What is Frangible Ammunition? And Why You Should Use it for Self Defense

Virtually every leading ammunition manufacturer has developed or is developing, a line of frangible or nontoxic small arms ammunition. This is a big step since current chemical recipes for primers and bullets have existed for more than 100 years. While the lead content in primers is an undisputed health hazard, it is also an important part of the priming compound. Lead holds the other chemicals responsible for the controlled explosion of the primer together. This tiny, high explosive charge housed in the base of the cartridge is an effective, efficient initiator which sets off the powder in the cartridge case, launching the bullet down the barrel to the target. As the primer explodes, lead and other elements are released in the form of toxic gases into the atmosphere. Of course, lead styphnate used in primers and lead antimony used in bullets are not the only toxic substances found in small arms ammunition. For example, barium nitrate, mercury and antimony sulfide are also used in primer compounds.

Lead and other toxic material contamination of firing ranges, both indoor and outdoor, is a continuing and serious problem. Departments staffed by many officers using range facilities heighten lead recovery requirements and range officers who are present day after day may be adversely affected by toxic substances, such as antimony, arsenic, barium, cadium, lead, and mercury. The National Bureau of Standards claims that 80% of airborne lead on firing ranges comes from the projectile while the remaining 20% comes from the combustion of the primer mixture. Toxic substances (such as airborne lead) can be breathed into the body and be deposited on the shooter’s skin. Additionally, failure to wash the hands after a range session can enable the ingestion of toxins through the act of eating or smoking.

Overexposure to lead typically occurs through breathing or swallowing and may be chronic (the slow continual absorption of lead over a long period of time) or acute (the absorption of large quantities of lead in a very short period of time). Overexposure is serious. For example, the half-life of lead in soft tissue and blood is three months and the half-life of lead in bone is ten years. Furthermore, the numerous symptoms of lead poisoning mimic various diseases, often making diagnosis confusing and difficult. Most commonly, individuals experience abdominal pain, fatigue, nausea, subtle mood changes, headaches, constipation, irritability, and depression. More seriously, muscle pain, muscle weakness, weight loss, impotence, convulsions, anemia, and renal (kidney) failure may also occur.

Ranges throughout the United States have been forced to undergo costly remediation procedures or to cease operations due to excessive lead levels. Indoor ranges, in particular, serve as environments conducive to dangerous levels of airborne lead, surface lead, and expensive, lengthy, lead recovery requirements. Efforts to alleviate this problem have included expensive ventilation and filtration systems, new and innovative bullet traps, the development of new range procedures, and the utilization of different bullet designs. One solution has focused on the infrequent use of indoor range facilities; however, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) maintains the position that even a moderate amount of indoor shooting could cause unhealthy levels of ammunition generated toxins. Furthermore, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has also expressed some concerns in this area.

One solution limits indoor shooting to full metal jacket (FMJ) or total metal jacket (TMJ) bullets. While this action does lower lead levels to some extent, the FMJ bullet still injects some vaporized lead into the air due to their exposed base. TMJ bullets (which completely enclose the bullet’s lead core) do further reduce lead exposure, but one problem still remains – the bullet itself. Even though these bullets present no airborne lead danger, the EPA considers the lead in spent bullets a toxic substance and, therefore, requires special indoor air handling systems, plus special removal and disposal procedures. Indeed, lead bullets contaminating the soil on outdoor ranges can eventually leach through the ground and reach the water table.

Perhaps the most effective solution to date has been the development of frangible and/or nontoxic ammunition. However, there appears to be some confusion between frangible ammunition and nontoxic ammunition. To delineate between these two rounds, the reader must understand that while frangible ammunition may be loaded with nontoxic materials, frangible projectiles completely turn to powder upon impact with any surface that is harder than the bullet itself. However, nontoxic projectiles can ricochet, or splash back akin to a conventional bullet.

As discussed previously, most bullets today are made of a lead core coupled with some type of copper jacket. Because lead is malleable, it changes shape under pressure. Lead is also heavy relative to other metals. Traveling near the speed of sound, it becomes a small, but deadly, projectile. Indeed, the amount of energy delivered to the target is based on a formula of mass times velocity. Mass provides effective terminal ballistics (the bullet’s effects on a target) and delivers the proper energy required for the consistent cycling of automatic and semiautomatic weapons. Thus, any replacement of the explosive elements in primers and the makeup of bullets must retain the same performance of traditional ammunition and be compatible with existing manufacturing technology.

