Ban Lead Hunting Ammo: We Are Not Survivalists Any More

Warning: This article contains graphic imagery.

Ballistics short course: lead is dense and soft and cheaper than gold. These features make it attractive for use as ammunition. Dense means more shocking power on impact. Soft means instant deforming of the aerodynamic pellet or bullet into a big fat crushing deforming injury-inflicting instrument. The cheaper than gold part is self-evident.

Rifle and pistol shooters like lead bullets because the density holds speed and transfers shocking power. Shotgunners like lead pellets for the same reasons. A faster projectile with a flatter trajectory also makes it easier to adjust one’s aim.

I am no ballistics expert, but over the years I dabbled in reloading hot loads for a .270 rifle with a Mauser action and a glass-bedded Douglas barrel, so there are a few boxes of hand loaded copper and lead bullets in my tidy little armory. I also reloaded shotshells for bird hunting, and have dozens of cases of lead and steel rounds on hand.  (I guess those lead rounds will be consigned to the target range.)

One BB size lead fragment can kill an eagle. Bird hunters can leave 400,000 pellets per acre of intensely hunted areas. Wild swans ingest lead pellets from both water feeding and land feeding.

In the 1980s, the government proposed a ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting. Ducks and geese and their allies feed in areas where hunters rain down millions of pellets of shot, of which only one or two ingested are fatal, and birds wounded with a few lead pellets were likewise doomed. Poisoning losses were widely decried. Steel shot pellets were the only available alternative at that time.

Sportsmen and gun aficionados protested. Steel, lacking softness and deformity, only punches holes in birds and does not kill them here and now, they said, correctly. Steel damages favored antique guns. Probably also true. Wacko enviros and animal lovers are depriving us of hunting and shooting and freedom, decried others, engaging in unfounded hyperbole.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was pushing the anti-lead shot agenda under presidents both Democratic and Republican. Field studies, ballistics reports, Environmental Impact Statements, Congressional findings, filled the public record. The Second Amendment was invoked. It was a hot topic.

FWS decided to implement an early site-specific ban on lead shot at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in 1986, ahead of the scheduled nationwide ban for waterfowl hunting in 1991. My buddies and I hunt waterfowl there every fall. We were torn. We liked the idea of preventing geese and swans from dying from eating all of our copious misspent pellets, partly because most of us were not consistently efficient marksmen with fowling pieces. On the other hand, a box of lead shot 4s was about $3 in those days, and a box of steel shot 2s was about $10. One needed to shoot larger steel pellets to compensate for the lack of mass.

The cost was one thing, particular for us inefficient shooters. Crippling losses were another. Steel pellets do not deform or slow down much on their way through a duck; they penetrate like bullets instead of spread out like lead pellets. We would set up two parties on nearby islands, about 200 yards apart, with a spread of decoys between the islands. We would stretch strings of decoys out in lines to pull ducks down the lines into the group of apparently calm relaxed birds, only to take them out. Sometimes a bird would fly low straight over the hunters on the island, soon greeted by a hail of steel fired vertically. Often I saw a spray of feathers and entrails erupt above a fast-flying bird, a direct hit from a steel-firing shotgun, and the bird kept flying, only to die a mile away. Lead shot would have stopped that bird right now.

We learned and adapted. We bought larger shot and kept tighter chokes in our guns. We agreed that if a shooter hit a bird, everyone would fire again until the bird dropped lifeless. We did not take long shots, mostly. Crippling losses finally dropped. And of course with elimination of lead, ingestion losses stopped.

Lead shot continues to be universally used by hunters of upland birds: pheasants, grouse, partridges, quail, dove. This practice litters the landscape with toxic lead, but in generally diffused concentrations. There are exceptions. Near Hawk Springs (Wyoming) is a public hunting area where the Game and Fish Dept. plants pheasants and issues permits on a daily drawing. This area receives such intensive hunting pressure that the G&F banned lead shot there in the early 1980s. I don’t recall many complaints about reduced pheasant mortality, and there were not any significant protests by various NRA chapters and their allies.

Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife & Parks tried the same thing at the heavily hunted Freezeout Lake NWR and related bird hunting management areas a few years ago, and gave up against the hail of public protest. This is a migratory staging area for hundreds of thousands of Canada Geese, Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, among dozens of species of waterfowl. I have hunted there with steel shot for decades. In an area with grain fields, irrigation drains, weed patches and little ponds, it is impossible to carry lead shot for the pheasants and steel shot for the teal and mallards, so, you carry only steel. It works. No Second Amendment concerns about personal safety, revolting against tyranny and feeding the family have been threatened or compromised here, at least in my view. Others disagree vehemently. I am sure we will hear from them in response to this column.

The game wardens at Fort Benton NWR in Montana carry magnets. Open up that double gun and test those shells. Gee, that was easy. No worries about the Second Amendment while afield today.

The controversies over curtailing use of lead shot for bird hunting pale in contrast to the latest debate about banning use of lead ammunition for all hunting. At first blush, one might point out that a typical bird hunter might fire dozens or even a hundred rounds in an exciting day of hunting, whereas a deer or elk hunter might fire once, or a few times. How much lead are we talking about from big game hunting?

The problem is this: lead bullets used for big game hunting, larger and heavier than shotshell pellets, hit the target with ferocious velocity, causing massive fragmentation and penetration of muscles and organs. Gut piles and trimmed out ruined (“bloodshot”) muscle tissues are left in the field, to be consumed by vultures, eagles, magpies, crows and mammals. It does not take much lead to kill a bird. The gizzard grinds up the soft lead and it dissolves in the blood.

My new issue of The Annual Report of the American Bird Conservancy, a can-do organization which preserves habitats and environmental conditions for birds, features a photo of a dying bald eagle. The latest issue of Audubon magazine features a searing indictment of lead ammunition by Ted Williams, a guy who irritates me often but not this month.

Williams found that copper rifle ammunition is about three times the cost of lead ($35 per box versus $14), but a box or two of 20 rounds will last most hunters a season or two.

Since 2000 there have been 276 documented cases of lead contamination (“plumbism”) in California condors, but lead ammunition remains legal for hunting in Arizona and California. There are only about 380 condors alive on the planet; one concludes that these numbers are alarming. Gov. Schwarzenegger did sign a bill in 2007 which will eventually protect parts of the condors’ range.

Closer to home, there are many hunting groups which donate venison to needy people. In 2007 the North Dakota Dept. of Health x-rayed packages of ground venison donated by the Safari Club’s “Hunters for the Hungry.” Fifty-eight of 100 packages contained lead fragments; 17,000 pounds of donated venison were recalled and destroyed.

Numerous hunting and gun lobbying groups have launched heated attacks on proposed legislation, legislators and anti-lead lobbyists. The debate won’t end soon.

Meanwhile we ban lead from paint, toys, jewelry and lots of stuff which comes from China. Why not hunting ammo?

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  1. Anybody considered the idea that the earth is a closed system, except for the occasional fall out from a meteorite. The same level of lead was here from the earths beginning, and will remain here unless we plan to launch it into space. Lead has been flowing through the earths biomass for millennium, and will continue to do so in spite of our best efforts to neutralize its effect.

    D. R. Dafoe

  2. I fully agree with Eric Mills -“If the majority of hunters and fishers are the conservationists they claim to be, then they should be leading the fight to ban all lead from the environment, for both hunting and fishing.”
    I have also found you can be very quickly “Jumbo’ed” by the gun/firearms industry if you support this view.
    We need some strong, independent hunting groups to step forward and take the lead. I suspect many other hunter/conservation groups will then have the courage to follow.

  3. Lead is used for most ammunition because it is effective and economical.

    I use lead to cast my own bullets, and can pick up enough lead wheel weights along any highway to keep me supplied with casting material for years.

    And roadkill does not result from lead poisoning.

    Any proposed ban on lead bullets is nothing more than a backdoor attempt to ban guns, period.

