The Magazine

Getting the Lead Out

Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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The Scrapbook was dimly aware that the U.S. Army was reengineering its ammo but still was taken aback to read that it took 15 years and an estimated $100 million to come up with a new 5.56 NATO round for our infantrymen. It cost so much and took so long because, you know, it’s not easy being green. Today’s bullet is lead-free—made from copper with a steel penetrator. 

Just Shoot Me

The search for a lead substitute began in 1995, funded by the Army Environmental Center. Their first thought was to switch to tungsten. Maj. John L. Plaster, U.S. Army (Ret.), writing last week in the American Rifleman, notes that a search of the development literature “did not yield a single document on terminal effects testing or any consideration of lethality. Accuracy was not cited either. It appears that the entire focus was on replacing lead.”

But there was a problem: $12 million and 3 million rounds into the program, somebody noticed that tungsten is as environmentally dangerous as lead. Back to the drawing board. In 2008, they tried an alloy of bismuth and tin. But then they noticed the bullets would often do silly things like fly sideways through their intended targets and end up in places other than where they’d been aimed. Bad luck.

Thus the copper bullet. The new cartridge does have better ballistics—at the expense of much higher chamber pressure. Which means the new round reduces the service-life of rifle barrels by about 50 percent.

Back in 2003, only $50 million into the program, the Army was offered the MK 318 SOST round, developed and still used by our special forces. As you’d expect, the special forces take things seriously, and their bullet had superior ballistics, could penetrate barriers reliably at longer ranges, and was more accurate. But it contained lead, and who wants that?

Of course lead has certain advantages—it’s heavy and cheap. So the new copper bullets take more of a costlier material. But hey, at least our enemies won’t get lead poisoning.

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