Lead, Follow, or Get the Hell out of the Way: Talking Lead in 2011

The use of lead shot was approved by

Oh, wait, you thought I was talking about “leadership,” weren’t you?

Well, I am. In a way.

The use of lead (as in the metal) bullets and shot has been something of a controversy for years.  It really started back in the 1960s with an awareness that lead shot was causing poisoning of waterfowl, and efforts were initiated to shift over to ‘non-toxic’ types of shot (first steel, then things like bismuth and tungsten).

But it didn’t stop there. Worries about the environmental impact of lead bullets and shot continued to build. Partially this was due to concerns that it would get into the food chain (as with the waterfowl), but also partially because of concerns over human health – breathing air containing lead particles can also lead to lead poisoning, generating worries at indoor ranges that they could be held liable for health damages caused by the use of lead bullets (due to either friction in the barrel or contact with the burning gunpowder).

Some see this as a stealth effort to limit shooting sports in general, by making it more expensive. Yes, there are a range of lead-free bullets available, even for handloaders (Midway USA lists 38 pages of such bullets in their reloading section) and such production has led to a lowering of prices, but they are still significantly more costly than simple lead bullets – and a lot more expensive than casting your own.

‘Back in the day’ – when I was in high school, to be accurate – we used to cast our own bullets, using car tire weights as well as whatever other lead we could scrounge. The only cost was for the propane the burner used. Hard to beat that price. I’m not sure you can even get copper hot enough to cast just using a simple propane burner, and that’s probably the lowest price, viable alternative bullet metal. Chances are, you’d have to invest in a whole lot more expensive equipment to be able to cast copper rounds yourself.

So, just how much of an issue is it, really? Studies have indicated that properly dressed game isn’t much of a source of lead for hunters – but I think all of us have bitten down on a piece of shot when enjoying rabbit or pheasant we’ve taken. And while a trip out to the range for you may not seem like you’re tossing that much lead down range, it does add up pretty quickly. Here’s a shot from this spring when we were doing some BBTI testing:

Take note of the several large logs we chewed through, as well as the spent bullets littering the site. I have picked up lumps of conglomerated lead & copper bullets about the size of my fist after a testing session. So far we’ve shot about 15,000 rounds at that location (private property, no water table or food chain issues to speak of). Seems like a lot, but compare that to what any commercial or public range probably does in a year. I’d expect that there’s a lot of places which see that many rounds fired in a single day. That adds up.

Now, I’m not going to say that we should go to lead-free bullets. As much as I like the Barnes DPX rounds, they’re too damned expensive for practice. But I do choose to limit my own lead exposure these days, and just about the only bullets I buy for reloading are ones which have a thin copper coating cladding the whole bullet – what some manufacturers call “lead-safe.” That means I’m not handling lead directly, but I’m also not paying for solid copper. There’s no worry about airborne particles from shooting these bullets, and I don’t have to be concerned about lead fouling in my barrels.

That’s my choice. I’m not currently reloading shotgun shells, but I’m also not doing a lot of shotgunning these days. I’m not sure what choices I would make were I to get back into doing that regularly. But I would want to maintain the right to make those choices for myself.

It seems to me, to get back to the title of this piece, that we have some pretty good options in front of us. There are manufacturers out there who are offering a greater selection of non-toxic bullets and shot – my own testing of full-copper self-defense ammunition shows that it performs at least as well as copper-jacketed ammunition. Many indoor ranges have gone to either limiting lead bullets (requiring either lead-free or lead-safe bullets) or have installed air scrubbers to purify lead particles. Those are the ‘leaders’, who are operating on a free-market basis to meet this problem.

The ‘followers’? Us, I suppose. I mean the shooting public. We can make the choice to purchase these products, or patronize these businesses. In doing so we send a message as to what we want, and what we’re willing to pay for.

It seems that the effort to restrict lead shot in waterfowl habitat was one of those instances where there was a prevailing public need for the government to intervene. I do recall that organizations such as Ducks Unlimited were supportive of these restrictions.

But going further?  Imposing more restrictions generally on what shot or bullets can be used for other hunting? I’m unconvinced. That seems to be more along the lines of people just wanting to get in the way.