By Dan Russell
The matter of lead in hunting ammunition, raised in the Jan. 10 edition of this paper, is an important one. As a lifelong hunter, shooter and conservationist, I have investigated this topic in some depth. I offer the following thoughts in the hope that they may prove helpful to anyone who is more recently becoming acquainted with the issue.
I like lead-free ammunition. I haven’t carried ammunition loaded with lead projectiles for big game since 2013, and have used non-toxic shotshells exclusively for upland bird hunting since 2014. I will be eternally grateful for the federal moratorium on the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting.
I also applaud the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW.) restriction of lead shot for upland bird hunting on pheasant release sites, and would support the extension of that policy to all WDFW-managed lands. I use non-lead projectiles exclusively for target shooting on my own property and at dispersed public land locations.
On our farm we use exclusively non-toxic bullets for livestock butchering. The non-edible remains of those animals are left to be consumed by scavengers. Using lead-free bullets for this job provides worry-free meat to our customers while eliminating a hazard to wildlife.
Lead-free ammunition does, however, carry drawbacks which present legitimate obstacles to wider scale adoption. These fall into three main categories: price, availability and performance.
From the standpoint of big game hunting, lead-free bullets possess real performance deficiencies in comparison to traditional lead-core bullets. Due to the high density of lead relative to most alternative bullet materials, lead-core bullets of a given caliber and weight will generally be shorter in length than their lead-free counterparts (usually a monolithic bullet made of copper).
The rifle barrels used by most shooters feature a rate of rifling (twist) optimized for the shorter lead-core bullets. Many shooters therefore experience difficulty finding a non-toxic bullet that shoots as accurately from their rifle as do lead-core bullets. Poor accuracy leads to nothing good when it comes to hunting.
Most non-toxic bullets also have deficiencies in terminal ballistics (how the bullets perform in tissue) compared to lead. Lead is soft and upsets (expands) reliably across a wide range of impact velocities. Copper is harder and requires significantly higher impact velocities for reliable expansion. The expansion characteristics of a bullet determine the type of wound it will create; insufficient expansion results in narrow wound channels which in turn contribute to less rapid incapacitation and death.
The ramification of this for hunters is that to equal the performance of lead ammunition they must either shoot bigger guns with the attendant downsides of higher recoil (which usually results in reduced accuracy) and higher ammunition costs, or they must restrict their shooting distances on game. In the open spaces of the American West, restricting shooting distances is not a popular concept with today’s hunters.
Finally, it is the simple truth that lead-free ammunition costs more and is less available on the market than lead. Developing and maintaining the proficiency to reliably make quickly lethal shots on game takes a lot of practice. We should all desire that hunters be as proficient as possible with their rifles in the field, and at current market prices it costs a lot more to develop this proficiency with lead-free ammunition than with ammunition that contains lead.
This has been a brief overview of a complex and technical subject. I hope that by enumerating some of the deficiencies which plague current non-toxic bullet offerings readers will better understand why they have not been more widely embraced. Regardless of our level of participation in hunting or the shooting sports, those of us who are interested in inhabiting and passing on a cleaner and better world should support the continued development and wider adoption of lead-free ammunition technology.
I encourage all hunters to think critically about this issue and make their own choices. I emphatically do not believe we have reached a point where broad restrictions on the use of lead projectiles are appropriate, but I do hope creative solutions can be found to address the current shortcomings of lead-free ammunition, and that non-toxic offerings will eventually supersede lead because they’re just plain better. My hunch is that this would require the concerted efforts of hunters and non-hunters alike; my contention is that it’s worth it.
Dan Russell lives near Carlton and is passionate about issues affecting rural communities.