Californias Dangerous Mandate: Non-Lead Hunting Ammo
California is phasing in the requirement that all big game hunting in the state be done with lead-free ammunition. This effectively limits us to brass or copper bullets. As effective as stuff like Barnes’ line of expanding monolithic copper bullets and Lehigh Defense’s line of Controlled Chaos expanding monolithic brass bullets are there are problems that haven’t been well explored. That’s a tragedy waiting to happen. By 2019 we’re supposed to be all non-lead in the Golden State. That’s progressive law making at its most stupid for you. There’s a reason lead was chosen when guns were invented. It’s the best metal for the job other than maybe GOLD and it’s way cheaper than gold and it’s not really as toxic as people think in its metallic state unless you have a thumb sucking habit and don’t know how to wash your hands.
Many years ago I performed as a demonstration shooter for Barnes during an event to promote their hunting bullets. We set up with my Browning BLR in .270 Winchester. I started out by getting a zero with the Barnes tipped ammo which shot 4 inches lower than my previous zero which was meant for Remington Core-Lokt ammo. We lined up 2 blocks of gelatin (not calibrated) that were 16 inches deep, 4 inches tall and 8 inches tall one after the next to give us a solid yard of penetration space. Behind the gelatin we placed 3 gallon jugs of water and behind that was a blue 55gal water barrel which was empty.
I aimed and touched off the first round of Remington CL 130gn from 35 yards. I needed to be able to make 2 shots on these blocks so I had to shoot one half very carefully so the other side would be intact for the 2nd shot. The bullet entered the lead block centered very well on the target sticky we’d placed on the face. Penetration was just a hair shy of 24 inches and was generally straight and true. The permanent cavity opened up quickly and by 6″ was at maximum diameter and maintained that through to nearly a foot before tapering right back down. Bullet upset was thorough with a nice complete mushroom. There was no lack of fragmentation but it wasn’t severe. Given the high impact velocity it’s not surprising that the bullet performed as it did. It’s almost a little surprising that with a 3000fps strike speed the bullet didn’t come completely apart but I’ve learned over the years using Remington’s green box of death that they’re surprisingly tough for a bullet that’s otherwise completely non-special.
Up comes the Barnes offering. The bullet was of the tipped variety and the same weight class as the lead core shot. Touching the rifle off felt no different as you’d expect. The bullet struck right where it was supposed to and the shot was nicely placed down the axis. The bullet penetrated the same depth before the fact that the rear block buckled up in the middle allowed the bullet to escape through the top. After leaving the gelatin it sailed through about 8 inches of free air before striking the gallon jugs full of water. It completely penetrated the top all 3 jugs then penetrated the blue plastic water barrel and had enough boot-scootin’-boogie left to skip off the hard flat ground of the prairie we were on 3 times before I lost sight of it. The last of the dirt puffs from the bullet skipping like a flat rock on water was around 150 yards from the firing line. The wound cavity was very pretty and had that perfect winding look that comes from a X shaped cross section bullet spinning through the target. The bullet appears to have expanded pretty quickly around 3 inches was where things got properly noticeable. The cavity grows substantially from 3-6 inches and holds until about a foot through before it really starts to reduce in cross sectional volume. It’s not as wide as the lead core bullets cavity but it’s much more visually attractive.
To be fair and because it’s important, the gallon jugs didn’t get a full hit each. Well, the first one did. That hit was just above center on the jug. The 2nd jug was hit about 3.5inches below the cap. The final jug was hit maybe 2 inches below the top. The first jug was a full hit. The other two between them were about 3/4 of a hit inasmuch as the amount of energy dumped into them wasn’t as much as it could have been. It was still a lot. Having the energy of at least something on the order of a 9mm at the muzzle after doing all that is a little worrisome. After all it still had enough poop to bust through a 55gal polymer water barrel which while empty was pretty thick after it had already busted through my first set of backstops. The bullet of course was not recovered but it appeared to have lost a tiny bit of mass as we found little flecks of copper in the wound track in the gelatin.
