Getting the Lead Out of Ammo

Doug Howlett


For all of his business acumen, my father has never been the best at predicting consumer trends, particularly when they involve quality and performance over value and modern sensibilities. In the mid-1980s, he bought a new Ford F-150 and paid a mechanic to overhaul the engine on the brand new truck so it could run on the higher octane, more powerful burning leaded gasoline. Never mind that within a year of all the engine work, there wasn’t a gas station in America that sold anything other than unleaded gas.

It was the same with VCRs. Noting the picture quality was superior over VHS, dad bought a high-end Beta recorder. Within less than two years, Beta tapes were abandoned by the video stores for the more ubiquitous and consumer-preferred VHS. In both incidences, my pop lamented the inferiority of the products that had won out.

Dad is also a hunter. And while he may not recognize it yet, there is a movement underfoot, more of a gentle trend really, to question the safety and use of that ultimate staple of ammunition-lead. Lead, a soft metal that so easily swedges into any desired conical shape, retains a dense weight and mushrooms perfectly upon impact is still used in most ammunition. However, with dubious medical studies suggesting that lead ammo in consumed game could allegedly pose health hazards, a general sensitivity toward more environmentally friendly materials and outright restrictions in areas such as southern California where endangered species concerns have led to the ban of leaded ammo, you can bet the shift toward lead substitute ammunition is only going to continue.

Fortunately for my Dad and other sportsmen, there doesn’t appear to be any significant loss in quality and performance (only a significant jump in cost) by today’s top shelf nontoxic ammunition.

Why NonTox?

Following the early success of companies such as Bismuth and Hevi-Shot to produce “denser than lead” shotshell offerings, Winchester was among one of the first big manufacturers to wade into the nontoxic pool. For them, the decision was easy.


“As a result of increasing customer demand for lead-free products across the United States, Winchester Ammunition must offer our customers quality, affordable products that comply with specific regulations in their hunting and shooting areas,” said Brett Flaugher, vice president of sales and marketing for Winchester Ammunition.

One of the most visible concerns surrounding the need to develop quality lead ammo substitutes occurred when the government of California banned the use of lead ammunition in a large part of the state where the endangered California condor called home. The ban took effect in early 2008 (See for more details.) Studies had revealed that a percentage of the condors, a type of vulture which feed on carcasses, may have been exposed to lead fragments in gut piles or game that was shot but not found and later died. Tens of thousands of sportsmen living or traveling to southern and central California were affected by the ban.

Laboratory Tejon

At close to 270,000 acres (433 square miles), Tejon Ranch is the largest privately owned property remaining in California. Its endless undeveloped mountains and valleys belie the fact that it sits a mere hour’s drive from downtown Los Angeles. Tejon is a working ranch with monies raised from cattle, natural resources management and hunting. The entire property is managed with an eye toward conservation and the place is a popular destination for hunters seeking elk, deer, turkeys and pigs, among other animals. It sits in the heart of the lead-restricted zone and in fact, works with the state to help protect the endangered condors whose wing expanse can stretch 9 feet.

I joined representatives of Winchester Ammunition to put their nontoxic loads to the test in real hunting situations, and we were going to test an array of it. During our three-day hunt, we would have the chance to go after Merriam’s wild turkeys, wild pigs and ground squirrels providing us with a chance to shoot shotshells and both centerfire and rimfire cartridges.

I had used the company’s Supreme Elite Xtended Range High Density turkey loads since they first hit the market several years earlier and enjoyed remarkable success. The Xtended Range loads are formulated to be 10 percent denser than lead which translates into tighter, harder hitting downrange patterns. In fact, the loads reportedly deliver 25 percent more pellets on target than standard lead loads and some of my earlier testing indeed bore this out.


With the increased performance from nontoxic loads such as Winchester’s Xtended Range, Hevi-Shot, and Federal’s Mag-Shok HEAVYWEIGHT turkey loads, which boasts a third more density than lead (No. 7 shot delivers performance equal to standard No. 5 lead loads), the argument for limited shots at turkeys to 40 yards or less becomes flimsy.

Over the course of three days at Tejon Ranch, I would watch two turkeys die (one to my gun), shoot a hog with a .30-06  E-Tip bullet at better than 150 yards and watch another go down to a 7mm Rem. Mag. E-Tip, and then take countless ground squirrels using both Winchester nontoxic Ballistic Silvertips in .22-250 and the rimfire loading Varmint LF in .22 Win. Mag. I even shot my first coyote out there in excess of 200 yards. The performance delivered from those loads met or exceeded any I would expect from traditional lead bullets and from an end-user standpoint (my dad would be happy to know) didn’t make a bit of difference.

Well, except in one area. For now, nontoxic loads will set you back more in the wallet than traditional lead offerings. One example can be found on where a box of 10 3-inch nontoxic Xtended Range HD turkey loads in No. 4 will cost you $36 versus Winchester’s comparable lead Supreme offering which retails for $15. With turkey hunting fortunately, the average hunter usually only goes through a few shells a season. But for the waterfowler and varmint hunter, the cost can run up quickly, making these offerings a tough choice between value and performance. Only each hunter can decide on the best course for him or her to take, but for the ones who opt for top performance, these modern offerings will certainly deliver what you pay for.

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