"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."