Consider this: Barnes bullets are game killers. They work. That said they over-penetrate like mad and the fouling issue is still an issue with many guns despite the marketing rhetoric. I think a little attention to re-working their alloys for specific applications might be beneficial. One, it’ll let them make the bullets a little more fragile, a little more prone to expansion. There’s plenty of room for that still. Two, the bullets they make will be really hard to beat once some of the minor gripe issues are dealt with.
Now to harp on the over-penetration thing a bit. California’s woods are CROWDED. I mean seriously crowded. During deer season it’s hard to find a spot to throw up a tent much less a good hunt area someone else hasn’t beaten the brush to death on already. Getting deeper into the woods is not much of an option because it doesn’t help. In fact it kinda makes matters more complicated in a lot of respects. Day hunters certainly can’t do that and they make up most of the people that live near the hunting grounds. It’s entirely unfair to tell these people in what are uniformly economically depressed areas that in order to stock their freezer with meat that they, who live there, that they don’t have the right to hunt because everyone else lives farther away so they take 2 weeks off and have all the time in the world. It’s interesting to me that the out of town-ers that show up with all this time on their hands then take the closest campsite to the highway that they can find. You’d think that if you have the week or two you’ll be more willing to spend a couple days of it walking in and leave the day-hunt area to the locals and those that don’t have so much time set aside.
With crowded woods like we have we also have an epic amount of nighttime road hunters and just plain ol’ poachers and we have an unending abundance of both legal and illegal pot grows. The pot farmers shoot the deer eating their plants, the road hunters fill the night air with bullets and noise and spotlights, the poachers riddle areas with bullets that you might not expect bullets to be and all of that was more or less something that could be dealt with until the requirement for lead-free bullets. Now with the poachers poaching and the pot farmers depredating and the road hunters spotlighting we’ve got a much larger problem on our hands because the only ammo out there over-penetrates like mad and has a much higher capability of finding a downrange target that really didn’t need that particular bullet. You know, downrange targets like hunters sleeping in their tent, hunters sitting on a hillside, hunters being outside hunting. There’s also people who build their homes in the woods and they’re now at greater risk because of a law that’s based on the desire to preserve a species that has been effectively extinct for 30 years. Well done California. Not only did you endanger hunters more than they already are but you’ve endangered everyone that happens to be around the deer grounds far more than they were before. And what benefit do we get for this, one of the last of the American megafauna will go extinct with the rest of them. Just like every other species ever on the Earth has done and every one currently on the Earth will eventually do.
When it wasn’t a mandate I was fine. Many hunters liked then and still use monometal bullets preferentially, especially Barnes bullets, before the mandate. Many but not nearly a majority. With a variety of ammo types out there the risk of going afield and hunting seemed more like a roll of a 20-sided die than the flip of a coin. With the mandate and the ridiculous behavior of Californians it’s a lot more like a coin flip and I can’t any longer bring myself to hunt on public lands in California where lead-free is mandatory. Private land is fine because that’s obviously a more tightly controlled area with a low density of hunters and other humans. Public land is no longer an option for me though and I can’t help but think that that was part of the original motivation behind the rule.
Thanks to the insane granularity which political power in California has been disseminated we now have a system of governance in the Golden State that is no less than functioning anarchy. That’s a lot like a functioning alcoholic or a functioning child molester. Just because it appears to get some of what could objectively be called work done doesn’t mean it’s not just completely fucked up and wrong and is certainly no indication that it’s a single damned bit useful at accomplishing the job it has to do.
I’m all for protecting the environment and avoiding the extinction of species so long as there’s a cost:benefit ratio that makes sense. In the case of the condor, they went effectively extinct in the 80’s and they’d long been on their last legs. We have their successor species in fantastic numbers and that species doesn’t require such giant meals as a condor. That species is the common turkey vulture. People that cry about biodiversity and say there’s no having a middle ground are engaging in a very expensive form of sentimentality and crushing the rights of others for spurious reasons. I have one question for those that think the millions wasted on the condor is money well spent: How would you feel about extincting something like the malaria parasite? They both serve the same amount of function to humanity and the environment: NONE AT ALL. If you’d be ok with extincting the malaria parasite, why is it so wrong to extinct the condor? Special pleading is antithetical to a useful argument and so we have to now face the question of how we decide and who decides. So far it’s been by bureaucratic fiat and that’s not liable to work for too long.