Primary Arms

Ammunition 'Goes Green'...


A few days ago, Secretary of the Interior Michael Zinke rescinded a ban of lead-based ammunition use on Federal lands. The ban was a ‘parting shot’ by the outgoing Obama administration. While the idea is noble, the move reeked of political partisanship and not a true interest in environmental issues. However, the ban did bring to the forefront the concept of ‘green’ ammunition once again…

The “green” revolution has been with us for a few decades now. Recycling, organic food, locally-raised/grown this-and-that, electric cars, LEED buildings, and yes, ammunition…

Face it, lead isn’t the most environmentally-friendly substance around. How toxic it is, is the subject of endless debate between environmentalists and non-environmentalists alike. Regardless, the build-up of lead and other harmful elements at shooting ranges is an indisputable fact.

One cartridge in and of itself doesn’t contain a lot of lead and other potentially-harmful elements and compounds. But multiply that over the hundreds of thousands, and things start to add up. I’m certainly not a hardcore greenie, but I don’t relish the thought of massive amounts of lead, antimony, and so on embedded in a hill near my drinking water.

Indoor ranges don’t have that issue, of course, since their bullet traps contain the projectiles for later removal and recycling, but outdoor ranges have to undertake an arduous process of bulldozing out their berms and having the detritus from that process trucked away, usually on a yearly basis depending on volume. Also, the discharge of firearms, even in well-ventilated areas, subjects the user to potentially inhaling toxic lead and nitrate vapors. Mmmm…nitrates.

Alchemist Ammo

In it’s roots, the firearms scene in the US is partially composed of sportsmen and hunters. And the initial name of the game in modern hunting has always been conservation. The hunters I know happen to be some of the more environmentally-minded people out there. They take only what they can consume, they clean up after themselves, and enjoy the scenic beauty of our nation’s wilderness areas. With that in mind, the ammunition manufacturers in the US responded with various flavors of ‘green’ ammunition. “Clean Fire”, “KleenFire”, that sort of thing. The projectiles were typically made from copper, tungsten and other less-toxic metals, and the propellants were adjusted accoringly. The initial uptake was low, mainly due to cost and performance. Green ammunition often cost twice as much as it’s lead-based counterparts, and had a reputation for reliability issues.

Science marched on though. Newer manufacturing techniques such as sintering and cold welding have led to something of a resurgence in green ammunition. And yes, the threat of yet more regulations from the EPA have had ammunition manufacturers reviving the concept. Even the military has gotten into it, with the introduction of the 5.56mm M855A1 round, the replacement for the venerable M855 62gr load that has served our troops since Vietnam.

Most of the big manufacturers have gotten back into the green game in a big way. Speer has it’s line of Lawman CleanFire training ammunition. While the projectile is a traditional copper-jacketed lead one, the propellants and primers are composed of less-toxic compounds. Winchester has their Super Clean line, with environmentally-friendly propellants and a tin-based projectile. Smaller firms like Alchemist Ammunition (pictured above) utilize clean propellants and compressed copper projectiles. Alchemist also offers a variety of ammo called Z-Clean, which uses a zinc-based projectile.

Should I go green?

That is the question, of course. There’s some pros, and there’s some cons.


  • Green ammunition is typically lighter than it’s lead-based counterparts. A 90-grain zinc projectile has comparable ballistics to a 115-grain lead-based one, for example. In the field, ounces become pounds, so carrying the same amount of ammo, but with less weight, can be important.

  • Green ammunition is well, green. Regardless of your feelings on environmentalism, repeated exposure to lead and other compounds present in ammunition isn’t a good thing. There’s a reason most professional ranges blood-test their employees yearly - lead buildup in the bloodstream has negative effects. A well-ventilated range can keep their employees safe from lead exposure, but quality air scrubbers can cost over a million dollars. Some ranges have gone another route, and instead mandate that only green ammunition be used in their facilities.

  • Green ammunition is typically made from other compounds not normally used in ammo production. While the EPA hasn’t issued blanket bans on lead ammunition, it is good to have alternative production methods. If one method becomes prohibitive to do, another method should be available. The Feds ban lead ammo entirely in some bizarro-world move? Better have a mass-produced alternative.


  • Cost. Green ammunition can cost up to twice as much as it’s lead-based counterparts. 50 rounds of lead-based 9mm FMJ ammunition costs around $12 if you know where to look. It’s fully-green equivalent can cost around $20. That being said, I’ve seen Z-Clean in 9mm for $14. Costs are coming down.

  • Reliability. Some older green ammunition had reliability issues. Failure to feed, failure to eject, and so on. Sometimes the compounds used to make the projectile deform under stress and improperly hit the feed ramps on your rifle, for example. Jam city. Buyer beware, basically.

  • Risk of ricochet increases. Some of the metals used in green ammunition are harder than lead, and that can lead to an increase of ricochet risk. The ammo will typically warn the user of this, if it is a problem though.

  • Frangibility. Some of the copper-based green ammo is of the ‘frangible’ variety, i.e. it will disintegrate when it strikes a hard object. This is actually a pro when in a close-quarters training situation as the ammo will not ricochet or overpenetrate. Some ‘shoot-house’ setups require this specifically, due to the close-in nature of the training. However, some varieties of frangible ammo are a little too frangible and will fly apart in your gun’s barrel. At the least, chunks of misshapen metal are flying down range. The bigger risk is damage to the firearm, suppressor (if used) and hazard to people around the operator. Again, buyer beware.

  • Penetration/lethality. A lot of ‘green’ bullets designed for self-defense, i.e. hollow-points, have issues with penetration, where the bullet itself is subject to fragmenting and breakup upon contact with the target. If the bullet fragments, it is less likely to deliver an incapacitating wound. Definitely, buyer beware. Lucky Gunner has excellent ballistics reporting, including a few ‘green’ loads.

OK, where can I get some?

You’ve made the decision to go green. If you’ve evaluated your situation and green makes sense, pick some up at:

Lucky Gunner. They have a strong selection of all types of ammunition, including green. Full disclosure, I’m an LG affiliate so each purchase via my link helps support this site.

Clark Armory. Clark Armory specializes in green ammunition. If it’s green, they have it.

Mass Ammo. Mass Ammo stocks the usual array of traditional ammunition, with a decent selection of green ammo, including Z-Clean.

Just a quick note.

I know the guys behind Alchemist Ammo, but don’t have a working relationship with them. I paid for the box of 9mm, even, via Clark Armory. I plan on evaluating the ammunition shortly. I’ll report back with my (admittedly non-scientific) results.

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