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What’s the accuracy of lead-free bullets?

Bruce Potts offers some advice to a reader about lead-free bullet accuracy and answers some other questions about this type of load.

lead-free bullets

There are many types of lead-free .22 centrefire bullets available, but you must ensure they stabilise in your barrel's rifling twist rate

Lead-free ammunition is definitely making its presence felt and I am increasingly hearing from readers who have concerns about lead-free bullets and accuracy. Here’s an example of just one such question.

Lead-free bullets and accuracy

Q: Will my .243 Win rifle shoot lead-free bullets accurately if lead is banned?

A: Accuracy and terminal ballistic issues from switching to lead-free bullets, and the implications to shooters here in Britain, are posing a problem.

It is important to understand that lead-free bullets have characteristics that will influence how well your rifle will shoot them.

Weight for weight, a lead-free bullet of the same weight and calibre will be longer because copper (lead-free) is lighter than lead. This means rifle barrels need a faster twist rate to stabilise these bullets. Your rifle, while accurate with a lead-cored bullet, may not stabilise a lead-free one.

The 6mm or .243 is a case in point. A lead Nosler Ballistic Tip of 90gr is 1.0785in long with an ogive to base length of 0.6055in and 0.5045in of bearing surface. The same weight 90gr lead-free Nosler E-Tip is 1.1805in long with an ogive to base length of 0.7245in and bearing surface of 0.6445in.

In bullet terms, that’s a big 
difference, resulting in stability and therefore accuracy issues, as well as more fouling.

More FAQs on lead-free bullets

Q: I use a Sako .223 Mod 85 Carbolight for foxes and small species of deer, and I now want to use lead-free bullets for the deer species. I reload and wonder if you have any recommendations?

A: Thankfully you are in luck as there are many types of lead-free .22 calibre centrefire bullets available to you. But you must use no less than a 50-gr bullet that achieves at least 1,000ft/lb of energy for small species of deer.

You also need to look at which bullets will stabilise in your barrel’s rifling twist rate. Too many people forget that you cannot simply change from the same weight in lead-cored standard bullets to lead-free ones, as the latter are always longer and may not stabilise. It’s very important as some of the longer polymer-tipped .22 centrefire bullets of 55-gr or over will not stabilise in a 1-in-12 rifling twist rate; you will need 1-in-10 minimum or better.

Even some of the 50-gr bullets are a bit too long, so as always you need to try a box of factory-loaded ammunition or reloads to see if they stabilise in your rifle. Your Sako Carbonlight has a 1-in-8 twist barrel so you should be fine with all the .22 calibre lead-free bullets from Barnes Peregrine, Nosler or Hornady.

Lead-free .22 rimfire ammunition

Q: I believe there is now lead-free .22 rimfire ammunition available. Have you tried it yet?

A: I am in the process of testing the CCI lead-free and Norma/RWS lead-free .22 rimfire ammunition for accuracy, down-range trajectories and performance in ballistic media.

The CCI uses a 21-gr hollowpoint compressed copper and polymer bullet, which has a velocity of 1,850fps capable of developing 160ft/lb energy. It is designed for target or game shooting.

The Norma non-lead rounds are available in Eco Speed or Eco Power. The former is a 24-gr flat-nosed zinc/copper bullet, which has a velocity of 1,706fps and 155ft/lb energy, while the latter is a 24-gr hollowpoint zinc/copper bullet, which is designed to expand for sporting use.

RWS produces the new High Velocity Green .22 rimfire round, which is a 24-gr flat-nosed zinc/copper bullet identical to the Norma Eco Speed. The Norma cases have a RWS head stamp because RWS manufactures them.

Because these bullets are all lead-free, they are much lighter than lead bullets and have a high velocity. This makes them noisy, even with a sound moderator, something to bear in mind if deciding to use them.

Debating non-toxic ammunition

I have written about the pros and cons of lead-free bullets in detail here.

The debate about the eco-friendliness of non-toxic ammunition continues. Lead-free .22LR ammo makes a lot of sense because a vast quantity of lead ammo is shot every year. The trouble is the alternatives to lead are usually a lighter metal – for example, compressed copper as in this new CCI ammo – and is therefore much faster than standard 40gr .22LR ammo.

Over my chronograph the lead-free CCI ammo achieves a velocity of 1,842fps. This makes it loud and, in my guns, it is not particularly accurate. Due to the light 21g bullet weight, it loses energy quickly – from muzzle to 30 yards the velocity dropped from 1,842fps to 1,564fps.

This article was originally published in 2020 and has been updated.