The controversy over lead ammunition has flared up again recently, and although the measure to add lead bullets to the EPA’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) was again struck down by Congress, there are still advocacy groups calling for a ban on all lead bullets for hunting. This year California became the first state to finalize a statewide ban on all lead bullets for hunting, and there’s still much debate as to whether or not lead bullets harm local wildlife and water sources when they are used. Let’s dig into this issue deeper and examine why some environmental groups are calling for a ban on lead bullets.

Why Is Lead Used?

There are many reasons why lead has been the popular material in bullets throughout the age of the modern firearm. First, lead is dense and can convey a lot of energy on its target. Lead can fragment apart when it hits a target, most notably in a hollow-point design, and the lead bullet has good ballistic characteristics when in flight. Lead is also easy on gun barrels (as long as the barrel is regularly maintained) and it isn’t as likely to damage them like harder metals are prone to do.

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However, the ease of production is the primary reason why lead is the most popular material for bullets. Lead has a low melting point which means bullet production costs less energy and can be performed more rapidly than comparable metals. Metals used in any production process are rarely cheap, but lead is one of the few that is still relatively inexpensive. For all these reasons, lead has become the standard material in bullets ever since the 1600s.


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A Word On Toxicity

Make no mistake, lead is a dangerous substance. Early soldiers melting their lead musket balls over a fire had no idea how dangerous lead really was, and miners have been poisoning themselves for centuries hauling this metal out of the earth. But lead has become well-known as a toxic substance in the 20th century, and the advents of unleaded gasoline, lead-free paint, and lead reduction in water pipes have been major accomplishments in reducing lead poisoning. Why is lead so toxic? It’s biggest impact is on the brain, where it can permanently bind to receptors and cause a whole host of negative effects. This is especially troubling for children since lead exposure can adversely affect brain development. Lead poisoning can also damage every other organ in the body, and any significant lead exposure should be taken very seriously.

Finding The Middle Ground

While it’s clear that lead is a very toxic substance, no one can completely avoid lead exposure. It is common for every American to have a small concentration of lead in their blood, and low concentrations common in the general population are not known to be harmful. This low concentration of lead in most Americans is caused by sources much more substantial than lead ammunition. Instead, these levels of lead in the bloodstream are a consequence of using lead in industrial and fuel applications for years. Areas can be polluted by old lead gasoline and oil, lead paints, pesticides, and lead contaminated landfills. This lead gets into the soil and water, and it’s only a matter of time before a small concentration makes its way into the general population. It’s scary but this is the real danger that lead poses the general population, and the bulk of this damage was done long before any lead ammunition debate began.

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Steel shot has become the norm in waterfowl loads, but due to the unique characteristics of the shotshell design, lead is much easier to replace in shotgun shells than it is in bullets.

This is not to say that lead from ammunition has no effect on the environment. Waterfowl hunters are very familiar with a ban on lead, and since 1991 lead ammunition has been prohibited for use in any situation where significant amounts of lead might potentially fall into a water source. Steel shot has replaced lead in waterfowl shells, and the transition has been a successful one. Why keep lead out of waterfowl shells? It has to do with the feeding habits of waterfowl. As a waterfowl bird feeds in an ecosystem like a lake or river, it is easy for them to ingest stray lead pellets from shot and then consequently die from the ingestion. There is no doubting that steel shot isn’t as effective as lead shot in waterfowl hunting, but I think most would agree that this has been a worthwhile transition for the overall health of waterfowl species.

The Heart Of The Debate

Now it’s logical for some to take the debate a step further and ask if lead ammunition is affecting other species similar to waterfowl. Well where we officially stand today – and some groups will argue otherwise- is that we really don’t know. There have been some studies conducted on the topic, particularly in California, but these studies have not been adequately repeated, especially in other areas of the country or on other species. It could also be argued that other environmental impacts, like those from pollution, have not been adequately weighed against the possibility of lead ammunition being the primary culprit of poisoning. The NSSF states this clearly in their statement on lead ammunition in hunting:

“With very limited exceptions, such as waterfowl and possibly the California condor — where the evidence of a causal connection to spent ammunition fragments is far from conclusive, there is simply no sound scientific evidence that the use by hunters of traditional ammunition is causing harm to wildlife populations.”

The key element of success in science is the ability to replicate the results independently. In the case of the California Condor, which most certainly should be conserved like any other species, the impact of environmental factors should also be studied without simply attributing the species’ decline to lead ammunition and calling it good. In the case of a nationwide lead ammunition ban, there is simply not enough data, and any advocacy group is calling for a ban simply because its internal goals line up with a desire to stop hunting or ban firearms. That is not the proper way to have a conversation about this topic, and drastic legislative action should never be taken without overwhelming evidence to prompt it.

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The California Condor is the most frequently cited animal in the lead ammunition for hunting debate.

It can feel like a pointed attack on firearm owners and hunters when groups call for a nationwide ban on lead ammunition. Concerns of a hidden agenda are a natural consequence, and once again, this is why calling for a drastic change is a poor way to approach this subject. Hunters are also concerned about a potential balancing act that the ban of lead ammunition in hunting might create. If lead ammunition is banned, the next viable option is fragmenting copper bullets, and bullets of this type can be considered “armor piercing” depending on the current policies of the ATF. Lead free alternatives in ammunition are generally more expensive as well, and a mass transition to these alternatives would no doubt drive prices up higher. This leaves the hunter with very little ground to stand on in the wake of a ban.

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Companies like Nosler are starting to release more non-lead rounds, but availability and caliber sizes are still limited. The popular replacement material for lead is copper, but as you would guess, detailed environmental assessments of copper aren’t readily available either.

All in all, it’s not like the typical American hunter doesn’t care about the environment. On the contrary, hunters enjoy the natural spaces and animals of this country as much as or more than any other group. Don’t forget that hunters fund the majority of conservation efforts in America either. Any blow to the ranks of hunters in America would no doubt spell a drop in conservation funding and efforts. Where would the rest of that funding come from? Certainly not the Federal government or a few select advocacy groups. Hunters are an important part of this debate, but those who call for environmental regulation of lead ammunition generally leave their interests out.

Final Thoughts

This is in no way a call to just blindly stick with lead ammunition for the long haul, but you have to look at this situation practically. First, we as a country need to conduct more studies before a measure is ever brought before Congress again. These studies need to be far reaching, and not just a couple isolated cases. We should also divert some attention to researching alternatives to find an adequate and cost-effective solution. We cannot blindly rely on lead for ammunition for the unforeseeable future, but any reasonable transition would take years to accomplish, and it is wise to plan out some alternatives. We should encourage ammunition manufacturers to find innovative solutions without the strain of enforcing a ban at the same time. Replacing or at least reducing the dependence on lead for ammunition will be a long process, and we should begin it today without impacting standing lead ammunition production processes.

In the meantime, ethical hunting remains an important practice for any modern hunter, and shots should be carefully taken to ensure a high-probability kill. The best motto in hunting is still “leave it like you found it,” and the less you leave behind, including lead bullets, the better.

This is meant to be a sensible conversation on lead ammunition in hunting. If you want to share additional information or your thoughts on the matter, please do so below.

Images one and thumb and three courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.