  4. Interesting. It is okay to mass cripple thousands of animals as long as the animal carcasses don’t kill anything. Not sure what logic that is. Was that in the book from God–it’s okay to kill recklessly as long as you don’t accidently kill something else with the process? Not following that at all–or is God really strange…..I just can’t wrap my head around “okay to cripple/kill thousands of birds if we don’t add any lead to the environment”. Help me out here.
    You are saying that lead actually makes us bad shots? That new ammunition can magically make us better? Gee, and I thought practice made us good shots–which we won’t be doing with the expensive ammo. More crippled animals but that’s okay with you, I remember.
    I will ask you once again, do we take down power lines to save condors? Released condors in Arizona have died colliding with power lines–it’s a legimate question.
    Everything we do to some extent harms the environment. There are claims that virtually every chemical, vaccine, and drug kill animals and harm the natural world (check the list in California–you may be surprised at what you lose). We know many things cause inadvertant harm–there is no free lunch. How far do we go? The problem is your argument can be used to outlaw just about everything you love–and will be.
    If we are going to outlaw lead, then there needs to be a cost/benefit analysis, a look at what industries will end up closing and what will open (unless you are arguing that industries should be closed on principle, which sacrilege in Wyoming), what other ramifications will there be? (For example, steel shot manufacture may be more environmentally harmful–maybe the Chinese dump the chemicals on the ground there when manufacturing, killing their birds and kids and whatever.) Nothing is ever simple and straightforward, black/white. Outlaw lead–maybe you cause the death of children and animals in another country. Wouldn’t be the first time saving the birds caused death in foreign countries. (Speaking of foreign countries, do you intend to outlaw Americans hunting in countries that do allow lead ammunition? If it’s wrong, it’s wrong everywhere. Ban travel to hunt anywhere lead ammo is used while we are at it.)
    PS Steel shot in meat would have meant throwing it out—it’s about lawsuits, not lead. No way would meat with ANY metal be given out, which means all hunted meat can be wasted this way.

  5. “Why not hunting ammo?” he asks.

    Because, first and foremost, the lead from hunting ammo doesn’t present any significant poisoning risk to humans. That’s a good place to start, because the alarmist rhetoric from organizations like the American Bird Conservancy, Center for Biological Diversity, and others who are on the “Ban Lead” wagon would lead us to believe that we are, indeed, poisoning ourselves, our families, and our guests when we serve wild game that was killed with lead ammo. And that’s simply false. The evidence is there, and while research continues, it’s just not coming up with the data that the lead-ban folks would like to hear. So they’re abusing the truth in the interest of promoting their agenda.

    As far as the risk to non-targeted species, such as scavenger birds, I won’t deny that it exists. The research there has shown a correlation, and it’s definitely worth a consideration from the ethical sportsman. Many of us who are aware of the issues with lead ammo are changing our behaviors where we can.

    But does the “by-catch” warrant a federal ban on the use of lead ammunition? Not at all. With the exception of the condor, all of the other birds affected by lead are thriving and growing. The bald eagle was removed from the Endangered Species List in 2007, and in some places like Alaska (where hunting is not only sport, but survival for some residents and lead ammo is very widely used), the population has become so dense as to become a pest. The incidental death of a relative few individuals of a species does not warrant federal legislation that will have a drastic impact on an entire industry, and on the small community of hunters, sport shooters, and gun owners. If it did, then it would only make sense to eliminate other sources of incidental death, such as automobiles, farming, or pretty much any human pursuit that displaces habitat, creates toxins, or presents a physical hazard to other living things.

    But more importantly, the lead ammo ban that is currently in play has very little to do with human health, hunting, or the conservation of game species. The Center for Biological Diversity and associated organizations is trying very hard to ban ALL lead ammunition, and the fact is, relatively little of the ammo sold and used in this country is used for hunting at all. Most of it goes to target and recreational shooters, often shooting at modern ranges with lead abatement programs in place.

    But the biggest bugaboo of the whole thing is the persistent myth that lead-free ammo is “readily available”. Rifle and handgun ammunition isn’t like shotguns. For shotguns, there are really only about five or six options… 10ga, 12ga, 16ga, 28ga, 20ga, and 410. And because shot pellets are significantly less particular than bullets, alternative materials are also a little easier to come by.

    For rifles and handguns, there are probably thousands of variations of caliber and chamberings. Of these, several hundred are in common use. Yet peruse any gun shop or catalogue, and you’ll find less than a dozen readily available, lead-free cartridges… and most of these are a single brand and composition, which doesn’t work well for all rifles, even if the caliber is a match.

