Lead free bullets: which is best for a .22LR rifle?
PUBLISHED: 10:37 25 March 2021
The race is on the find the perfect lead free bullet - our writer ‘Broadsword’ investigates some lead-free options for .22LR rifles
The substitution of lead-based ammunition is seeping endlessly into the shooting world, with more and more lead-free centrefire rounds being created, and now it seems there is no escape for the humble .22 LR rimfire. Love it or hate it, lead-free bullets are here to stay, and with lead contamination on every one’s lips (not literally, of course), the race to perfect lead-free rimfire rounds for both target and vermin control is on.
Lead-free bullets for target rifles on unenclosed ranges makes some kind of sense, and there are polymer-coated rimfire rounds that already reduce the risk of lead particles entering the body. Now, even vermin such as rabbits, crows, squirrels, rats and the like have been targeted as potential lead-free fodder; I don’t know about you, but I won’t be eating most of the vermin shot, with the exception of rabbits, and they are head shot anyway!
Regardless, it’s inevitable that lead-free rimfire ammunition will be on the cards. In this test, I’ll be looking at three contenders from the very well-respected RWS and Norma brands. I intend to give an honest view of ballistics, accuracy, down range trajectory, penetration and bullet expansion in a variety of guns i.e. bolt-action and semi-automatics, with both long and short barrels, to ascertain an unbiased view as to how they perform. Then you can make your own minds up.
Firstly, despite the differing packaging, all the lead-free rounds are made in Germany by RWS and use a nickel-plated case and are 100% lead-free, including case, primer, powder and bullet.
As one would expect, the RWS HV Green rounds are beautifully packed in cases of 500 with smaller 50-round boxes within. The nickel-coated brass cases are very well manufactured and have a length of 0.6035”, so they will fit correctly into normal chambers. As with all the rounds tested, the head is stamped with the RWS shield with a capital ‘R’ in the centre.
The primer mixture is evenly placed all around the rim for positive ignition and there is a 2.4gr powder charge (Eley Subsonic uses 1gr of powder) that almost fills the case to the base of the bullet when seated.
All three are 100% lead-free and made from a zinc bullet that is copper-plated and weighs in at 24gr. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, a non-lead weight of 24gr of zinc/copper plate gives the same bullet profile of a normal 40gr .22 LR bullet. If RWS were to use a 40gr lead-free bullet, the length would be too long for the rifle’s chambers and jam into the rifling lands. They also would not stabilise in a normal 1:16 twist barrel.
This also means the rounds are not subsonic or standard velocity, which to me would be more useful for vermin, but as you might expect they’re labelled as high velocity rounds.
The RWS bullet was exactly 24gr for 10 rounds weighed – excellent! They have a typical gas-expanding base and one single large driving band at the waist to engage the rifling and then a tangent profile with a blunt flat meplat, all copper plated. When sectioned, these bullets are very hard and took some chopping, showing a solid zinc core and then an even copper-plated outer jacket. The copper is there primarily to engage the rifling and reduce friction – which is clearly an issue for such rounds, as each bullet is heavily waxed with large amounts applied to the bearing surfaces. All bullets from the three makes had a diameter of 0.2165” on the driving band.
The two Norma rounds, as previously mentioned, are made by RWS and distributed by RUAG Ammotec but differ in name: Eco-Speed and Eco-Power. The former is designed for targets, the latter for small game/vermin. All use the same case, primer powder type/weight and the Norma Eco-Speed is identical to the RWS HV Green and can be rated the same, just rebadged, as noted in the tests later on. The Norma Eco-Power, however, has a different style of bullet with a small hollow-point design that, when sectioned, shows a four-petal construction designed to fragment on impact and dissipate energy inside the game.
the test Results
From all the rifles tested, velocity was down a bit on the advertised 1706 fps, but that’s to be expected as factory velocities are generally optimistic.
However, the Anschutz 54 custom, with its 26” barrel, managed a healthy 1656 fps from the Norma Eco-Power rounds, generating 146 ft/lbs of energy. The shorter barrels from the Bergara and Sako shot 1604 fps and 1573 fps with the same round.
As expected, the semi-automatic 10/22 shot the Eco-Power at the lowest velocity of 1511 fps, due to the inertia system needed to operate the action.
Hopefully, the differing array of barrel lengths tested will tally with a rifle you own, so hopefully you can judge for yourself what the expected velocity is likely to be.
Interestingly, although the RWS HV Green and Norma Eco-Speed were identical rounds, the RWS always shot between 20 to 30 fps slower; this could be due to batch-to-batch differences. Also, the Eco-Power round usually shot a higher velocity than the Eco-Speed, despite having the same powder charge, which is no doubt due to the slightly better BC of that bullet due to the hollow-point design compared to the blunt Eco-Speed bullet.
