Firearm and Ammunition FAQs

Volunteer Program Patch with arrowhead.
Volunteer Program Patch with arrowhead.


This page is intended for skileld volunteers and those interested in applying to the skilled volunteer program in 2021.


What rifles will be approved for use?
For this bison removal project, only rifles chambered for bottlenecked cartridges with a bullet caliber of .30cal or larger, combined with a non-lead bullet of 165 grains or heavier will be approved. Expect to take shots between 100-300 yards, but field conditions may result in even longer shots; ensure that you and your rifle setup are capable of these distances before participating. Due to the wide variety of rifles and variable capabilities of combinations of rifles and ammunition, each volunteer selected to participate in the removal program is required to notify the Park staff of the rifle and bullet they plan to use. Park staff will review for suitability in bison removal and either approve the submission or request a different rifle/bullet combo from the volunteer. If you need to change the submitted rifle or ammunition after they have been approved, just submit your new combination for review at least a week before the date of your marksmanship qualification to get approval. The Park will not provide firearms or ammunition to volunteers for this project. Rifle and bullet combos that deliver at least 2500 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle will generally be considered appropriate, but energy delivery at terminal range will also be considered.

Can I use a suppressor or a muzzle brake?
Suppressors and muzzle-brakes will be allowed during this project, but if you plan to use a suppressor inform the Park staff of your intent along with your submission of the rifle and ammunition you plan to use.

Do I need a specific barrel twist rate to stabilize non-lead bullets?
Most non-lead bullets are designed to perform in standard specification rifles and twist rates. Because copper and lead have different densities, non-lead copper bullets of the same caliber will be longer for the same grain weight than lead-core bullets. Keep in mind that because non-lead bullets retain their original weight, you may not need as heavy a bullet as when using lead-core bullets. Longer bullets, whether due to choosing a heavier grain-weight bullet or from changing bullet materials, sometimes require a faster twist rate to properly stabilize. This will be dependent on the caliber, bullet design, and individual bullet length. Defer to bullet manufacturers to see if there is a minimum twist for a particular bullet. Generally, only the heaviest (therefore longest) of non-lead bullets will require twist rates faster than 1 in 11” but check manufacturer recommendations, and test for accuracy in your individual rifle before attending the proficiency qualification.


Why is the park requiring non-lead ammunition?
Numerous scientific studies have shown the detrimental impacts of lead toxicity on wildlife that inadvertently consume lead from spent ammunition. In the last 30 years, research has identified the impact of bullet weight loss due to lead fragmentation on scavenging wildlife that feed on carcasses or remains left in the field. Lead-core bullets fragment and lose a significant portion of their original weight as they pass through tissue. Although the majority of fragments remain within 5 inches of the main wound channel, some may travel as far as 18 inches away. Non-lead bullets offer an alternative to lead-core bullets that remove the potential for any lead fragments to be left in meat or remains left in the field resulting in unintended secondary poisoning of wildlife. Non-lead bullets also offer exceptional terminal performance and are typically highly accurate. The NPS recognizes the effective utility of a projectile that works as well as lead bullets without the potential for secondary poisoning and staff, volunteers, and contractors use non-lead ammunition across the nation’s park units for all internal wildlife removal operations.

Lead bullet before and after being shot at 100 yards, next to a non-lead bullet before and after being shot at 100 yards
Lead bullet before and after being shot at 100 yards, next to a non-lead bullet before and after being shot at 100 yards

NPS Photo


What is “non-lead” ammunition?
When we use the term “non-lead” we are referring to a projectile that is made of material other than lead. Most non-lead bullets designed for centerfire rifles are made from copper or a copper-based alloy. These are monolithic bullets that are typically designed to have hollow-point expanding tips that will function similarly to bonded hollow point or soft nosed lead bullets. Although other materials such as steel, bismuth, tin, or other metals are used in non-lead shotgun shot, slugs, or rimfire rifle bullets, copper and copper alloys are the metals used by nearly all commercially available centerfire rifle bullet manufacturers. Some manufacturers may also use the terms “lead-free” or “green” when marketing non-lead ammunition, but care should be taken to check the bullet’s design since some “green” bullets are non-lead but are designed as frangible projectiles and would not be appropriate for large animals.

