Leaving Lead Behind: One hunter’s decision to rethink his choice in ammunition

Ballistic tip bullets made with a polymer tip hollow point // Photo by Tom Hazelton

I saw my first pine marten on a gut pile. In the snowy aspens, the fresh kill site was a bright bloom of reds, pinks, and purples. The marten bounded from stump to deadfall, disappeared into the snow, and then popped straight up next to the gut pile, his black face and whiskers glittering. He looked around a moment, then climbed up, selected a choice bit, and carried it off to some hiding place. A few minutes later he was back for another. 

The term “gut pile” is a little shocking, typed out. I guess you could say “entrails,” but it’s just not as precise a way to describe what’s left in the woods after you field-dress—or “gut”—a deer. It’s not wasteful, in November especially. A gut pile is a treasure. Over the years, I’ve also seen mice, squirrels, ravens, chickadees, nuthatches, blue jays, and, my favorite North Woods icon, grey jays on gut piles. Tracks in the snow often indicate overnight visitors like coyotes, bobcats, foxes, and even wolves.

Bald eagles also scavenge gut piles in Minnesota. We know this because every year dozens of sick eagles are brought to the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center. They’re sick from lead poisoning, from eating deer entrails that contain tiny lead fragments from hunters’ bullets. Hunters like me. 

This isn’t news. California’s condor recovery was hampered for years by lead poisoning in birds that peaked with each fall’s hunting season. The Raptor Center has been monitoring lead poisoning in Minnesota eagles for decades and has long been able to correlate it with deer hunting seasons.

But it’s an issue that’s been too easy to dismiss. Back then, I didn’t dig very far into the data—as most hunters, and people, don’t, no matter the issue; I mostly learned about it from overheard discussions at the rifle range or in hunting magazines. It was, and still is, needlessly tangled in gun-rights or hunting-rights arguments.

I told myself: I don’t shoot deer in the guts. My bullets pass through and end up in the dirt on the other side of the deer, where they’re entombed forever. Plus, I’ve never seen an eagle on a gut pile. 

A grey jay, also known as a Canada Jay, or Lumberjack, on a gut pile in the snow // Photo by Tom Hazelton

A grey jay, also known as a Canada Jay, or Lumberjack, on a gut pile in the snow // Photo by Tom Hazelton

It was just as easy to believe that there was no lead risk in eating venison. I trim away meat that’s near the wound, and my family’s been eating meat from deer shot with lead bullets for generations with nobody dying from lead poisoning. 

Meanwhile, I killed deer with lead bullets. 

But every hunter’s career is a journey. In the last few years, I’ve been trying to be a more thoughtful hunter. I’ve become interested in forest management, public land access, and how these issues and more aren’t just about deer, or hunting, or even ecosystems, but the landscape as a whole—a unique Northern Minnesota landscape that I’ve come to love, and in which hunters play an important conservation role. 

It wasn’t long before I was forced to revisit the lead bullets issue. I read the studies, and found them clear and damning. In a Minnesota Conservation Volunteer article, I found a link to a study from the Minnesota DNR on bullet fragmentation that rewrote my understanding of “terminal performance,” or how bullets act when they hit a target. 

Lead-based hunting bullets fragment a lot more than I’d thought. Lead is a very soft metal, and when fired from a rifle, the extreme velocity makes the bullet almost splash on impact rather than fragment. Tiny bits of lead can be distributed widely throughout a deer or other big game animal, even with good shot placement.

I also learned it doesn’t take very much lead to poison an eagle. And “lead poisoning” doesn’t always mean acute sickness and death. Lead is a neurotoxin and even in small doses it can impair senses and cognitive ability, making an eagle, or other bird or animal, more susceptible to other risks such as being hit by a car, starvation, or predation. 

I thought about all the critters I’d seen scavenging gut piles over the years. It’s not like eagles are especially vulnerable to lead. It’s that they’re big and charismatic. They get noticed. A dead raven or a sick grey jay deep in the Superior National Forest, on the other hand, does not. 

I found myself faced with a question: Would I shoot a deer if I knew there was a grey jay behind it, right in the bullet’s path? Of course not. Knowing your target and what’s behind it is one of the fundamental laws of firearm safety. It’s not a big logical jump, then, to consider the bullet’s effects hours or days after the shot. I realized that even if I didn’t physically shoot the jay, I was still killing it, just more slowly and in a more abstract way.

7mm-08 bullets in a shooting range // Photo by Tom Hazelton

7mm-08 ballistic tip bullets at a shooting range // Photo by Tom Hazelton

When it comes to lead in the venison itself, I had a similar realization: Just like the birds who scavenge gut piles, I’ve also definitely eaten lead fragments. A single shot can leave over a hundred invisibly small slivers of lead scattered widely in an animal. The best butcher job in the world can’t ensure that all the meat is totally lead-free.

I don’t have lead poisoning, but even at extremely low levels there is an association between lead and cognitive effects. Essentially, there’s no safe amount of lead, especially for children. Even if I weren’t concerned for myself, am I willing to serve possibly tainted meat to my family and friends? How much cognitive impairment is acceptable for my future children? Why take the risk at all, especially when the risk can be eliminated so easily? 

It was with those thoughts in mind that last summer I learned to handload my rifle ammunition with non-lead, copper-based bullets. I found it rewarding, much like fly-tying. It’s technical and detail-oriented, and allows for a level of customization and precision not possible with off-the-shelf ammo. It lent an extra touch of thoughtfulness and confidence to that fall’s hunt, and a little pride as I loaded the handmade cartridges into my rifle.

Furthermore, handloading isn’t even necessary unless you have a rifle in an uncommon caliber. Every year, more and more non-lead hunting ammunition is available over the counter, and the cost for a box is only a few dollars more than the cheapest lead ammunition. It’s highly accurate, and generally as good or better than lead when it comes to killing game since it holds together and penetrates deeply. Most importantly, it doesn’t fragment like lead.

Making the switch to non-lead does requires some planning from the hunter. Copper is not as dense as lead, so the bullets are longer for a given weight. Generally, you should step down one weight class when switching in order to get the best results—for example, from 150-grain lead bullets to 130-grain copper. Some experimentation at the range is required, but that’s a good thing: we can all use some extra practice.

The deer I killed last year did not know or care that it was shot with a copper bullet. But during field-dressing, I did. The wound was clean, without any blood-shot meat or shredded organs; the copper bullet had cut a clear, quarter-sized path through the lungs—a quick, humane kill. It missed the heart by only a few inches. A lead bullet might have shredded that heart or, worse, laced it with undetectable lead fragments. Instead, it was perfect. I brought it back to the cabin for a grateful, celebratory lunch—sliced thin and fried with butter and onions in cast iron—and shared it with my family, with no worry about lead fragments. 

That afternoon while I butchered the deer, I saw two eagles and six ravens on the nearby gut pile. I watched them through my binoculars and listened as they jockeyed and fretted about the feast. The next morning, it was gone.