Warning: Tungsten bullets could be a health hazard

In the past tungsten has been considered non-toxic and more environmentally friendly than lead at shooting ranges. Recent research has shown that Tungsten is in fact toxic and potentially carcinogenic. Danger Room reports:

There have been growing concerns about tungsten for some years. An October 2008 Issues Paper from the state and federal waste managers’ group says that the “original position of the scientific community with regard to fate and transport, analytical testing and toxicology” of tungsten has “drastically changed.”

The report further warns: “Over the past years, soil and groundwater samples collected at certain small arms ranges have demonstrated that tungsten is very mobile and soluble once it is released into the environment. In addition, limited yet important health studies have also revealed that tungsten may pose risks to humans and ecological receptors.”

The Army has now stopped production of “green” tungsten ammunition:

The Army is concerned enough about possible risks that it has stopped making the tungsten ammo. “The U.S. Army developed a lead-free 5.56mm round during the mid 1990s with a tungsten-nylon alternate slug materiel. Environmental studies later determined that the tungsten-nylon combo had a possible environmental impact. The Army stopped production of its tungsten-nylon 5.56mm [rounds],” Tonya Townsell, a spokesperson for the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, tells Danger Room. “The residual inventory of 5.56mm Tungsten-Nylon rounds is still available for use in training at lead-restricted sites as it is deemed safer than lead.”

While the majority of lead-free civilian tactical and hunting bullets are either solid copper or copper jacketed with a tin core, some bullets do use tungsten. Two examples are Barnes MRX Bullets and Extreme Shock Ammunition.

The core of Barnes’s premium long range hunting MRX bullet is made from a tungsten based compound called Silvex. One the Barnes website the compound is said to be “non-toxic”:

Mrx Bullet | Barnes Bullets
Screenshot from Barnes.com

The core of Extreme Shock frangible ammunition is made from a tungsten powder/flake compound called Ny-Trilium. It is also said to be non-toxic:

Screenshot from Extremeshockammo.net

I imagine some people are not going to be happy after paying a premium for ammunition that promised to be non-toxic, only to find it isn’t. Is this lawsuit material? I don’t know, but I do wonder how long it will take manufactures of tungsten bullets to remove the “non-toxic” text from their websites.

Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


  • Freiheit

    1. What quantities are carcinogenic? I can give anyone some sort of cancer with sufficient quantities of anything and a funnel. I’d also expect the Army to be shooting A LOT of rounds. Its important to know if this is “one-bullet-in-the-christmas-venison” or “a-million-rounds-a-month” kind of risk.

    2. Kind of a “well duh”. Ingesting large quantities of any metal is probably a bad idea.

    3. Similar to #2. Dumping large quantities of anything and letting it leech through the soil will jibber up the ground water. I propose we use bullets made out of Tang and Kool-Aid. OH YEA!

    4. I expect it would be cheaper to simply treat high use military ranges as toxic sites and isolate them from the ground water. It uses known technology and is likely cheaper and safer than spending a lot on bullets made of something other than lead.

    • Cynical Dude

      And it would be relatively easy to isolate the impact areas on ranges. Needn’t be anything more elaborate than an impermeable clay liner under the down-range berm and a drainage area where any contaminated run-off or leachate could evaporate and leave the toxins in a small concentrated collection area.

      Nah, that would make too much sense. And put tax money in the pockets of a few local contractors with bulldozers, rather than a hundred times as much tax money in the pockets of large military-industrial complex corporations.

  • R.A.W.

    Effing brilliant.

    And most lead exposure came from the priming compound anyhow.

  • Matt Groom

    Yeah, I hear that C02 is now considered a deadly toxic substance, too. Yawn. Life is the leading cause of death.

    I certainly am tired of hearing that everything that’s suitable for use in lethal projectiles may in fact be deadly. That’s the point! If you get cancer from shooting hundreds of thousands of bullets of a certain composition in a lifetime, consider it karma.

    I’m gonna die of cancer because I choose to live free. I’d probably smoke to piss of hippies if it didn’t cost so damn much.

  • We have a saying; “Die Dosis macht das Gift” – the dosage makes the poison.

    organisms need only very small amounts of metals – the absorption of large amounts of metals due to technical reasons is guaranteed to have some not-so-normal effects in an organism.

    “carcinogenic” – well, almost everything seems to be carcinogenic nowadays. That doesn’t scare me at all. It needs to be mainstream carcinogenic like radiation to get my attention.
    Did you know that fries can be carcinogenic if fried at too high temperatures? We had a major scare about several summer slumps ago.

