Venison: Lean, clean, and (no longer) lead-fortified

I froze, one hand on my meat-grinder’s crank handle, the other halfway to a bowl full of venison. Something glinted dully on the surface of the piece of meat I was reaching for.

A bullet to the shoulder

A closer look and I was sure. I was staring at a bullet fragment.

The year before, my first deer had gone down with a shot to the heart. The bullet went clean through him, hitting nothing more solid than a rib or two and leaving little, if any, metal behind.

This deer—my second—had taken the bullet in the shoulder. The kill had been instant, but the bullet had not gone through him. Nor had I found anything I could call a “bullet” in his body. There was no textbook “wound channel” leading to the kind of perfectly mushroomed slug you see in ads for hunting ammunition.

Rather, the bullet had disintegrated. Parts of it stayed in the shoulder. Other parts ended up in the lower neck. So I cut carefully and generously, as did the friend who helped me with butchering, and we threw away at least a couple pounds of meat.

Apparently, we weren’t careful enough. Because here was this fragment of toxic metal.

Given the other environmental toxins I’m exposed to every day, a smidge of lead in my meatballs might not matter much. But I still wasn’t keen on munching bullet bits.

After all, one of the reasons I started hunting was the simple fact that wild meat would be healthy food. Unlike many factory- and feedlot-raised animals, wild hares and deer were not pumped full of antibiotics. Even before I became a vegetarian on ethical grounds, doubts about the healthfulness of modern meat had led me to reduce my consumption of the stuff.

Local deer might not be strictly organic. Their diets probably included farm crops bearing pesticide residues. But I felt sure that they made better food than did factory animals, or fish from local lakes and ponds in whose flesh monomethylmercury accumulates, courtesy of acid rain. There was no reason to grind a chunk of lead into my venison burger.

So I disposed of the fragment and picked through the rest of the meat carefully. I hoped none of my bullets would ever come apart like that again. And I promised myself to be more diligent in my future butchering.

The next year, my third buck went the way of my first: a direct heart hit and complete pass-through. I thought little more about lead, until this past spring.

That’s when I read Holly’s post about her decision to stop using lead ammo. Early in the post, she described how Jim Petterson of the National Park Service found a dead deer in 2005:

Three condors, a golden eagle, a bald eagle, ten turkey vultures and ten ravens were all either feeding on the deer or waiting to feed on it when he and his colleagues arrived. They turned the animal over and found a bullet wound in the neck. They decided to have the deer X-rayed and were stunned at what they saw. As a hunter, Jim had always believed that cutting around bloodshot portions of meat would eliminate all the lead fragments. But the X-ray showed that lead had exploded far beyond the immediate vicinity of the wound channel. They stopped counting fragments after they hit 400.

Photo courtesy Jim Petterson

The X-ray made me think of my second deer. Had the meat I cut away from his shoulder and neck, plus the dozen or so metal fragments I found, accounted for the entire bullet? Or had there been other, more widely dispersed pieces, tiny bits too small to track or see?

When I first started hunting, I had wondered about the risks of high-velocity lead-fortification, particularly with a spray of small shotgun pellets. I asked Uncle Mark about it and he said that he, too, had always been curious about the subject. The ingestion of lead shot seemed worth thinking about, and when Mark got squirrels, rabbits, or pheasants with a shotgun, he took care to search out and remove the pellets. Yet, in some forty years of reading hunting magazines, he couldn’t recall seeing a single article on the subject.

I hadn’t thought much about solid bullets. Like Jim Petterson, I figured that cutting away all bloodshot meat would eliminate all lead. But now I was starting to wonder.

According to a 2008 study by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, even a pass-through shot to a deer’s heart-and-lung area leads to bullet fragmentation. Though slower, heavier projectiles from shotguns and muzzleloaders didn’t break up as dramatically as high-velocity rifle bullets, the overall results surprised the researchers:

In counting fragments, only about 30 percent were within two inches of the exit wound….In some cases, researchers found low levels of lead as far away as 18 inches from the bullet exit hole.

Hits to heavier bone were not analyzed in detail, but resulted in what the researchers termed “extensive fragmentation.”

Other studies have indicated that anywhere from 6% to 32% of ground venison packages from professional processors contain bullet fragments.

Like Holly, I wasn’t particularly worried about my personal health. I don’t, after all, belong to a group at high-risk for heavy metal exposure:

  • I’m not a young child. When I was, I crimped plenty of lead fishing sinkers with my teeth. It doesn’t appear to have done my nervous system any harm, though I suppose friends and family might attribute any number of quirks to that early oral indiscretion.
  • Nor am I pregnant or—last time I checked—likely to become so.

But other people with whom I share venison, including my sisters and young nephews, do belong to such groups. (Following the well-known CDC study conducted in North Dakota in 2008, which showed only slight elevations in blood lead levels among people who consumed large amounts of game, the North Dakota Department of Health issued a recommendation: “pregnant women and children younger than six should not eat any venison harvested with lead bullets.”)

And I didn’t want to feed lead to the animals who feasted on the entrails, bones, and meat scraps I left in the woods. Holly’s heartbreaking description of the video of a lead-poisoned eagle had hit home. The occasional bullet bit might be low on the list of dangers to local wildlife, but if I could keep ravens and coyotes from ingesting such fragments, why shouldn’t I?

This summer, I researched my options online, checked with Holly’s friend and colleague Phillip to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, and ordered a box of lead-free ammo.

It’s expensive stuff, running several dollars per round. But after taking a couple test shots—confirming that my scope didn’t need to be adjusted for the new cartridges—I figured I would touch off only one cartridge per year. If I got lucky.

This fall’s bullet

A few weeks ago, on opening morning, I did get lucky. The buck was quartering away when I fired.

Just inside his far shoulder, I found the bullet. It looked a lot like the perfectly mushroomed slugs you see in ads for hunting ammunition.

