This is a guest report from Mike Conboy on the subject of handling lead safely. I will comment at the end of his report.

If you’d like to write a guest post for this blog, please email me at [email protected].

Take it away, Mike.

Getting off lead
By Mike Conboy

This report covers:

  • Background 
  • Lead pellet standard operating procedure
  • |How does one deal with hazards? 
  • Dedicated lead guns
  • Quality of unleaded ammunition
  • Direct cost of unleaded in different calibers
  • Other ammo
  • Peripheral costs and savings of unleaded
  • Barrel wear from unleaded
  • Energy, ballistics and unleaded
  • Tuning guns to shoot unleaded
  • In conclusion
  • BB’s comments

Background 

I am a scientist at a big university, and with training I get to work with dangerous things like radioactivity, lasers, biohazards, toxins and such. It is very important that I work safely, or I could die.  Today I’ll share some experience and expertise on the lead hazard in general and shooting non-lead pellets in particular.

periodic table
Periodic table. See the enlarged section below.

Periodic table zoom
This is a zoom in on today’s guests, lead (Pb) and tin (Sn).  Their cousins Bismuth and Antimony are also very relevant for bullets. Used by creative commons license from sciencenotes.org

Most everyone recognizes that firearms are dangerous but people still like to shoot firearms, and so we have this idea of firearm safety: a way of handling or doing something dangerous to minimize the risks.  Standard safety protocols typically list something like:

1. Avoid the hazard where possible in the first place.

2. Have some idiot-proofing, some engineering to make it safer to handle.

3. Have a safety protocol, and 

4. Wear some kind of protective gear. 

With firearms, the biggest action to make it safer is to not handle the firearm at all. We see this as locking up the gun so it can’t be handled by kids either accidentally or on purpose, waiting periods to buy guns and gun-free zones [Ed. such as all federal buildings like Post offices]. No gun = no gun hazard is logically true, if perhaps unAmerican.

Engineered safety features run from the safety switch on the gun [Ed. if there is one.], to the lanes at a gun range to how the gun and ammo are designed in the first place — for example, cartridges with bullets versus loose black powder and a lead ball.

Safety protocols would include controlling access to the gun, keeping it pointed in a safe direction, always assuming it is loaded, not loading until shooting, finger off the trigger until taking the shot, etc.

The protective gear would be the earplugs, eye-protection and body armor. Why not? 

I won’t get into it here (unless you ask), but the numbers show there is a far greater cumulative hazard for people from lead exposure than from getting shot by firearms. If you take gun safety seriously because it is hazardous, and you knew there was another, greater hazard, then you might want to take that one seriously too. I decided to do so, and so here are some suggestions.

1. While there are safer ways to handle lead ammo, arguably the safest is, where practical, to replace it with unleaded ammo, such as steel BBs, tin pellets and airsoft. 

2. If lead pellets are to be used, they should be handled as hazardous material, per standard safe handling protocol or guidelines from shooting associations such as JROTC or USAS. Briefly, this includes engineered controls to contain the lead, safe handling procedures including personal and range hygiene, protective gloves and clothing, and collecting the waste for proper disposal and recycling.

This is simple, and does not require banning lead.

Lead Pellet Standard Operating Procedure

This is right out of every standard safety training I’ve had for a few decades now, and will look very similar to anyone who has done any kind of dangerous job such as electrical, automotive, carpentry, heights/scaffold, and such. Or shooting. This is the same as policy at USA Shooting or JROTC programs. [Ed. WordPress won’t allow the link, but search on Lead Safety JROTC and you will land on a page where GUIDE TO LEAD MANAGEMENT FOR AIR GUN SHOOTING is the top hit.

What are the lead pellet hazards? They are from ingestion. Lead is not absorbed through the skin, but from handling pellets and pellet fragments, cleaning leaded barrels and transferring some of that to your mouth, or eating food contaminated with lead; THAT exposes you. With airguns, shot exposure is limited to just in front of the muzzle and the target.  Remember that when you clean out the pellet trap; look up the Ted Bier (a fellow scientist!) Youtube video where he wears an N95 mask, gloves and eye protection for that chore!

How does one deal with hazards? 

Have a solid program that minimizes the exposure. AND COMPLY WITH YOUR PROGRAM!

a. The safest option is to not use the hazard at all.  Shoot unleaded ammo when practical. More on that later.

b. Use engineering to separate you from the hazard, like a pellet pen, a pellet trap, or even the copper coated lead pellets. 

c. Protocol! Have a plan and stick with it, from handling to clean up, no eating and drinking, wash hands frequently and especially after shooting!

