It's been 17 years since the federal government banned the use of lead shot in shells used to hunt waterfowl. Back in 1991 the number of ducks and geese turning up dead from lead poisoning was on the increase, not so much as a result of being hit by lead pellets but as a result of ingesting pellets as they bottom fed in ponds and marshes. Swans and other non-game bottom feeders were also impacted. Hunters initially complained about the poor performance of non-toxic steel shot compared to lead, but it wasn't long before a number of non-toxic alternatives to ordinary steel appeared. Bismuth, Hevi-Shot, various tungsten alloys and others offered hunters a more effective, but also more costly, alternative to steel shot.
Steel shot has improved over the years and loads such as Kent Fast Steel, Federal's Black Cloud and Winchester's Xpert shotshells are bringing more waterfowlers back into the steel-shot fold with improved velocities, range and performance. Many states now also require steel shot for hunting any kind of game bird in certain kinds of wildlife management areas. Hunters adapted once again and ammunition makers responded with non-toxic loads designed for taking everything from pheasants and grouse to doves. But now the quest for environment-friendly “green” ammunition is taking a new turn. Several states are considering an outright ban on all lead ammunition.
California led the charge on this issue when a rare California condor turned up dead from lead poisoning. Condors are large vultures and therefore primarily scavengers. Apparently the condor had fed on the meat of an animal or animals that had been shot with lead bullets and ingested lead bullet fragments. Even big-game hunters in California must now use lead-free bullets, and several other states may soon make similar rules.
Lead has been used in bullets for hundreds of years. It is a cheap and effective substance when it comes to manufacture and performance, but it is a toxic heavy metal. From a health standpoint it makes sense to find alternatives to lead, but there may also be political motivations I'll get to in a moment.
There are alternatives to lead bullets. Cor-Bon in Sturgis, Remington and other handgun bullet makers offer lead-free frangible ammunition for defense and law enforcement applications. Barnes has offered copper bullets for big game for some time and its bullets perform very well. Winchester's new E-tip rifle bullets were used by friends of mine on elk hunts last season will good results in most cases. Other companies are riding the “green wave” of innovation and working up new non-toxic loads for handgun and rifle shooters in their research and development departments even now.
Some sportsmen have speculated about political motivations concerning the sudden push for “safer bullets.” With gun control on the ropes in the judicial arena following this year's Supreme Court ruling on the 2nd Amendment, some gun control groups are looking for ways to make acquiring ammunition more difficult. Ammunition, they argue, is not protected by the 2nd Amendment. Copper is the main lead alternative in rifle bullets right now, and copper costs a whole lot more than lead. Hunters used to paying $15 for a box of 20 cartridges with lead bullets will easily pay two or three times that amount for copper equivalents.
The non-toxic push could also, in theory, make possession of lead ammunition illegal. It's not uncommon for reloaders who make their own cartridges to have hundreds of bullets bought in bulk lying around for future loading. If the nation goes entirely lead-free, reloaders could conceivably have to destroy stockpiles of unused ammunition or shoot it all up before any laws take effect. I know some in the industry who look at lead-bullet bans as a backdoor way of shutting down those who make their own ammo by making components harder to get and prohibitively expensive.
Regardless of motivations, the trend is clearly toward lead-free ammo in the political arena. Ultimately, the matter will likely be decided either by the courts, state game management agencies or voters.