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VISIONE: Keeping the Lead Out

January 1, 2020

by Dominic “Nick” Visione
As winter’s winds and temperatures take their hold in the Midwest, most Cowboy shooters’ minds turn to one thing (ok, maybe more than one thing).

Reloading.

Not that you can’t feed cowboy guns with commercially produced loads, it’s just that that will get crazy expensive really quickly. Since many shooters have rifles and pistols of the same caliber, reloading can become very cost effective. Perhaps you are a husband/wife shooting team (as we are), or part of a team with multiple shooters in the family. Then reloading makes even more financial sense.

It’s a lot to ask to have someone go out and buy a press for rifle/pistol, another one for shotgun, plus all the components at one time. We think one of the best ways for a new shooter to get into reloading is to have a fellow shooter years of experience to act as a mentor. Even a not so good mentor beats the best YouTube video.

The dangers of lead poisoning
Aside from the obvious reloading dangers a more insidious one lurks for all shooters – including those who don’t reload: Lead.

Now before you accuse me of being some kind of closet tree-hugger, hear me out. I never, ever gave a thought to lead exposure. I mean, it’s not like I swallow a slug (projectile or insect, either one) with lunch.

But after reading a post on the Single Action Shooting Society (SASS) Wire (sassnet.com), my curiosity was aroused. Especially since several others, shooting and reloading as I was, had high blood lead levels. I felt okay and had no symptoms of lead poisoning. Not only that, but the wife and I shoot the poly-coated lead bullets. So handling bullets to reload cartridges, or reloading guns at a match meant no lead exposure, right?

Wrong. While the coated bullets were not exposing me to lead, another unavoidable component was doing the dirty work: the primers.

Now some of you may be thinking this is a good argument not to reload and shoot factory ammo so you are not handling components like bullets and fired primers.

Wrong again. The priming compound, lead azide initially and more recently lead styphnate, that ignites the powder in the case contains compounds sensitive to shock (like firing pin strikes). Interestingly, the earliest primer compounds contained mercury, later switched to lead-based primers to help remediate “health hazards.”
When the firing pin strikes the primer, causing it to detonate, particles of these compounds become airborne. This almost guarantees the hand or hands holding the weapon will be exposed. And as an added bonus, on indoor ranges with poor air circulation, you may breath them too.

Before you show up at the range with a HazMat suit, relax. From the many articles and studies I read, the worst of the lead issues come from eating or drinking with lead residue on hands and fingers.

How many of us on the range have eaten a snack? Yep. Guilty as charged. While running for a sink between stages might be ideal, a simpler solution involves carrying a small pack of baby wipes.

If you really want to get fancy, there are wipes made specifically to remove residue from metals. Just wipe down your hands before eating. Wiping the area around your mouth and nose won’t hurt either.

After the range, you come home with a bag full of fired cases. Cases that have, you guessed it, lead all over them. Good time to slip on a pair of surgical gloves before you handle this brass. If you tumble your cases with dry media, do it outside or in a well ventilated area. Sadly, I did not do this for years, and I inhaled plenty of dust as I dumped the dry media to get my brass. I probably had a sandwich in my other hand, too. I was an idiot.

If you wet tumble, be careful dumping out the dirty water. Once more, disposable rubber gloves provide a cheap barrier. Consider wearing them for any case prep or cleaning. Personally, I feel that the wet tumbling will remove more lead residue than dry tumbling. The cost of gloves and wipes is nothing compared to having heath issues.

And there are lead free primers available. Some question their reliability, but I have no firsthand knowledge. They do cost more, however.

The vast majority of Cowboy matches are shot outdoors. But indoors or out, we need to be aware of some of the little known risks that can sneak up on us. Wash your hands after shooting, along with your face if facilities allow it.

If you have blood analyzed as part of your medical check-ups, ask for a lead screen. I got a puzzled look and was asked why I thought I needed one. I explained that I was a competitive shooter and reloaded my own ammo and was curious. Most health care professionals appreciate a patient having a pro-active approach to their well-being, so don’t be afraid to ask.