Poison Bullets

By: Ted Williams
Posted on:10/13/2023 Updated:12/02/2023

from Gray's Sporting Journal, Big Game Issue, September 2023 (

There’s a raging debate about doing away with hunting projectiles that can poison people and wildlife. It started in 1894.

Amazing the stuff you can find on the Internet about hunting and wildlife.

For example, I just dredged up the following: “Animal extremists…quest[ing] to destroy America’s hunters, trappers, and anglers” are behind the push for non-lead bullets. And: “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offered no objective scientific evidence establishing that the use of traditional lead-core ammunition poses a risk to human health or wildlife populations.” And: “For years sportsmen have witnessed attacks on lead ammunition by anti-hunting groups whose ultimate goal is to ban hunting.”

These recent assertions issue respectively from the Sportsmen’s Alliance (which claims to “protect hunting, fishing and trapping from the animal-rights movement”), the National Shooting Sports Foundation (a trade group which speaks for the gun lobby), and the NRA Hunters’ Leadership Forum (which also speaks for the gun lobby).

But the NRA speaks for hunters, too. On the pages of American Hunter, its “official journal,” some of the nation’s most experienced and knowledgeable hunters routinely gush about the efficacy of copper bullets. Even back in 2010 NRA members were being instructed by American Hunter field editor Bryce Towsley that the Barnes all-copper X-Bullet “redefines what we think we know about hunting projectiles.” And in a good way: “I have lost count of the game I have taken with Barnes X-Bullets in various configurations.” In 2012 American Hunter awarded the Barnes VOR-TX lead-free bullet, its “Ammunition Product of the Year Award.”

As far as I can determine the NRA’s consistent promotion of copper bullets in its official journal is limited to their superior ballistic performance. I find nothing about the fact that, unlike lead, copper doesn’t infuse meat with poison fragments (most unseen) that sicken humans and kill wildlife, game included. Fair enough. Plumbism (poisoning by lead) isn’t the NRA’s gig. That’s grist for outfits like the North American Non-Lead Partnership (about which more directly). Copper bullets weren’t developed for any conservation purpose. They were developed strictly to kill game more efficiently, and they do.


Photos of standard copper jacketed lead core bullets and solid monolithic copper bullets
before and after firing. All fragments recovered were lead.
Photo courtesy of the North American Non-Lead Partnership

So I polled the most hardcore big-game hunters I know. They serve with me on the Outdoor Writers of America Association’s Circle of Chiefs. We were elected because of our conservation writing, and we’re expected to teach conservation. The chiefs are unanimous in their support of copper. A few of their comments:


Jim Low: “I’ve been hunting whitetails exclusively with copper bullets -- center-fire and muzzleloader -- for about 15 years and have nothing but praise. Highly accurate, sturdy, excellent expansion and weight retention.”

Matt Miller: “I have found copper superior in every way in my hunting for mule deer, whitetail, pronghorn and feral hog.”

Scott Stouder: “Nothing but stellar performance and the knowledge that I’m not killing others out there from magpies to eagles.”

Larry Stone: “Accurate, hard-hitting, and no fragmentation.”

Mike Furtman: “As I hunted deer today, I sat within sight of the gut pile from the doe I killed two days ago. Much of it had been eaten already, but what remained was dined upon by two bald eagles, three ravens, two pileated woodpeckers, one hairy woodpecker, several blue jays, and numerous chickadees and nuthatches. Which is why I switched to copper bullets. Copper bullets are every bit as effective.”

Defenders of lead bullets allege ruinous cost of copper. For instance, the Sportsmen’s Alliance proclaims that: Forcing non-lead on hunters “unfairly burdens them economically.” And the National Shooting Sports Foundation contends that a ban on lead bullets would “reduce hunting and ammunition sales, and result in the loss of millions of conservation dollars.”

The opposition cherry-picks -- comparing, say, the most expensive .308 168-grain copper rounds with old, cheap lead ones like Core Lokt or Power Point. But when you compare like products today, prices are comparable. Furtman offers this: “Copper ammunition costs me about $1.50 more per box of 20 rounds compared to the premium lead ammo I used to use.”

