Modern Bullets : By Jim Huckabay

Huckabay'sI think we settled questions of value, importance and pleasure around loading your own ammo last week. While I have been talking about rifle ammo, I’d be happy to make the case for rolling your own shotgun and handgun ammo as well.

Today, let’s consider the ongoing discussion around one component of the cartridges we put together (arguably the most critical); the bullets themselves.

A well-constructed hunting rifle bullet is traditionally made up of a lead, or lead alloy, core with a copper “jacket” wrapped around it. The ideal bullet for a given rifle will depend on its intended use, although accuracy from shot to shot is always key. Many varmint hunters will seek a carefully manufactured, well balanced bullet that will hold together at very high velocity and essentially explode on impact. A big game hunter will want a bullet which expands as it enters the body of the animal, making a wound channel larger than the diameter of the bullet and delivering the full force of the shot, resulting in a quick and humane death. (Bullet diameter is measured in hundredths of an inch and may be anything from .17 to .50 caliber or larger.) The bullet required for a huge thick-skinned moose will be substantially different than that sought for the thin-skinned, and much smaller, pronghorn or deer. Endless arguments revolve around the perfect caliber, bullet weight and speed for a given hunt.

Vast amounts of time and money have gone into creating dependable “traditional” rifle bullets in a wide variety of calibers and sizes, using copper and lead. For shotguns, the move from lead shot to steel, bismuth, tungsten or other non-toxic shot was made decades ago to protect critters from the lead poisoning they suffered after dredging up lead shot or eating dead birds with lead in them. A few years ago, studies of the effects of eating meat from animals shot with rifle bullets containing lead hit the news.

The study which started the flap involved a Peregrine Fund board member who collected a hundred one-pound packages of ground venison from food pantries in North Dakota, and found lead fragments using CT scans. More testing at the University of Iowa found that about sixty percent of the ground meat contained some lead. Along the way, as the findings were told and retold, some writers – sportsmen of one or another stripe – took potshots at hunters feeding their families lead. One writer slammed Safari Club International over its “Sportsmen Against Hunger” program (game meat given to food pantries), suggesting that the donated game meat poisoned the poor receiving it.

Lead poisoning is a big deal, and lead in game meat had actually been studied for some time. At is a 2002 article in the European Food Research and Technology Journal, “Intake of lead from game meat – a risk to consumers’ health?” The gist of the article, comparing hunters and the general population, was that “…individual blood lead concentrations of the hunters did not correlate with the number of their weekly game meat meals. [I]t was concluded that frequent consumption of wild game meat has no significant effect on blood lead levels.”

After the food bank flap, the North Dakota Department of Public Health studied 738 residents. Eighty percent consumed wild game taken with lead. Participants who consumed wild game averaged .30 micrograms/dl more lead in their blood than those who did not. The kicker was that all participants were well below the 25 micrograms/dl “level of intervention” for adults, and the participant average lead levels of 1.17 micrograms/dl were below the average American’s lead level of 1.60.

Turns out that most of that lead was found in ground meat, which was mostly prepared by commercial cutters and wrappers. Seems that hunters who cut and prepare their own game meat generally are much more thorough about removing the meat around the wound channels (where lead fragments are found) and they generally make less ground meat.

Bottom line: lead poisoning from consuming game taken with bullets containing lead is not a serious concern. Safety is really about, as The Old Man preached, taking care of the food you are given as if you were going to feed it to your family.

Still, there are compelling reasons to load with non-lead, and I have an online recommendation.

Put together by biologists and hunters Ben Smith, Jim Petterson and Leland Brown, this web site is hunter and conservation friendly. These guys work at one level or another with the Institute for Wildlife Studies and have been involved for years with killing and removing feral hogs from Pinnacles National Park (formerly Pinnacles National Monument) in the Salinas Valley of Central California. You will find a rational, interesting and thorough discussion of every aspect of the lead vs. non-lead bullet question at

The things you learn will add to the pleasure of rolling your own ammo.

Written by Jim Huckabay.