Lead Ban Chronicles – Are Copper Bullets A Wildfire Risk?

August 29, 2013

Lead Ban ChroncilesHere’s a thinker for ya… A friend shared a link to a column about how copper bullets pose a greater risk of starting wildfires than lead-core and jacketed bullets.

My initial response was to blow this off as more of the paranoia-mongering from the gun rights organizations.  But as I read the piece, it didn’t really incorporate most of the elements of propaganda I’ve become so familiar with in this discussion.  First of all, the author, Michelle Orrock, doesn’t appear to be writing as a member of a gun rights organization or a hunter advocacy group.  She’s an elected member of a community services district in Sacramento.  The district is responsible, among other things for fire safety planning.  Also, the piece doesn’t stray into the political arguments or spend time setting up or breaking down specious constructs.  She’s completely focused on one thing, the possibility that the lead ammo ban (AB711) could result in an increased risk of wildfires across a state that is annually ravaged by fire.  And you really have to understand this… in California and several other western states, wildfire is a real and significant concern.  In short, the more I thought about what I’d just read, the more I felt like Orrock’s concerns are sincere.

As reference, Orrock points to a research paper  released just this month by the US Forest Service.  Keep in mind that this study had nothing to do with the proposed lead ammunition ban.  It was initiated because several major wildfires over the past few years have been attributed to target shooters.  While there has been general agreement that the steel-core, military surplus ammunition has been the culprit, the Forest Service decided to test several different bullet types to see what the different risk levels were.  A surprising result is that the copper solid bullets (Barnes TSX) consistently achieved ignition in the test medium (oven-dried peat moss).  Here’s part of the Results section of the paper:

Bullet construction materials were important factors in producing ignition (Table 1) (Figure 2). The only type of bullet that consistently did not produce ignitions was made with a lead core and copper jacket, although a single ignition was observed from a Nosler partition bullet. Two other ignitions resulting from lead core and copper jacketed bullets occurred immediately after shots involving solid copper bullets and were probably undetected hold-over ignitions from that test given their location in the collector that coincided with large areas of smoldering peat (Appendix). Solid copper bullets were the most consistent in producing ignitions at all angles and all targets.

Of course, that snip from a 36 page report doesn’t provide much context, and I think context is the critical thing before we jump to conclusions and raise “fire danger” as the new, anti-AB711 rallying cry.

First, you have to look at the methods used in the experiment.  The researchers created a very specific set of conditions, including a very narrow range of temperature, relative humidity, and moisture content (of the peat).  Even the angle of the target (a steel sheet, and a section of granite counter-top) was critical in getting the results reported.  As any of those criteria went outside of the established parameters, the incidence of ignition went down.  The odds of a hunter’s bullet replicating those exact criteria in a way that results in wildfire are pretty slim… as evidenced by the fact that after seven years of lead ammo ban in the condor zone, there have been no reported fires caused by a hunter’s stray bullets.  I would say, based on what I read in that report, that those odds might increase for target shooters using copper bullets based on the simplistic fact that more shots equal more opportunities for ignition.

The paper dives pretty deeply into the physics involved in the transfer of energy from high velocity objects (bullets) to stationary objects (targets).  I won’t pretend to understand all of the math involved.  But the results were sort of eye opening.

I don’t necessarily think that this report, in itself, would provide strong grounds for blocking the passage of AB711 or other lead ammo bans, but I do think it is worth consideration.  As Orrock correctly points out, the speed at which this legislation is being pushed through the system pretty much negates any opportunity for deep review of possible unintended consequences.  At the very least, I would think more research would be valuable… if for no better reason than mitigating risk.

For anyone planning to leverage this information, either for discussion or as ammunition in the fight against AB711, I very strongly recommend reading the full report first.  At least you should know exactly what you’re talking about before you go off making it sound like every copper bullet is a potential wildfire.  I’m still not sure if it’s a valid argument or not.  What do ya’ll think?



2 Responses to “Lead Ban Chronicles – Are Copper Bullets A Wildfire Risk?”

  1. Mike C on August 29th, 2013 16:41

    Good grief.

    California wildfires are a serious business and every hunter should be aware of how easily they start and how difficult it is to extinguish. Every year I see on TV the anguish of the heartbroken homeowners whose homes and sometimes livestock have been destroyed by fire. Occasionally lives are lost.

    I have been handloading for the fall hunts only with expensive Barnes copper bullets and have pretty much shelved my lead core bullets indefinitely. I deliberately don’t use any of my black powder guns during the dry season because I am afraid of starting a fire that could ruin many lives and I consider myself a good steward of any hunting land that my feet stand on.

    Now this revelation.

    I suppose I should take up archery.

  2. Phillip on August 30th, 2013 08:00

    Mike, I hear ya. Seems like it never stops, huh?

    As far as shooting the smokepoles in CA, that was always a challenge for me too. I always wanted to take my 12ga double out for pheasants, but the risk of a burning wad setting the fields afire was a little more than I could stand.

    The bright side? Copper bullets are not new. They’ve been around for a couple of decades now, and have yet to be implicated in a wildfire. Is it a consideration? Of course it should be. But a piece of broken glass at the exact angle under the exact conditions can act as a magnifying glass and spark a fire too. Are we going to ban glass?

    I read something this morning, not related but totally relevant…

    For you and me, there’s a big difference between a slim chance and a strong likelihood. For scientists, however, any possibility is a 100% possibility. I think that’s applicable to much of the conversation about the lead ban.