Options abound for non-toxic deer hunting ammo

A growing number of deer hunters are using non-toxic ammunition.

This x-ray image
This x-ray image shows more than 450 lead bullet fragments that were spread through the neck of a mule deer after it was shot with a lead rifle bullet. Just a few of these fragments contain enough lead to sicken or kill a bald eagle. National Park Service photo.
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When Teresa Head was preparing for her first-ever deer hunt in 2016 she made a decision that didn't seem remarkable to her at the time.

Head used ammunition with non-toxic, copper bullets instead of lead bullets.

The neophyte nimrod was part of a mentored hunting program to get new people into the sport and, as part of that training, the course she took mentioned the issues of lead in the environment, killing birds, and lead fragments in venison that could be ingested by people who eat the meat.

"I guess it was easier for me because I didn't have a history of using'' lead ammunition, she told the News Tribune. "It's really a no-brainer. It's a little more money, but not that much. And if you can do something to keep lead out of eagles and out of our own food, why wouldn't you?"

Head, who now lives near Barnum, took a monster buck with a copper bullet that first year that scored 188 1/8th in the Boone and Crockett record book.


Head is part of a growing number of deer hunters who are using non-toxic ammunition - some because of concerns over lead's toxicity and some because copper bullets simply perform well. And there are increasing non-toxic ammo choices for hunters to choose from.

Al Lutkevich of Duluth made the move to non-toxic copper bullets in his hand-loaded deer hunting ammunition in 2011. While buying bulk copper bullets is a little more expensive than bulk lead premium bullets, the final cost is close by the time he's loaded a box of 20 cartridges.

"I've gotten every deer I've hit with them," he said, noting the strong performance of copper bullets in his .260 Remington but also stressing good shot placement. "The difference for me is about a dollar a box (of 20 cartridges) for my reloads."

Lutkevich, who heads the New Tribune's Information Technology department, said he made the move for the same reasons - to keep lead bullet fragments out of birds that feed on deer carcass or gut piles, and to keep lead out of the meat he feeds his family.

Get the lead out

Lead is cheap, dense and expands well upon hitting its target, causing extensive, lethal damage, making it great bullet material. But lead is also nasty stuff, a known toxin for just about all living creatures that ingest it. Small amounts of lead fishing tackle or bullet fragments can kill birds.

A study by the Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota covering birds examined between 1996-2009 determined that a high percentage of eagles suffered from lead poisoning during late fall and early winter, directly correlating with deer-hunting season.

But people can inadvertently eat toxic lead, too. A study by Dr. William Cornatzer in North Dakota found that almost 60 percent of randomly selected one-pound packages of venison had lead levels high enough to be detected using a CT scan. Since then, other scans of shot deer show bits of lead can explode into the meat for more than a foot in every direction from the bullet's entry point. In response, the North Dakota Department of Health issued a warning in 2008, urging pregnant women and children younger than 6 not to eat any venison harvested with lead bullets.

Fetuses and young children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead, including permanent adverse health effects, particularly affecting the development of the brain and nervous system. Adults are vulnerable to lead poisoning, too, including increased risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage. The Centers for Disease Control says exposure to high levels of lead may cause anemia, weakness, kidney and brain damage.


That's why lead was banned in paint and gasoline by the U.S. government 40 years ago, and why lead was banned for waterfowl hunting in 1987 in Minnesota and 1991 nationwide. Birds were dying from ingesting lead shotgun pellets they picked up in the field or water or inside the meat of wounded waterfowl.

"There's no reason for any of this to happen,'' said Carrol Henderson, the recently retired former head of the Minnesota Department Trend of Natural Resources Nongame Wildlife Program. Henderson has made it a quest to get hunters to switch to non-toxic ammunition.

"If you don't do it for wildlife, do it for your family and anyone else who eats your venison,'' Henderson said. "There are so many ammunition choices out there now, for every rifle and shotgun, and the prices are not that much different."

Henderson gets especially riled at the suggestion that, because populations of bald eagles and other raptors are growing, that deaths of some birds from lead poisoning aren't an issue.

"Any animal that dies of lead poisoning is senseless because we as hunters have other choices,'' he said.

California going lead-free in '19

The switch to copper for deer rifle bullets and shotgun slugs has been much slower than in waterfowl shotgun loads. But a California state law is changing that. California began phasing out lead ammunition in 2008, and a full ban on lead bullets for all hunting and all ammunition goes into effect July 1, 2019.

Now, manufacturers like Barnes, Remington, Winchester, Sig Sauer, Federal and others have copper bullets available in a wide range of calibers, from .223 Remington to .338 Winchester and most everything in between. (If you don't see them at your local retailer, ask for them, or check online.)

Online prices advertised at national retailers for .30-06 cartridges range from $25.99 per box of 20 Winchester Deer Season Copper Impact, to $27.99 for Federal Power Shok Copper to $43.99 for Barnes Vor-TX. Similar versions in lead range from $19.95 to $39.95 per box of 20. Larger, less common copper cartridges are more expensive, just like lead-tipped cartridges.


Ryan Bronson, director of conservation for Vista Outdoors, the parent company of Minnesota-based Federal Premium Ammunition, said the California law has caused a slow but steady increase in demand for copper ammunition as that state's 200,000 hunters make the transition to non-toxic ammo in all areas of the state for all game.

"It's still less than 10 percent of our sales'' nationally, Bronson said of copper rifle ammunition. "But it is growing. And we have more choices out there on the market now."

Bronson said Federal's base-level level copper cartridges are getting close to comparable in cost with premium leaded -bullet cartridges. But he said there's still a big difference in cost between base level lead and copper.

"Copper as a raw material is about two or three times more expensive than lead for us, so they really will never be the same price,'' Bronson told the News Tribune, adding that his company is selling copper at smaller profit margins than lead to reduce buyer's sticker shock.

Copper bullet performance has always been good, Bronson noted (the company has offered some copper loads for 18 years) especially on large-bodied game like moose, bear and elk. Copper bullets do the most damage when they have about 21 inches of material to pass through.

Deer, however have smaller frames, and copper bullets may pass through without causing as much fatal damage as a lead bullet, Bronson noted.

"There's no doubt copper works to kill deer... if the shot is placed right,'' he noted, adding that all of Federal Premium's top shotgun slugs are now copper. "The performance is there. Now we'll see if the demand is there."

Minnesota study on lead in venison

In 2008, with input from the Minnesota Department of Health and DNR, the state stopped accepting donated ground venison for food shelves because of the risk of lead contamination. Shooting tests were conducted to further study the issue, and the DNR determined that shotgun slugs and muzzleloader bullets left less lead in an animal than commonly used high-powered soft-point or rapid expanding bullets.

The soft-point bullet and rapid expanding ballistic tip bullet fragmented the most, the DNR reported, the latter leaving an average of 141 fragments at an average maximum distance of 11 inches from the wound channel. The bonded-core bullet came in third in number of fragments. The bullet with the lead completely enclosed in copper at the rear of the bullet averaged only nine copper fragments. The copper bullet fragmented very little, and copper is essentially non-toxic.

A key takeaway message from the study: Because lead fragments were found so far from the exit wound, the DNR said routine trimming likely will not remove all of the fragments. In some cases fragments were up lodged in meat to 18 inches from the entry wound.

Related Topics: HUNTING
John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at
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