Many hunters in Europe have been sceptical about the effectiveness of non-lead shot for hunting/shooting purposes and compliance, when measured, is often poor. However, where field trials comparing lead and steel shot have been conducted, no differences were found in a number of measures, including the number of birds killed per shot or wounded per shot (e.g. see Pierce et al., 2014). Further, hunters in Denmark, the Netherlands and the Flemish region of Belgium where the use of lead shot is illegal do not report problems with the effectiveness of non-lead shot.
There is no identical substitute for lead shot, but the alternatives work just as effectively if you follow these simple rules:
It is important to consider that the alternatives to lead shot behave differently, so hunters need to be aware of the differences. Steel, bismuth and tungsten-based shots are available in a variety of loadings and shotgun calibres, and simple patterning tests and practice on clays will help you to get the best out of each material.
Importantly, there is no evidence showing that non-lead shot or bullets cause any negative effects on birds.
Steel is less dense than lead, so to use it most effectively you need to go up by at least two shot sizes. So, for example, if you would use a lead #5 for shooting ducks, you should use a steel #3.
Know your choke size!
Due to its hardness, steel patterns much tighter than lead and so you can reduce (widen) your choke. Typically steel through a half choke performs much the same as lead through a full choke. If you fire steel through a choke greater than half then you may find that the pattern actually starts to widen again.
Bismuth is as soft as lead, but less dense, so it is advised that you increase your shot size by at least one. Due to its softness bismuth tends to pattern much the same as lead. Bismuth shot may fragment on impact, much like lead.
There are a wide variety of tungsten-based shots and it is not possible to give simple advice that will apply to all varieties. Generally, they tend to be as dense, or denser than lead. Tungsten shot may fragment on impact, much like lead.
Barrels comprise three regions: the chamber, the barrel bore, and the terminal choke. The only point along the barrel where some risk might arise is when the steel shot passes through the choke. However, the shooting of steel shot smaller than #4 does not cause concern when fired through tight chokes. It is possible that large steel shot (larger than #4 steel) passing through an abruptly developed, tightly-choked (full and extra-full), barrel could cause a small ring bulge to appear, simply because the steel shot does not deform when passing through the constriction.
This does not occur if the barrels are more openly choked, such as “modified” or “improved cylinder”. This damage is cosmetic and is not considered to be dangerous. However, for shooters with gun barrels having concerns about “fixed” chokes, the choke, if necessary, can be relieved readily by a gunsmith to a more open choke. If your gun is particularly old, has thin walls, or Damascus barrels, you should check with your gunsmith, but experience from Denmark, where lead has been banned for 25 years and most shooters use steel, suggests that the risks are very minimal.
REBOUNDS AND RICOCHETS
All shot types, including lead, can ricochet. However, shot materials of greater hardness than lead, particularly steel and some tungsten-based shot, can ricochet more and are more likely to bounce-back. Hunters and their dogs can be at greater risk when shooting around hard surfaces and water.
In recent years, non-lead shot has progressed significantly and most manufacturers now stock non-lead shot that is often comparable to lead in terms of ballistics and price. There is a wide variety of non-lead shot available for 10, 12, and 20 gauge, but few options for 16, 28 bore and .410. Steel is the cheapest alternative whereas bismuth and tungsten-based shots can be much more expensive than lead shot. It is worth mentioning that in EU Member States that have banned the use of lead shots over wetlands, 95% or more of ammunition used is steel shot.
Non-lead bullets are typically composed of copper or brass (an alloy of copper and zinc) instead of lead. Due to the lower density, these bullets are often longer or lighter, and in the latter case need to be faster to transport the same amount of energy (Caudel et al., 2012; Gremse et al., 2014) Most non-lead bullets retain most of the mass and produce no or few fragments (Hunt et al., 2006), but some are designed to fragment. Furthermore, the jacket of conventional bullets is made of the same brass as most non-lead bullets and comprise one third of the bullet weight, on average.
Lead-free bullets are made in at least 35 calibers (Thomas, 2013). There is a wide variety of bullet weights and types available for bullets larger than 6mm/.243”, but for calibres smaller than this, especially rimfire, there are limited options available. For copper bullets, it is recommended to use lighter bullets than you normally would for lead. This will generate a faster bullet with a greater killing ability.
So, for example, if you normally use a 150gn lead bullet, consider moving to a 130gn copper bullet.
When moving to copper bullets you should find comparable accuracy to your lead loads. The lower density of copper means the bullets need to be longer than lead for a given weight which can make them difficult to stabilise. Check your choice of bullet at the range before taking them out in the field and if you are not getting tight groups consider dropping down a weight.
Lethality: Research in 2017 (Martin et al., 2017) has extensively compared the use of lead and non-lead bullets for hunting of wild boar and roe deer in the field. This study found no difference in the escape distances between lead and non-lead bullet types (for roe deer and wild boar) but that shot placement and hunting method did have significant impacts.
There have been similar studies in the UK and Denmark as well as a huge German field trial of over 11,000 shots that found no significant difference between lead and copper bullets.