Block title

Follow the links to review the evidence.

How much proof is there that scavengers are being poisoned by lead ammo? So much that I don’t have time to read every new study. If you x-ray an animal shot with a lead bullet, you’ll see a constellation of fragments. When scavengers hoover gut piles and carcasses, bullet fragments stand good odds of landing in their bellies.

I’m not buying it. In my home state of Montana, raptor rehabilitators see the highest lead concentrations in bald eagles during and following the hunting season. In the winter, about 90% of the eagles around here have elevated lead concentrations in their blood. Some die.

Yeah, but raptors rummage through garbage dumps, eat paint, and even swallow screws. That’s where the lead is coming from. Raptors do sometimes loiter at garbage dumps, eat trash, and occasionally swallow lead paint. But any lead consumed via those behaviors is only additive to the lead they consume from spent ammunition.

Couldn’t you run isotopic analysis to pinpoint the source? Certainly! Researchers have tested the isotopic ratio of lead in California condors and found high similarities to the isotopic ratio of lead in the local ammunition.

Still, how many raptors actually die from lead exposure? Enough to stunt the population growth of bald and golden eagles. California Condors will never reach a self-sustaining population if their entrees are peppered with lead.

People always talk about eagles and condors when it comes to lead exposure. What about other critters, like mammals? In western Montana alone, we observed 19 scavenger species investigating hunting remains, with 9 of those being mammals. A study out of Sweden found that brown bears had higher lead concentrations in areas with intense moose hunting.

What about ground squirrels and prairie dogs? Can they poison birds? I shot a couple dozen before breakfast. Yep, they can be loaded with lead. And when those carcasses sit in the field, scavengers from burrowing owls to badgers feast on the remains.

Could this be a political attempt to tighten gun control laws? Most of the lead-free proponents I know are hunters who care about all wildlife, not just the ones that end up on the grill.

Lead bullets offer outstanding ballistics. Are you about to tell me otherwise? Nope.

I recovered my lead bullet from an elk. It didn’t fragment. Have you weighed the bullet? Most lead bullets I’ve tested fragment away 30-85% of their mass.

I cut around the wound channel, so there shouldn’t be much lead in my venison. Lead particles can travel at least 18” from the main wound channel. Even if you carefully remove visible bullet fragments, millions of infinitesimal particles can still hide in flesh.

My lead bullet has a higher ballistics coefficient (BC) than copper bullets. Since lead is denser than copper, they sometimes have higher BCs. (Bullet mass boosts ballistic coefficient.) But I’ve seen high BC bullets disintegrate on impact and fail to penetrate like copper. Hunters should consider both flight performance and terminal performance of their bullets.

I tried a copper bullet and it didn’t expand. How do you know? It’s tough determining how much a bullet mushrooms unless you recover the slug. Skin is elastic, so entry and exit holes are unreliable indicators. Research shows that lead and copper bullets often expand similarly in both animals and simulants.

I can’t find a copper bullet in my desired grain weight. Copper is less dense than lead, but don’t be afraid to go light. They’ll hold together and drive deep.

A lot of the lead in ammunition is recycled, whereas copper bullets require virgin copper. Will more copper bullets mean more environmental damage from mining? This answer requires some guesswork, but the amount of copper required to produce ammunition is probably tiny compared to electrical applications and other industrial uses.

How do I figure out whether my bullet blows apart or holds together? If you recover a bullet in an animal, weigh it. Otherwise, you can shoot into ballistics gels or a homemade water trap.

Building a water trap sounds like a lot of work. Yeah, fabricating a personal ballistics contraption isn’t for everyone. You can instead attend a nonlead workshop with groups such as the North American Nonlead Partnership or Sporting Lead-Free. This video sums up what you’d likely see.

Where do I buy copper bullets? Peruse your local sporting goods store. If their shelves are light on copper, try online. Sometimes you can filter for “lead-free,” as done here at If you live in Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, or New York, check out Hunters for Eagle Conservation. You might qualify for discounted ammunition or bullets.

About the Author

Mike McTee

Mike McTee is a researcher at MPG Ranch and the author of Wilted Wings: A Hunter’s Fight for Eagles.

Mike shot his first weapon before he could recite the alphabet. Now, understanding weapons is part of his job. His career took this trajectory after Mike gained a B.S. in Environmental Chemistry. Curious about potential pollution at a historic shooting range at MPG Ranch, he earned an M.S. in Geosciences studying the site. Strangely, the sulfur inside the trap and skeet targets posed the main threat, not the lead in the shotgun pellets. Regardless, lead contamination soon grabbed Mike’s focus. Each winter at MPG Ranch, biologists caught eagles that had lead coursing through their veins. Lead can cripple eagles flightless and even kill them. Mike soon initiated studies on scavenger ecology and began investigating the wound ballistics of rifle bullets, the suspected source of lead.

Mike often connects with the public through his writings and speaking engagements, whether it be to a local group of hunters, or a gymnasium full of middle schoolers. He frequently writes about the outdoors, with work appearing in Sports Afield, The Drake, and Bugle. When he escapes the office, Mike explores wild landscapes with his family, always scanning the horizon for wildlife.

Sign up for Montana’s Nonlead Newsletter (see past editions).

Previous Dispatch:

Rethinking Lead