Hollow point cavities in non-lead bullets drive expansion of the tip
Hollow point cavities in non-lead bullets drive expansion of the tip

NPS photo


What is the difference between “expanding,” “fracturing” and “frangible” non-lead bullets?
Most non-lead bullets on the market are designed as “expanding,” meaning that they are constructed of a monolithic metal (usually copper or a copper alloy) with a hollow point that may or may not have a polymer tip inserted. The bullet’s hollow point is forced open upon impact, which peels back the nose petals, to create a larger frontal area. During this process the bullet transfers energy to the target, tearing tissue in an area larger than the size of the bullet through pressure waves that stretch tissue to the point of tearing. The expanded petals are designed to stay attached to the shank, resulting in a larger bullet diameter. These bullets are engineered to retain their original weight and generally do not shed any fragments. There are also non-lead bullets designed with “fracturing” features, engineered so that the petals of the nose will consistently snap off and move away from the shank creating multiple wound channels while the main shank continues to penetrate. “Frangible” non-lead bullets are typically made of either a powdered copper matrix compressed into the desired projectile shape, or a copper jacket with the compressed powder core inside. These bullets are designed specifically for varmint or small-species pelt harvest because the bullets have limited penetration, or for practice on steel targets. Frangible bullets are usually only loaded in smaller cartridges and would not penetrate adequately to cause ethical kills in larger species. For Bison and other medium and large game species, only expanding and fracturing bullets are appropriate.

Four different brands of .30 caliber non-lead bullets before and after being shot at 100 yards
Four different brands of .30 caliber non-lead bullets before and after being shot at 100 yards

NPS photo


Can I use solid non-expanding solid (safari type) bullets for this project?
No; non-expanding solid “safari” type bullets will not be allowed for this removal project. These non-expanding bullets were designed for increased penetration (due to weight retention) when expanding lead-core bullets could not achieve penetration into vitals on large species because they lost weight in tissue too early. The advent of non-lead expanding bullets achieved the dual goals of deep penetration via high weight retention, and more effective internal damage through the tip expansion, giving shooters effective bullets for large game that will combine larger wound channels and deep penetration.

What is the effective range of non-lead bullets?
All bullets, regardless of material, have a window of functional performance, beyond which the bullet may not operate effectively. This window of effectiveness is different for every bullet and these limits should be researched and known by the shooter before heading into the field. Similar to bonded lead-core bullets, most non-lead bullets require a velocity at the target of about 1800 fps or faster in order to expand properly, although some non-lead bullets are designed to operate at lower velocities. The distance that a bullet can still achieve those velocities will differ based on the cartridge, bullet grain weight, and muzzle velocity, so effective yardage will be different for different rifles. Check manufacturer data on your particular bullet to know what your effective minimum velocity is and confirm bullet velocities in your rifle to determine at what distance that will correspond. Consider that your personal accuracy from field shooting positions is another factor of your effective range, and this may not match with your bullet’s effective range. Never shoot beyond the lower of these two factors to ensure efficient, ethical kills.

Isn’t non-lead ammo much more expensive?
Not necessarily. The majority of non-lead bullets are loaded in premium tier hunting ammunition and you can expect to pay the same for non-lead or lead-core bullets in these premium priced loads. Many manufacturer’s product lines will cost the same whether they are loaded with a premium lead or non-lead bullet. Prices of all non-lead ammunition have decreased in past years to be comparable with corresponding lead-core loads, and new non-lead options have become available even in more budget-focused lines of ammunition.

How do I choose the best non-lead ammunition?
Choosing non-lead ammunition utilizes the same process as choosing lead ammunition. The ammunition you eventually choose will be based on how well your rifle shoots that particular round. If possible, try multiple brands and grain weights to find what bullet is the most accurate from your rifle. If your rifle currently shoots one manufacturer’s ammunition well, consider trying non-lead ammunition from the same manufacturer first. Due to the density differences between lead and copper, dropping your grain weight about 15-20 percent when switching to non-lead is a good place to start. This will get a similar length bullet to what was working in your rifle before. When choosing any new bullet, trying multiple options will increase your ability to find the best bullet for your individual rifle.

What grain weight is best?
Bullet grain weight choice depends on a number of variables including the species of interest, bullet velocity at expected ranges, bullet length limitations, and rifle barrel interactions. Most rifles will have a particular bullet that groups the best at your expected range and that is usually the best way to choose a bullet grain weight as this ensures confidence in repeatable point of impact. When switching from lead to non-lead most shooters find that dropping to a grain weight about 15%-20% will result in similar performance but try different brands and weights to find the best fit for your individual rifle. When considering especially large species such as bison you should determine a minimum expected energy delivery by your bullet. We recommend a minimum of 2500 foot-pounds at the barrel, and typically a bullet of 165 grains or heavier will achieve the needed energy for bison.

