Andrew Venables

By the 1st December 2022, all Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) contractors will be using lead-free ammunition for shooting deer and feral pigs. The rangers have already switched to non-lead bullets. In 2019-2020 FLS sold 850,000kg of venison as human food, much of it exported to Europe.

The writing is on the wall for lead-based rifle ammunition. In a few years from now, shooting edible quarry with lead core bullets will be a thing of the past. Do you want to be ready, or do you want to be caught out, unloaded and unprepared?

The background:

Just before Covid 19 hit, the shooting community was rocked by a joint announcement from nine shooting NGOs. The declared intention, on behalf of their members, is to voluntarily move away from lead shot in shotguns over a voluntary five-year consultation and trial period.

One of our pillars of strength is our claim to put healthy, organic, wild meat on the table for ourselves and an ever-hungry food buying public. This pillar crumbles in the face of scientific and public concern about food standards and any traces of lead in game meat.

If steel shot and other lead alternatives look like forming the economic mainstay of post-modern shotgun ammunition, where does that leave rifle shooting?

Hunting bullets:

Lead-free all-copper rifle bullets started to appear over 28 years ago with the advent of the Barnes X bullet. Similar to the modern steel shot story, much has improved over that time. A number of companies now offer lead-free copper-only bullets: Barnes; Sellier and Bellot; Lapua; Hornady; Winchester; Sako; Norma; Fox and others.

Copper bullets with cannular grooves in the side-bearing surface, similar to the principle applied to old cast lead bullets, reduce pressure and fouling while allowing for increased velocities. The recommended recipe now is to choose bullets 10-20% lighter than the lead and copper originals and drive them 10-20% faster.

Have a look at these website links with information on various options:

https://www.barnesbullets.com/bullets/ttsx/
https://www.hornady.com/bullets/gmx#!/
https://www.foxbullets.eu/fox-classic-hunter/
https://www.sellier-bellot.cz/en/products/rifle-ammunition/rifle-ammunition-with-exergy-blue-bullets/

The additional speed increases expansion: bullets that strike quarry at over 2,600fps create more hydrostatic shock, which leads to faster incapacitation. Meat damage is reduced as copper bullets retain 95%+ of their original weight and don’t fragment. Combining velocity with weight retention is a win-win.

I’ve been testing and assessing copper only bullets for over 25 years. I’ve harvested a several hundred deer, antelope, boar and bovines using them. In the early days, 165-180gn .308 copper bullets, such as Barnes X, travelling at below 2,500fps worked very well on large mammals, but could be slow to expand and transfer energy on small to medium sized deer, leading to some slow kills and long ‘death runs’.

In the calibres I’m most familiar with, here are the current best performing choices of monolithic copper/alloy bullet weights and speed for Barnes TSSX, Hornady GMX and Fox lead-free hunting bullets:

Testing Fox copper bullets (left) against Hornady SST and Hornady ELD-X in 300WM.

The combinations highlighted in red are now my personal ‘go to’ solution calibres for all stalking and hunting of edible quarry in the UK.

They give me accuracy, straight-line penetration, expansion, hydrostatic shock and quick humane kills when I shoot well and place the bullets accurately.

They also ensure I damage and waste less meat, avoiding fragmentation and lead contamination.

They help to make thoracic cavity shots practicable and cost effective.

.223 50-55gn 3,300fps
.243 80-85gn 3,300fps
6.5 x 55 100-120gn 2,900 – 3100fps
.308 130gn 2950fps
.300WM 150gn 3,350fps – On deer and antelope
.300WM 165-180gn 2,950-3,150fps – Boar, wildebeest, bovines

Fox 150gn, .300WM, 3,350fps, 100m

Fox 150gn, .300WM, 3,350fps, 100m

Barnes 150gn TSX, .308, 2,950fps, 100m

Barnes 80gn TSX, .243, 3,300fps, 100m

Barnes 80gn TSX, .243, 3,300fps, 100m

These are representative groups simply achieved by loading to maximum data and length to feed reliably from the magazine of each respective rifle. Load development could further improve consistency, group size and ballistic performance. For me, 2-4cm groups are perfectly adequate in hunting ammunition.

This is a graphic demonstration of the difference between lead core and monolithic metal hunting bullets.

The Hornady GMX on the left retained 98% weight, expanded very rapidly and left a clean temporary wound channel. The Hornady SST on the right lost 60% of its weight.

The ballistic soap was peppered with fragments of lead throughout the wound channel. Both are currently legal, available and the choice is yours. Both kill deer humanely.

The two closeup pictures below of ballistic soap are back lit, to emphasis the presence, or absence of metal detritus left in the block/quarry by the bullet passing through. This issue increases significantly with higher velocities and frangible bullets.

Impacts at over 2,500fps seems to be a threshold for rapidly increasing fragmentation for lead core bullets. This coincides with the increase in hydrostatic shock.

