Ammunition Availability: Last Lead Smelter Closes In U.S.

BY Herschel Smith
1 year, 1 month ago

I had wanted to wait for further developments and data to comment on this, but such may not be forthcoming.  AmmoLand and many other venues reported on this.

In December, the final primary lead smelter in the United States will close.  The lead smelter, located in Herculaneum, Missouri, and owned and operated by the Doe Run Company, has existed in the same location since 1892.

The Herculaneum smelter is currently the only smelter in the United States which can produce lead bullion from raw lead ore that is mined nearby in Missouri’s extensive lead deposits, giving the smelter its “primary” designation.  The lead bullion produced in Herculaneum is then sold to lead product producers, including ammunition manufactures for use in conventional ammunition components such as projectiles, projectile cores, and primers.  Several “secondary” smelters, where lead is recycled from products such as lead acid batteries or spent ammunition components, still operate in the United States.

Doe Run made significant efforts to reduce lead emissions from the smelter, but in 2008 the federal Environmental Protection Agency issued new National Ambient Air Quality Standards for lead that were 10 times tighter than the previous standard.  Given the new lead air quality standard, Doe Run made the decision to close the Herculaneum smelter.

Whatever the EPA’s motivation when creating the new lead air quality standard, increasingly restrictive regulation of lead is likely to affect the production and cost of traditional ammunition.  Just this month, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that will ban lead ammunition for all hunting in California.  The Center for Biological Diversity has tried multiple times to get similar regulations at the federal level by trying, and repeatedly failing, to get the EPA to regulate conventional ammunition under the Toxic Substances Control Act.

At this time, it’s unclear if Doe Run or another company will open a new lead smelter in the United States that can meet the more stringent lead air quality standards by using more modern smelting methods.

What is clear is that after the Herculaneum smelter closes its doors in December, entirely domestic manufacture of conventional ammunition, from raw ore to finished cartridge, will be impossible.

Steve Johnson at The Firearm Blog cites the owners as saying “The EPA’s new clean air rules would require a $100 million dollar investment in new equipment.  As such, the Doe Run Company has decided to close the site.”  Steve also includes some informative graphs of lead production by country.

I have a number of comments concerning this closure.  First of all, the company also states that the $100 million project is “too financially risky.”  And that’s the crux of the issue.  Folks, $100 million just isn’t that much for large scale production in any industry in America.  My bet is that the company believes that it could very well spend $100 million and then continue to be denied the right to manufacture ammunition due to the fact that people writing rulings in the federal register are calling the shots.  You know what I’ve said about the federal Leviathan.  Oftentimes, their standard is a moving target.

Second, I question the degree to which the company is committed to the manufacture of ammunition components.  Power companies who have to fight the EPA on a regular basis simply do what they must.  Of course, power is regulated, but the market for ammunition won’t be going away.

Third, regardless of where you turn (and I include myself in that category), there is vast under-reporting on this.  We have all discussed it, but there is a paucity of good information.  I would like to know the degree to which this will affect the production, availability and price of ammunition in the U.S.?  But in order to know that, one would have to know such things as: (1) what percentage of lead in ammunition comes from this plant as opposed to overseas (including processing of the raw ore), (2) how much lead is used in ammunition in the U.S. civilian market every year, (3) what will the cost be of shipping the raw ore overseas for manufacture, and (4) are there any plans to construct and operate another plant?

This kind of knowledge requires real reporting, and that’s something I only sometimes have the time or resources to do.  Having said that, while this plant may not have been able to meet current EPA standards, it’s a sad day.  I suspect that the EPA hasn’t targeted this plant because of its role in the manufacture of ammunition.  Rather, the EPA targets all productive, money-making industry for onerous regulations, written inside the beltway by armies of lawyers, without regard for the practical affect of said regulations.  It’s governance by federal register, and it’s one thing that makes this so sad.

I was on an outing to assess ammunition availability this weekend, and I have noticed that the great ammunition shock of late 2012 and 2013 has been ameliorated.  In fact, I have continued to shoot and also continued to purchase, but I haven’t built my stockpile the way I had intended.  It’s too easy to become lazy, in part because I can pretty much find what I want now, and for fairly reasonable prices.

But becoming lazy is something we mustn’t do.  TTAG mirrors my own fears.

As I said, this was the final lead production facility in the United States. Its location was one of the prime reasons that the Lake City arsenal and other ammunition manufacturers have established themselves nearby, to keep shipping costs down. But with the lead no longer flowing, the next most viable source will be China and require substantially more money to truck overseas for production.

This will also be a big headache for range facilities, since some of them use the reclaimed lead from the dirt berms to pay the bills. There are companies in the United States that will actually pay the range to come in and refurbish their berms, giving them a percentage of the money they make selling the reclaimed lead back to this smelting facility. MCB Quantico operates their ranges this way, closing down once every four years for a re-fit that pays for a lot of the ranges’ services. Now that they will need to ship that lead overseas before it is processed, that will make the whole business more expensive and might drive up range fees.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the price of ammunition jumps as well. Heck, this might even kick off a second ammo shortage if things go badly.

Steel ammunition won’t do.  Folks can argue all day long about “soft steel” to replace copper and steel core to replace lead.  But the fact that Eastern Bloc ammunition was made that way is why you can pick up some Mosin Nagants and Mosin carbines and drop a round into the end of the barrel and listen as it drops to the chamber without getting caught on any rifling all the way down.  Steel wears out rifling and (steel casings instead of brass) ruins the action.

Be diligent and continue to build your armory.  I have gotten lazy – a mistake I don’t intend to repeat.