Cutting away the bloodshot meat around the bullet’s path, I found no fragments of metal. If I had, they would have been copper: the same stuff through which our drinking water flows.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. campnow says:

    Your blog is very interesting and unsettling. I too am an avid hunter, for large game and upland birds. I never thought about the bullet fragments before. I will be looking for them now! Where did you find your lead free ammo? I shoot a 243, do they have that round?

    • Tovar says:


      Because my deer rifle is a 6.5×55 — a caliber that’s not super popular here in the U.S. — I had to look around for a supplier, and had to buy a more expensive Scandinavian brand. For common U.S. calibers, you can find more reasonably priced cartridges. Remington, for example, makes its Premier Copper Solid line in .243, .30-30, .270, .30-06, etc.

  2. kmurray says:

    Wow- “as far as 18″ away from the bullet exit hole”-now that will make a person think! I had no idea that could even happen.

    Great post Tovar!
    (and that whole pregnant line had me crakin’ up this morning-Thanks!)

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Kari. Glad you got a laugh out of that. 🙂

      It’s worth noting that the “18 inches away” findings were of very low lead levels and only showed up with a couple of the bullets used. The report summary states that “the probability of having a tissue sample test positive for lead at 10 inches away from the bullet hole was quite low (~7%).”

      On the other hand, the summary also states: “We detected lead in tissue samples that were 18 inches from the exit hole (the maximum we could measure on X-Ray). Therefore, we were not able to conclude that there was a distance from the exit hole where lead would not be detected.”

      Food for thought, anyway.

  3. Al Cambronne says:

    Excellent post!

    In some circles, there’s a lot of politics and paranoia surrounding this topic. A lot of hunters are convinced that this is all a commie conspiracy to take away our ammo–and then come for our guns later. It isn’t.

    These same people are certain that a little lead never hurt anyone. (After all, THEY chewed on lead paint chips when they were a kid, and they turned out just fine.) They’re also convinced lead doesn’t hurt raptors, waterfowl, or other wildlife. It does. The science is solid.

    (More anecdotally, I found an eagle dying of lead poisoning once. It wasn’t pretty. And when dead loons or swans are found around here, they usually get a lead test. It seems to be a pretty common cause of death. Old shotgun pellets and fishing sinkers.)

    If you look at the details of that Minnesota study, it’s pretty sobering. And it turns out it’s the tiny dust-sized pieces we need to worry about most. So just because you’re not biting down on chunks, doesn’t mean you’re safe. And some of that dust goes pretty far. Trimming away that visibly bloodshot “jello” might not be enough.

    As you noted, these copper bullets actually expand and hold together more reliably. So even if you don’t care about getting the lead out, they’re more of a premium, better-performing bullet. Eventually, maybe that will help them gain wider acceptance.

    To put the cost in perspective, more common calibers cost about a dollar a cartridge for basic loadings. For premium loadings, including those with copper bullets, you pay around $1.50 to $2.00 a shot. If your aim is good, that’s only another fifty cents or a dollar per deer.

    If your point of impact might be different, so you decide you want to shoot only copper in your deer rifle, and not even practice with jacketed lead bullets… For the average person who does most of their practicing with a .22 and only shoots a couple boxes of centerfire per year, that’s maybe an extra 20 bucks a year.

    You know, I think it’s just about time to stop procrastinating on this one.

    I’m switching.

    • Al, the one very important thing you need to know when switching is that lead’s problem – fragmentation – is precisely one of the things that makes it effective – it does a lot of damage, which helps bring down the animal.

      When using non-lead, you need to be aware that precision shooting is even more important, because you can’t count on a big wound channel to make up for being a little off target.

      I’m actually really surprised that Tovar recovered his bullet – I have never recovered copper before because it’s always gone straight through. Then again, I’ve not hit a really big bone with it.

      I shoot a .270 and use Winchester with Nosler E-tips, and I’ve had no problems with them. Whatever you get, make sure you sight in your rifle, because sometimes non-lead shoots VERY differently, and even if it means shooting $20-30 worth at the range, it’s worth it to get it right in the field.

      • Tovar says:

        Interestingly, this bullet didn’t break anything more than a rear rib. It did travel diagonally through the deer, but didn’t make any serious impact with the far shoulder, just stopped there: textbook.

        • Yeah, I haven’t had a shot with it yet that has met anything more than a rib – they’ve all been either broadside or barely quartering forward. I’m really glad it worked well for you!

      • Al Cambronne says:

        Good point. You don’t get something for nothing.

        And maybe it’s not an either-or question, as long as you’re not in an area where lead is banned. Say you used premium jacketed lead bullets that hold together better, something like a Nosler Partition or the new Power Max (?) from Winchester. Would you still get at least some of the same benefits? And would you still protect yourself and critters from some of the problems with lead?

        Whether it’s us at our dinner table or the coyotes at theirs, is a big chunk of copper and lead at least slightly less bad than a lot of tiny lead particles? Or is it better to go for something totally unleaded???

        • There might be research on this, but I honestly don’t know the answer to that. Phillip at the Hog Blog might know. Me, I’m just shooting non-lead so I don’t have to worry about it.

          And I do know in the condor zone here in California, jacketed bullets were not deemed an acceptable alternative, for what that’s worth.

  4. Excellent post, Tovar. I have found lead in my deer in the past 20 years where some was in tiny pieces and some had held together fairly well. Never once did I worry about poisoning. Until now. I always worried about losing a tooth to a stray piece of metal. I am certainly a bit more aware now. I do like to follow up regarding copper bullets, too. This is a definite read for any gun hunter.


  5. Joshua says:

    Tovar, this is a good post. Out West, this is a heated debate, whose temperature has gotten a bit higher now that CBD has sued the feds over regulating ammo and fishing tackle.