Target A traditional lead core and copper jacket 150gn hunting bullet. Impact velocity 2,600fps. The multiple grey lead fragments are clearly visible, spread randomly around the wound channel. This type of ballistic media shows the full temporary wound channel.

The wound channel caused by the expanding monolithic copper bullet shows no metal deposits in the ‘flesh’. The rotation of the bullet and ‘cutting’ effect in the wound channel can be seen clearly.

The outer ring is a variety of lead core hunting bullets recovered from our broken shale backstop area. All are basically unrecognisable and destroyed.

The inner ring are all copper hunting bullets of various types, recovered mostly intact from the broken shale.

The centre four are all copper bullets, in this case mostly Barnes, recovered from quarry. Weight retention 95% on three out of four. The left of centre .243 crept in from the ‘quarry shots’.

My conclusion: reputable brands of copper hunting bullets expand reliably and hold together very well in extreme impact circumstances.

This is a close-up comparison of the high velocity performance on quarry of copper bullets, compared to standard copper jacket/lead core hunting bullets. When you recover 60% of a lead and copper bullet from quarry, the other 40% is still somewhere in the carcase, in bits.

Some lead core bullets, like Trophy Bonded, Swift A Frame, H Mantel and others are designed to expand less quickly and retain more original weight. Bullet performance and impact velocity need to be matched to the physical size and weight of the quarry.

This video, from the USA Outdoor Channel explains and demonstrates the difference between lead and lead free copper and gilding metal bullets very well:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2OnzCgwq8gY&t=2318s

Now, by choice, I only use lead free bullets for all my hunting of edible meat, so for me, a future ban on lead in rifle hunting would be surmountable. But what of target shooting, pest control and recreational shooting?

The military response to the lead question:

A growing number of national military forces have moved away entirely from lead bullets. Norway and Sweden have converted .223, .308 and .50BMG calibres among others. Manufactures such as Nammo and Fiocchi have developed lead-free military ammunition at the right quality and price. This will clearly become increasingly available to civilian shooters as the transition gathers momentum.

This move away from lead ammunition is because of lead contamination concerns on live-firing military training areas. The legal issue they wish to avoid is simple: once a problem is recognised and scientifically proven, the polluter can be made responsible for the clean up costs which are potentially huge.

Think of asbestos. Ignoring the tsunami of evidence could expose the shooting industry to unlimited litigation in the future. The threat of litigation has the world’s military institutions scrambling for lead free alternatives. Are we asleep?

BAE Systems, the owner of Radway Green, manufacturer of small-arms ammunition for British and other forces, made this statement in 2016 in answer to a question during an interview by The Register:

Question: “Was BAE Systems’ move to a steel bullet core for the 5.56mm EP round inspired by moves to go green?”

BAE’s answer: “Having that non-toxic bullet is a potential way forward and we’re also looking at switching to non-toxic primers. As it stands, the round that we would see going into service would have a standard lead styphnate primer because it would provide the approved performance. We recognise there may be a demand to move to non-toxic, lead-free ammunition and therefore you need to do two things: take the lead out of the bullet and the lead salts out of the primer.”

The whole article is here: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2016/08/17/bae_systems_radway_green_ammunition_feature/

American M855A1 bullets for 5.56 x 45 (.223)

The American military launched its Green Ammo project in 1995, to replace lead in the manufacture of military projectiles.

One result is this: M855A1 projectiles for 5.56×45mm NATO rifles replace traditional lead alloy cores with an environmentally friendly copper core with a 19-grain (1.2 g) steel “stacked-cone” penetrating tip. Ref: Wikipedia.

Please read this article which makes it clear that the American military has moved away from lead-core bullets for environmental, pollution and health reasons: https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060020236

I’ve used three different brands and types of lead-free military ammunition in .308/7.62×51 over the past 10 years. They shot right alongside the standard ball ammunition out to the 800m tested. Velocities and ballistic coefficients were similar to the military lead ball it will replace. Interestingly, with one brand the bullets fully fragmented internally when shot into already dead livestock at 100m with no exit at all.

Similar compressed sintered bullets are apparently used by air marshals on protected flights to limit penetration on people and planes in any shooting.

Life can certainly continue for both rifle and shotgun shooters in the aftermath of any future lead bans. The question is how hard will the transition be. This will be dictated by how prepared the shooting industry is with regard to viable alternatives to lead-cored hunting, target shooting and recreational ammunition.

We need to voluntarily develop and research alternatives. Without demand there can be no supply. The warning signs are clear: the civilian shooting community will inevitably have to follow any military lead on changes of practice in the management of military shooting ranges and training areas.

Survival favours species that can adapt rapidly to changing circumstances. Extinction favours those that can’t. The greatest threat to our shooting sports is not a ban on lead. It is doing nothing to prepare for one in advance.

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