Collect contaminated lead waste (pellets, targets, cleaning patches), so it doesn’t get strewn about the yard, tracked into the home, or eaten by kids, pets or wildlife. Dispose of fired lead pellets and fragments responsibly, like to your reloading neighbor, or recycle! You’ll look way cooler in line at the metal scrap yard than the guys carrying dead car batteries.

d. And the last line of defense is the gloves and shooting clothing that protects you from transferring lead to your mouth, your house and others. The gloves aren’t to protect you from absorbing lead through your fingers, as it isn’t absorbed that way. The gloves serve as a tactile reminder not to pick your nose while shooting. Dedicated shooting clothes protect you from when you rub your shirt and pants with lead contaminated fingers or gloves. Do you ever carry pellets loose in your pocket? Do you think any rubs off on the fabric? Pull that pocket inside out if you need proof. Later on, do you remember which pocket when you slip in a pack of gum? Probably not, right? So, either have a protocol that forbids pellets and contaminated fingers from touching clothing, or wear dedicated shooting clothes.

e. If you do a lot of shooting and/or don’t practice a lot of safety, maybe get your blood tested once in a while.  It can at least tell you if more work needs to be done.

Dedicated lead guns

The idea is to you shoot unleaded when you can, and shoot lead when you need to. In .177 and .22 unleaded pellets are many. In .25 there are currently only two options, and you’re SOL (shooting only lead) in the bigger calibers. Shooting lead and unleaded from the same gun is possible, but with all the extra cleanings and confusions, maybe dedicated lead guns are worth the extra guns. That’s my story and I’m sticking with it! Keeping safe with lead could be a major additional expense, or… it could be that excuse you needed for yet another gun and accessories!

Shop New Products

Quality of unleaded ammunition

While there are some unleaded pellets that I’ve found to be inaccurate garbage, Skencos with plastic sabots in particular, most seem to actually be very well made: consistent weights, sizes and generally lacking dents and deformations. Part of that might be because the tin metal is harder than soft lead and the skirts don’t crush when the box of pellets is dropped from on high to your doorstep. I’ve found it pretty easy to find accurate-enough unleaded pellets for all my guns in .177 through .25 caliber, as long as I accept they won’t shoot as far as lead. More on that later.

pellet assortment
These are some unleaded tin pellets that shoot well enough from my guns. Bottom row: .177 GTO wadcutters 5.3 grains, H&N Field Target Trophy 5.7 grains, Barracuda Green 6.6 grains, GTO 6.8 grains; second row up: .22 Winchester MVP 8.4 grains, .22 H&N FTT 10 grains, .22 Sig Sauer Zero 11.8 grains (note the ineffective hollow point), .22 Baracuda Green 12.4 grains; third row: .25 GTO 16.5 grains, Barracuda Green 20 grains; Top row .30 33 grain home-cast.  

Direct cost of unleaded in different calibers

At pre-pandemic prices, .177 unleaded pellets ran around a penny per grain weight, .22 cost just under a penny a grain and .25 a little less per grain. That translates per pellet to around 5 cents in .177, a dime for .22 and 15 cents for .25. In comparison, typical lead pellets run around 1/3 the price. Considering commodity tin costs 10 times as much as lead, maybe the price of tin pellets is not so bad?

lead prices
Lead prices

tin prices
Tin is 10 times the cost of lead, while tin pellets are only 3 times as much.

Other ammo

Steel BBs are a lot cheaper and they are definitely unleaded. Airsoft is even cheaper than that: they run 1/100 cent per round, and 1/30 cent for biodegradable. Plastic is cheaper than metal, duh. When I’m just plinking around, I shoot BBs. It is actually cheaper in the end to buy extra dedicated BB guns and shoot BBs than to shoot unleaded from a pellet gun all the time. 

Peripheral costs and savings of unleaded

There are additional costs of unleaded pellets, and some savings, beyond the cost of the actual ammo.  Since the ballistics of unleaded is worse than lead and tin doesn’t expand, depending on what you are trying to shoot, apples to apples might reflect the costs above, but squirrels to squirrels might have you shoot unleaded pellets in one caliber larger than lead, which almost doubles again the direct cost! That may or may not mean a more expensive gun, which may or may not be a welcome addition! On the other hand, as the range of each caliber is reduced, one might not need as much optics. For example, since my .177 won’t shoot unleaded with any umph past 25 yards anyway, I don’t need a fancy scope, maybe just an open or a peep sight.

