Hunting with Nonlead Ammunition

Why make the switch? 

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Background

Cheap and efficient, lead has long prevailed as the primary material for big game hunting ammunition. But in recent years, studies have illuminated serious wildlife health and environmental risks of using lead-based ammunition for hunting, and manufacturers responded with cost-effective and powerful non-lead options.

Hunters themselves are conservationists, maintaining species populations and protecting habitats. Switching to nonlead ammunition is yet another way they can support wildlife. Below is an overview of the issue, the angles, and some of the options hunters have today.

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The Movement Toward Nonlead Ammunition

Regulatory Changes

In 1991, it became illegal nationwide to hunt waterfowl with lead ammunition; and thus, many waterfowl species experienced a rebound. Subsequently, many other laws were passed recognizing the negative impact of environmental lead contamination on wildlife.

Changes in Hunter Preference

Having switched to nonlead ammunition for waterfowl, there is a movement among hunters to use alternatives such as copper for other game species as well.  These options protect wildlife such as eagles from being exposed when consuming carcasses left behind.

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Effectiveness & Cost

Despite their health and environmental benefits, nonlead alternatives have not always been embraced by hunters. Early versions came with comparatively high prices and unknown efficiency, stalling widespread adoption.

Now, however, we know that non-lead alternatives are not just safer; they’re just as effective as lead (or more so) at a very similar price. 

Effectiveness

When copper bullets first hit the market, hunters were concerned they would be lighter and less dense, proving less effective than lead bullets of the same shape and size. With large game, the argument was that lead bullets would pack a more devastating punch leading to quicker, more consistent, and more humane deaths.

Early adopters, however, found that copper bullets produced better penetration than their lead counterparts, with a smaller wound cavity and minimal fragmentation. This was because while lead bullets lose up to 40% of their mass on impact, spraying into tiny fragments up to 18 inches from the wound channel, copper bullets retain 95 to 100% of their mass.

After years of development, today’s copper bullets are available in a large array of calibers, weights and designs that meet or exceed the performance of their lead counterparts.  Manufacturers release new options every year, expanding caliber choices and improving performance.

Cost

Copper bullet prices continue to decline every year, even as performance improves. Given that a hunter will typically use two or less bullets per year on large game, and a few bullets to sight in the firearm, the purchase of a box of copper bullets can last multiple seasons. On average, a box of lead bullets runs $20, where a box of copper bullets runs only a few dollars more. The cost difference goes away completely when using premium ammunition.

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Impacts of Lead Ammunition to Avian Scavengers

The presence of lead ammunition in the environment can have an impact on avian scavengers such as bald eagles. As compared to other birds and mammals, bald eagles have a highly acidic stomach which breaks down the tiny fragments of lead and then it enters their bloodstream. When eagles consume lead, it only takes a small fragment, about the size of a grain of rice, to become toxic and often lethal.

Although lead fishing tackle is an issue for loons, large game such as deer or other game shot with lead ammunition remaining on the landscape is the primary source of lead poisoning for eagles. This is well-documented and a long-standing concern for eagles not only in Maine but across the country.

When an animal is shot with a lead bullet, as much as a third or more of the bullet’s total weight will be fragmented into hundreds of tiny pieces upon impact and remain inside as much as 18 inches from the pathway of the bullet. Lead bullets fragment even if it passes all the way through the intended target and is independent of hunter skill or where the animal’s body is shot. Some of these lead fragments are so small they are not visible to the naked eye but are clearly present in x-rays. 

When gut piles or carcasses remain in the field such as for bait, lead fragments are left with it. Avian scavengers take advantage of these free meals, ingesting lead fragments while consuming the meat. When they do, the lead toxifies their blood, tissue and bones, causing neurological and motor impairments that can lead to death within a matter of days.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Why should I switch to using non-lead ammunition?

Non-lead ammunition is ballistically comparable and effective for hunting, producing quick and effective kills, less bullet fragmentation reducing damage to the meat, and mitigating collateral damage to wildlife.

Do non-lead bullets work as well as lead bullets?

Yes! While lead bullets can lose up to 40% of their mass into tiny fragments, potentially straying up to 18 inches from the wound channel, copper bullets retain between 95-100% of their mass. This produces a smaller wound cavity, minimal fragmentation, greater weight retention and more kinetic energy to drive the bullet, allowing for a greater impact and quicker, more ethical kill.

Where can I find non-lead ammunition to purchase?

Availability and cost of nonlead ammunition varies depending on the retail store. L.L.Bean, Kittery Trading Post and Cabela’s are larger participating retailers in Maine, however, most local retailers either carry non-lead ammunition or are willing to order it for you. Additionally, there are many online retailers offering an assortment of options, ranging from material, cost, and caliber. Be sure to check with huntingwithnonlead.org to find specific ammo.

Is non-lead ammunition more expensive than lead ammunition?

Ammunition is often the least expensive part of hunting and requires only two or three shots to sight in your firearm. Non-lead ammunition can cost slightly more than certain types of lead ammunition, but often the cost difference can be less than $10. Costs continue to drop as manufacturers continue producing nonlead options.

Can I use lead ammunition for target practice or personal protection?

Lead bullets are excellent to use for target practice at ranges and for personal protection. Using lead for practice and protection doesn’t pose the same threat to wildlife in discarded carcasses or effect quality meat you’re placing on the dinner table.

How can I safely dispose of my lead ammunition?

Lead ammunition is very appropriate for target practice and person protection. A properly designed shooting range sequesters lead projectiles into firing berms until a time that is appropriate for efficient recovery and recycling. There are many public and private ranges that are safe, reliable and enjoyable place to gain proficiency with your firearm. Find a local range here.

I have a caliber firearm that non-lead ammunition isn’t available for, can I still use my firearm to hunt?

Yes, you can still your firearm to hunt. Switching to nonlead is a voluntary action and no laws require the switch. MDIFW encourages our hunters, the first line of conservationists, to make the switch to nonlead ammo in order to continue being stewards of the land. We can recommend steps to properly dispose remains from processing a carcass and helping to ensure that the gut pile is not visible from above. However, most gut piles are gone within a few days (hours in some cases) by mammalian scavengers.

How does lead ammunition affect wildlife?

When an animal is killed using lead ammunition, the carcass and gut pile are often left behind on the land. This carcass provides an appealing meal for birds that scavenge such as bald eagles and vultures, also known collectively as “avian scavengers”. Many mammals like coyotes consume carcasses, however eagles and vultures are severely affected by consuming microscopic lead fragments that are scattered throughout harvested game. Once consumed, a lead fragment in their highly acidic stomachs breaks down, enters into the bloodstream, and causes physiological impairments and eventually death.

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Places to Purchase Nonlead Ammunition