    Personally, I’m trying to use the conversation, where I can, to encourage place-based research on the effects of lead and other toxins. Here in California, we have a ban on lead ammo used to hunt condor food in condor country. I support this (other reasonable people do not, however). We just fought off a ban on lead ammo. in all California wildlife areas where hunting occurs (I did not support that one), and a proposed ban on lead throughout federally controlled areas of the California deserts.

    The latter two are examples of taking a concept (lead can be dangerous) and applying it without the requisite science. It’s cheap legislation, and too heavy handed. I’m a fan of the Precautionary Principle for those chemicals created during the 20th-21st centuries, but the use of lead world-wide has not shown significant habitat-related impacts to any real, measurable scale (except where it may impact keystone species, that is).

    As it does impact particular species, then, this is a GREAT reason to pay for good, solid science in particular areas that receive a lot of lead or other toxins. We should look for impacts, then vectors. Sadly, we don’t care enough (socially) to pay for the real science to consider impacts in particular areas.

    And remember, the single largest vector for lead in the habitat is in car tire balance weights.

    If we had real science for toxins in the habitat, I’d bet a year’s salary that we would find true culprits not in hunting or fishing, but in industrial and residential sprawl. Environmentalists of all stripes (and I include hunters in that) need to recognize that we face the same enemies to habitat. We are all on the same side.

    • Tovar says:

      I’m all for the science you propose, Joshua. And I agree, too, that automobiles, industry, and sprawl almost certainly do more harm than lead from hunting.

      We are all, as you say, on the same side. Or we should be, anyway.

  6. Ingrid says:

    You know how I feel about hunting in general, but thank you, Tovar, for thinking about the wildlife left to feed on entrails. Watching poisoning of any kind in animal is an absolutely heart-wrenching ordeal. It’s something, unfortunately, that I’ve seen too much of. What many don’t understand is the concept of biological magnification as the toxin travels up the food chain. I wish more people could have a view to the end result of their products and practices (poisons, pesticides, etc.)

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Ingrid.

      Yes, I agree that seeing “the end result of [our] products and practices” is good and sobering medicine, whether that’s hunters and anglers seeing lead-poisoned birds, or vegetarians seeing the critters displaced, maimed, and killed by agriculture.

  7. Fletcher says:

    Well done, Tovar.

    As a non-hunter I never even thought this could be an issue. I’ll be much more discerning next time you invite me over for dinner!

    Seriously, I think you are helping raise human consciousness about seemingly innocuous human activities. We saw how the “miracle” DDT pesticide worked through the food chain up to killing off bald eagles. Then it was banned. We’ve seen lead removed from gasoline, paint and fishing sinkers. Mercury from batteries – all because people realized that this stuff builds up over time and bio-accumulates in all species coming in contact with it. If hunters aren’t willing to change to the less-poisonous types of bullets on their own, I’ll be glad to sign a petition to ban them.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Fletcher. I agree about eliminating toxins as much as possible.

      As Holly/NorCal mentions below, though, the “ban lead ammo” question is dicey, especially in political terms and somewhat in practical terms. Unfortunately, this is one of those issues that can create serious rifts between hunters and other environmentalists who — as Joshua noted — are, or should be, all on the same side of nature/conservation issues.

      • Tovar says:

        As Holly noted in her May post, incentive programs like those developed in Arizona seem like one good to way to “get the lead out,” without sparking a reactive political firestorm.

  8. It’s worth noting here for all who’d like to see lead ammo banned that the public relations aspect of this is extremely delicate – such a move is often seen as an anti-gun/anti-hunting move. While that’s often unjustified, hunters’ paranoia on the subject is stoked by the fact that HSUS is on that bandwagon, and we know HSUS loves to do anything that can reduce hunting.

    Also, when you ban a product, people who’ve come to depend on it need to see alternatives, and it is worth noting here that the alternatives are a LOT more expensive than lead. And, as I mentioned in an earlier reply, it can shoot very differently. When waterfowlers were forced to stop shooting lead, there was a really ugly transition time as the market worked to develop effective shot alternatives (I understand the first ones off the shelf were horrible), and hunters learned how to compensate for the very real differences in how non-lead shoots.

    So, this really isn’t as simple as waving a wand, or signing a petition. And while hunters’ paranoia about the motivations behind any proposed ban may seem ridiculous to the non-hunter, their concerns about the various impacts of switching are well-founded. This choice is not necessarily as simple as deciding “paper, plastic or canvas.”

    • And by the way, lest anyone misconstrue my remarks here, I’m the “Holly” whom Tovar referenced in the post – I’ve given up lead ammo, except where required at the shooting range (trap/skeet/sporting clays).

    • Al Cambronne says:

      I have to admit, maybe I oversimplified with my earlier post when I mentioned politics and paranoia. As the saying goes… “Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.”

      And if you’re a waterfowler, I empathize. I understand the bismuth and Hevishot shotshells are quite expensive, and that even today’s steel shot is just not the same as lead ballistically. Not dense enough.

      On a purely selfish level, if I used steel shot, I’d be very worried about my future dental health. It may not be toxic, but it seems like it could potentially be much harder on teeth than lead or bismuth. Do hungry waterfowlers sometimes chip their teeth on steel shot????

      • Yes, we do. But you quickly learn to chew a little gently when eating waterfowl. Hank and I keep a bowl by our table where we put the shot we find in our birds. It’ll take a while to fill up, but there’s plenty in there.

