The Death of Lead Hunting Bullets (Is Non-Lead Really Better?)

Lead-core hunting bullets may become an endangered species soon.  Lead is both a great and a bad material for bullets, but so are the non-lead alternatives.  Ever since the original Barnes pure copper bullet came to market in 1932, shooters and hunters have debated the concept's merits and disadvantages.

Until just a few years ago, it came down to personal preference.  Then states such as California banned lead hunting ammunition.  Some European countries have followed suit.  The debate as to whether this is for pure environmental reasons or is a backdoor approach to gun control will continue for some time and is beyond this article's scope.  Suffice to say, the environmental arguments for monolithic bullets are a bit too convenient for the gun grabbers.

What's So Wrong With Lead Bullets?

Before we explore the issue's ballistic aspects, let's take a hard look at lead's downsides.  In simple terms eating lead, or eating something which has eaten lead, is bad for your health.  Even small lead concentrations in your blood can cause significant problems.  Lead harms the central nervous system, including the brain, and the reproductive organs, among others.  Lead poisoning is serious business.

Lead's adverse health effects have been known for decades.  The EPA and other agencies limit the lead content in many products from gasoline to paint, and more.  All with the best intentions, for the most part.  Then several studies implied animals who were not a hunter's primary target might ingest lead from bullets or shotgun pellets.  Some biologists were concerned animals who eat carrion such as vultures and ravens could ingest lead from game animal remains.  Never mind the fact hunters don't leave much of an animal in the field--they take the majority home.  Never mind game animals comprise just a small subset among animals killed in the wild.  Never mind a hunting bullet's lead core is more or less encapsulated inside a copper alloy jacket.
Traditional lead-core hunting bullets.  The lead is encapsulated in a gilding metal jacket.
Armed with these studies (some have major scientific errors), both environmental and anti-hunting activists urged politicians to "do something."  They did--with the usual broad brush approach contained in most legislation.  They banned lead bullets and shot for some species and areas.

Don't get me wrong, lead is bad for you.  You should avoid putting it into the food chain as much as practical, but common sense game prep, both in the field and when butchering, will reduce any lead exposure from the bullet used to kill an animal.  It is a manageable concern.

Mono-metal Bullets to the Rescue?

Whether you just want to reduce possible lead exposure in your game meat or you're required by law to use non-lead bullets, there are bullets made from alternate materials.  For the most part, this means copper, brass, or gilding metal.  Some bullets, like Fred Barnes' originals, are made from pure copper.  The newest designs from companies such as Nosler and Hornady, for example, are made from gilding metal which is a copper and zinc alloy.
Pure copper bullets.  (L-R) Original hollow point design and newer polymer tipped style.
Mono-metal bullets do not act like lead-core bullets in several ways which creates problems for hunters.

They are not as dense as lead which make them much longer than their lead counterparts to achieve the same weight.  This reduces powder capacity in the cartridge case.  Rifling twist rates optimized for lead-core bullets may not stabilize the longer mono-metals.  This creates accuracy problems which are difficult to diagnose and correct.

Mono-metals are much harder than lead-cores.  Since they don't have any "give" when they are compressed into a gun barrel's rifling, they create much higher chamber and bore pressures.  They also create more friction as they move through the barrel which causes increased bore temperatures.  This results in higher bore wear.

Monolithics do not shed weight as they pass through a game animal's body.  This is both good and bad.  The good part is since they retain their weight, they penetrate deep.  In most cases, mono-metals will perforate a game animal from any angle.  Good if you're shooting large, tough animals such as elk, bear, or Africa's Big Five.  Not so good on light bodied game such as antelope or smaller deer where you want immediate, massive energy transfer.

