The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Inside the Continued Campaign Against Lead

At RECOIL, we review every product fairly and without bias. Making a purchase through one of our links may earn us a small commission, and helps support independent gun reviews. Learn More

Hunters and Anglers Take Heed. Spurious Evidence of Environmental Impact is Driving a Continued Campaign Against Lures and Ammo

With a history going back more than 600 years, lead has been accepted as a mainstay in ammunition. It has a low melting point, is easily molded, and soft and heavy enough for good expansion upon impact. But will it be the main substance for projectiles for the next 600 years, or even 100 years? Lead was banned nationwide for waterfowl hunting in the United States in 1991. Since then, a lot of work has been done in development of steel shot and other alternatives. 

Things went a step further when California banned the use of lead hunting ammunition — with all shotguns and rifles — as of July 1, 2019. The bill was passed in October 2013 and requires the use of non-lead ammunition when hunting in the state. The main concern raised was mortality in the California condor after consuming lead in entrails after hunters cleaned game. 

California’s regulations have become some of the more stringent in the country. California residents must do an instant background check when buying ammunition, which costs $1 if you’re already in California’s system or $19 otherwise for an eligibility check. Non-residents can still bring in ammunition from out of state for their own personal use, but residents purchasing out of state must ship it to a California ammunition dealer.

According to National Shooting Sports Foundation numbers, California’s hunting license sales decreased from more than 750,000 in 1970 to 225,000 in 2019 — though they spiked back up during the pandemic. Licenses fund conservation programs in the state, and fewer licenses result in less money for conservation. In addition, a decrease in sales of guns and ammunition results in fewer dollars for the Pittman-Robertson Fund, which also funds conservation. 

“The excise taxes derived from Pittman-Robertson dollars are a huge driver of conservation, preservation, acquisition, and enhancement of habitat nationwide,” said Brian Lynn of the Sportsmen’s Alliance. “You remove or reduce hunting license sales, firearms sales, or the purchasing of ammunition, and you’re removing hundreds of millions of dollars annually for conservation.”

The situation isn’t good for California hunters. The state increased license fees to make up the shortfall. Studies are predicting ammunition costs could increase by 284 percent. Weatherby, which started in California more than 75 years ago, left the state in 2019 for friendly ground in Wyoming. 

Hummason Manufacturing in Ancaster is Canada’s only lead shot maker. The company started as a backyard business before advancing to building its own manufacturing plant and shot tower.

Other states have also been considering a lead ban. Legislation that would’ve banned traditional ammunition in Maine was voted down in June. New York legislation for a lead ban has passed an assembly committee but wasn’t voted on by the entire assembly before the session end in June. It may return though.

Nationally, anti-hunting groups tried to ban the use of traditional ammunition through Environmental Protection Act regulations. The National Shooting Sports Foundation — the group representing manufacturers — took the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in 2020. The court ruled traditional lead ammunition isn’t regulated by the EPA. 

The NSSF has fought back against numerous attempts to ban traditional ammunition. Currently, the NSSF is monitoring the Centers for Biological Diversity’s lawsuit against the Forestry Service with the goal of banning the use of traditional ammunition in Kaibab National Forest. Although it’s been dismissed three times, it has been appealed to U.S. Courts of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit.

Economic impact

A switch from traditional ammunition would have a devastating economic impact. NSSF estimates job losses approaching 30,000 people and a $4.9 billion hit to the GDP if such a ban were to come into play. In addition, there’d be loss of tax revenue at the federal, state, and local level. 

Mark Oliva, director of public affairs with NSSF, said not only would costs for ammunition go up if traditional ammunition is banned, but there’d be shortages as it would swamp manufacturers’ ability to produce it.

“The recent difficulties and price increases that were seen over the past 18 months regarding ammunition would be a quaint memory if traditional ammunition were to be banned,” he explained.

Brian Leece, director of operations at Hummason Manufacturing, sews up a 25-pound bag of shot.

Conservation Would be Hurt

The Pittman-Robertson Act from the 1930s imposed an 11-percent excise tax on sporting arms and ammunition in order to fund conservation in the United States. It’s been a huge driver of wildlife and habitat management, cultivation, research, improvement, and acquisition for decades.

“The firearm industry recently topped $14.1 billion in lifetime Pittman-Robertson contributions,” said Oliva. “Those contributions would crater.”

The call was united amongst the hunting community to base decisions on facts, not emotions. “Decisions on conservation and wildlife policies must be driven by science,” Oliva said. “Biologists showed a need to use alternative ammunition for waterfowl hunting, and those policies have been effective. However, policies to ban the use of traditional ammunition on a large scale aren’t backed by science.”

