Leaded or Unleaded? The Right Choice of Bullet with Environment and Health in Mind

Deformed bullets fired from a rifle

by Peter Ruddle

Leaded or unleaded was a familiar question we asked ourselves when filling up our car with gasoline a few years ago. Today we should be asking ourselves this same question when it comes to ammunition. Lead-based ammunition is bad for the environment; the use of lead shot is less restricted in every developed country. Lead core bullets for rifles are on the way out, too – and that’s good news.  

Reflecting on my life as a professional hunter, I realize that lead has always been a part of it, and quite possibly going to be responsible for a number of my health issues that may develop over the years to come. It is a pity that while with age comes wisdom, it gives us no option to get back and change anything – knowing what I know now I would have changed a few things.

Being more of a carnivore than omnivore, I love my meat, be it beef, lamb, pork, or chicken. I know the risks involved in eating commercially produced meat products from animals fed in feedlots, pumped full of hormones to produce me my juicy steak. I firmly believe that there is no substitution for free-range venison, and in my mind it’s the healthiest meat you could eat. But only recently I’ve began to realize that it may also associate with a health hazard – lead. 

Born in the late fifties, my first encounter with lead was probably the lead-based paint used to paint my cot. When teething I probably had my first bite of the toxic heavy metal lead as I chewed on my cot to relieve my aching gums. As a young boy growing up on a farm in Zambia, I spent the better part of my day hunting doves with my air rifle. My pellets – made from lead – were always on hand and kept in my mouth for a quick reload. And of course, my dad’s vehicle burned leaded fuel back then.

Both lead paint and leaded fuel have been banned since – and for a very good reason, as lead causes many nasty conditions, especially in children. These health issues may include damage to the brain and nervous system, slowed growth and development, learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech problems, and in extreme cases be fatal.

A closeup of a defragmented bullet
A bullet recovered from a moose harvested by a hunter in Canada. How much lead from this bullet do you think remained in the meat?

Choosing a career as a professional hunter, the success and safety of a hunt revolves around your equipment and ammunition. Different brands and types of ammunition respond differently when used in different rifles. However, once the bullet is fired we expect good accuracy and performance. The wrong bullet choice can cost you thousands of dollars and your life’s dream when you wound and loose a trophy animal or miss out on your annual venison stash. 

Camp debates about types and makes of ammunition can rage on late into the night but ultimately boil down to solids and softs. Until recently, soft-point bullets were constructed with a soft metal core made from lead with a strong metal jacket. The intention of this bullet is to expand on contact and a good quality would mushroom on impact when striking the animal and maintain most of its weight. Little attention was paid to bullet weight loss. 

Last year my 14 year old son shot a wildebeest using an 180 -gr. 30.06 soft nose bullet. The bullet hit its mark and absolutely destroyed the one front shoulder. We processed the meat and made most of it into biltong (jerky). We couldn’t wait for the meat to dry so we could start tucking into our biltong stash. I took a bite into a piece of biltong and hit what I thought was a piece of fragmented bone. To my horror, on closer inspection it turned out to be a piece of fragmented bullet. With all the venison and biltong I have eaten over the years, just how much lead have I consumed?

I started asking myself questions.  What would happen if you ate lead? Is it OK to eat lead? Can you get sick from eating lead? How is lead toxic to humans? How much lead can you consume? What amount of lead is toxic? Does your body get rid of lead? Is a small amount of lead okay? The most logical answer came from my son when he asked if we could buy some solids. It is time to look at alternative ammunition options. 

Two bullets, lead and copper.
A lead core bullet (left) and a copper bullet (right), before and after firing. The level of deformation of the lead bullet speaks for itself.

During my research I came across a blog article written by Gail C. Thomson published on the 6th October 2021, titled: “How do you like your meat? Unleaded, please!” One look at the X-ray photos in the article will get you thinking. In brief, lead fragments from bullets as they enter the animal at high speed are spread far from the point of impact – with smaller beasts like springbok or a roe deer you can safely say they are all over the carcass. They are practically impossible to detect or delete from the meat at home, and you won’t even notice them as you consume the venison. Meanwhile, all over the world studies repeatedly show that birds of prey and vultures that feed on carcasses of animals shot with lead ammo develop fatal or near fatal lead levels. Ducks deaths from congested lead pellets have also been documented.

