17.5% of those surveyed. 60.7% reported that the two styles of ammunition performed the same. Of the Arizona hunters that harvested a deer, 93% said that non-lead bullets performed as well as or better than lead ammunition at harvesting a clean, quick kill of a deer.

Older style monolithic bullets traditionally fouled rifle barrels due to the “stickiness” of the copper. New technologies such as gilding metal and bullet relief grooves have been developed to reduce barrel fouling. Monolithic bullets are less dense than lead, which requires the overall bullet to be a bit longer to match the weight of a lead core bullet. The extra length of the non-lead bullet requires a faster rotation in the rifling of a barrel to stabilize the bullet. To correct for this difference, non-lead ammunition is offered in lighter weights than typical lead core bullets. For example, if using a 100 grain .243 lead-core bullet, an 85 grain non-lead bullet works just as effectively. The lighter bullet gives a higher velocity overall, with the hardness of the copper keeping the bullet from fragmenting. For certain brands/styles of ammunition, there still may be a miss-match with the barrel rifling, causing instability of the bullet through the air. It is recommended to try a different brand or design to obtain optimal performance from non-lead ammunition.

If you have any questions or seek more information regarding lead or non-lead hunting ammunition, visit this DEC website.

Tips for Hunters

Consider using ammunition that is less prone to fragmenting, such as copper solids, gilding metal or controlled expansion bullets.

Always sight in your firearm when using any new style or brand of ammunition, prior to hunting.

If using lead ammunition, consider using heavier weighted bullets for the respective calibers.

Slower bullet velocities and larger bullet masses such as muzzleloader and shotgun rounds fragment less.

Practice marksmanship and outdoor skills to get cleaner, closer and more precise shots.

Avoid taking shots at running deer, a moving target is much harder to hit accurately.

If using lead ammunition, ask your meat processor for your deer to be processed individually and to generously trim around the wound channel. If processing your deer at home, generously trim around the wound channel and discard any meat that appears tainted. Ground meat tends to contain more lead fragments over whole muscle cuts.

If processing your deer at home, regularly check and clean your meat grinder.

When using either lead or non-lead ammunition from a rifle, shotgun or muzzleloader; always practice proper gun and hunting safety. Always know what is beyond your target before taking a shot.

Illustration: X-ray of a deer sized animal shot through the chest cavity with a soft point lead core rifle bullet. Courtesy DEC.

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The Adirondack Almanack publishes occasional guest essays from Adirondack residents, visitors, and those with an interest in the Adirondack Park. Submissions should be directed to Almanack editor Melissa Hart at

5 Responses

  1. Mick says:

    I quit hunting waterfowl when steel shot was introduced. It causes a lot of cripples and does not make a clean kill. It’s much harder than lead and goes right through the bird, which then continues to fly or glide. I had a couple cripples get away, so I called it quits. It wasn’t good game management policy.

  2. John H. Schulz says:

    Hi Mick. You’re welcome to opinion but the data show a different story. Research results published in the Wildlife Society Bulletin show crippling rates reported by waterfowl hunters during the 5-year phase-in (1987-1991) period did actually increase slightly for ducks and geese. However, after the 5-year phase-in period crippling rates reported by hunters actually were lower than rates reported during the lead-shot period. Check the facts (Wildlife Society Bulletin 34(3):861-865; 2006).

  3. Mick says:

    John, I’ve made a lot of kill shots and am a range officer. What is your personal experience with non-lead loads?

  4. Solidago says:

    I switched to steel shot for upland hunting a couple of years ago. You can’t shoot with steel like you would with lead, just like you can’t shoot with a 28 gauge like you would with a 12 gauge. Once I increased my shot size and got more conservative with my shots, the success rate got back to normal. That’s my personal experience, and seems to be what the stats show in the aggregate.

    My understanding of copper bullets (from before this piece) is that the ballistics are as good, if not better than lead. I’d just like to see the prices come down to that of lead so the general hunting population (and not just the most conscientious hunters) start using it voluntarily.

  5. big roy says:

    I’ve hunted and taken deer in the 70 to 225# size as well as elk for 500 to 1100# sizes with both leaded and unleaded bullets. On larger game the unleaded or “partition” type bullets far out perform the leaded. On deer size both take game equally. I shoot at magnum velocities in 30 caliber and the biggest difference between the two is in meat destroyed/ruined. The unleaded doesn’t blow up and destroy anywhere near the meat ruined by the leaded stuff. Example, is a white tail shot through the shoulder. With the unleaded you can save 90% of the shoulder, while unleaded renders the shoulder and ribs useless. Thus the reason why the processed ground meat mentioned above has so much lead in it.

    I don’t usually think much of change, but thanks for the unleaded variety. It’s great!

    big roy

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