Being all HV rounds, the muzzle crack was severe, so a sound moderator only really served to deaden the muzzle blast, but the supersonic crack was very loud. So, bear that in mind if you choose these for hunting. I did fit an older LEI .223 Rem sound moderator to the Sako, which helped reduce the decibels to a tolerable level.
I also noticed an extra snap or muzzle flip, despite the lightweight 24gr bullet, and the Ruger 10/22 semi-auto action was very positive!
Now, on to the important part, the actual accuracy, downrange performance and penetration tests. Accuracy varied quite a bit to be honest. The Ruger 10/22 was, unsurprisingly, the least accurate – but still better than I had expected for such a light bullet. Groups hovered around the inch mark at 50 yards for an average of three five-shot groups.
The other three bolt-action guns, with differing barrel lengths, all achieved some nice groups between 0.5 and 0.75” at 50 yards. The Sako Finnfire absolutely loved the RWS HV Green round and shot several miniscule groups; best was 0.3010”! But there is a caveat here: quite often, the group was spoilt by a flier out of the main grouping. This suggests to me that the heavy wax lubricant was a bit dry (or lacking) when that round was shot, causing a flier. When I rubbed the lube off, the groups tended to worsen, so don`t place them directly into the pocket if hunting. Keep them in the box or magazine.
Also, these bullets are very tough. The softer copper rubs off in the rifling lands and reveals a dry zinc core beneath. The bullets are a bit undersized too at 0.2165” compared to a Eley lead subsonic round at 0.2190”, again due to the tough nature of the bullet and possible pressure issues. Interestingly, the recovered bullets all expanded to 0.2215”, thereby sealing the bore very well.
As expected, a high-velocity, light bullet provides good terminal ballistics – if the bullet is fragile enough. Compared to 1577, 1594 and 1604 fps from the Bergara, for each type of lead-free bullet, the standard Eley subsonic 40gr lead bullets achieved 1050 fps and a good 8” of penetration in the 12” putty, with a very nice even and deep wound channel of 215mls – all fairly normal.
What I did not expect were the next results. The RWS HV Green, with its 1577 fps velocity and a non-expanding bullet, totally penetrated the 12” of putty but the sheer kinetic energy release of that HV light bullet achieved a larger than expected 415mls wound channel – nearly double the Eleys!
The same was true of the Norma Eco-Speed, essentially the same bullet as the RWS; this achieved a total 12” penetration and a wound channel of 425mls. Both bullets retained their entire initial weight of 24gr and, apart from widening slightly and becoming a bit shorter, and showing the rifling engraved to the driving band, they were perfect.
On to the Norma Eco-Power, this has the same 24gr bullet but with a shallow hollow point with four petals designed to fragment on impact. And indeed they did. With a velocity of 1604 fps from the Bergara, the bullet penetrated 9.5” dumped all its energy inside the ballistic putty, causing the largest wound channel of 440mls and although the recovered bullet did not expand and weighed 18.6gr the petals broke off somewhere in the putty distributing the energy. Very impressive.
Finally, the trajectory, which is probably the real issue, as light bullets with a low ballistic coefficient lose velocity fast. And these did. Both the Eco-Power and Eco-Speed (RWS HV Green) lost nearly 400 fps at 50 yards and at 100 yards were down from 1604 fps to 1012 fps for the Eco-Power round. You can play around with the zero to best suit your style of shooting but also take note of the wind drift with a 10mph at 90 degrees. It was a tad excessive!
Well, hopefully that’s given you an honest flavour of what the lead-free Norma and RWS .22 LR rimfire loads have to offer.
For me, it’s a bit of a catch-22 situation really, as I would ideally like a subsonic .22 lead-free round, but the bullet would have to be heavier still, would not stabilise properly and the powder charge (with the light lead-free 24gr bullet) would have to be so small that it would prove inconsistent.
I am sure we will get there in the end, as I like a silent rimfire for hunting. Going the tungsten or Bismuth route (aka shotgun ammo) would be price-prohibitive and not suitable anyway, but we can all see where it is going!
DETAILS AND CONTACTS
RWS HV Green price: £176.70 per 1000
Norma Eco-Speed price: £148.80 per 1000
Norma Eco-Power price: £165.85 per 1000
RUAG Norma, RWS and Bergara
Vantage scope, X-ACT ballistics
Tel: 01394 387762
Tel: 01644 470223
MAE, Quickload and QuickTarget
Tel: 07771 962121