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Hands Up or I'll Fill You Full of Non-Toxic Gilding Metals

The BBC reports that Scandinavian militaries are completely switching their bullets from lead slugs to a greener concoction (likely copper and tin) that is just as deadly to the enemy but kinder to the environment and the shooter. While the Beeb’s Angus Carter suggests this might “sound like a macabre joke,” getting the lead out of ammo has a lengthy pedigree in two arenas that fire lots of bullets, hunting and soldiering.

While groundwater contamination is usually cited by the military, preserving wildlife lies behind lead-free hunting rounds. Not far from the home of Pacific Standard, for example, the California condor often snacks on carcasses created when hunters hit an animal but don’t, or can’t, retrieve the body. The lead from too much lead-filled scavenging slowly poisons the condors, upsetting the lengthy and costly effort to save the species. California has banned lead bullets in counties the condors call home, but hasn’t passed a state-wide ban.

Whether its raptors in Minnesota or, as we reported earlier, swans in the Northwest, similar concerns about lead in bullets and buckshot have spawned mostly failed legislation to require unleaded ammo alongside a fairly robust private effort to make the switch. While the non-toxic rounds are generally more expensive than lead ones, they also tend to get the job done, which is probably why a majority or hunters answering an unscientific survey of deerhunters at Field and Stream earlier this year said that would use non-toxic ammo if it were cheaper and just as effective.

At the Pentagon, while cost may not always be the primary driver, effectiveness often is. The U.S. Army has shipped tens of millions of copper 5.56mm bullets to Afghanistan, officially calling it the “enhanced performance round” but dubbing it the “green bullet.” As Lt. Col. Jeffrey K. Woods wrote for an Army magazine (‘soft targets,’ by the way, refer to human beings):

“While it's true that a number of bullets (such as armor-piercing bullets) can penetrate hard targets well, they don't provide the needed effects against soft targets. Conversely, some bullets (such as hunting rounds, hollow-point, and other bullets) work well against soft targets but can't penetrate harder barriers. Nor do hollow points meet the Army's requirement to adhere to the Law of War … Even today, we have found no other round-other than the new EPR-that can outperform the [old bullet] as a capable, general-purpose round.”

The Army started shipping these bullets to Afghanistan in 2010, while the Swedes, for one, started introducing non-toxic rounds as far back as 1995. Maybe its not as popular a crusade as ridding militaries of depleted uranium, but it is a relatively easy way to reduce collateral damage.