        Of course, it beats dying of some godawful strain of e coli that you can pick up from store-bought birds…

  9. I came back from quail hunting last night, and while I didn’t score, I was nevertheless in possession of three quail, shot by a friend. When I cleaned them, I noticed that my friend had used lead shot. I’d had a discussion with the guys before, mentioning that I’d be using Steel shot, that it was a condor area, but they told me that upland game is exempt from the copper requirement. They were right, but I still use non-lead on everything. As was mentioned above, the bullets hang together, and I’d rather have a well-placed shot do the job, than a shrapnel effect of lead that then makes the meat worthless.
    Also, I shoot a 7mm mag, which is a reload that we do, and that helps to keep costs down around $1.25 a round. I don’t charge myself labor. The 160 grain TSX Barnes are hollow points, and I put one right through a pig’s foreleg at the elbow joint, it took out the heart, and then left a dime-sized hole as it exited the chest on the other side. Literally no wasted meat, and an instantaneous death, even through the broken bone. I also use lead free in my .22 WMR, and I expect I will get the same level of performance out of it. Those who debate the use of lead vs. copper ammo seem to want to make it an “overregulation” issue, but I see it as common sense. Get the lead out, people!
    I’m a Special Education teacher, and I’m always seeing kids come through that I expect may be suffering from lead poisoning, or have been prenatally exposed to some sort of toxic metal or chemical, even the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and I’m here to tell you I know first hand some of the effects of these kinds of exposures can do to their learning potential…

    • Ingrid says:

      I can’t speak to the efficacy of ammo issue, but I’m with you, Richard. I’ve known several parents who tried chelation and other measures to deal with heavy metal issues in their children. With wildlife, it’s impossible to know how many animals are affected by the “long tail” of our toxic ways. But, if I never saw another poisoned animal, it would be one happy period in my life. We’re deluding ourselves if we think what’s affecting the most sensitive in the environment, isn’t affecting the rest of us. There are so many areas where we, as individuals, can’t control the larger emissions and pollution of the commons. But in areas where we can, I believe it behooves all of us to reduce and eliminate non-essential and potential toxins.

  10. Jen says:

    I just found your blog and, as it’s deer hunting season here in the UK, I started with this post. Fascinating!

    The shooting fraternity (& sorority!) in the UK are embroiled in the “lead or not” debate, regarding wildfowl shooting. The argument to keep lead legal seems to hinge on the fact that the non-lead stuff is so expensive. I’m not sure that’s enough of an argument. Brits seem slow to accept change.

    All other game birds are shot with lead cartridges and I have to pick out the shot when preparing the birds. I have missed the odd pellet. I know this because they seem to…ahem… stay at the bottom of the toilet for a bit. I’ve wondered if that could be a health risk in an otherwise healthy meal.

    Shotguns are not legal calibre for deer in England so I shoot all mine with a rifle, ballistic tip. I butcher them myself and the bright green tip (or bits of it) is easy to find if it’s still in the carcass.

    I’ll be following your blog with interest, and to pick up new ideas and tips for out in the field AND back in the kitchen. I also started with vegetarianism 15 years ago and ended up a hunter. Thanks for a great blog!

    • Tovar says:

      Welcome, Jen. I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog so far. And I’ll be interested to hear how the lead debate plays out in the UK.

      It’s always fun to connect with other vegetarians-turned-hunters!

    • Jen, I wish you all luck with that debate in the UK – hope it doesn’t get as ugly as it has here in California. We do know that switching to steel for waterfowl made a huge difference – I never saw a bald eagle during my childhood or early adulthood, but now I see them frequently, and they’re off the endangered species list. The fact that we can still use lead for upland birds doesn’t appear to have hurt the raptors as a species, but there’s evidence it hurts some individuals.

      But yeah, steel’s more expensive. Fortunately there are a lot of good options for shotguns, because the demand is mandated. Steel’s also a lot harder on your teeth when you chomp down on it.

      Also, I recently learned a key distinction between lead and steel shot: Steel goes out all together, kind of on a single plane, while lead goes out in a long string, which increases your chances of hitting the bird if your lead (leed, not led) is a little bit off. There are, however, chokes that will produce a lead-like shot string.

      • Jen says:

        Oh, it’s getting ugly alright. People seem firmly in one camp or the other.

        It is illegal to use lead for shooting wildfowl in the UK – period. I’m happy to abide by that and have tried bismuth and tungsten cartridges. I don’t use steel because my gun isn’t proofed for it. If banning lead will prevent poisoning of the foreshore and ponds, and keep the population of wildfowl healthy, it’s hard to see why one wouldn’t do it. But I know hunters who carry the steel cartridges in case they get checked, but use the lead for shooting.

        The argument now is whether to extend the ban to all other game birds. I’m no ballistics expert so I was really interested in your comments about shot pattern. All of my guns are fixed choke (except my multishot) so I can’t change the pattern.

        I know lead spreads and converts the energy into bodyshock, killing the prey effectively. But as my DH says, one pellet in the head is worth 10 up the arse. Placement is everything. I’ve had no problems with the tungsten loads yet, only my lead and stopping my swing! I’ll be going after woodcock and snipe this month, and I think it’s time to convert to non-lead cartridges for that, even if it’s not the law. Yet.

        • Oh, please forgive my assumption. For some reason I thought the UK was still using lead on waterfowl.

          The tough thing with snipe is finding steel shot that small – our selections are getting better here as more clubs and I think even some states require steel for upland hunting. But steel 7s and 8s can be very hard to come by.

          But I used 6s on snipe last year and dove this year, and they worked just fine. LOVE SNIPE!

          • Joshua says:

            Holly, Wally World offers steel #6’s and #7’s for six bucks a box.

            Also, the shot string argument is a heated shotgunning concept that some swear by and some swear at. I, personally, have no idea or opinion on it, but I thought you might be interested in it as a gun-nut debate.

            • Ugh, I can barely stand debating lead ammo. Ballistics is WAY beyond my knowledge base, and my interest too. I have other things I’d rather obsess on, like the future of hunting, and the image of hunting among non-hunters.

              • Joshua says:

                Oh, it’s not a lead ammo debate, it’s a very nerdy gun-nut debate over whether or not “shot string” exists. That’s all, no politics or relative merits or any of that – simple nerdiness, nothing more.

