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Get The Lead Out of Your Venison in 2008

January 2, 2008.

For those who take advantage of the rolling-over of the calendar to set goals for the coming year, consider this one for 2008: Switch to unleaded rifle ammunition.

Lead bullets fragment and leave unwanted lead behind, both in the environment and in the venison that makes it to your table. With copper bullet alternatives such as the Barnes Triple-Shock becoming more and more common and well-proven, now could be the time to move away from lead rifle ammunition.

Most shooters are familiar with the idea of bullet weight retention. A given bullet recovered from game will retain "x" percent of its original weight. A 180 grain .30 caliber Nosler Partition bullet, for example, will retain about 70% of its weight after it kills a deer.

What's not often talked about, though, is where the other 30% goes. As the bullet opens up, it begins to fragment and come apart, and that lead stays in the deer.

This lead will end up in one of two places: in the carcass and gut pile left in the woods, or in the muscle of the deer. If it ends up in the muscle (from a shoulder shot, for example), it's eventually going to end up in the venison on your plate.

Fragments of lead bullets left in a deer carcass

A recent bullet fragmentation study
(5MB of data and images, takes a minute to load) showed very clear results about how many lead fragments are left behind in the carcass and in the gut pile when a lead bullet passes through a deer. The study was conducted by the Peregrine Fund, a pro-raptor group with quite a few hunters on staff. The study contains some really persuasive radiographs (x-rays) that will make you wonder about how much lead you may be eating along with your venison burgers.

The lead left behind in the gut pile should concern us too, as hunters and conservationists. Scavengers visiting the gut pile will consume that lead, as several studies have documented.

A recent study conducted in Wyoming by a group called Craighead Berengia South has shown that the levels of lead in the blood of ravens increase by a factor of 5x during hunting seasons. The increase in lead levels occurs as ravens ingest bullet fragments left behind in the carcasses of elk, moose, and deer. Lead levels in the blood are normal outside of hunting seasons, as the levels return to normal within 2 weeks of ingestion as the lead is absorbed in to the brain, bone marrow, and other internal organs.

The Game and Fish Department of Arizona, as another example, concluded that "Lead toxicity has been identified as the leading cause of death in condors in the Arizona reintroduction program.... Biologists have seen 211 instances of lead exposure in condors since testing began in 1999."

The negative impact of lead in hunted-killed carcasses has motivated both California and Arizona to try to restrict the use of lead rifle ammunition in the habitat of the endangered California Condor.

In Arizona, which has been out in front on this, the changes have been effective. In a voluntary program conducted by Arizona Game and Fish, the department offered free copper ammunition to hunters in units 12A and 12B (the Kaibab), areas frequented by condors. Lead exposure in condors was reduced by 40%.

This should feel familiar to us, as most hunters will remember the move away from lead shotgun ammunition that we made in order to protect waterfowl.

Does lead-free ammo work? In the Arizona program mentioned above, hunters preferred the unleaded ammo:

"According to post-hunt survey results, 93% of successful hunters who used the non-lead ammunition said it performed as well as or better than lead bullets. In addition, 72% of all hunters said they would recommend the 100% copper bullets to other hunters."

Alternatives to lead bullets include:

  • Barnes Triple-Shock X-Bullet (TSX)
  • Barnes Maximum Range X-Bullet (MRX)
  • Nosler E-Tip
  • Barnes Tipped Triple-Shock X-Bullet (TTSX)

Think about trying lead-free ammunition this fall. I've long used copper slugs in my 12 gauge for deer hunting in the midwest. I'll be using Barnes Triple-Shocks in my .300 WinMag in my upcoming sheep and grizzly hunt, and I'll be looking for a Triple-Shock load for my 7mm-08 ASAP. If I start now, I should have plenty of time to have a new lead-free load for this fall.

All I can think of when I look at those radiographs of lead bullet fragments is "Lead ... it's what's for dinner."

Not want I want for my family, or for wildlife.

For more information on unleaded bullets:

  • Article on the Barnes series of copper bullets.
  • Information on the Nosler E-Tip
  • Check out Cabelas, in particular the Federal Premium line of ammo.

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