March 10, 2016
By David Hart
Say goodbye to lead ammo, California. Effective July 1, 2019, the use of any lead ammo for taking any game will be illegal in the entire state. It's the final step in a phase-out process that started back in 2008 when lead rifle bullets were prohibited for big game hunting in a large portion of the state. The move was based on studies that determined endangered California condors were dying after ingesting lead particles in gut piles and unrecovered big game. Just 228 of the birds live in the wild, including 128 in California.
Is your state next? If various environmental groups get their way, it may be. The Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, have been pushing for a nationwide lead ammo ban for years. They not only cite lead poisoning in condors, but in a variety of other wildlife, as well.
The Benefits of Non-Lead Ammo
A number of other studies have found lead in the blood of everything from bald eagles and grizzly bears to ravens and varmints, typically immediately after hunting seasons. Researchers believe the animals ingest lead fragments from gut piles and unrecovered animals.
Many hunters, conservation groups and gun groups, including the NRA, question the science. Hunt for Truth Association executive director David Halbrook is one of them. He points to blood tests of California condors after lead ammo was banned in a large part of their range.
According to HFTA's web site, "A comparison of pre-ban and post-ban blood-lead data from condors in the "condor range" indicates that the incidence of lead exposure and poisoning in condors remains static, or has actually increased slightly! The failure of California's lead ammunition ban to decrease lead poisoning proves that alternative sources of lead in the environment are causing lead poisoning in condors."
What isn't up for debate are the harmful effects of lead. It's toxic, which is why lead is no longer used in gasoline, paint or pipes that carry drinking water. Even the United States military is phasing out lead ammo, with a complete end to lead 5.56 and 7.62 bullets planned for 2018.
Should hunters make the switch voluntarily? Or can we expect the rest of the country to follow California's mandatory ban? So far, there is no talk of lead ammo bans by other state wildlife agencies or by the federal government.
Even without a widespread mandate, ammo manufacturers are increasing production of their non-lead ammo. Hornady, for example, offers nearly 60 different ammo options in everything from .17 Hornet to .375 Ruger in its non-toxic GMX and NTX line-ups. Federal also offers a variety of copper ammo, including all-copper muzzleloader bullets. Remington, Winchester and a number of other manufacturers are getting into the non-toxic ammo market, as well.
Do they work? Absolutely, says Hornady communications manager Neal Emery. Solid copper and copper-alloy bullets typically retain more weight after impact than lead-core bullets, which sometimes fragment after striking bone or hard tissue.
"For people that want a bullet that is going to punch through both sides more often than not, they are great options," says Emery, who has hunted with solid copper bullets extensively. "Some people prefer a bullet that goes in and disrupts violently and expends all its energy quickly. That's not really what the GMX does, which is why I prefer them on really tough game."
Non-Lead Ammo Still Isn't Perfect
That pass-through means less energy is retained in the body cavity, which could result in more wounded and unrecovered game or a slower death. However, they expand well enough and transfer enough energy to do the job. As with any bullet, shot placement is the most important factor.
Because copper is lighter, manufacturers have to make copper or copper-alloy bullets longer than lead bullets in order to maintain the same weight. Longer bullets tend to be less stable after leaving standard-twist rifle barrels.
"The accuracy of the bullet isn't necessarily better or worse," says Emery, "but mono-metal bullets don't have as high a ballistic coefficient as conventional bullets of the same length. You don't typically see high BC mono-metal bullets because they'd be too long."
They tend to foul barrels more, too, although copper alloy bullets are cleaner, and they require faster velocities to properly expand. Emery says they need to travel at least 2,100 feet per second to expand upon impact. The majority of factory-made copper ammo meets that minimum.
What's more, copper bullets are more expensive. Hornady's 130-grain, .270 GMX copper bullets cost about $46 per box while their American Whitetail ammo in the same caliber and weight retails for under $30 per box. A box of Remington Core Lokt sells for less than $20. Considering most hunters don't shoot an entire box in a single season, though, the extra money likely isn't a significant factor.
Whether or not all hunters will be shooting non-lead ammo in the future remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure: The debate over the impact of lead on wildlife, along with the effectiveness of the bullets, will likely continue.