Green Ammo: Ecofriendly Alternatives

Shooting is among the most enjoyable and safe sports out there. But with every activity, there are inherent risks no matter how small. If you read the outside of any box of ammunition or flip through any gun manual, you will see a laundry list of disclaimers.

  • Range is xyz miles.
  • Be sure of your target.
  • Never trust a mechanical safety.
  • Never point a firearm at anything you do not want to shoot.

Last, but certainly not least, is the lead hazard warning. Firing ammunition can lead to the inhalation of lead vapor. Inhalation of lead can cause a laundry list of problems. Furthermore, lead bullets and shot have the potential to contaminate groundwater and poison wildlife.

I will be the first to tell you that, if you are shooting in a well-ventilated environment, your chances of having complications due to lead exposure are minimal.  But statistically, the chances are higher than for the general population. There is also no way to completely rule out the potential harm to the environment. Until a few short years ago, most ammunition was lead-based. Fortunately, there are a variety of lead-free eco-friendly alternatives you can try to minimize the risk to yourself and the environment. Follow along as we explore the pros and cons of green ammo.

Green Ammo by Type

There are two different types of lead-based ammunition available today: plain lead and jacketed lead. Jacketed ammunition is usually covered in a coating of brass or copper. This is done to prevent deformation of the lead core in high-velocity rounds as it goes down the barrel. The base and front of the projectile are often exposed lead, so we can count rounds like these as hazardous. Likewise, most of the combustible component of ammunition primers is made with lead acetates, which can contribute to vapors. 

Truly lead-free alternatives will vary in chemical makeup of both the primer base and the projectile.  Different projectile metals are used for different kinds of ammunition. Here are five types of green ammunition and one that is only half-green.

Non-toxic shotgun shells include:

Tungsten Shot

Tungsten is a hard, but brittle rare earth metal with mass that is similar to lead. Tungsten’s mass allows for tight patterns and ample retained energy downrange that is comparable to lead. Tungsten has an extremely high melting point of over 6000° F. That translates to a payload that can be pushed out of the barrel at higher velocities without any deformation of the pellets. That higher velocity can be translated to a longer effective range. Small wonder that tungsten is quickly catching on with turkey hunters who need the density of lead but like the range of tungsten shells when hesitant toms refuse to come closer on the call.

Bismuth Shot

Bismuth is a soft white metal that shares characteristics with lead and tin. Bismuth has 86% of the density of lead and a low melting point of 520° F. From an industrial standpoint, bismuth is easy to work with, even for the home bullet caster. In terms of performance, bismuth shells have slightly less retained energy than lead, though not by much. Bismuth is the perfect alternative for older shotguns and black powder smoothbore shooters as bismuth will not damage soft, steel barrels like tungsten or steel might.

Bismuth shot is an excellent alternative to lead both in fixed cartridges and in muzzleloading applications. Presented here is a small charge of No. 5 bismuth shot next to a .54 caliber lead musket ball for reference.

Steel Shot

Steel shot is a traditional non-toxic load that is particularly popular with waterfowlers. Steel-shot loads are cheaper than tungsten loads and have a higher velocity than lead loads. The price paid is in density. Steel is only 2/3 as dense as lead. Some manufacturers compensate with higher payloads, but steel shot can struggle to kill birds at the same ranges as lead.

All-brass ammunition
All-brass ammunition has its niche applications, particularly where deformation is undesirable. (Steinel Ammunition)

Non-toxic rifle and handgun ammunition include:


Brass is a copper compound alloyed with either tin or zinc, although some alloys can be tempered with a minute amount of lead. Brass has a melting point of 1710° F, but is easy to machine. But brass is harder than lead and is more difficult to force into swaging dies. All-brass solid projectiles have been popular with African big game hunters for years because of their resistance to deformation. Brass is also less expensive than copper, thanks to the alloying process.

