Lead Free Pellets

Increasingly shooters around the world- at least where gun ownership is allowed- are being pushed into using lead-free projectiles. This began with shotgunners, and perhaps reasonably so, as shotgunning dumps more lead into the environment, and over a wider area, than any other shooting sport. A round of sporting clays might result in dumping 100 1oz loads of lead over a wide area- that’s 43,750 grains, or the equivalent of 5,538 Crosman .177 7.9gr Premier pellets. And the lead from that shotgun isn’t deposited in a backstop- or a game animal but is finely distributed over a wide area.

That brings up a big question: Is lead pollution from pellet rifles really a problem? Compared to shotguns, obviously not. It’s easy to collect all the spent pellets from formal target shooting. A day’s hunting might result in a dozen misses- worst case, 200 grains of heavy .22 caliber pellets. That’s less than one shot from a .410 shotgun. A careful airgun hunter probably won’t have more than one or two misses.

But let’s assume that we want to be extra careful, and make sure we don’t dump any lead, period. So what are our options?

There are a number of lead free pellets on the market now. All use a lead-free alloy. Some are bore fitting, and others, like the Prometheus pellets that have been around since the 90s, use a plastic sabot- which brings up the question of scattering all these non-biodegradable plastic sabots about on every shot, but never mind that for now. How well do the lead free pellets perform?

Lead free pellets are typically made from a tin, aluminum and zinc alloys, these being relatively cheap as well as easy to cast and machine, But they’re also significantly lighter than lead, and that causes problems; modern airguns typically achieve maximum power and accuracy from heavier pellets than are generally available in non-lead formulations, and that results not only in loss of accuracy and efficiency, but in the case of high-powered spring guns, damage as well, as the light pellets don’t offer enough resistance to the spring and piston.

Since the diameter of the barrel limits how big you can make pellets in that dimension, the only way to increase mass is to use a heavier element or a longer pellets. Longer pellets need a much high rate of barrel twist to be stabilized in flight, so that’s not a good solution for existing guns. Are there heavier elements? Yes, though most are either too expensive or have other undesirable properties. Bismuth does come to mind, as shotgunners are using it, but it’s very soft, significantly more expensive than lead, and recently there have been studies published on toxic effects of bismuth pellets ingested by animals as well- so that’s no long term solution. (See this paper, for example).

I do suspect that there may be lead-free pellets in our future- but not with the present technology.

2 thoughts on “Lead Free Pellets”

  1. I wanted to try some lead free pellets, so I purchased some to shoot from my Benjamin .22 Marauder. I’m guessing they are some tin alloy but what bothers me is the measurements. with a micrometer, the lead pellets measure .2235, and the lead free with plastic skirt measure .2157. I’m concerned about damaging the rifling in the barrel, what do you think? -Thanks.

  2. I don’t know if they’ll damage the bore, but I’m pretty sure they won’t deliver good accuracy or effiency. Alloy pellets are far too light to extract energy efficiently and being very light, they leave the barrel at supersonic velocity.

    Pellets have low sectional density compared with bullets and have very high drag. 10-15 yards from the muzzle they’ll have slowed to subsonic speed and the shock wave will pass the pellet, upsetting its flight. Short answer: Don’t use them. Use a heavy lead pellet.

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