Shot Wars

As I channel hop among the outdoor shows that clutter my TV screen, the gunning activity most certain to hold my attention is waterfowl hunting. Chances are I've even shared a blind or two with the stars and know their performances to be as genuine as editing and condensed time allow. What I pay closest attention to, however, is how the ducks and geese are crumpled cleanly and tumble out of the sky at distances that, judging by the time it takes them to fall, are sometimes upward of 60 yards. Watching these shows, I often wish there existed a time machine to propel the shooters back to those troubled days when such wing-shooting performance was predicted to be nearing its end. Those were the years of the great nontoxic-versus-lead wars that polarized the hunting world and roiled the shooting industry.


For Generation-X hunters, who weren't around at that time, a brief history: Back in the 1970s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service let it be known that the lead shot used by generations of hunters was taking an increasing toll on waterfowl populations.

Its studies, especially those of respected waterfowl authority Frank Bellrose, indicated that the decline in waterfowl populations was due--at least in part--to the ingestion of lead pellets, which had been accumulating for years in areas frequented by waterfowl.

The digestive processes by which the toxic lead entered the birds' systems are too complex to describe here, but in the end, as claimed by the FWS, the lead was a direct cause of either death or weakening the waterfowl's resistance to avian cholera and other deadly diseases.

To halt and hopefully reverse the declining populations, the FWS proposed that after certain dates in the not-too-distant future--and allowing for public and industrial input--only nontoxic shot would be allowed for waterfowl hunting within U.S. borders. By "nontoxic," it meant shot that contained no lead or other metal or mineral that could be harmful if ingested by waterfowl. At that time the only viable nontoxic shot was iron and its alloys, but iron is lighter than lead and therefore ballistically inferior.

Not only was the nontoxic shot that existed at the time not very efficient, but it was found to cause visible damage to the bores of shotgun barrels and, in some cases, even distorted chokes. And what had been smoldering anti-FWS sentiment over the proposed nontoxic regulations burst into open flame with an ill-advised press release by Winchester Corp. detailing the "crippling rate" of its nontoxic shot tests.

I say ill-advised because when Winchester's team of biologists and ballisticians learned that the raw data from their preliminary testing had been made public, they were mortified and outraged. One of the company's top specialists resigned in angry protest because what had been only a baseline study for evaluating future nontoxic developments was now widely read as the definitive test of steel-shot performance, especially after hundreds of outdoor writers put their spin on the "crippling factor."


During that time I was one of the "guns" involved in evaluating experimental steel-shot loads. This was done mostly on Maryland's Eastern Shore, with trained observers who recorded the range of each shot and its effect on the duck or goose shot at. The performance of those first steel-shot loads was dismal and pretty much confirmed the crippling rate reported in the Winchester tests.

This caused us to question whether steel could ever be a viable alternative to lead shot except at ranges of 30 yards or less. That would mean that "pass shooting" at high-flying waterfowl, which was traditional and even necessary in some hunting venues, could become a thing of the past.

Looking back on those days in the test fields and my conversations with the ammo industry, I'm inclined to wonder whether there might have been some foot dragging--intentional or not--in developing better nontoxic ammo. Perhaps there was an unspoken consensus that if crippling rates remained high, the FWS might relent on the proposed lead shot ban and go away.

Whatever hopes may have been harbored that the FWS would revise the lead shot ban were diminished as more and more waterfowl-hunting zones were declared nontoxic-only. Also, anti-hunting organizations, though not as vociferous as they are now, began homing in on the steel-shot debate, as did some other normally uncommitted conservation groups.

Combining the shooting industry's own widely known "crippling factor" statistics with the FWS's data on lead poisoning, the antis were making a case for banning waterfowl hunting altogether.

This was the watershed moment when hunters, the FWS and the shooting industry found themselves on the same side of the battlefield against a common enemy. If the war was to be won, it would have to be through the mutual acceptance and promotion of steel and possibly other types of nontoxic shot.

OUTDOOR LIFE and some other outdoor publications embarked on a pro-nontoxic education program. I recall times when I gave advice on shooting steel shot with more than a little trepidation, knowing that some readers would be resentful or even hostile, seeing me as a traitor to traditional waterfowling. There were also times when I and other writers knew we were treading on unproven paths with little more than theory to light our way.

But there were also real gems of advice to offer. Truisms that we take for granted today were near revolutionary in the 1970s. For example, because steel shot is generally rounder and smoother than lead, and not subject to being deformed by its passage through the barrel, it tends to fly truer than lead, with fewer "flyers" escaping from the pattern. That makes it possible to use a more open choke and gain a wider but still sufficiently dense pattern.

Or there's the fact that you can use a larger size steel shot than lead, thus compensating somewhat for its ballistic disadvantage. This and other useful tidbits were fed into the information hopper, along with news about how the nearly dormant 10-gauge magnum was getting a new life with steel-shot loads.

Ammunition manufacturers were by then freeing themselves from the paradigms that had thus far shackled steel-shot innovation. Whereas steel shot had previously been regarded as just a substitute for lead, the steel-shot shot-shell came to be viewed as a unit in its own right, from base to crimp, with its own unique dynamics.


Improvements--some small, others revolutionary--fell into place one after the other, and season after season saw improved loadings. By the 1980s, the myth that it was "impossible to load an ounce of steel shot" had long since been disproved by the simple expedient of designing more spacious shot cups. This, however, was not as easy as it sounds, because the cup and wad are part of a combustion sequence that requires rigid balancing. Change one element and everything else changes, meaning different loads and even entirely new types of propellants had to be developed. But by then the ammo industry had the steel-shot bit in its teeth and was in full gallop.

Along the way the search continued for a ballistically superior yet nontoxic alternative to steel shot. The one found to be most satisfactory was an alloy of bismuth that the FWS approved for waterfowl hunting in the late 1990s. Promoted and financed by billionaire sportsman and publisher Robert E. Petersen (of Petersen's Hunting), bismuth shot is both softer and heavier than steel shot, with a density of 9.69 grams per cubic centimeter to steel's 7.86 grams per cc (lead is slightly over 11 grams per cc), and thus ballistically superior to steel at the same shot size.

Through his efforts to win FWS's approval for bismuth shot, Petersen also encouraged the development of other nontoxic metals for shot, most notably various alloys and mixes of tungsten. While even heavier than lead, with a density of 19.3 grams per cc, tungsten is also harder than steel and requires specialized loading.

With goose hunters reporting kills at up to 100 yards with tungsten-based shot, you might think there'd be a general rush to tungsten loads. But according to an industry spokesman, this has not been the case. Steel-shot ammo outsells tungsten by a factor of more than 20 to 1.

One reason, of course, is the higher price of tungsten loads. But a more important and lasting reason is that today's steel-shot loads (with muzzle velocities topping 1,500 fps) are delivering just about all the performance we can take advantage of, as illustrated in the TV shows mentioned earlier.

Looking back over three decades of the nontoxic wars is like visiting old battlefields now covered with vines and flowers. The heroes are mostly forgotten, but their legacy lives large.


One of my favorite examples of a seemingly small yet vitally important innovation is Federal's plastic cup for steel shot.

Part of the much discussed and lamented damage done to shotgun bores by steel shot was caused by shot pressing through the vertical slits in shot cups. With soft lead shot, this had been of no concern, but the harder steel shot left shallow cuts or grooves, called "scoring," on the barrel walls, which were disturbingly visible after only a few shots.

Federal's simple cure, in addition to making the plastic cup thicker, was to cut the slits at an angle, so the edges overlapped and prevented shot from touching the bore.