          • Tovar says:

            At first, I, too, thought maybe the UK was still using lead on water birds. In part, it was the word “wildfowl” that threw me. Does anyone use that term in the U.S.? The only “fowl” hunting word I can think of is “waterfowl” (I know, I know, that’s begging for a comment on “foul” hunting words).

            In the UK, Jen, does “wildfowl” refer to ducks/geese (“waterfowl” here), to grouse/woodcock/snipe (“upland” birds here), or to both?

            • Jen says:

              Sorry Tovar, I should proofread. I meant Waterfowl. Wildfowl incorporates all the game bird species including ducks / geese, but our lead ban only pertains to WATERfowl, for now. The debate is about including all game birds in the ban.

              We don’t use upland/lowland like in the US, but we speak separately about grouse shooting (VERY expensive wild bird shooting up in the north of the UK) and pheasant / partridge shooting (quite expensive, somtimes raised and released shooting all over the UK).

              The more confusing thing, where I still trip up, is anyone talking about HUNTING in the UK means FOXhunting on horseback (also illegal now, though shooting foxes is legal). SHOOTING usually refers to birds and small game, and STALKING refers to deer, sometimes boar.

              So much for a shared language, eh?

              • We actually don’t distinguish between upland and lowland here – upland is just used to distinguish from waterfowl.

                When you say bird hunting is usually called “shooting,” does that apply to wild and pen-raised birds? Because sometimes we’ll call it a “shoot” here if it’s pen-raised birds, and therefore not as challenging as hunting wild birds.

                Interesting distinctions – I definitely hadn’t picked up on the one about hunting, though now that I think about, whenever I find hunting in the UK news, it is almost always referring to those fox hunts.

                • Jen says:

                  Shooting refers to wild and pen raised. In the UK, grouse and grey partridge are primarily ‘wild’ birds. i.e. there eggs are not hatched for them and young are not protected in pens. However, their habitat is heavily keepered, by which I mean staff are paid to control vermin, burn heather (in the case of grouse), and build or improve habitats.

                  Pheasant, and french (or red-legged) partridge are usually hatched and raised to about 8 wks of age, and let out in an large-ish area (thousands of acres) but the area is still keepered, mainly by controlling foxes and making sure there are feeders to ‘hold’ an area of birds.

                  My husband is the head gamekeeper on a large commercial pheasant/partridge shoot. These birds are not tame, but there’s no doubt that they are managed. We have to be able to find them on shoot days. The birds are ‘presented’ over the shooters’ heads, they don’t have to go out and find them.

                  I’m led to believe that there isn’t a lot of penned, driven or continental style pheasant shoots in the US. Is that right?

                  Except for the rough shooters who walk hedgerows with their dogs, or waterfowlers, shooting in England is a sport for the very rich. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems bird hunting in the US is a quieter more personal sport, pitting you and your hunting skills against the quarry. And it seems more egalitarian – anyone with access to public land can can shoot pheasant, true?

                  Sorry, I think I’m getting off topic here! But I hope that answer clarifies the difference.

                  • Hunting as a rule here is far more egalitarian, and actually tends slightly toward the less educated. Bird hunting runs the gamut from the very rich to just a guy and his dog.

                    And there are a few places that do driven-bird shoots, but it’s pretty rare. There are a lot of planted-bird clubs – especially in California where our wild pheasant population has suffered from agricultural practices that eliminate edge habitat – but also a lot of wild-bird land.

                    Tovar, sorry to hijack the thread, but I’m having fun with the international exchange.

                    • Tovar says:

                      Jen and Holly: No worries at all about “getting off topic” or “hijacking”!

                      I love seeing the tangents discussions take. Heck, I’m the one who asked about the term “wildfowl.” And I’m loving the international exchange, too!

                    • Ingrid says:

                      Since this discussion has veered off anyway, I’ll take it even farther off course and give you one wildlife rehabber’s experience (mine). I appear to be the resident contrarian, Jen, the one they can’t get rid of, just so you know.

                      Obviously, the Asian pheasants are not a native species in the United States. Had they not been deliberately introduced for hunting purposes, they’d be considered “feral” not “wild,” although that’s a semantic distinction, from my POV. To me, it seems deliberately introduced, domestically-raised bird is as feral as an accidentally released one. But who am I to change these parameters? 🙂

                      Although habitat issues are, of course, the most significant stress on any wildlife, young pheasant population/mortality is also tied, significantly, to pheasants being an introduced species and, largely, a stocked species.

                      Pen-reared birds are not raised with predator-evading skills. Those things are learned through experience with parents and other birds, an opportunity the pen-reared juveniles just don’t have. So, those that escape the hunt are subject to high mortality rates in their first year anyway. There has been at least one study on the effects of agricultural pesticides on game bird mortality, but it’s not as significant as some of the other factors.

                      Anecdotally speaking, I’ve taken in game birds who were brought into the wildlife hospital in pretty rough shape. I will just say, it’s not a pretty existence for an animal released to the wild who has no wilderness survival skills. It’s similar with habituated individuals of native species.

                      When I say “taken in,” we were living in a small apartment in the Bay Area and held them wherever we could until I was able to find safe and life-long placement, which is extraordinarily difficult for game birds. So, I’d prefer not to be in that position, but it’s a constitutional requirement of my sensitive psyche not to turn them away.

                      There is generally no treatment or placement for non-native game birds in wildlife hospitals, owing to the unfortunate circumstances of their introduction. At one time or another, I’ve had to place coturnix (quail), Chukar, pheasant, etc. Without placement, their only option is euthanasia which is usually more humane than the “wild” existence into which they’ve been released.

