The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Lead-Free Ammo

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

Is Nontoxic Still An Epithet When Talking About Hunting Ammo?

There’s a persistent perception that lead-free hunting rounds will pass through game like a sewing needle and foul barrels with copper diarrhea. While new non-lead monolithic bullets produce debilitating wound channels, and foul far less than their premillennial brethren, they’re still lighter-for-caliber and have a velocity floor that must be met in order to perform.

Why Lead-Free?
The most obvious reason hunters turn to nontoxic ammunition is because they have to. While all shot used to hunt waterfowl in the U.S. has been lead-free since the ’90s, there’s only a patchwork of areas in the country that require the use of lead-free rifle bullets at the moment. Its use is mandated to protect the environment and animals from lead contamination in the California Condor ranges in the west, and in various wildlife management areas and national wildlife refuges spread throughout Colorado, Wyoming, Iowa, and South Dakota, to name a few.

But the slow shift away from lead continues and, in 2019, all hunting in California will be lead-free. We can see the many state wildlife management agencies across the nation that now “encourage” the use of lead-free ammunition someday mandating its use, much like the decades-long awakening that turned cool cigarette smokers into gazebo-huddling outcasts.

Aside from the still relatively few folks who don’t have the choice of using traditional leaded hunting bullets, nontoxic ammo is becoming more popular with hunters who appreciate the performance of all-copper bullets and want to eliminate the chance of ingesting lead in their game meals.

A study published in 2010 by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources shows lead from bullet fragments travels way further inside game than anyone previously thought. In the study titled Bullet Fragmentation and Lead Deposition in White Tailed Deer and Domestic Sheep, it’s revealed there’s surprisingly more lead in shot game than we can see or taste. The study found simply carving out the bullet fragments and avoiding the use of meat from the wound channel wasn’t enough to eliminate lead exposure.


In fact, an earlier study performed in 2008 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the North Dakota Department of Health found a link between eating wild game shot with lead bullets and higher blood lead levels. Google it, if you can remember after putting this issue down. If you forget, though, know short-term memory loss is a symptom of lead exposure.

So, yeah. Aside from knowing you’re not effectively feeding your family lead paint chips and the vaguely warm-fuzzy from protecting the environment, there’s the simple fact that lead-free ammo is as deadly as a pissed-off leprechaun on a pogo stick in a B-movie horror flick.

Horse Creek Outfitters guide Adam Beaupre sees about 15 to 20 big-game rifle kills a year working out west, and of that, he estimates three or four of them are from lead-free bullets.

“I’ve had guys shoot the Barnes copper bullets,” he says, “and what I’ve seen is not a whole lot of difference between lead and non-lead kills inside of 400 yards. I’ve had wounded animals with lead bullets and with non-lead bullets. From a performance standpoint, given good shot placement at the appropriate range, I can tell you both of them work.”

It’s up to you to decide if a long shot is ethical, but if there’s a limiting factor, it’s not bullet performance as long as you’ve chosen and doped out the right round for the distance and game.

“Out past 400 yards,” says Beaupre, “I’d think twice about shooting an animal with a lead-free bullet… Heck, I’d think twice anyway at 400 yards with any round, but in general, you lose enough velocity at those distances that expansion in those lead-free rounds becomes a problem, and you really jeopardize killing power.”

Copper Lore
There’s a litany of arguments against non-lead rounds debated over the gun counter, nearly all of them borne from ignorance or fealty to the leaded status quo.

“It requires a long barrel.” We ran the numbers, challenged a range of lead-free ammo to expand with our own 16-inch, low velocity test, and talked to hunters who report have taken large game with monolithic copper ammo.

“It’s not accurate.” Our testing says otherwise. We made holes with some of these rounds that seemed like they were magnetically drawn to each other.

“It’ll over-penetrate.” Modern bullet manufacturing techniques have caught up with monolithic projectiles, giving bullet-makers great control over the expansion characteristics of its projectiles. Witness the Lehigh Defense .308 Win 79-grain Close Quarters ammunition shown on page 67. It dumped nearly all of its energy in a 16-inch 10-percent FBI block of Clear Ballistics gel. (We surmise it would have been 100-percent contained in the gel, but our shot was a little left of center.)

“It’s a government/left-wing/gun control/tree hugger conspiracy to take away our hunting rights and/or our guns.” It might be. But when it comes to hunting, we’ve heard woodsmen crying that lead-free hunting regulations will make ammunition too expensive to buy, resulting in a de-facto hunting ban for all but the wealthy. How much premium hunting ammo do you buy? Sure, the copper ammo is more, but not twice the price, and most of us only use a few boxes of premium hunting ammo per season.

LEADFREE bullets

To read the rest of this article, click here to purchase CARNIVORE

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.

Add a comment

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

Subscribe to the Free