Getting the lead out: GREEN AMMO

          It's a trendy term that's tossed around a lot, especially lately. Going "green" has come in tandem with an eco-focused movement that's encroaching on all industries. It's become not only an advertising pitch, but has secured a sudden presence in our nation, munitions notwithstanding.

     The Defense Department is required to buy "green" ammunition for use at training ranges. Eco-friendly rounds don't leach toxins and are far less costly to clean up than conventional ammunition.

     But what does it really mean to be green? And what exactly is green ammo?

     Bullet and cartridge manufacturers and shooting range compliance specialists discuss the green trend in ammunition and what it means to law enforcement training on the range and on duty.

Lead-free ammo

     Conventional ammunition is comprised of lead, a metal that can have many adverse affects to human and wildlife health by either direct or indirect exposure. Green ammunition does not contain lead or has limited use of the metal in its bullet, shot or primer.

     Stuart Cohen, who has a doctorate in chemistry, is a certified ground water professional and president of Environmental & Turf Services, says the concerns about lead's hazard to human health are real.

     "Lead has its greatest impact on humans as a developmental toxicant," Cohen explains. "In other words, the relative hazard to you or me while going down-range at a shooting range and accidentally getting a little dirt on our fingers and [ingesting it] is much, much less than that of a three-year-old doing the same thing."

     Direct exposure to lead includes instances like ingesting it as a result of physical contact with the metal. People can also be exposed to lead indirectly, such as if the particulate lead from an outdoor shooting range leaches into the groundwater and contaminates the water supply, Cohen continues.

     In the past, gasoline and paint contained lead. Lead was ingested by people through inhaling dust from these compounds or by ingesting lead after physical contact with lead-contaminated objects. The Environmental Protection Agency states lead is dangerous to children because they are more likely to put hands or other objects in their mouth and ingest lead, and because children are growing — their brains and nervous systems are more sensitive to the effects of lead poisoning. High levels of lead can cause "brain or nervous system damage, behavior and learning problems … slowed growth, hearing problems and headaches," in children according to an EPA fact sheet. In addition, lead poisoning can cause adults to have "reproductive problems, high blood pressure ... nerve disorders, memory and concentration problems and muscle and joint pain."

     Lead in gas and paint has since been restricted, but risk of exposure still exists if proper care is not taken with outdoor shooting ranges.

     Because of the threat that lead poses to the environment and subsequently, human and wildlife well-being, the "green," or more environmentally friendly, alternatives have recently gained momentum and presence in the munitions industry as some hunters, scientists, environmentalists and public health officials are concerned that the risk is too great to keep lead as the status quo ammo material. Alternatives can include copper, steel, tungsten and tin.

     Cohen has worked across several states with shooting ranges, consulting on federal compliance and environmental impact of chemicals. His company, Environmental & Turf Services, offers a range compliance reference guide for adapting and implementing OSHA and EPA standards on shooting ranges.

     He explains there are various problems with long term use of lead ammunition on shooting ranges, as well as complications to an abrupt change from lead to training rounds comprised of other materials.

     "I'd be very concerned if you have a site that previously had lead shot or lead bullet deposits on it and then you start shooting tungsten bullets or … steel bullets or shot," Cohen says. He explains that after these substances are in the ground for awhile and age, the pH (a measure of acidity used by chemists) of the soil could drop, in turn causing the soil acidity to rise. Cohen explains that the chemical change that can take place after green ammo materials change the pH of the soil in an outdoor range can cause lead presence in the soil to leach more quickly, fastening the pace of poisoning ground waters.

     "I'd be concerned that if you've got some range that you've been shooting [on for] 20 years and there's a lot of lead in the soil, if you start shooting a lot of steel or tungsten, you could actually be mobilizing that soil whereas previously it may not have been," Cohen says. A change to a lead-free bullet, in that case, would in fact be more hazardous than maintaining lead rounds on the range.

     However, he does note that using lead-free ammo only on a range can reduce the cost of range clean up and ease recycling efforts.

Moving toward green options

     Manufacturers and authorities have taken initiatives to thwart the negative effects of lead ammo by reducing it in bullets or eliminating it, when possible.