                      For the record, they are simply lovely birds, these various species. I grew quite attached to a Japanese Quail I had for a month (Mikiko) before finding him a hard-won aviary “on the coast” at some horse stables. He was clever, had clear personality quirks (I learned after having more quail who were so different from him). And, he called out for me each day when he heard me opening the front door. Of course, we couldn’t bond like I do with other domestic animals because coturnix have a habit of shooting straight up in the air as an evasive technique. So, you can’t really let them run around the house where they can shoot up like a projectile and bonk their heads on the ceiling, literally knock themselves silly.

                    • Tovar says:

                      I sure hope we never get rid of you, Ingrid. In fact, I wish we had five more folks like you contributing to these discussions on a regular basis.

                      For some of the same reasons you mention, as well as others, I’m not at ease with the whole pen-raised bird thing, native species or otherwise. It’s not something I know much about, honestly, so I won’t pontificate about it. But I definitely don’t have any hankering to “hunt” (“shoot”?) pen-raised birds.

                    • Ingrid, I recognize your feral vs. wild distinction, but for my purposes, it’s irrelevant. Wild is a bird with – as you say – survival skills, regardless of its immigration status.

                    • Ingrid says:

                      Tovar, you wrote: I sure hope we never get rid of you, Ingrid. In fact, I wish we had five more folks like you contributing to these discussions on a regular basis.

                      It’s funny you should say that because I’ve been ruminating on whether or not I should participate in hunting discussions at all. There are times after I’ve commented, when I think my post probably just comes across as a real spoiler on what would otherwise be a laudatory and supportive thread. Or, alternatively, as Holly witnessed over at her blog, my sarcasm convinces at least one kind person that I’m out to eradicate the human race. 🙂

                      The difficulty in finding common ground in any of this discourse revolves around something Holly says often. And that is, that one can’t truly understand hunting until one hunts. I imagine that’s a sentiment shared by most, if not all, hunters.

                      The same is true from my end of the spectrum. I don’t think a person can truly grasp and identify with the physical, psychological and emotional stress we cause to wild animals, unless he or she is connected with that experience intimately and over time. Cursory observation just won’t do it. Long-term immersion is one of the few ways to genuinely understand “who” that animal is as an individual, how she interacts as part of a species, a flock, a herd or a family structure. Even then it’s impossible to fully overcome the limitations of inter-species communication and what I believe are the outdated charges of “anthropomorphism.”

                      So, here I sit on my side of the philosophical divide, understanding that tomorrow, it will be business as usual for all of us. Hunters will hunt, and I’ll continue to do what I do. And I won’t deny that knowing this, sometimes causes pain. Not because of any misunderstanding between us. But because I think it’s getting harder to witness these things, the longer I live, the more I stop believing that we’ll ever fully take accountability as a species, for the harm and suffering we inflict on other species.

                      I hope that our collective participation here does, as you say, facilitate some interesting meanderings, and some greater (if incremental) understanding between us. I’m not sure but I believe I understand your point of view better as a result of these discussions.

                      For the record, I give you (and Holly, as well) much credit for your courage of conviction and your willingness to host a contrarian point of view in your pages. In the past, I’ve been personally insulted, deleted, harassed and threatened in other public spaces. So, that compliment is far bigger than it may appear on the surface. I was relieved when I got no such threatening notes after I posted here or there the first time. I realize we’ve probably all been subject to immature, dysfunctional and vindictive bloggers. It’s just that “your” side has some guns and ammo behind the anger.

                    • Tovar says:

                      Thanks for your thoughts above, Ingrid.

                      I can certainly understand your ambivalence about participating in hunting discussions. In my vegan, anti-hunting days, I probably wouldn’t have participated in such discussions, especially if I had been insulted and attacked for it.

                      In part, my desire to have voices like yours in the conversation stems from having long been on the “other side” myself. And I don’t actually see myself as having crossed over to a different side of what you call a “philosophical divide.” My views have shifted somewhat, yes, but they remain informed by most of the same core values. The main difference is that now, once a year if I get lucky, I kill a deer, taking a life directly, rather than letting others do all the killing for me, either in raising chickens or in inflicting collateral damage through agriculture.

                      I think folks on all sides of the hunting issue could learn a lot from each other. (I touched on this most of a year ago, in my “Hunters and other whackos” post.) I don’t see alternative perspectives as “spoilers,” but rather as an opportunity to expand our thinking and our conversations.

                      If the posts and comments here encourage a few hunters to think more deeply about animals—their capacity for suffering, their integrity as beings (what many cultures consider their “personhood”), etc—then I count that a success.

                      If the posts and comments here encourage a few non- or anti-hunters to think more deeply about hunters and hunting—to see beyond stereotypes, to recognize the common ground that often exists, etc—I count that a success, too.

                      For me, it’s about speaking/writing and listening/reading with an open mind and heart.

          • I have just come from Wallyworld, where they do have steel 7s, and 6s, but not much else. They don’t have the non-lead .22 WMRs, either. I’m getting ready to order some steel ammo online from a shooting supply house, because they didn’t have anything but 4s in the 3in magnum 12s. Charlie, someone who is introducing me to Delavan Wildlife Refuge for duck hunting, recommends the 3in 2s and BBs in steel, both of which are difficult loads to find in Socal. However, I agree that 6s are good for quail, but I will be going out for them with 7s next week. Steel 7s with a Skeet choke tube, and I’ll be a much more accomplished hunter! I’ll let you know how much they cost, but from what I heard, it is almost as cheap as Waldosmart.

  11. Art says:

    A very eye-opening post, Tovar.

    I can totally understand keeping lead-shot game away from pregnant women, as well as young children. I’m just still a little skeptical as to the effect it has on grown adults.

    Lead projectiles have been used for hundreds of years, so I have a hard time wrapping my brain around the “it’s bad for us now!” mantra.

    However, I am aware now, and I’m listening. Maybe eventually I’ll switch too.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks, Art.

      And fair enough. Exactly how “bad” lead is, I don’t know. Likely, it is less harmful to adult humans who, unlike children, have fully-formed brains (though mine doesn’t always feel that way!), and who, unlike eagles and other wildlife, pick most of the lead out of their meat before eating it.

