Lead-free alternatives for bullets

Our resident stalker, Dr Al Gabriel, takes a look at the lead-free alternatives for bullets, which we will all have to use eventually, and finds himself pleasantly surprised.

Duncan Ireland

That lead introduced via shooting causes damage to the environment by poisoning is a long-standing and accepted argument with some compelling evidence to support it. This was confirmed when the World Health Organisation classed lead as one of the 10 chemicals of major public health concern in 2010.

That said, the impact of lead-shot meat on individual health is somewhat uncertain, although it is most likely to be harmful. The human body has no means of getting rid of lead, and it is a metal where no safe level can be established for human health—so most approaches sensibly aim to avoid it completely.

The major issue with lead is that it accumulates in living bones, teeth and serum. It can even be transferred from a mother’s bones to her child through the placenta. The data linked to reduced IQ and lead is very strong. 

How is lead toxic? Well, for starters, it interferes with enzymes in your cells. It interferes with how your brain cells send messages and even causes sperm to be abnormal. And to cap it all there is the issue of lead passing through the food chain as grit in waterfowl. But whatever you and I may feel about the toxicity of the substance, the laissez-faire approach we have long enjoyed is coming to an end. Legislation and consumers now demand lead-free ammunition so we just have to get on with it.

Lead-free ammunition has been in use for decades, primarily made out of copper and zinc in a monolithic construction; that is, the bullets are made of solid metal devoid of an outer jacket or an interior core found in lead bullets. Lead is heavier than copper and, as a result, copper bullets tend to be longer to make them the same weight as lead bullets. But despite that, there is no reason why all of us can’t switch to non-lead rifle ammunition.

There are some advantages to be had with such a transition. First, it ensures that there is a market for venison and continued job security for those involved. Secondly, we could prove to our opponents that shooters prioritise public health and the environment, which may strengthen our conservation agenda. The downsides to switching are cost and availability. Availability seems the most limiting factor at the moment in the UK. Just pop into your local gun shop and see how little selection they have when it comes to copper ammunition. 

I couldn’t source lead-free ammunition locally, so I enquired at Edinburgh Rifles—and while I was on the phone, I asked director Ed Bewsher if his business has seen a change in the uptake of copper bullets. I was surprised when Ed informed me that sale of non-lead ammo for his business has gone up by 500% in the past five years. I find this very reassuring and confirmation that we are on the right track.

Unfortunately, the beloved .243 may become less popular as there aren’t many non-toxic brands catering for it, primarily because it is hard to stabilise a 100-gr copper bullet due to the twist rate.  Not to mention that Americans and Europeans don’t deal with small deer, so muntjac and Chinese water deer remain niche markets in their eyes.

Recent tests

I have been fortunate enough to be offered the chance to reanalyse data from recent tests conducted by Tim Pilbeam on the levels of cortisol in shot deer, an indicator of stress in the animal after it has been shot and thus of its suffering.

The findings were initially presented on the Fieldsports Britain channel in April 2021. They looked at the outcome for more than 350 deer with different brands, calibre and bullet sizes used by professionals. The results were conclusive in that the performance of non-lead or copper bullets was just as good, and in some cases even better, than their lead counterparts. Some of the earlier reports many years ago suggested that non-toxic bullets were not expanding enough and instead ‘pencilling’ through the carcass. 

I have spoken to deer managers who have culled thousands of deer with copper bullets. They all have their favourites, but they are all unanimously comfortable with copper bullets. Like lead bullets, there are limitations with copper: stalkers must use them at the right distances and on the appropriate species.  I am currently testing factory-made copper ammunition for .243 on roe deer to be included
in Tim’s study.

As a recreational stalker I have always used lead bullets and reloaded at home. After settling on loads I liked, I would pretty much stay with the recipe for years. My earlier interaction with copper ammunition was when I visited friends in the south stalking muntjac and roe a few years ago. I couldn’t tell the difference in performance. 

My initial attempt at going lead-free was cut short when I discovered the cost of copper ammunition. To counter that I have just completed a successful home load for .270 using copper bullets. My initial test was comparable to my lead ammunition in performance and cost.

I was so excited by the outcome that I went out on the same day and managed to cull a decent Northumbrian roebuck. It must be said that there is something fulfilling about culling an animal with a load you prepared yourself. My back-of-an-envelope calculation indicates that I can reload 20 cartridges for £28 vs £49.99 for an equivalent factory ammo.

The food industry and the public have become acutely aware of the impact of lead in food. It comes as no surprise that the latest announcement by the National Game Dealers Association to accept game/deer/wild boar shot only by lead-free ammunition stems from such demands. We all knew it was coming, though the timing of any switch has surely now been pushed forward. This is simply a change demanded by the market: as stalkers we must ensure that we change with the times.

Professional outfits and deer management groups have been using non-lead ammunition for years. There is a significant amount of expertise acquired by the professional stalkers. It is understandable that the recreational stalker might be unwilling to change but those who do not put venison in the food chain can continue to shoot lead. The changes only apply to venison supplied to game dealers.

The question is, then, why not switch to something less toxic if alternatives are available, particularly if the household eating your venison includes children, pregnant mothers or pets? The European Food Safety Authority report from 2012 stated that, compared with non-wild meat, venison already contains three times as much lead, often in microscopic fragments, as other meats.

While I am of the belief that switching should be a choice, and nothing will be gained by forcing people to change, the direction of travel from science, consumers and legislation is clearly that we should move away from lead soon.

The future

I am absolutely certain that lead will be phased out in the immediate future in all forms of shooting. Some rifle calibres are at real risk of becoming obsolete in the process and the lead-free ammunition supply chain looks to remain suboptimal for several years to come, mainly because the global supply chain is yet to recover from the pandemic and the impact it has had on research and development.  Switching to non-lead ammunition and testing it on our own rifles as soon as possible will help mitigate that speed of change. 

If the current science—which is still patchy—with regard to consumption of lead-shot venison long-term becomes clear-cut and indefensible, we would have improved our health and aided the environment. The time has come for the shooting community to accelerate the importation and manufacture of non-lead ammunition and make it available as soon as possible.

The impact of COVID-19 is already having major issues in the ammunition supply chain; this is just a kick in the teeth. There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. Great strides have already been made in alternative substances to lead. All involved parties must work together to make this a reality. 

When we all look back on this, I am certain we will feel that we did the right thing for our health and the environment.


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