Many alternative substances are presently being used in the manufacture of frangible or nontoxic ammunition; for example, bullets made from iron powder; zinc; tungsten; combinations of nylon, zinc, and/or tin coupled with tungsten; all copper; and bullets containing steel cores. Copper and steel both have the desired weight factor; however, these bullets are also stiffer than lead causing a serious ricochet factor or bullets which may return to the firing line.

Frangible Ammunition

There are a variety of areas where frangible ammunition is extremely valuable. For example: Steel targets can be shot from much closer ranges than is the case with conventional ammunition; “shoot houses” can be constructed from lightweight armored materials, thus making a truly portable shoot house a reality; collateral damage to range structures and fixtures is therefore reduced. Frangible ammunition can also be used in real-world missions when the tactical arena cannot afford collateral damage produced by misses, overpenetration, or ricochets (tactical arenas include nuclear facilities, airports, courtrooms, office buildings, petroleum and chemical facilities, corrections facilities, etc.). Frangible ammunition normally has a maximum effective range much shorter than conventional ammunition (up to 60% less) – this can translate into a tremendous advantage for outdoor ranges having reduced impact areas. However, I must emphasize that a frangible bullet performs like a FMJ on soft tissue which clearly makes it a lethal round. Finally, frangible ammunition is an ideal round to use on indoor ranges due to the elimination of ricochets and splash back.

Blount/Speer ZNT

Blount/Speer offers frangible ammunition in two calibers, 100-grain 9mm Parabellum and 125-grain .40 S&W. These rounds are made with lead-free clean-fire primers and feature a newly designed projectile. The projectile has a fluted copper jacket combined with a cast zinc alloy core and is designed to break into small pieces upon impact with steel targets, backstops, or other similar objects. While ZNT projectiles look like conventional bullets, they contain zinc alloy instead of lead, which eliminates lead dust upon impact.

Delta Frangible Ammunition, LLC

Delta Frangible Ammunition (DFA) produces a line of frangible cartridges utilizing a nylon composite bullet. The nylon projectile will break apart into small pieces upon impact with hard surfaces, resulting in the reduced penetration of objects which are not intended to be penetrated. DFA also has a reduced ricochet potential, reduced maximum range capability, and eliminates airborne lead contamination and lead contaminated environments. DFA is available in five handgun calibers and one (5.56) rifle caliber.

Currently, DFA provides these bullets which are then loaded and distributed by Winchester for law enforcement use only.

Longbow, Inc.

Longbow markets nontoxic frangible (NTF) ammunition in at least fifteen calibers. These calibers include centerfire handgun, centerfire rifle, and a 12-gauge saboted slug. NTF contains no lead, thus eliminating contamination by that toxin at the firing point and at the point of impact. Indeed, bullet particles can be simply swept up and disposed of as nonhazardous material. Longbow estimates that one would have to fire 333,000 rounds of their NTF to reach the same toxicity level of one round of leaded ammunition. Furthermore, as opposed to lead-free bullets in which the projectile is made of solid copper or some other metal or ceramic, Longbow’s frangible bullet made of a polymer-copper compound, completely eliminates ricochet and splash back.

Remington Arms Co., Inc.

Remington manufactures a lead-free frangible called the Disintegrator™. The Disintegrator’s lead-free bullet design provides instant and complete break-up upon impact, with no ricochet or lead accumulation. Furthermore, the totally lead-free primer eliminates the hazards of airborne lead residue in enclosed ranges. Point of impact and recoil performance reportedly duplicates that of equivalent standard duty ammunition. Finally, this round is available in 9mm, .40 S&W, .45 ACP, .223 and 12-gauge buckshot and slugs.

  Nontoxic, Lead-Free Ammunition

Nontoxic ammunition is available from most of the major manufacturers and some less well-known firms. While nontoxic ammunition may be used on steel targets, it is not as safe as frangible ammunition. Remember, nontoxic projectiles may partially break apart on impact, but they normally will penetrate similar to a conventional bullet.

Nontoxic ammunition is best used on indoor ranges where airborne and skin surface toxins may congregate. This ammunition is specifically designed for practice, competition shooting, and law enforcement training. Indeed, many police departments now require nontoxic, lead-free primers and bullets for use on indoor firing ranges.

Blount Clean-Fire® Ammunition

Blount’s Clean-Fire ammunition is not totally nontoxic or lead-free; however, this round does eliminate airborne lead. Clean-Fire ammunition virtually eliminates lead generation at the firing point by combining a TMJ bullet, a lead core completely encased in copper, with a priming mixture that contains no lead, barium, antimony, or other toxic metals. The manufacturer states that the Clean-Fire ammunition delivers the same level of performance, function and accuracy as standard ammunition. Clean-Fire ammunition is available in a number of calibers and bullet styles in both the Blazer®and Lawman® lines.