  • Mu

    these guys seem to disagree

    Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2009 May;72(4):1031-7. Epub 2009 Feb 20

    Assessment of the environmental toxicity and carcinogenicity of tungsten-based shot.
    Thomas VG, Roberts MJ, Harrison PT.

    Department of Integrative Biology, College of Biological Science, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada N1G 2W1. vthomas@uoguelph.ca

    The toxicity of elemental tungsten released from discharged shot was assessed against previous studies that established a 1% toxic threshold for soil organisms. Extremely heavy theoretical shot loadings of 69,000shot/ha were used to generate estimated environmental concentrations (EEC) for two brands of tungsten-based shot containing 51% and 95% tungsten. The corresponding tungsten EEC values were 6.5-13.5mg W/kg soil, far below the 1% toxic threshold. The same shot loading in water produced tungsten EEC values of 2.1-4.4mg W/L, levels that are not toxic under experimental conditions. Pure tungsten has not been shown to exhibit carcinogenic properties when ingested or embedded in animal tissues, but nickel, with which it is often alloyed, has known carcinogenicity. Given the large number of waterfowl that carry shot embedded in their body, it is advisable to screen lead shot substitutes for their carcinogenic potential through intra-muscular implantation.

    • Mu, thanks for the info

  • Mu

    and this seems to be the basis of the clamor. It’s mobile. And my guess is, they don’t want to find out 50 years from now that it is toxic after all and they have to clean it up like their fuel, TCE and perchlorate plumes.

    Sci Total Environ. 2009 Apr 1;407(8):2887-93. Epub 2009 Feb 13
    Environmental fate of tungsten from military use.

    Clausen JL, Korte N.

    esearch and Development Center, Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, 72 Lyme Road, Hanover, New Hampshire, 03755, USA.

    This manuscript describes the distribution, fate and transport of tungsten used in training rounds at three small arms ranges at Camp Edwards on the Massachusetts Military Reservation (MMR), USA. Practice with tungsten/nylon rounds began in 2000 subsequent to a 1997 US Environmental Protection Agency ban on training with lead. Training with the tungsten rounds was halted in 2005 because of concerns regarding tungsten’s environmental mobility and potential toxicity. This study, therefore, examines how tungsten partitions in the environment when fired on a small arms training range. Soil sampling revealed surface soil concentrations, highest at the berm face, up to 2080 mg/kg. Concentrations decreased rapidly with depth-at least by an order of magnitude by 25 cm. Nonetheless, tungsten concentrations remained above background to at least 150 cm. Pore-water samples from lysimeters installed in berm areas revealed a range of concentrations (<1-400 mg/L) elevated with respect to background although there was no discernable trend with depth. Groundwater monitoring well samples collected approximately 30 m below ground surface showed tungsten (0.001-0.56 mg/L) attributable to range use.

  • Cornelius


    how about “Look for the toxic in everything, and you will find it.”

    Note to the copper industry: you’re next!

  • FightinBluHen51

    My father has preached about lead for YEARS! “It just deforms, it doesn’t frange, it doesn’t leach into the water systems, and it’s not known to cause anything other than some defects if you INGEST it.”

    So, I guess all those people eating paint chips have a really high cancer rate. Typical tyranny of good intentions and more of the same from the statist and global meddlers.

  • GregGS

    Classic subterfuge, Ban Lead, then ban tungsten, then ban… At sum point the price is to high for many because of the cost of RD. Of course the Govt agencies will have plenty of tax dollars to provide ammo for themselves and you know it’s all for our own good.

  • Destroyer

    who would have known that tungsten is poisonous? (are you s–tting me?)

  • Peter Hurley

    How little you know, how little you seem to care. The risks are real. Why not evaluate the evidence for yourselves and decide.


  • Kyle Norris

    The reason behind the so called health risk in tungsten rounds was based on a study were tungsten caused cancer in rats well last I checked ammo is meant to kill the target not give it cancer. If tungsten is worn as jewelry then its risks to the outside of the body are of no concern.

  • alanna aine


  • Good stuff but I am steel confused between led bullet and tungsten that which one harms more and reacts fast to damage anyone by it’s toxic .

  • Metal Fruit

    If tungsten in the ground is so poisonous, why are we digging it up and making bullets out of it, lets just leave it in the ground where its safe and harmless.

  • Joseph Kool

    All heavy metals are hazardous get over it