According to the sources I quoted in my second paragraph, groups advocating non-lead bullets are plotting to “ban hunting” and “destroy America’s hunters, trappers, and anglers” while peddling the fiction that lead “poses a risk” to wildlife. There’s no supporting evidence. The North American Non-Lead Partnership (NANP), for example, is singularly bereft of such plotters and prevaricators.

NANP includes: The Peregrine Fund (founded by falconers), Oregon Zoo (which retains a hunting outreach coordinator), Midwest and Northeastern Associations of Fish Wildlife Agencies, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Oregon Hunters Association, Arizona Elk Society, Wisconsin Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, and Arizona Wild Turkey Federation, to mention just a few. All 46 partners represent hunters committed to protecting people and wildlife from plumbism by lead hunting projectiles.


Lead poisoned eagles undergo gastric lavage, otherwise known as stomach pumping, to flush ingested lead
fragments from the GI tract. Water is delivered through a tube passed down the esophagus into the bird's stomach.
Photo credits: bottom NPS. All others: Abe Baggins/Avian Haven.

Plumbism symptoms include anemia, loss of memory, depression, convulsions, brain deterioration, impotence, stillbirth, miscarriage, paralysis, kidney and liver damage. When lead is ingested or inhaled, the body mistakes it for calcium and beneficial metals, incorporating it into nerve cells, other vital tissues and bones. Lead collected in bones has a half-life of up to 40 years, so it bioaccumulates. Most people survive plumbism, albeit with diminished motor and cognitive function. Most wild animals succumb to starvation, disease, roadkill or predation.

Raptors and other scavengers come into rehab facilities with various stages of plumbism. Some gasp for air because their blood can no longer carry oxygen. They die quickly. Mild cases can be treated with injections of Calcium EDTA, the same medication used to flush lead from humans. Saving Our Avian Resources in Dedham, Iowa has a database of about 800 eagles. Of the roughly 40 percent with plumbism, about 60 percent had lead bullet fragments in their guts. The rest had ingested lead shot.

I won’t forget the day I watched a loon haul out onto our camp beach on Big Island Pond in southern New Hampshire. It quivered in my arms. It couldn’t hold up its head. Its ruby eyes grew dull. Then it died. It had mistaken lead shot and/or lead skinkers for the pebbles that loons pick up to help their gizzards grind fish.

And I won’t forget the day when my neighbor, Dr. Mark Pokras of Tufts University’s Wildlife Clinic in North Grafton, Massachusetts, opened a giant freezer and two dozen stiff bald eagles tumbled out around my feet. Most had been poisoned by consuming fragments of lead bullets.


Lead-poisoned eagles are often debilitated, weak, exhibiting
depressed mental activity and open-mouth breathing.
Photo courtesy of The Raptor Center, University of Minnesota

A study published in the February 17, 2022 issue of Science found that “almost half” of all bald and golden eagles sampled “had chronic, toxic levels of lead” that appeared “high enough to suppress population growth in both species.” In addition to eagles, thousands of other species are being sickened and/or killed by ingesting lead shot and bullet fragments.


The danger to wildlife posed by lead projectiles is hardly breaking news. George Bird Grinnell published this warning in his sporting weekly Forest & Stream: “Until they reach the gizzard where the wildfowl grinds his food, these pellets do no harm, but, when reduced to powder…they become a violent poison.” The year was 1894.

The media paid scant attention to human plumbism by bullet until 2007 when Midwestern states turned up fragmented lead in venison donated to the needy by the Safari Club’s “Sportsmen Against Hunger” program.

Acting on data collected by University of North Dakota medical professor Dr. William Cornatzer (a Safari Club member), the health departments of North Dakota and Minnesota impounded 17,000 pounds of donated, lead-impregnated venison.

Lead defenders then attacked Cornatzer’s integrity on grounds that he served on the board of The Peregrine Fund, which advocates copper bullets. He wasn’t plotting to ban hunting. It’s just that he basically opposed poisoning the poor.