      I do know that lead isn’t “good” for any of us: adults, children, or wildlife.

  12. Jen says:

    I was reading through the Bush Wear catalogue (UK) and I noticed they sell a Lead Shot Detector, a small wand you can put over your birds (or deer) to help find any shot.

    It wasn’t expensive, though I don’t know how deep into a carcass it would penetrate. It could be an option, if you wanted to err on the safe side.

    • Tovar says:

      Thanks for this note, Jen. It looks like there are a couple different versions available here in the US, too. Reviews on how well they work appear to be mixed, but the concept seems like a good one. They’re supposed to detect steel shot as well, and could save folks some dental problems.

  13. I think I learned more reading this post and associated comments than any single post on any blog yet.

    On the offchance that those of you who seem to know about this — Tovar? Holly? Jen? Joshua? Richard? — don’t have comment fatigue, I’d like to ask a question. Does a lead slug, shot through a shotgun, break apart in the same way a rifle bullet does? I’m concerned about using lead in sensitive environments (although I’m with Joshua on wanting more science — the dose is the poison), but I’m not a good enough shot that I want to compromise my ability to kill an animal that I hit.

    Not that I’ve actually hit a deer yet, but there’s one day left of the season …

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Tamar, I’m glad it was helpful.

      According to the Minnesota study, shotgun slugs and muzzleloader bullets/sabots do not break apart as much as rifle bullets. That’s because (A) they’re generally heavier than your average 100-200 grain rifle bullet, and (B) they’re generally traveling more slowly. The heavier, slower projectiles do still fragment somewhat, just not nearly as much. (I’ve heard that a similar pattern occurs when these different projectile types hit a twig or brush, but that’s another topic.)

      In any case, if a bullet or slug passes through an animal (as often happens), then the bulk of the metal is staying in the woods. You’ll never find it. I don’t know much about the science of such lead being buried in the forest floor, or in a tree.

      The direct ingestion risk to wildlife (or to human diners) arises, of course, when a fair amount of the bullet remains in the animal, especially if the fragments are small.

    • Al Cambronne says:

      On the off chance that you’re still reading here, when you should be going to bed soon so you can get up before dawn and go get that deer…

      You are indeed safer with a shotgun slug, even if it’s leaded. For details, check that Minnesota study Tovar referenced in his original post. But basically, it’s a larger, heavier projectile that’s traveling more slowly. All else equal, it will hold together better than a lighter, faster rifle bullet.

      Even if it’s an all-lead slug, that’s usually going to be the case. But if it’s a jacketed sabot slug, even more so–at least compared to a rifle bullet of similar construction. And next year, you can get an all-copper saboted slug, just like those rifle bullets Tovar described in his original post.

      If you like, check out that Cornicelli study from MN for more info. But all else equal, you’re safer from these problems if you’re using a muzzleloader or a shotgun slug.

      So stop worrying about this and get to sleep so you’re rested in the morning and out there before the deer wake up. Tomorrow morning, use that lead slug. Later, you should be able to safely, as they used to say, eat right up to the bullet hole.

      • Ooops, commented before reading everyone else’s replies.

        Suffice it to say that lead slugs are not considered safe enough for us to hunt with them in the condor zone.

        I know I’m really late on this one because your season is so short, but if you’re concerned about leaving lead out where raptors and other scavengers can be poisoned by it, bury your gutpile.

        • Joshua says:

          There are steel slugs available for smoothbores, and they don’t all fragment, either. There are also all-copper for rifled shotguns, too…

  14. Bill says:

    Just getting around to reading this and it’s something that I’ve never really thought about. There is some surprising information here and you’ve certainly piqued my interest on the subject. Interesting and informative post, nice job on it!

  15. doug thorburn says:

    Hi Tovar, interesting topic! As it turns out, a friend who works for the local govt wildlife branch sent me the results of the Minnesota study on lead fragments in game a few years ago. After reading that, I switched to using the “nosler” brand copper bullets for hunting. I have been lucky enough to get three deer using the copper bullets, and they seems to work just fine. All three deer were shot through lungs, and all three died quickly.

    Because the copper bullets do cost more, I keep the expensive copper ones for hunting, and practice shooting with cheap lead bullets. I was happily surprised to find that the 165 grain copper bullets shot exactly the same as 180 grain lead (at least in my rifle), so no need to re-zero the scope when changing bullet types.

    I was surprised to see on our local (BC) hunting chat site, the intensity of opinions concerning the use of copper bullets. Apparently the suspicion (as mentioned above) that this is the “thin edge of the wedge”, makes the more paranoid of our hunting brethren see copper bullets as one limitation placed on our ability to hunt game. Copper bullets aside, this issue is one more illustration of the degree to which a portion of the hunting population feels under siege!

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Doug! Whatever folks make of it, I’m glad to hear that this information is making the rounds.

      I’m also glad to hear that your experience has been like mine — both in terms of consistent shooting between lead and copper, and in terms of copper making a swift kill.

      And you’re absolutely right about the intensity of feeling about lead and non-lead. Some hunters I know are comfortable talking about the issue and open to, or even committed, to using non-lead. Others immediately go on the defensive (or the offensive!) when anyone mentions it.

  16. Bricky says:

    I was just witness to how effective a Barnes VOR-TX round is against a mule deer, the results were almost frightening at 150 yrds. I’m two-for-two now with one shot kills with copper.

    I don’t know if this was mentioned above, but I feel like the big divide over copper vs. lead may largely be between people like me who only shoot a few rounds a year (sighting in and then hunting) vs. people who like to take their AR-14 to the range and go through a 1000 rounds of .223 in a week. For me, the increased price for copper is negligible, as a box would last me a while, but for them it would ad up quickly. The target shooters aren’t pumping that lead into food, just the range backstop (although that might lead to a toxic waste site at some future time).