Other peripheral savings of unleaded depend on how you would handle lead. If you do nothing special besides washing your hands, then there are no immediate savings, and any estimates of your long term health costs would be beyond the scope of this report. If you treat lead as advised by the national shooting authorities (cleaning the target and firing line, dedicated clothing, gloves, trapping fired pellets), then that all adds some cost. A box of 100 nitrile gloves costs $20, or 40 cents a pair, and if a pair is used for 100 shots that would be 0.4 cents per shot. If we round up to a penny to include laundry and time costs… well, lead is still much cheaper. If one considers unleaded to be non-toxic enough to handle while eating, drinking, scratching an itch, petting the dog, bouncing a baby, and whatever else while shooting, not to mention being accepted by your local eco-hippy community, then we see that there is an added quality of life value to shooting unleaded. What that is worth to you, is up to you, and probably depends on how much trouble you would go though to shoot lead safely.

Barrel wear from unleaded

There have been questions about increased barrel wear with unleaded ammo, but I haven’t found any measurements of this, no hard data.  I do note that while tin (Mohs <1.8) is softer than steel (Mohs >5), tin oxide is harder (Mohs >6), so if material comes off tin pellets and oxidizes, it could abrade steel. Tin starts to oxidize at temperatures over 150C (~300F) and/or high pressures, which are briefly found in the breech. A brass barrel (Mohs >3) is only a little harder than tin. I would test unleaded pellets in one of those brass barreled Benjamin rifles, but for the ethics of experimenting on such a fine gun…

I’ve shot a few thousand unleaded rounds through a soft steel barreled Seneca Dragonfly (and I have the arms to prove it), and find it is still getting smoother and more accurate. My best guess is that for the vast majority of shooters, barrel wear won’t be an issue; something else will break before the barrel wears out.  Will a competitive shooter putting ten times as many down the pipe see wear? I don’t know, you tell me! [Ed. Some airgun clubs have estimated over one million shots through their shared target rifles.]

Energy, ballistics and unleaded

In general, lead is 50% heavier than tin, and doing the math the other way, tin is 2/3 the weight of lead.  A .25 Baracuda Green weighing 20 grains and looks the same shape as a 30-grain lead Baracuda.  Unleaded dome-type pellets often have a magnum or heavy shape. I guess it is because they want to pack as much weight into the unleaded pellet, but I find the shorter, squat pellets like Predator GTOs and wadcutters can be quite accurate, if light. Energy-wise, assuming the velocities are the same, an unleaded .22 pellet is similar in energy to a lead .177, and an unleaded .25 is similar to a lead .22. It is argued that for hunting, since unleaded pellets don’t expand like lead, to plan on hole-size damage only unless you hit bone. For small pests at closer ranges, the .177 may still be fine. For larger pests a .22 may be needed at what was your lead .177 distance. A more rapid loss of energy over distance may be good in that there is less risk to innocent objects downrange, but as it comes from the loss in velocity, it may cause accuracy issues at distance. I find my unleaded pellets tend to become inaccurate by about two-thirds the distance of lead.  

Tuning guns to shoot unleaded

Unleaded will shoot at higher velocity in many guns, although the terminal energy is usually less than with lead. Unleaded is easier to overspeed to trans-sonic, so magnum type guns may do better in the bigger calibers on the same power plant platform; all this has been observed before for lead pellets. BB Pelletier mentioned this a few times that lighter pistons favor lighter pellets. I have found that springers with heavy top hat weights at the piston end of the spring, shoot unleaded better and with less piston slam when the top hat is removed or swapped for a lighter one. It also removes a little spring preload. I tried this to good effect on a Browning 800 pistol, the Hatsan Model 25 clone of the same, a Beeman/Wally-World dual caliber, and a Diana 250; these are in both .177 and .22.  

In conclusion

Weigh the costs and benefits. Lead and unleaded each have their issues and merits. Weigh the ammo costs, gun costs, handling and cleanup costs, and changes to your quality of life. Consider what you use your airguns for, and what you want them to do. Finally, don’t ignore lead hazards just because you don’t like them! Some people don’t like gravity either, but ignore it and you die. If you shoot, please take all reasonable precautions.

Thank you for reading!

BB’s comments

I thought I would have something to say after reading the remark about body armor for shooters, but after reading this entire report I understand what the author is saying. I also appreciate a dry bit of humor, now and again. Thank you, Mike, for a fine report