Lead is a cheap and plentiful metal. It is a waste product of the nuclear processes in stars and radioactive decay. The universe has recycled lead as a metal we can mine as sulphides, carbonates or as metal. Man recycles lead from scrapped batteries, roofing, pipes etc. Some of it eventually ends up in percussion caps and bullets used by shooters.
Besides the low price, lead has several very useful properties for shooters:
- the high density, 11.34 g/cm3, which makes projectiles have a higher ballistic coefficient and deliver more energy to the target,
- malleability, being very soft, lead is easily swaged into the shape of a bullet with modest pressure, and also easily deformed on impact to deliver a bigger wound,
- low melting temperature, 327C, making it feasible to form bullets by casting, and
- ease of alloying with antimony or tin to make harder bullets where required.
Copper, on the other hand, has a much higher melting temperature, is much harder and more expensive while having a lower density (8.96 g/cm3).
“Even though the Arizona Game and Fish Department distributes copper ammunition free to hunters, a small number continue to use lead. As a result each year up to half of the wild Grand Canyon condors require chelation treatment to remove high levels of lead from their blood.
"It is critical that we take mandatory actions to remove it from ammunition and require less toxic alternatives, said Sandy Bahr from the Sierra Club.
"Requiring non lead ammunition for hunting on public land would be an important step in limiting lead exposure for condors and other wildlife," she added.”
see BBC News – Lead bullet fragments poison rare US condors.
Sigh. Lead has the important disadvantage of being toxic to workers handling it, shooters firing it and ducks and condors eating it. Still, it will be a major expense to replace it followed with higher costs in the future and lowered performance on game. For example, a .308 Winchester can easily kill deer to 350 yards without adjusting sights for range while copper bullets although they may start with higher velocity because of the lower mass will slow faster. Copper bullets, except for energy delivered downrange are superior in performance but have a much greater cost:
There is some misinformation about all this on the web. For example, in long-range hunting country, the government of USA tested .30-’06 with lead and copper bullets at 50 yards! Clearly, this is the wrong rifle/bullet combination for hunting at such ranges. I always use a heavier/slower RN bullet for hunting in such situations because lead splashes like water at the very high velocities. One should not use a high-power rifle with high-velocity bullets at less than 100 yards. In bush most kills are at such short ranges. One should use hardened cores at least in such cases.
Because hunters are using the wrong rifles/bullets should not be used to justify the higher cost of copper. Education about better choices is key. I would recommend light high-velocity lead bullets only for long shots like 200 yards or greater. If you are in mixed open/bush country, have a heavy RN bullet in the top of the magazine and faster pointed bullets for open situations.
If you hunt with a rifle, use proper tools and you should not have to worry about lead fragments.