Blount’s ZNT reduced hazard ammunition is nontoxic and lead-free. ZNT ammunition combines lead-free primers and a bullet constructed of a brittle zinc alloy core encased with a fluted, copper alloy jacket. These bullets are designed to break up on impact with hard backstops. Bullet weights and velocities are balanced to yield recoil and point of impact with a minimum variation from duty ammunition. ZNT ammunition is available in a number of calibers and bullet styles in both the Blazer and Lawman lines.

Federal Cartridge Company BallistiClean®

This ammunition uses a copper jacketed, zinc core bullet, a nontoxic copper-colored primer and is loaded in brass cases head stamped “NT.” The primer mix is of particular interest as it contains no heavy metals or toxic metals; instead, the primer mix contains DiazoDiNitroPhenol (DDNP) as the primary explosive instead of lead styphnate. Furthermore, the oxidizer is calcium silicate instead of barium and strontium compounds. Indeed, this round is reportedly the first completely toxic metal-free line of ammunition to be developed. The BallistiClean round is designed to exceed OSHA and EPA requirements, protect the shooter’s lungs, eliminate disposal problems for range owners and operators, and sheds approximately 50% of its weight upon impact, thereby reducing back splatter. Furthermore, this round provides an enhanced realistic training experience because of its ability to duplicate the accuracy and recoil of standard duty ammunition. These loads also cycle reliably in semiautomatic weapons. To date, this ammunition is available in numerous bullet weights for the following calibers: .380 Auto, 9mm Luger, .38 Special, .357 Magnum, .40 S&W, 10mm Auto, .45 Auto, .223 Remington, .22 Long Rifle, and 12-Gauge shotgun.

Winchester® Ammunition Super Clean NT

Winchester has introduced a new line of training ammunition called “Super Clean NT” – using tin instead of zinc which is used in frangible ammunition. The bullets are a jacketed soft point type, nontoxic and lead-free, and specifically designed to eliminate pollution from lead dust. Additionally, they are loaded with a primer that is lead-free and does not contain heavy metals. Super Clean NT ammunition is available in five varieties. They are 105-grain 9mm Parabellum, 105-grain .38 special, 140-grain .40 S&W, 170-grain .45ACP and the 140-grain 10mm. According to the manufacturer, these rounds are highly accurate due to the design of the bullet (especially the 9mm).

Winchester has also introduced a new clean centerfire pistol ammunition primarily designed for indoor ranges called “WinClean” to their value priced USA line. WinClean incorporates Winchester’s latest generation primer which is lead-free and heavy metal-free and offers improved sensitivity and the cleanest burn available in the market. Smoke and residue are minimized, resulting in cleaner guns, hands, equipment, and fired cartridge casings. In addition, the cartridge features an entirely new jacketed bullet style that completely covers the base and sides of the bullet with a brass jacket barrier. Winchester’s lead-free primer, combined with the brass barrier between the hot gases and the bullet’s lead core, prevents the formation of airborne lead at the firing point. The new bullet is called a Brass Enclosed Base and features a truncated cone design to provide reliable functioning and feeding with excellent accuracy.

Remington UMC Leadless

Remington now offers UMC Leadless Pistol and Revolver ammunition, which duplicates the performance of conventional loads, while virtually eliminating lead exposure at the shooting position. The lead-free primer system replicates the sensitivity and ballistics of standard lead-based primers, while the advanced Flat Nose Enclosed Base (FNEB) bullet design prevents the hot expanding propellant gases from vaporizing lead from the bullet’s base. UMC Leadless Pistol and Revolver ammunition are offered in the following calibers: 9mm Luger, .380 Auto, .38 Special, .40 S&W, and .45 Auto.


In conclusion, both OSHA and the EPA have adopted the position that lead, as a toxin, must be handled accordingly. Ranges can no longer sell or give lead to salvors, unless the salvor is an approved toxic materials handler. In many cases, lead must now be disposed of at a cost to the range. Thus, operating costs (maintaining containment systems, blood level testing for range officers, filtration system maintenance, purchase of replacement filters, and lead disposal according to OSHA and EPA standards) associated with ranges has continued to climb and many indoor and outdoor ranges have been forced to shut down. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that the total of small arms ammunition expended at civilian, law enforcement and Department of Defense ranges reaches into the “tens of billions” of dollars every year. As a result, DOE has determined that the cost of cleanup could be as high as one hundred dollars for every dollar’s worth of ammunition expended. The only effective solution may be the adoption of frangible and/or nontoxic ammunition.

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