“By and large, the United States manages wildlife extremely successfully through science-based population surveys rather than relying on isolated incidents and anecdotal information,” said Erica Tergeson, the National Rifle Association’s Director of Hunting Policy. “We should be proud of our wildlife management and continue to build upon its successes instead of tearing it down based on emotional arguments that we are susceptible to do under some administrations.”

On the topic of waterfowl, Dr. Scott Petrie, CEO of Delta Waterfowl, understood why there was a ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting in the United States, where there are large number of waterfowl concentrated for an extended time and large hunter numbers. At the time, he questioned why it was needed in Canada where there weren’t large numbers of die-offs, fewer hunters, and the birds aren’t as concentrated. He now believes the lead ban for waterfowl was the responsible thing to do for waterfowl hunting.

Erica Tergeson, National Rifle Association, Director of Hunting Policy

“Now the anti-hunters don’t have ammunition saying we are putting lead in the environment,” he said, emphasizing he isn’t in favor of extending the ban outside waterfowl hunting. 

Turkey hunters have been looking to alternative metals to improve their patterns with harder, heavier shot. Hevi-Shot and Tungsten Super Shot are two recent examples. These shells are more expensive, though, and a large segment of turkey hunters stick with lead.

“We need to be focused on reducing barriers to hunting, and a broad ban of lead ammunition could create one more hurdle that impacts recruitment, retention, and reactivation efforts across the country,” said Matt Lindler, director of government affairs with the National Wild Turkey Federation. 

Torin Miller, director of policy with the National Deer Association, said the group isn’t opposed to incentives for alternate ammunition, but lead bans go too far. 

“As it stands, there is no strong scientific evidence that the use of lead ammunition while hunting causes any negative biological impact, be it to the environment or wildlife, or poses a risk to human health,” she said. “Beyond environmental and human health concerns, a ban would present significant economic and availability hurdles for hunters.”

Dr. Scott Petrie, CEO of Delta Waterfowl

The Bigger Issue

Although the NSSF has won battles, no one in the shooting industry is naïve enough to believe they’ve won the war. All are aware the “antis” won’t let up. 

Speaking to mandates on alternative ammunition, Oliva again emphasized alternative ammunition is more expensive, scarcer, and accounts for only 1 percent of ammunition purchased today. 

“Most calls to ban traditional ammunition are thinly disguised attempts to price hunters out of the market,” he said. “Hunters have the option, if they choose, to use alternative ammunition, but the majority of ammunition used today is still traditional ammunition.”

For some older firearms, there isn’t alternative ammunition available. “Those firearms would be relegated to relics and curios and would no longer be a viable alternative if traditional ammunition were to be banned,” he said.

The Canadian Lead Experience

Canada took a different approach to a lead shot ban for waterfowl, starting with a ban in hot spots where lead poisoning of waterfowl was a problem in 1995. Two years later, lead was banned when hunting waterfowl in wetlands and for all waterfowl use in 1999. 

Since then, a total lead shot and fishing tackle ban has been implemented when hunting or fishing in National Wildlife Areas — but that’s as far as it’s gone for now. The government, or some believe the bureaucracy, has attempted to extend the lead ammunition restrictions several times.

A proposal for a study to look at phasing out lead for both hunting and target shooting was stopped by the Conservative government of the day in 2014. “Our government is proud to support Canadian hunters and anglers. We recently canceled a contract for tendering because it was not an effective use of taxpayers’ money,” said Amanda Gordon, press secretary to the Minister of the Environment at the time. “Hunting, angling, and trapping are central to the livelihood, recreation, and tradition of many Canadians.”

Guns like this Winchester Model 1907 would no longer be able to be used for hunting, as the .351 Winchester ammunition it shoots is already hard to find with lead bullets.

In April 2018, Environment and Climate Change Canada released two studies: “Moving toward using more lead-free ammunition” and “Moving toward using lead-free fishing tackle.” These consultation documents were aimed more at a voluntary approach than introducing a regulatory framework with a ban. 

“We invited Canadians to take part in the conversation to encourage the use of lead-free alternatives to these lead products, and are intending to publish a summary of the comments received on the studies,” said Hannah Boonstra, Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson. 

She said people would be invited to participate and provide feedback during the consultation. 

“The risk management approach to encourage lead-free ammunition and sinkers and jigs in Canada will be developed considering all stakeholders’ input, including provinces, territories, and Indigenous Peoples,” she added.

Canadian concerns about a lead ammunition ban are similar in some ways, but different. Matt DeMille, the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters Manager of Fish and Wildlife Services and spokesperson for the National Fishing and Hunting Collaborative that represents provincial and territorial fish and game associations, said there isn’t enough lead-free ammunition in the country to make the transition. The implications of that are huge.