Fortunately, my body mass is far greater than that of a vulture or a duck, and my acidity level in the stomach is way lower. For these reasons we humans aren’t as strongly affected by consuming lead-shot animals as the birds. A study in Norway found that hunters and their family members showed that lead levels in their blood were higher than those of their neighbours who didn’t eat game meat, but the difference was marginal, and overall the lead levels lay below the average for the European Union. 

While there is no reason to panic, is it really a good idea to consume more of this toxic substance? Especially with the older part of the population, who might have already accumulated a lot of lead in their lifetime, and the smaller human beings, by which I mean children, who are much more vulnerable to lead poisoning due to their lower body mass and ongoing development? 

What options exist for a hunter who wants to decrease the levels of lead in the animals they shoot? Obviously, to consider the alternatives. If you have to shoot lead bullets, for one reason or another, you must consider weight retention – the higher that is, the less lead, obviously, will be left in the venison. Bonded bullets have in many cases been the bullet of choice as they hold together well. These soft nose bullets have a heavy copper jacket that is chemically bonded to a lead core. This promotes weight retention and prevents excessive fragmentation. The general rule of thumb is that the more expensive bullets perform the best. Barnes Triple Shock, Nosler Partition, Trophy Bonded Bearclaw, Swift A-Frame, Fusion, Hornady ELD-X, Sierra Game King, Nosler Ballistic Tip and the Norma Oryx are but a few of the safari favorites. 

Big bore cartridges with non-tox alternative bullets
A photograph taken at the IWA-22 by a BookYourHunt team members shows non-toxic loadings available for big-bore rifle cartridges popular with African hunters

But an even better idea is to use monolithic bullets. These non-toxic alternatives to lead are usually made of copper. Plastic tips on the front of these bullets cause the bullet to mushroom effectively without disintegrating, leaving your venison lead free. Copper being lighter than lead requires the bullet to be longer to achieve the same weight. This improves the ballistic coefficient of these bullets, which means they maintain their velocity better, and deliver more energy to the target than a shorter lead bullet of the same weight. 

Monolithic copper bullets may be more difficult to design than traditional lead stuff, but once designed, they are relatively easy to make. Unlike the advanced lead-core bullet with chemical fusion to the jacket, the production of copper bullets comes down to one or two operations on CNC-controlled machine or even 3D printer. As the result, most non-lead bullets show better accuracy as their lead counterparts. In this respect, rifle hunters are luckier than shotgunners. Lighter steel pellets are not as lethal as lead and may damage the bores of old shotguns not designed for this ammunition. With rifles, non-lead alternative bullets perform at least as well as, and often better than their traditional counterparts. 

The two disadvantages of non-lead bullets are that they may be more expensive, and that they leave more fouling in the barrels of your rifle. There’s nothing to be done about that, except that we shall have to pay more attention to cleaning, including with chemical solvents. As for the first “contra”, the more hunters turn away from lead, the cheaper the alternatives will become – that’s how market economy works. 

Increased demand for lead alternatives encourages new producers to enter the game. Many of those compare favorably with established brands, in both the price, and in that they often try to cater for niche markets. That includes vintage rifles, as well as rifles for lesser common cartridges. A lot of big bores loved by African dangerous game hunters belong to this class, but now you can count on finding non-lead ammunition for all, except the rarest, cartridges.

Exposure of high levels of lead can have serious consequences for the health of children and they may be left with intellectual disabilities and behavioral disorders. As a fully grown aging adult, the consumption of lead fragments in my venison and biltong is no doubt not good for my health and although not a medical fact, may explain why it is so difficult to lose weight the older you get. Maybe I am just suffering from an excessive lead build up. Last but not the least, we should consider the damage to the environment – birds of prey are beautiful creatures that don’t deserve possibly painful death from lead poisoning! In short, why don’t we leave lead behind and switch to non-tox alternatives? 

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