     The Firearms Division of The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) in Glynco, Ga., uses approximately 20 million rounds of ammunition a year. For its training rounds, the center does use both lead and environmentally friendly (also called non-toxic) ammunition, but the reduced hazard ammo accounts for nearly three-fourths of expended rounds.

     Brenneke offers a copper round for hunting it touts as superior to a lead-based counterpart: the Quik-Shok Copper.

     Utah-based Barnes Bullets claims it manufactures copper bullets because they perform better than lead. Barnes has a military and law enforcement line of lead-free bullets called M/LE. Spokeswoman Jessica Brooks, a 20-year ammunition industry vet with nearly 30 years experience as a shooter, says Barnes is seeing increased interest in its non-lead offerings.

     "Barnes started building lead-free products not because of environmental concerns; we did it for performance reasons," Brooks says. "We came out with the original all-copper X bullet back in … '89. But it was because [we] wanted a better performing bullet on game, not because of environmental concerns, and then it just sort of evolved."

     Further, states such as California, Utah, Arizona, North Dakota and Minnesota have taken initiatives to research lead use in ammunition, suspend lead ammo use in certain areas or encourage green bullet use.

Problems with alternatives

     In the Environmental & Turf Services compliance guide, Cohen and its authors say the alternatives to lead ammo don't come without problems.

     The guide says that though the best way to reduce risks caused by lead ammo is to trim or eliminate lead in ammunition:

  • "The use of copper-jacketed bullets will inhibit the spreading of lead in the target/backstop area, but it will complicate recycling efforts. (Facilities that melt the shot or bullets may view the copper as a contaminant in their process.)
  • Steel shot can pose a ricochet hazard, its spread/pattern is different than lead shot, and it may harm the chokes on older .410 gauge shotguns.
  • Steel shot can corrode and lower the pH of the shotfall zone [making] the lead more mobile. If steel shot is used in an area, the shotfall zone should not also include spent lead shot."

     Most notably, ammunition makers agree that the alternatives to lead are all more expensive, which may be the biggest hurdle of the green ammo genre.

     In a normal year, law enforcement agencies can't afford to expend extra money on budgeted items like equipment, fleet expenses or ammo. In the current economic slump that's affected all industries, it's even tougher to argue that an agency should spend more of its ever-limited budget on training or duty rounds when they can get lead-containing munitions for cheaper.

     And that added expense could drive many people away from attempting to use green munitions.

     "The jacketed lead-core bullets are cheap to shoot, and that's what keeps people shooting. If people have to pay a premium price for all of their ammo, then they're going to either put down their guns and not shoot or shoot sparingly," Brooks says. "That doesn't do a whole lot to preserve this industry for future generations."


     Though there has been a push behind greening efforts in all industries, a few ammunition manufacturers took it upon themselves to innovate and create greener alternatives. Currently, all alternatives to lead ammunition are more costly than traditional lead bullets, which is a problem of note for government-funded agencies in any year, not to mention a time of economic recess like the nation is currently in.

     Dan Smith, VP of operations at International Cartridge Corp., a manufacturer that produces all lead-free frangible ammunition, is concerned that funding and acquirement challenges affecting ammunition will cause a reduction in live firearm training, which could lead to serious problems for officers. Smith, who has been a competitive shooter since 1977, says if people who handle firearms don't stay familiar with shooting, when the time comes and one is under pressure, "you won't be able to perform properly.

     "You drive that [patrol] car every day," he says. "How often does an officer get out his gun and use it in the line of duty? Some of them will go 20 years and never pull that gun out. They [need] to be more familiar with the gun so that if something happens, everybody's in a better mindset and trained to survive."

     A bit of good news for shooters, however, is that Smith says for nearly all popular calibers, a green alternative can be found.

Developing tomorrow's ammo

     Green ammo has crept up into the munitions market over the last decade, with some companies dedicating themselves partially or entirely to the eco-friendly product.

     However beneficial the green bullet is on the shooting range and its reduced risks to health compared to lead, it's difficult to push a more expensive product to cash-strapped government entities, let alone during an economic slump.

     But despite the current market conditions, manufacturers and veteran shooters say they expect ammunition to head even further down the lead-free path within the next decade or so.

     Brooks says the pursuit of a cheap, lead-free ammunition is still underway: "It's in our minds, [but] we haven't found it yet."