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Big-game hunters get better, safer results with new copper bullets. Explaining why, however, tends to fragment in unexpected directions like an old-fashioned lead slug.

Some readers may find this story disturbing. Even hunters get uncomfortable discussing the effects of a bullet on a body, knowing how the conversation might shift from scientific ballistics to ethical conundrums and policy debates.

“I’ve always practiced one shot-one kill,” said Chris Parish, co-founder of the North American Non-Lead Partnership. “When I target an animal, I take that animal and I own that bullet. But our understanding of the effects of lead added a new dimension. If we’re leaving the remains of lead bullets in a gut-pile, and that gut pile goes into the food chain, that’s a vulnerability we need to get out in front of. And we want hunters to solve the problem.”

Parish and Leland Brown of the Oregon Zoo visited Missoula last week to demonstrate the difference between copper and lead bullets at the Deer Creek Shooting Center.

They set up two tests: shooting into blocks of ballistic gel where the bullets’ impact and deformation can be seen afterward, and tanks of water that captured all the resulting fragments. Their goal was twofold: to show how much lead bullets disintegrate compared to copper, and to show how effectively copper bullets perform compared to lead.

The rectangular gel blocks were about the size of a human thigh and clear. They’re firmer than Jell-O — more like a beef roast. When a bullet hits one, an observer can measure both the penetration depth and the shock waves generated by the impact. That hydrostatic shock (not the organ damage or loss of blood) is often what kills the animal.

For the water test, Parish and Brown set five jugs of water side-by-side in a big plastic barrel. Copper bullets would usually pierce all five jugs. The lead bullets usually disintegrated by the third or fourth jug. In a body, the resulting shrapnel is destructive but not that determinant in quickly bringing the animal down. 

“We empty the barrel and catch the fragments in a coffee filter,” Parish said. “They see all these fragments and say, ‘I had no idea I was leaving that in my deer. A lot of times a hunter will find the slug in the carcass and say, ‘See, it retained 90% of its mass.’ And I ask, 'Did you weigh it?' ‘No, it just looked like it was all there.’ But it’s not.”

Here’s where the conversation gets sticky. In the 1990s, biologists started linking waterfowl health problems to lead pellets from shotguns. That led to bans on lead shot for migratory waterfowl hunting, with shotgunners switching to steel, bismuth and various alloys in search of ammunition that effectively killed birds without damaging gun barrels. Lead’s softness keeps it from scratching the inside of a steel gun barrel, while the harder replacements often ruined older guns made of softer steel.

But then bird-watchers noticed that raptors such as eagles and vultures were showing signs of lead poisoning. One suspected source was the fragments of lead bullets left behind after a hunter field-dresses the carcass of a deer or other big game.

Many hunters invest great amounts of time and effort refining their shooting technique. They hand-load ammunition with precise weights of gunpowder and bullet design, and then test the results at a shooting range before heading out to the backcountry. Others buy premium ammunition for specific performance characteristics. Still others stick to a caliber and brand their parents or grandparents recommended, perpetuating a tradition-bound pastime. They seek confidence that the bullet will consistently perform every time it’s fired.

But at the end of the trigger-pull, what we’re talking about is killing animals. Hunter numbers have been falling steadily as Americans move to cities, lose interest in the difficulty and expense of big game hunting, or feel ethically opposed to the practice. After peaking in 1982 with nearly 17 million hunters buying licenses, participation has been steadily dropping. A 2016 survey by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found 11.5 million Americans still hunted; just 4% of the national population.

“A lot of hunters will say, ‘I care about conservation, and dammit, I don’t want to change,’” Parish said of asking people to switch something as intrinsic as ammunition. “But what if people are accusing us of intentionally poisoning wildlife? If we represent that as our platform, how does the future of hunting look to you?”

Thus the roadshow by the North American Non-Lead Partnership. One problem, Leland noted, was the learning curve of switching ammunition. Although many alternative bullets have reached the shelves of places like Bob Wards Sports and Outdoors, they aren’t always clearly labeled.

“Even if you want to switch, it’s hard to know which brands and models are what you’re looking for,” Leland said. “You’ve got to flip the box over and see.”

Marcia Brownlee, program manager for the National Wildlife Federation’s Artemis women’s hunting group, said new hunters have an easier time adapting to the new information. She picked up the pastime five years ago.

“I want something that ensures a quick kill, healthy food and habitat protection,” Brownlee said of her bullet choice. “We’re getting informed, as opposed to changing opinions.”

Some at the demonstration compared the switch to moving from gasoline to hybrid electric cars. Non-lead bullets still go bang and kill things, but they look different and have a different price and require getting used to. And the old ways are only getting more troublesome.

“The hunting community is a good self-regulating community,” said Aaron Kindle of the National Wildlife Federation. “Many of this country’s greatest conservation victories were pushed by the hunting community. It’s incumbent on us to be conscientious hunters now more than ever.”

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.