Many turkey hunters are moving to non-lead ammunition such as tungsten because it patterns better than lead. It comes with a heftier price tag, and the NWTF fears banning lead for hunting would hurt hunter numbers.

“We conducted a survey of our members in 2018 and approximately 39 percent of respondents indicated that a full or partial ban on lead ammunition would decrease their hunting activity,” he said. “If a ban on the use of lead ammunition was put in place tomorrow it would be hugely disruptive, to not only hunters, but also the wildlife management programs that rely on them.”

He said the tone of the 2018 consultation suggests the government is working toward lead-free ammunition. “We have no indication that a ban is on the horizon, but we expect that additional discussion and movement toward lead-free ammunition is coming,” he said. The collaborative would favor a voluntary approach instead of a ban, with education being key. 

Robert Sopuck, a biologist, former federal Conservative member of Parliament and a director with Delta Waterfowl, challenged the consultation. He said any conclusions on lead shot in waterfowl or human consumption should be disregarded since lead shot has been banned for 20 years. 

Matt DeMille, Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters Manager of Fish and Wildlife Services and spokesperson for the National Fishing and Hunting Collaborative

“It is clear that the proposal to ban all lead ammunition is unfounded and unsupported by any data,” he said. “Eliminating lead for waterfowl hunting 20 years ago solved most, if not all, of the migratory bird mortality issues. The amount of lead used by hunters in this day and age is minuscule and poses no threats to any species. Furthermore, the Environment Canada analysis is based on out-of-date information.”

Tony Bernardo, executive director of the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, took it that the study has been “put on the back burner,” but was also sure it would come back, with the anti-gun groups and bureaucracy pushing it.

He has attended three international symposiums on lead and said the problem when target shooting isn’t the lead projectile, but the lead styphnate in the primers. This is part of the ignition system and becomes airborne after the primer ignites. For this reason, indoor shooting ranges need exhaust fans in Canada.

Bernardo maintains the lead projectiles at shooting ranges becomes inert after 24 hours as lead oxide encapsulates the projectiles, stopping any leeching. “There’s a lot of information out there, and the anti groups are cherry picking their information,” he said. “It’s a big to-do about nothing. The lead stays where you put it; it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t leech.”

Matt Lindler, Director of Government Affairs, National Wild Turkey Federation

European Approach Varies by Country

European bans seem to be more extensive than the North American approach just for waterfowl. Some even go as far as not allowing lead ammunition on target ranges either.

The Netherlands and Denmark’s ban on traditional ammunition reaches back to 1993 and 1996, respectively. Part of Belgium doesn’t allow it for either hunting or sport shooting. The majority of countries in Europe have a ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting only.

Norway is an interesting situation. Lead shot was initially banned for all hunting in 2005. The Norwegian Parliament partially rescinded this in 2015, applying the restriction on lead shot only to wetlands and shooting ranges. 

Lead currently isn’t listed under the European Union’s regulation to protect human health and the environment. However, Sweden and Denmark are asking for it to be considered as a candidate to reduce lead exposure in drinking water and food. 

Torin Miller, director of policy with the National Deer Association

The United Nations Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals was passed in 1979, but it had a resolution recommending signatory countries phase out the use of lead ammunition across all habitat types within three years. Canada and the United States are not signatories, but many European countries are. 

“There are international efforts to ban lead ammunition as well. In the European Union, for example, they’re considering regulations that require shooting ranges to recycle up to 90 percent of their lead — which is incredibly expensive and ultimately affects hunters,” Tergeson said. “While this effort doesn’t ban traditional ammunition outright, they are making it cost prohibitive for anyone to use it. Such action will result in fewer hunters and recreational shooters in the near future.

“We are also monitoring the measures in the European Union that would ban the use of traditional ammunition. Unfortunately, anti-hunting and anti-gun special interests are forcing out the use of traditional ammunition through regulation.”

Robert Sopuck, director with Delta Waterfowl

Parting shot

For those outdoorsy types thinking this is just a firearms issue or it isn’t a big deal, think again. California has also looked at banning lead fishing tackle. There’s no doubt those who don’t enjoy traditional outdoor pursuits will continue to use lead ammunition as a wedge to end shooting sports and hunting, with fishing being next on their list. 

Enter Your E-Mail to Receieve a Free 50-Target Pack from RECOIL!

NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOIL

For years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included).

Get your pack of 50 Print-at-Home targets when you subscribe to the RECOIL email newsletter. We'll send you weekly updates on guns, gear, industry news, and special offers from leading manufacturers - your guide to the firearms lifestyle.

You want this. Trust Us.

1 Comment

Add a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View Comments

Subscribe to the Free