Iowa requires this warning label on venison donated by hunters in the Help Us Stop Hunger program: “Lead fragments may be found in processed venison. Children under 6 years and pregnant women are at the greatest risk from lead.”

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services “recommends the use of non-lead ammunition as the simplest and most effective solution to lead poisoning, in both humans and wildlife, arising from the consumption of deer killed with lead ammunition.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture certifies commercial meat lockers. But neither it nor the Food and Drug Administration regulates lead in donated venison. The CDC reports: “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified. Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

NANP doesn’t limit outreach to plumbism by lead projectile. It also sponsors demonstrations in which copper and lead bullets are fired into plastic bags filled with 9 gallons of water and housed in plastic drums. Slugs and fragments fall to the bottom of the drums. You can Google a video of one such demo hosted by Allen Zufelt of the Arizona Game and Fish Department and NANP co-founder Chris Parish, President and CEO of The Peregrine Fund.

With his Savage Axis .30-06 rifle Zufelt fires a Federal Nosler AccuBond 180-grain lead bullet, then a 180-grain Federal Trophy Copper bullet. Parish retrieves and weighs the two mushroomed slugs. The copper slug weighs 179.9 grains. The lead slug weighs 137.5 grains, having shed and scattered 42.5 grains of fragments. Then Zufelt fires the same two rounds into ballistic gel. They create identical wound patterns, except the lead bullet infuses the gel with fragments.

Is Parish plotting to “ban hunting” and “destroy America’s hunters, trappers, and anglers”? Not hardly. The former scholarship football standout from Northern Arizona University refers to himself as a “high-tech redneck.” He’s a conservation biologist and lifelong hunter who has shot everything from ground squirrels to coyotes to birds to feral hogs to deer to elk.

Despite all the evidence that copper bullets are a no-brainer for hunting, turmoil still swirls about their use. This from Marge Gibson, founder of the Raptor Education Group, Inc. of Antigo, Wisconsin: “The lead-poisoning topic has erroneously mixed with gun control. Just this week on the REGI Facebook page, following a post of a lead-poisoned eagle, the comment section came alive with foul, aggressive and belittling language spawned by lead-poisoning deniers. Yesterday I got a phone call from an unnamed person telling me I needed to “watch my back.” Some calls are overt death threats. Others are promises to ‘burn our facility down.’” 


Bald eagle fatally poisoned by lead-bullet fragment.
Photo courtesy of Raptor Education Group, Inc., Antigo, Wisconsin

Parish explains the origin of some of the turmoil: “Back in the early 2000s the Peregrine Fund did a study in which we quantified rates of fragmentation in lead bullets. We shot 34 deer and X-rayed them whole, then the gut piles. Our research showed how scavengers like condors were vulnerable. I spoke at the California Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting, explaining where the lead was coming from -- up to 400 fragments in a gut pile. This was news to us as hunters and researchers, and we wanted to share it. I urged voluntary compliance, not regulation. I was so excited because here was an opportunity for us as hunters. We could have been responsible for the recovery of California condors. What a great win for hunters if we had pulled this off ourselves, another fine example of our conservation heritage.”


But the next thing Parish knew, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Humane Society of the United States, were using The Peregrine Fund paper to beat legislators over the head and threaten litigation. That’s why Governor Schwarzenegger signed the lead-ban bill. Because Parish had presented at the commission, The Peregrine Fund became known as the ban’s cause. Parish and his colleagues were called anti-hunters. They received death threats.

“I knew we had to do a better job -- more than just the science,” says Parish. “We had to shape a path towards a lasting solution. That’s what compelled me to co-found NANP.”

NANP promotes outreach, education, and voluntary hunter compliance. At least on Arizona’s Kaibab Plateau, there’s evidence that this can work. For more than a decade there’s been 87 percent annual participation by deer hunters using non-lead or removing lead-tainted remains from the field.

But given the fact that most U.S. hunters are still firing lead after 129 years of being bombarded with overwhelming evidence that it imperils themselves, their families, their game and non-game, I can’t agree that voluntary participation is the way to go.