    As for me, both my own experience and the info above means I’m staying unleaded for all hunting purposes.

    • Tovar says:

      Hello, Bricky, thanks for stopping by. I’m glad to hear copper has worked well for you.

      And I imagine you’re right about the cost factor for people who shoot a ton of centerfire ammo at targets. Even if they handload lead bullets, that has to get expensive. All the more so if they buy copper.

      • doug thorburn says:

        Thanks for the article reference, nicely put arguments. I liked the bit about toys and cars.

        I am have difficulty trying to picture burying the gutpile from an elk, (or worse) from a bison. One would require a small excavator. Where I live, one would also require a concrete slab of 6″ placed above the excavation to keep the grizzlies from digging up whatever you buried.

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Albert, thanks for stopping by.

      From the research results I’ve seen, full-copper-jacket bullets (which includes the A-Frame, I think) hold together better than soft-points. So do traditional blackpowder balls and bullets, being slower and heavier than centerfire rifle projectiles.

  17. Jim Petterson says:

    Hi Tovar – I just came across your blog and have enjoyed reading both your article and the comments that followed. Being both a wildlife biologist and a hunter, I have seen firsthand the deleterious effects of lead-poisoned wildlife AND have made the realization that while I am not in a high-risk group, it just made sense to me to reduce my exposure to lead bullet fragments in the meat I and my family ate. It has been my experience that most hunters find that the nonlead bullets work as well or better than lead bullets; they just need to try ’em out in their rifles. And the trend has been towards more manufacturers loading more calibers and the price coming down. In fact, when I looked at Cabelas in Reno last month, lead Nosler Partitions cost MORE than Federal Barnes all-copper bullets.

    I certainly would not be involved in any efforts to promote the use of nonlead bullets if I felt in any way, that the motivation was to reduce hunting or attack 2nd amendment rights.

    Incidentally, their is a website that we have been working on that is meant to be an unbiased information course for those trying to find out more about the issue and what nonlead alternatives are available:

    Happy holidays,


    • Tovar says:

      Hi, Jim, good to hear from you.

      Thanks for all your research and education efforts on these issues, and for the website link. Your example and perspective, like Holly’s, have helped me reach much the same conclusion.

      It’s good to see that copper ammo is becoming more widely available and more affordable. I hope an American manufacturer starts loading 6.5×55 — and other less popular calibers — with copper one of these days.

      Happy New Year to you!

  18. Robert says:


    Just found the site and thought I would share my experiences with lead free ammunition.

    I made the switch a few years ago after reading the reports out of Minnesota and Wisconsin. Being that I had previously loaded and shot Hornady products almost exclusively, I decided to give their lead free bullets (GMX) a try. The loading process is fairly straight forward, though I did find it necessary to be more aggressive during the chamfering and deburring stage of case preparation, elsewise the GMX bullets had a habit of hanging in the case mouth.

    Now to the important stuff. I’ve had the opportunity to take three whitetail deer using the aforementioned bullets. All the deer were taken with the same rifle and bullet combination–270 Winchester with the 130 grain GMX. The shots ranged from fifty five to ninety yards (I hunt in the Appalachian and Allegheny Mountains were shots over one hundred yards are all but unheard of). All three deer were shot just behind the front shoulder, and all of them ran less than ten yards. One thing I did notice was that in two of the deer the bullets did not exit, but rather stuck in the opposing shoulder. Also, both recovered bullets had split into several pieces. In the other deer the bullet passed through the animal and left an exit wound only slightly larger than the corresponding entrance wound. The damage to the internal organs was impressive and obviously sufficient to dispatch the animal in short order, still, I have to wonder if such a small exit wound would result in a trackable blood trail in the event of a less than perfect shot.

    So, to sum up my thoughts. I still think I made the right decision switching to lead free bullets, and I think any hunter who practices with his or her rifle and follows standard shot placement guidelines would be fine switching to one of the lead free bullets currently available. My only concern would be with young or inexperienced hunters who may not have honed their shooting and tracking skills to a level that would negate the tendencey of the lead free bullets to leave small exit wounds.

    Hope this helps some of you.

    • Tovar says:

      Hey, Robert, thanks for your comment.

      I appreciate hearing the details of your experience. I’ve seen some pretty small exit wounds using lead bullets, too, but your point is certainly worth keeping in mind.

    • Jim Petterson says:

      Thanks for sharing your experiences. I have not heard from anyone else that has experienced similar issues with the Hornady GMX bullets breaking off at the petals. Both the Hornady and Remington nonlead bullets have 6 petals, as compared to the Nosler e-TIp and Barnes Triple Shock bullets, which contain 4 petals. As a result, when the petals of the Hornady bullet peels back upon expansion, it has less metal keeping it attached to the bullet shank than the designs which use 4 petals. In looking at Hornady bullets we have discharged and retrieved, I notice that the petals also fold back farther along the bullet shank than the Barnes or Nosler bullets, leaving a smaller diameter frontal surface (I can send you photos of the various retrieved bullets to illustrate this if you wish).

      I would guess that the relatively small exit wound that you saw may have been due to the bullet hitting a bone and losing one or more petals. As long as the bullet expanded upon entry though and did it’s intended damage to the internal organs/bones, the exit wound is just a “bonus” and having a relatively small diameter hole isn’t that worrisome to me. If for some reason, the bullet failed to expand, that’s a different story of course, but it sounds like from your description the bullet did it’s work between the entrance and exit wound.

      I do agree with your concern about small exit wounds in general, but it’s been my experience using both the Nosler and Barnes bullets, that they expand reliably and leave exit wounds closer to 2X the bullet diameter. I have not shot the other 2 types into game, but they both expanded adequately when fired into ballistic gel. I can give you feedback if/when I do get the chance to test them on game.



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