Are non-lead bullets bad for the rifle’s barrel?
Copper and copper alloys are softer than the steel of your rifle’s barrel and are designed to work with the barrel’s rifling. Monolithic copper or copper alloy bullets will interact with your barrel the same way the jacket on lead bullets do. Some companies even make their non-lead bullets from the exact same material they used for their lead-core jackets instead of developing something new. You may still choose to use a copper solvent when cleaning your barrel but should not need to use it any more often than when shooting copper jacketed bullets. Be sure to follow all manufacturer recommendations when using copper solvent cleaners, as they have the potential to damage your barrel if not used as directed.

Should I do anything different when I switch to non-lead ammunition?
Clean your rifle before testing different types of ammunition to start with a clean barrel.

Follow the same procedure you would when changing to any new ammunition regardless of bullet material. Spend time trying different ammunition to find which one will group the best from your rifle. Don’t expect any new bullet to have the same point of impact as past ammunition, this stage is just to establish group size so don’t adjust your scope’s zero. Once you know which bullet gives you the tightest group, put a 3- or 5-shot group on paper, find the center of the group, and then adjust your scope to your new point of impact. For some it will be a barely noticeable shift, but for others it may be inches away. Then test at multiple distances to confirm your expected bullet drop so that you can confidently take shots at variable ranges.

Shot placement is always an important factor and an added benefit of non-lead bullets is their impressive weight retention, typically 95% or higher. This means that shooters can target thick bones with less concern that penetration will be insufficient. Due to the lack of fragmentation in non-lead bullets far less meat will be damaged by bullet fragments along the wound channel as well, so shoulder shots can be used to anchor animals with less risk of extensive meat loss.

What ammunition will be approved for use?
Ammunition must be non-lead and of an expanding or fracturing design, no frangible designs will be allowed.

Bullets must be 165 grains or heavier.

Hand-loads or Custom-loads are allowed as long as manufacturer guidelines have been followed and the bullet is from the park’s approved list.

If you do not see a non-lead option on the Approved List that you think would still qualify based on our listed requirements, you may petition for a waiver by sending the specific details of the ammunition or bullet to e-mail us. This will be reviewed for suitability for bison removal and you will either receive a waiver or a reason for its rejection.

Proficiency Qualifications

What will the rifle proficiency qualification be like?
The qualification for all shooters of each operational period will be held at an outdoor range on the first day of that period. You must show that you can handle your rifle safely while following instructions from a rangemaster, and you will present your rifle and ammunition for inspection. You must use the ammunition and rifle you plan to use in the field. You will be required to have 3 of 5 shots hit inside a 4-inch circular target at a distance of 100 yards. You will have time to check your rifle’s zero and take practice shots before you begin your qualification period. You will have adequate time to check your zero and perform your proficiency test.

Can I use a bipod or other rifle rest during the qualification?
You may shoot in the field position that you are most comfortable and can use any type of rest or stabilizing equipment that you will pack into the field. Examples include bipods, shooting sticks, foam pads, backpacks, lightweight shooting bags, etc. This qualification is designed to mimic real-world conditions as much as possible so bring what you plan to actually use in the field.

Can I bring more than one firearm?
Yes, you may bring a backup firearm and ammunition as long as it meets the same requirements and you have submitted the rifle and ammunition information to the park along with your primary firearm and ammunition information. You may only qualify with one rifle and must use that rifle for the remainder of the operational period.

What happens if I fail the qualification?
If you fail the rifle qualification you may not participate as a shooter on this project, but you may continue to participate as a Support Volunteer if you desire.

Can I test my rifle before my actual qualification?
Yes, all shooters will have time immediately before the qualification at the range to briefly practice and check your rifle’s zero and make any adjustments necessary. You will have adequate time (within reason) to test you rifle.

What are the conditions like at the range?
The entire range is at an elevation of 8400 feet and targets will be set at 100 yards. The range is uncovered and outdoors and is not open to the public. Volunteers will be required to bring and wear their own ear and eye protection.

Return to Skilled Volunteer FAQs
Return to Bison Reduction FAQs

Last updated: April 26, 2021

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