Convincing Americans, especially hunters, to change something that works and that they’ve always done is a Sisyphean task. When I was writing about steel waterfowl shot for Gray’s in the 1980s I heard precisely the same arguments against change. Then-NRA president James Reinke proclaimed that “anti-gunners, attacking lead shot under the guise of environmentalism, have succeeded in gaining a beachhead.” Neal Knox of the Firearms Coalition called the 1991 lead-shot ban “the latest scalp in a well-organized, scarcely recognized series of flanking attacks upon the right to keep and bear arms.” And Miles Brueckner of Migratory Waterfowl Hunters Inc. announced that: “Someone’s getting wealthy on steel shot.”

I never understood why so many of my fellow hunters who railed against steel shot were fine with the annual depletion of their game supply by some 300,000 ducks and geese fatally poisoned by lead.

The National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service don’t advocate voluntary participation. In 2009 acting Park Service director, Dan Wenk, ordered a ban on lead bullets and fishing tackle “in NPS units where those activities are authorized.”

Wenk’s order has never been rescinded. But it has also never been implemented. There was too much blowback from the gun lobby, hunters and state game and fish agencies. Dr. Elaine Leslie, then the Service’s Chief of Biological Resources and the architect of Wenk’s order, told me this: “We did get all the parks on board that were doing wildlife reduction efforts to mandate using non-lead for elk, deer, feral hogs, etc. That is still working well. And some parks are good about dispatching [crippled and moribund] wildlife with non-lead, but I suspect for the most part a lot of it isn’t followed because there has been no communication in the past three years to emphasize the importance of this.”

In 2017 Obama’s Fish and Wildlife Service Director, Dan Ashe, issued a rule that, within five years, would ban lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle ingestible by birds on all 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management units.

One of the first actions by the Trump administration was to rescind Ashe’s order.

Then, on September 16, 2022 Biden’s Fish and Wildlife director, Martha Williams, imposed a ban that will phase out lead by 2026 on one national wildlife refuge (Patoka River NWR in Indiana) and not allow lead on new hunting opportunities on 18 others.

Meanwhile, there’s a bill, introduced by Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ), to ban lead ammo and fishing tackle on all land and water managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

But there’s also a bill, introduced by Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and 22 of his colleagues, to prohibit federal agencies from banning lead ammo and fishing tackle on public lands unless state game and fish agencies agree. Many won’t.

So the debate that started in 1894 still rages. Species like condors, other vultures, ravens, magpies, and raptors are still being fatally poisoned by lead shot and bullet fragments. And thousands of other species, game included, are still being weakened by lead to the point they succumb to starvation, disease, roadkill or predation.

Many of these species don’t have another 129 years.


re: Poison Bullets
By: Cindy Hildebrand on: 12/02/2023

I first worked on the lead shot issue in Iowa in 1981. A friend and I were Audubon members, and we volunteered, though we were novices, to represent our Audubon chapter and speak at a lead-shot hearing at the State Capital. I was so naive that I thought presenting science and facts and logic would mean victory. My friend and I spent a few hours doing library research. At the hearing, we presented prepared speeches and we handed in several pages of evidence. And then the opposition started talking. Mostly they said a few words each, off the cuff. And the words presented fairly simple ideas. "I like lead shot." "I want to keep using lead shot." "There's nothing wrong with lead shot." "I like using lead shot." "I'm sick of non-hunters trying to stop me from using lead shot." "I have a constitutional right to use lead shot." "I like lead shot." Seeing the opposition win, months later, began my real understanding of how state conservation politics can work. It also confirmed my determination to keep working on conservation issues as a volunteer, which I did. And it began my deep admiration for the people who keep pounding away on conservation issues, year after year after year, even when the odds of success may seem limited. I've been lucky enough to get to know some good people who do that. Among them are Ted Williams and Larry Stone. And my friend Sherry Dragula also kept working on conservation issues. Here's to all the people who keep working to end the stubborn selfish short-sighted brutality of using lead shot and lead fishing tackle. And to Sherry, who is no longer with us, you did much more than your share. Thank you.