Two Paths to One Goal

While both lead-core and mono-metal hunting bullets expand to improve energy transfer in a target, lead-cores also shed some mass as they pass through an animal.  This weight loss provides additional energy transfer beyond the bullet's initial expansion.  Plus, the bits thrown off act as secondary missiles inside the animal's body which create multiple wound channels.  It is the wound channel or channels which actually kill.  They tear flesh and blood vessels which causes massive blood loss.  Once blood pressure drops enough, the brain shuts down and the animal stops breathing.  It dies just seconds later.
Expanded lead-core bullet. Most of the core remains encapsulated in the jacket although the nose "sheds" some mass into the animal to provide a quicker, more humane kill.
Mono-metal bullets don't lose much if any weight when they pass through an animal.  In most cases, they are designed not to flatten into a mushroom shape like a lead-core.  Instead, their noses peel back like a banana into four "petals."  While this does transfer energy and create a larger permanent wound cavity, the extra transfer created by weight loss is absent.  To make up for this, mono-metals must strike a target at much higher velocity than a lead-core.  Not a big deal if you shoot an animal inside 200 yards--the average hunting range envelope.  If you hunt like this, you'll likely never notice a difference in leathality between the bullet materials.

Sometimes, the nose petals on a mono-metal will break off in the animal.  While this does create secondary missiles, the overall wounding effect is similar to military full-metal jacketed ammo: a clean through and through with caliber diameter exit wound.  The result is an agonizing, slow kill if the impact velocity isn't high enough.
Expanded mono-metal bullet.  Sometimes the petals break off leaving  just a caliber size wound cavity.
Things get problematic for mono-metals when velocity drops.  At longer ranges, impact velocities are much lower.  Most lead-core bullets, the specialized long-range ones in particular, will still expand and lose mass when they hit.  Mono-metals struggle to expand at these reduced velocities and may create a permanent wound cavity not much larger than their bore size.  This results in reduced wounding, so much so a critter may wander off to die a lingering death.  While a mono-metal bullet may still perforate an animal at longer range, the reduced expanded diameter will leave a smaller exit hole which can limit a blood trail.  Less blood means a greater chance a hunter won't find a wounded animal.  A needless death, which benefited no one.

Accuracy Dance

Recall mono-metal bullets may not stabilize in barrels designed for lead-cores.  There's an even darker side to this issue.  They are much more sensitive than a lead-core to the free-bore in a rifle's firing chamber.  This is the distance the bullet must travel before it engages the rifling lands in the barrel.  This means if you use factory mono-metal ammunition, there is a good chance it may not shoot well in your particular gun.  If you hand load, it can take much extra development time and effort to hit the precise harmonic node the bullet likes.  You may not find the "happy spot" at all, no matter what you try.  A Nosler technical support rep once told me mono-metals are "finicky."  Not the thing if you have limited time or budget for load development.

Clean Up Your Act

As if all the previous problems weren't enough, there's one more issue with mono-metal bullets.  The ones made from pure copper leave more copper residue in the barrel's bore than a jacketed lead-core.  The companies who make all copper bullets claim their annealing process, and or circumferential grooves cut into the bullet's shank, reduce or eliminate this problem, but many end users report excessive fouling with these products.  Not a major concern for many hunters who just shoot a few rounds at a time, either on the range or in the field.  However, if you are in a remote area and need the gun to go numerous rounds between cleanings, the copper fouling might become a problem.
Grooves in a mono-metal's shank theoretically allow some copper to "flow" into them as the bullet travels down the barrel which reduces pressure and fouling according to their designers.

So, What's a Hunter to Do?

Mono-metal bullets are not the panacea many claim.  The technology still requires further refinement before they will equal lead-core s for versatility and easy use, but when they work, they work well.  If you're curious, or are concerned about lead in your game meat, give them a try.  If you must use them by law, you're stuck and need to come to terms with them one way or another.  If you hand load them, you must use the specific bullet maker's load data.  Lead-core bullet data is NOT interchangeable with mono-metal data!

The most promising mono-metals are those made from gilding metal, the same material lead-core bullet jackets are made from.  This development solves many problems, bore fouling in particular.  If you use them in their proper velocity envelope, you shouldn't experience many, or any, bullet failures on game.  Good luck, and good hunting.

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