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Lead-free pellets – how will the lead ban impact airgunning?

Jonathan Young explains what it might mean for airgun shooters if lead ammunition gets phased out, and describes best practice for using lead until such time that shooting becomes potentially lead-free

Lead alloy isn’t the only material that’s been used to make airgun ammo – these pellets have been made of lead, but with a copper outer layer

There has been talk for some time about the phasing out of lead in ammunition and going lead-free, but this is part of a drive to reduce lead pollution in general.

A press release issued by the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs back in March 2021 laid out the process for an official review, this being a two-year study.

At some time in the future a public consultation is promised on the proposals that will be arrived at for any options over restrictions.

The UK REACH initiative will seek to control toxic substances, this mind-numbingly bland title standing for Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals.

What does this mean for us? Nobody really knows if and how this will affect the airgunning community here in the years ahead, in particular our use of lead pellets. But logically it may well do so.

People in some quarters in the UK shooting scene are already advocating that shotgun ammo be lead-free. This is due more to the specific needs of game shooting, but it may mean that shotgun owners could have no choice in the matter, and already there is a strong push towards using non-lead. (Still on the fence? Read about why it’s important to try it and make up your own mind, or about the hard facts behind using steel shot).

In airgunning, we’ve had lead-free alternatives going right back to the 1980s. It was considered, however, that such ammo was too hard for low-power airguns, resulting in less than optimal performance.

Since then things have improved, especially when you consider most larger pellet-makers have lead-free alternatives. Personally I’ve always found lead is best, but others who have tried the new breed of lead-free pellets may have their own very different take on this.

We should all know that matching any airgun’s barrel to pellet ammo is a necessity for accurate airgun shooting. The different low kinetic propulsion of airgun systems, be they PCP, springer or CO2 gas, compared with even subsonic .22 LR rimfire rifles, means our pellets travel at far less speed before reaching the target.

Whilst many factors can affect accuracy, even minor flaws in barrel finishing can have a serious effect on accuracy from any given airgun.

That’s before age, wear and damage are taken into consideration. Swapping pellets and trying out others can mean the problem can worsen – or miraculously disappear. That’s why pellet-testing any airgun is vital to find optimal performance. This sifting process enables the best pellet to be chosen for that airgun, or more correctly, that specific airgun’s barrel. (For our advice on best pellets for your specific airgun, read more here).

Lead can be used to make ball ammo for CO2 guns, but there‘s a lead-free alternative in the shape of copper-coated steel

While not mandatory, it pays to prepare for a lead-free future, and here are a couple of tubs of lead-free ammo in the big .25 calibre

For years we have relied on the nature of lead for these specific needs. The thought of lead being replaced in the future is, at this moment in time, quite dramatic.

Whilst we wait to see how things develop, what can we do? Most people in airgunning should have realised that spreading refined lead pellets into their garden or shooting permission is simply not good for them or their land. We do forget sometimes that lead is toxic. We all know how many pellets we can use up in a pleasant backyard session, fired in concentration to the target area.

Lead ammunition has been around for decades and in numerous calibres, but who knows how much longer we’ll be able to keep shooting it?

Even if these lead-reducing proposals do not affect our hobby, there has never been any excuse for blasting half a tin of lead into trees, bushes or the garden vegetable patch. Nobody would be happy if they were buying veg at the supermarket grown on land soaked with arsenic or radioactive material.

We need to get a grip on this ourselves from within the hobby.

Having a natural, healthy garden and enjoying airgun shooting in it while using lead pellets can go safely hand in hand.

Most sensible people will already be shooting into some form of pellet-catcher, if only for safety reasons. Lead-free ammo has come a long way.

Let’s hope the manufacturers can come up with many more new alloy mixes, but whilst we are still buying lead it really doesn’t take much to be careful and more considerate when using it.

At home here, due to planning an organic cropping system from a very early stage, concerns over toxicity and safety ran parallel. Pellet-catching containers have been used to totally avoid any lead pollution in the garden.

The cabbages may not grow or taste any better, but they will be free of any residual effects from using lead pellet ammo. Smaller cardboard boxes with stout wooden backstops and larger wood cases made from scrap timber to house fun knockdown targets were assembled, all in an effort to stop all lead pollution.

Many other airgunners have been doing the same over their own concerns around lead pollution and without being asked. It’s really not difficult to use lead pellet ammo safely in all environments.

Slugs have had a bit of a revival lately, but like pellets they’ve been around for decades and are traditionally made from lead

Unless stalking while hunting, it’s preferable to always use some form of pellet-catcher for general shooting on a permission away from home. On one of mine some 14 years ago an old plastic pheasant feeder was adapted with a hacksaw to make a large rectangular opening in the lid.

This made a super pellet catcher, dragged up onto the permission and left safely in-situ. All that was needed each trip was some sticky tape and some paper targets. After a while the spent lead was emptied out into a container for safe disposal at home.

We need to be more aware and more careful in how we handle our lead ammo.

It’s too soon to tell if anything will happen to our beloved pellets, so some basic common sense is going to go a very long way. Right now, it’s just best to be really proactive.