re: Poison Bullets
By: Ted Williams on: 12/02/2023

Since Gray’s Sporting Journal doesn’t have a letters section, here are two we got. The second went into my All-time Favorite Letters to the Editor file. Dear Editor: "Poison Bullets" by Ted Williams has me of two minds. First, I absolutely believe the antl-hunting groups will use a lead bullet and lead shot prohibition as a steppingstone to eliminating sport hunting altogether. Therefore, I feel constrained in supporting their advocacy for such. Would I, as a hunter, not be shooting myself in the foot, so to speak? Williams points out that many of the groups calling for elimination of lead bullets are pro-hunting. Yet their voices are overwhelmed by the anti- hunting footprint of organizations such as The Humane Society of The United States. I simply cannot associate, even in passing, with an such organization. Yet on the other hand, I totally agree with Williams and the others that non-lead, monolithic bullets function just as well or even better than the traditional lead core jacketed bullets. I have proven that in my own experience. It took some range time, but I have found a copper bullet solution that shoots just as well in my primary hunting rifle as the lead bullets I shot for decades. Hunting with such bullets would not only eliminate the serious threat of unintentional ingestion of lead by raptors and humans, but it would also eliminate a growing threat to sport hunting as well. I don't feel my use of them will significantly affect the debate. So what is one to do? Williams in his excellent article lays out the problem and my conundrum quite clearly. But he fails to articulate or suggest a path to an equitable solution. Should I support the "Duckworth/Booker" ban lead everywhere bill? Or should one support Senator Daines's allow lead bill? I feel neither is the solution, but after reading the article I am left shaking my head in frustration. My sincerest congratulations to Ted Williams and your publication for such an excellent article which so clearly articulates an issue that hunters and sportsmen need to effectively address. I only wish a viable solution was more apparent. Thank you for allowing me to vent. John S. Duty Winchester, KS Ted Williams responds: Thanks for your nice letter, Mr. Duty. And sorry for not suggesting “an equitable solution.” If I knew one, I would have. Subject: Gray's Publishing Ted Williams Communist Junk Science Eco-Superstition Bullshit I was appalled to find that obnoxious Bolshevik represented in the latest Gray's peddling the crazy hoplophobic, ousiaphobic junk science anti-Lead Crusade. I'm 74 years old and I've hunted and fished and spent all sorts of time outdoors and I've never seen any critters deceased via Plumbism. I think there could be a remote chance that waterfowl in some very special locations, shot over for generations, might pick up shot pellets, but the chances of Ted Williams' unfortunate loon finding enough split shot to kill himself and gobbling it down, I'd say, resemble those of said loon winning the Irish Sweepstakes. I've myself have many times encountered a lead shot pellet in the rabbit, grouse, or pheasant I was dining on. I mostly spit them out, but I'm sure that I also missed a few. I've also handled lead a great deal, casting my own sinkers as a boy, and my own bullets as an adult handloader, and I've experienced no ill effects whatsoever. Winston Churchill had the largest lead soldier collection in Britain as a boy and cast and painted and handled thousands of them. If minor contact with lead really lowers people's IQ, Churchill's must have started somewhere in the Empyrean. I saw the notice that the left-wing excresence Williams years ago was published regularly in Gray's. I had completely forgotten why I had for years avoided subscribing. I quit the Atlantic Salmon Federation when they put him on their board. It's your magazine, but keep publishing that sanctimonious tree-hugging representative of the radical left and my guess is that I will not be the only reader not renewing his subscription. David Zincavage, Newtown, Connecticut Ted Williams responds: It is lovely to correspond with you again after all these years, Mr. Zincavage. Perhaps Lady Astor’s rebuke of Churchill for being “drunk” was unfair. Thank you for alerting us to the possibility that he merely suffered from plumbism. And I commend you for spitting out most of the lead pellets that enter your mouth. I hope the ones you missed have not exacerbated the “lassitude” you complained about in your previous letter.