    The honest truth is, if the lead ammo ban as proposed before the EPA were to pass, thousands of gun owners will be out of ammo. Even if the market adjusts rapidly, as some people claim it will, it will be decades or more before the majority of gun owners can find lead-free ammunition for their firearms. In many cases, there will never be factory-made options… and those who can’t or won’t make their own will become the proud owners of useless hunks of metal and wood.

    That’s why so many people believe the lead ban is an anti-gun ploy. Personally, I think it was a well-meaning effort initially that has been co-opted by too many agenda-driven organizations on both sides, and has turned into a propaganda battle more than anything else.

  6. If the majority of hunters and fishers are the conservationists they claim to be, then they should be leading the fight to ban all lead from the environment, for both hunting and fishing.

    Hunters continue to diminish in numbers. Most of the non-hunting public are neutral on hunting, generally. But if the hunting community continues to let the paranoid NRA and their cronies set the agenda (“they’re coming after your guns!”), then the hunting fraternity (and it’s mostly men) can expect a major backlash. The lead issue is a no-brainer. According to the American Bird Conservancy, there are nearly 500 scientific, peer-reviewed studies documenting the dangers of lead. A 2011 UC Santa Cruz study directly connected lead ammo to the poisoning and deaths of a number of endangered condors. Lead ammo was banned for waterfowling 20 years ago, and the sport didn’t go belly-up, was was predicted by many. The same should hold true for upland game. What would Aldo Leopold do, do you think?

    I would urge any doubters to take a good look at Ted Williams’ piece, “Bad Shot,” in the May/June AUDUBON. Hunters should take heed, ‘ere they lose it all. And they will have brought it upon themselves.

  7. You are dang right the problem is in what eats the cripples–henceforth, no he didn’t talk about steel-shot cripples. Animals don’t dig or spit out the lead pellets from things they eat. The other cause of ingestion being pellets eaten when preening, so steel does nothing by way of harming them that way. These birds are way smaller than us–thereby making their blood/lead concentration far greater–and we do know about what lead does to them. So, we don’t need to wait for a book from God on the subject.

    As far as cost and how it will effect hunting, it will make us better shots, if we are smart. Those Hevi-load shots actually out perform lead giving you 20 yards more in distance and greater penetration. The move to non-tox’s effect on hunting will be minimal–especially when capitalism kicks in and the prices come down.

    I agree it was stupid to throw away the meat, but if we know that we are doing something harmful to the environment, and there are ways around it and we do nothing–that’s just as stupid.

  8. No, it is not stupid to preserve the game we love. However, the game we love is supposed to die from the lead. The problem is in what else dies from the lead and how much of it is caused by lead ammunition in gut piles and so forth. Yes, condors do die–also from power lines, wind turbines, etc. How far do you want to go to save condors? If this were simple, inexpensive and worth it okay–but there is obviously a question on the cost, the effect on hunting, etc. I find it interesting that the writer really did not seem bothered by the thousands of crippled birds that were part of learning curve with steel shot. And since God did not actually give us a complete list of what will wreck the earth, that will be up for debate until the earth ends or the book comes out. Some people consider hunting wrecking the earth. Eating meat, wearing leather, building houses–there are lists everywhere.
    I stand by my statement that destroying 17,000 pounds of meat because there were a few lead pellets in it was a completely stupid and irresponsible act and shows humans have absolutely no understanding of risk.

  9. Is it stupid to preserve the game we love to hunt, Alice? If there are alternatives, see bitsmuth and tungsten, why not use those? Right now those are cost prohibitive, but if they became the norm, eventually prices would have to come down. And if you want to eat a bunch of lead, lady, go ahead–worked out great for Nero–oh wait. I love hunting, and believe that to use the land we should be good stewards of it. I never read in any Bible where God created the world and told Adam to go wreck it.

  10. Perhaps we would ban lead from ammunition if our two-year-olds chewed on it. That’s why we ban it from the above listed items. To destroy 17.000 of meat because of the fear of some lawyer suing the state (which is the REAL reason they destroyed the meat) would indicate a immoral waste of meat and the need to outlaw lawyers, not lead ammunition. Humans can be very stupid….