There are a few manufacturers of machined brass projectile ammunition including Steinel Ammunition of Twinsburg, OH. They offer rifle rounds like the .45/70 Govt and .458 SOCOM with a solid monolithic bullet. The only downside of brass projectiles is that it is a niche product that has to be machined. Further, brass is even lighter than steel, limiting the effective range of loads that use it.

remington core lokt copper
Remington recently released a green version of their proven Core-Lokt hunting ammunition. This all-copper round will be a worthy addition to the line. (Remington)


Copper is an unalloyed metal with similar properties to brass. It has a similar melting point and is easily machined. Copper projectiles, whether machined or swaged, are 21% less dense than lead. Pure copper is more expensive than brass alternatives. However, copper ammunition is by far the most popular alternative to lead ammunition in rifle and handgun loads. That may come down to how soft copper is compared to brass and steel. Swaging and machining copper stock into projectiles is a simple affair. The softness of copper also aids in the expansion of pre-formed hollow-point projectiles. But copper is still harder than exposed lead and will readily retain its weight after hitting a target. A comparable lead bullet will shed parts of itself through bone, reducing overall penetration.

A box of copper ammunition next to a Ruger LCP pistol - green ammo
The Barnes Tac-XPD is just one of many all-copper handgun ammunition on the market today.

All things considered, the advantages of copper projectiles outweigh the diminished returns of lead. Indeed, copper projectiles have sharpened the calculus in a number of shooting applications from defensive handgun ammunition to long-range precision shooting.

Companies such as Underwood and Lehigh Defense produce nonexpanding handgun ammunition that delivers greater terminal performance over conventional nonexpanding full metal jacket ammunition. Barnes has been a leader in copper ammunition for years. Their TAC XPD handgun load provides dramatic hollow-point expansion not seen with conventional jacketed lead rounds. The company also manufactures a number of rifle loads like their Vor-Tx long-range rifle line. Barnes bullets are also prized by other manufacturers seeking to go green on rifle ammunition.

Poly/Copper Blend

Over the last several years, manufacturers have been experimenting with projectiles that are a blend of polymer and copper to cut down the costs of making non-toxic ammunition. As it happens, these blended rounds are lighter than both conventional lead and solid copper rounds. Two of the most well-known of this type of ammunition are the .22 Long Rifle CCI Copper and the Interceptor ARX available in calibers from .380 ACP to .45 ACP. The advantage of rounds like these is that these light projectiles can be propelled at very high velocity. The CCI Copper Load uses a 21-grain bullet traveling at 1850 feet per second. A conventional .22 LR 40-grain round is traveling out of a rifle at 1280 feet per second. That translates to excellent initial terminal performance.

The disadvantages are two-fold: zeroing issues and a lack of range. Poly/copper blend projectiles are so light that they may not hit in the same place as conventional ammunition and will require a sight adjustment. The ammunition also loses accuracy and power rapidly due to its lack of density. The CCI Copper has good accuracy out to about fifty yards. By the time the round reaches 100 yards, the groups can be measured in feet, not inches.

To add insult to injury, poly/copper blend bullets are not truly green. Copper is harmless enough, but man-made polymers are primarily created from petroleum. The poly/copper blend is an interesting concept but in removing one pollutant, another is used in its place.

The Bottom Line on Green Ammo

Lead is dense, easy to work with, and plentiful. It has been the go-to choice for projectile manufacturing for centuries. But that does not mean it is perfect.  Alternatives like steel, bismuth, copper, brass, and tungsten are viable options. Some of these green ammo options are sub-optimal, while others come very close to matching lead without the drawbacks of toxicity.

For years the biggest hurdle to green ammunition has been the material costs. Copper, brass, and tungsten, in particular, are expensive. Lead is cheap. But shooters are wising to the benefits of monolithic non-lead projectiles and as demand has grown, prices have started to fall for the finished product. Now is as good of a time as any to go green.

Terril is an economic historian with a penchant for all things firearm related. Originally a pot hunter hailing from south Louisiana, he currently covers firearms and reloading topics in print and on his All Outdoors YouTube page. When he isn't delving into rimfire ballistics, pocket pistols, and colonial arms, Terril can be found perfecting his fire-starting techniques, photographing wildlife, and getting lost in the archives.

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