  • Nosmo

    About 8 years ago I noticed that one source I use for cast bullets did not use American lead, but was receiving theirs in 1-ton increments from Brazil. It would not surprise me to learn that a substantial portion of bullet lead has been imported for years. I have no idea of the production capacity of the smelter that’s closing, but I doubt one facility could meet the demand of the entire American ammunition industry.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Right. This may be the sort of thing that while we (justifiably) lament the passing of lead smeltering in the U.S., I wonder about the total affect of it. And it may be that this hollowing out of American smeltering industry has been occurring for a very long time. It has with steel. Crony capitalism, unfair trade laws, and unionized labor here in the U.S. has made the steel industry move overseas. You can’t find major, large scale steel manufacturing in the U.S. anymore. That speaks bad for the ship building industry.

    This has occurred under Bush and also presidents before him. The EPA may be off the chains under Obama, but it grew to monster size proportions under previous administrations. I still would like to see some creative, investigative reporting on this issue as it touches ammunition.

  • Paul B

    EPA is off the reservation. Way to many people in positions of power have no idea how things really work. They do not know where the food comes from that they are buying at those fancy restaurants or clubs they frequent. The do not see crime or criminals in their neighborhoods. they do not go by the soup kitchens or the half way houses the indigent are staying at.

    Personally I think we should abolish the laws that created these behemoths, but then I am one voice in the hinterlands.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Oh, I think the EPA is of course “off the reservation.” You are aware, are you not, that we pay the salaries of employees to go to each . and . every . gasoline station in America … every … one … where tanks are buried, and take soil samples? Yes, EPA employees out the ass, boat loads of salary, EVERY gas tank in America. Every one.

    As I’ve said before, the federal government is a gigantic jobs program.

  • Paul B

    Yep. I once had an engineer buddy who did that for the EPA. I think he got paid the princely sum of 10$ per hour to run around Iowa testing underground storage tanks.

    They will happily close the only gas station for miles for a few extra microns of MBTE in the soil.

    My sister is a county functionary in Minnesota. I am not allowed to discuss anything government related when she is around.

    It is a Gordian knot at best.

  • Chris Mallory

    You are overlooking recycled lead. Most lead is recycled after use. The recycling smelters are still in operation. Doe Run operates a recycler within 100 miles of the closed smelter.

    The US uses about 62 million metric tons of lead for ammo in a year. We recycle close to 150 million metric tones of lead a year.

    Sierra Bullets has already stated that it only uses recycled lead in it’s production.

    We will still get virgin lead from Canada, they run ore to metal smelters up there.

    Until the recycling smelters are shut down, this is mostly a non story.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    I’m not overlooking, the article specifically mentions recycling. What I don’t know because I don’t have the time to do the investigative reporting on it is what fraction of ammunition has recycled lead versus ore mined and processed.

    It might be a non-story. I don’t know. Until I see the math, I’ll hold my judgment in abatement.

  • Mark Matis

    For those of you claiming we can get lead from other countries, do understand that the Feds can stop import from same when they choose. And since they are getting away with THESE regulations, one might also understand they can now further tighten the restrictions on recycling smelters to the point where THOSE are also impractical to operate.

    And there is always the “Gibson Guitars” approach as well.

    But do note that 2008, when the EPA issued the current regulations which have shut down the Doe Run primary smelter, was back when Shrub II was still in charge. Rove Republicans are no better than Democrats.

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    Yes, this is one thing that concerns me Mark. The feds can control imports just like they can control domestic manufacturing.

    And Rove republicans ARE democrats, just in costume.

  • Chris Mallory

    According to this link, http://www.indexmundi.com/en/commodities/minerals/lead/lead_t5.html , the US uses 1,430,000 metric tons of lead a year (2009 and 2010 figures). Ammunition used 65,000 metric tons or 5% of the total lead used in the US. In 2006, the Doe Run smelter produced 10% of the total lead used in the US, 140,300 metric tons of virgin lead. The primary use of lead in the US is in lead acid batteries.

  • John Galtwell

    The TTAG section of the article seems a bit off base in their concerns. They talk about how ranges “will have to ship their reclaimed lead overseas for processing” when that is simply not the case. Lead reclaimed from shooting ranges will still be able to go to secondary smelters, as was clearly stated in the Ammoland quote at the beginning of the article: “Several secondary smelters, where lead is recycled from products such as lead acid batteries, or spent ammunition components, still operate in the United States.”

    I still have concerns about losing the only primary smelter, from both a market price perspective, as well as a strategic national security perspective. One would think that someone at the Pentagon would speak up about how this isn’t a great idea, or perhaps even fund the plant upgrades. $100 million is a rounding error at the Pentagon; they could do that right now off they wanted to do so.

    But then again, the current administration seems to get rid of all of the officers that speak out. I have read in the past how the military is moving toward so-called “green” ammo; so if the rest of the industry follows suit, then perhaps the impact won’t be as bad, but undoubtedly it will be more expensive.

  • Mark Matis

    You should understand by now, John Galtwell, that the current administration only gets rid of those officers who speak out against the Muslim in Chief. All the Perfumed Princes and Perfumed Princesses are free to cheer him enthusiastically any time they want.

  • Richard Sleksik

    I can bet the next move will be to restrict The movement or transportation of ANYTHING lead,recycled,ore,raw ingots,you name it,the movement will be either banned,or taxed and regulated to the point of uneconomic feasability.the gun grabbers and fellow travelers have been chipping away at this for years as just another avenue to get rid of guns by useing an enviromental excuse.

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  • Michael Lewis

    Let’s take the long view. The Government got their 2 BILLION rounds. Just months later down goes the last lead smelting company in the U.S. Now where do you get ammo if you need it and they decide to stop importation of ammo? This is getting to stink.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Ammunition and was published November 4th, 2013 by Herschel Smith.

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