While there’s nothing wrong with showing some caution regarding lead, in recent years caution seems to have crossed over into paranoia and sometimes borders on hysteria. California, a place that specializes in hysteria, recently banned the use of bullets containing lead for all types of hunting. This measure was meant to safeguard predators from eating lead-contaminated carcasses or gut piles. This is an interesting ban, given the small amount of hunting that takes place in California. In my home state of Montana, we do a lot of hunting and produce a lot of lead-contaminated carcasses and gut piles. The weird thing is that it never seems to hurt the wildlife (myself included) a lick.
As a predator that’s been ingesting a steady supply of lead-contaminated carcasses for nearly forty years now, I have to say that I feel fine. Oddly enough, I seem to be doing a lot better than the people I know who ingest a steady supply of lead-free cheeseburgers. As far as the smaller predators are concerned, they appear to be doing alright as well. Every year I shoot about four-hundred ground squirrels — we call them gophers — for one of the neighboring ranchers. These gophers are promptly consumed by hawks and supposedly super-delicate eagles. After many years of doing this, the only noticeable result is a horde of especially happy raptors, although some of them may be developing a weight problem.
Since it’s plain that I haven’t bought into the lead ban craze, you may be surprised to hear that I have begun using homogeneous, lead-free bullets in many of my big game hunting loads the last few years. This choice has nothing to do with trying to prevent an ecological disaster, but has a great deal to do with performance.
The first homogeneous bullets I ever tried were the original Barnes X-Bullets. I got a good deal on them second-hand and considered them nothing but an over-priced novelty item before I tried them on game. No lead bullet retains weight like a homogeneous bullet. Once upon a time, I recovered a Barnes bullet that began life weighting 325 grains. That bullet had passed through almost two feet of a big mule deer buck’s spine and it still weighted 323 grains. Over the years, I’ve seen similar, mind-blowingly good terminal performance from lighter homogeneous bullets, as well.
The high weight retention of homogeneous bullets means that a lot of calibers that were once marginal for big game hunting can now hold their own—almost as well as gun company ads always claimed they did. High weight retention means that the bullet weight you start with is the bullet weight you end with. A bullet that expands and holds its weight makes a cartridge like the 250 Savage an undebated deer cartridge. With a 150 grain homogeneous bullet, the 270 Winchester is a now more than enough to work as an elk round. Granted, the cartridge has to have enough oomph to drive a perfectly expanded bullet through meat and bone, but homogeneous bullets really can turn marginal guns into big-boy equipment. Nowadays, if I have any suspicions that a cartridge might not have the bore diameter to do a job, I hedge my bets with a homogeneous bullet.
The next bonus you get for free using lead-free bullets is improved ballistic coefficients (BC). Homogeneous bullets are usually amalgams of stuff like copper, tungsten, bismuth and anything else the EPA doesn’t consider toxic. These substances make for a good bullet, but an affordable mix of them can’t compete with lead in terms of weight. This means that homogeneous bullets of any given weight will be longer than lead bullets of the same weight. Longer bullets make for better BC, and less drag makes for better long-range accuracy. The X-Bullet presaged the current crop of Very-Low-Drag (VLD) bullets by years and has now been reworked specifically to play long range roles alongside a host of other lead-free bullets. If properly designed, a homogeneous bullet can stretch your rifle’s effective range out farther than ever before.
While homogeneous bullets can improve exterior and terminal ballistics, they also make a big difference when it comes to what I refer to as post-terminal performance, which is the term I use to describe the level of annoyance experienced while butchering game. Since homogeneous bullets don’t break up in game, they don’t leave little chunks of jacket and lead inside the critter. Picking these little bits of bullet out of animal quarters is definitely something I can live without. I don’t like digging them out myself and I’ve never trusted commercial butchers to do a thorough job. I’ve never worried about getting lead poisoning from these bitty chunks, but they are darn rough on a guy’s dental work. If you miss one, a whole lot of time that could otherwise be spent hunting is instead spent at the dentist.
The final benefit of using homogeneous lead-free bullets is that you can claim to be doing it just for the environment. Sure, it’s a load of bull fertilizer, but it is kind of amusing to act like you’re helping out Al Gore while getting improved performance in all stages of your hunting. Don’t worry, it’ll be our little secret.
Currently, just about every major bullet company makes a homogeneous bullet, and a whole bunch of ammo companies load these bullets in their premium lines of ammunition. This hunting fodder always costs a bit more, but the improved performance is worth it, especially when you consider how few rounds of actual hunting ammo even the most avid hunter goes through a year.
I’m not saying that I use homogeneous bullets for everything; I still burn off hundreds of low-priced lead bullets every year at varmints, and this year I’ll be taking out a 50-95 Winchester. With that cartridge, something tells me that a plain old lead cast bullet will do the trick just fine. Homogeneous bullets aren’t required for every application, but they certainly have their place in the grand scheme of things.