For years there has been a push to require nontoxic shotshells for upland bird hunting. California was the first state to ban all lead ammunition for hunting purposes, and many states have lead restrictions on specific wildlife management areas that hold upland species. Studies have shown that mourning doves, bobwhite quail, and chukar are susceptible to lead toxicity under certain conditions. Pheasants seem more resistant to lead ingestion impacts. While research has been conducted to determine how likely it is for gamebirds to consume lead pellets mistaken for grit or seeds in grasslands, harvested crop fields, or shooting preserves, more targeted investigations are warranted to determine comprehensive impacts on wildlife.
Lead is Pb on the periodic table of elements. It is assumed the designation is from the Latin word plumbum. And yes, this is the origin of “plumbing,” as Romans used water pipes manufactured from lead. Known uses of the metal have been traced by archeologists to at least 7,500 years BC. Various uses were discovered because of the low melting point and malleable properties of the dense metal, enabled by smelting with wood-fueled fires and simple molding. Its toxicity has also been recognized since ancient times, but mostly ignored until the last century. Annie Oakley succumbed to “pernicious anemia” (lead poisoning) at age 66 from handloading thousands of rounds of ammunition to exacting recipes for her performances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show.
After World War II, regulatory agencies from around the globe began restricting and banning lead from products with which humans came in contact. Common uses of lead in the recent past were as additives for paint and gasoline now prohibited. Today, industries justify more than 10 million tons of lead in the manufacturing of products—the main commodity being batteries. Even Tesla uses lead-acid batteries because they can store significant charging power with high current, for limited periods of time, and function in cold weather. Their recharging capability makes batteries viable for a wide variety of applications. About half of the lead now utilized comes from recycled sources.
Even before the “hand cannon” was invented by the Chinese during the Yuan Dynasty, lead projectiles were being flung from slings for hunting and warfare. The first firearms shot crude stone or cast-iron “bullets.” In the mid-1500s lead balls were introduced and used in muzzleloading guns with lethal results for game and human combatants. Proliferation of lead ammo was aided by increasing sophistication of firearm design and because the material was cheap and easy to form into bullets. Its density was effective for the requirements. Density is defined simply as mass per unit volume.
In modern times, numerous improvements were achieved in the manufacturing processes of lead shot for bird hunting. One physical characteristic is paramount: the more perfectly spherical the pellet, the truer it travels through the atmosphere toward the target. Other variables that made lead popular for fowling was adding other metals to the molten mix (alloys) to reduce brittleness, increase hardness, and deliver uniformity and consistent sizes of shot for the intended purpose. The famous scribe of romantic waterfowl-hunting tales Nash Buckingham touted 3-inch, 12-gauge magnum shells “loaded with copper-plated #4s.” The United States Fish and Wildlife Service phased out lead for duck hunting by 1991.
The Field, the world’s oldest shooting sports magazine, published an article in 1876 documenting deaths of pheasants by lead shot poisoning through the accidental uptake for grit. In the 1943 book, Waterfowl In Iowa (illustrated by Maynard Reece), an entire chapter was dedicated to the subject of lead toxicity in ducks. It was estimated that millions of birds died each year by ingesting pellets, and many more had severe health issues from sublethal doses. Mortality has been documented in 130 different avian species because of lead ingestion.
Great controversy surrounded the restriction of lead pellets, as early nontoxic loads—steel—were not nearly as effective as traditional loads. Steel is much less dense and patterned differently in favored fowling guns, yielding reduced lethality. Steel was so hard that it scored the barrels of some classic shotguns. A race began among manufacturers to find a lead substitute that was more suitable than the inferior steel shells.
Arriving on the scene were pellets consisting of a secret blend of bismuth and tin. Denser than steel, but soft enough for older scattergun tubes, bismuth seemed to be the solution. However, there was a problem: cost. The original loads were sold in boxes of 10 shells, at three times the price of a box of 25 rounds for steel. Next came tungsten alloy pellets that were even more dense, lethal, and pricey. A marketing scramble ensued by major cartridge brands offering a plethora of choices with “proven advantages,” including unique wads, mixes of shot types and sizes, buffers, pellet plating, pellet shapes, and innovative powder concoctions that pushed velocities to over 1,500 feet per second. In an issue of Ducks Unlimited magazine from 2020, there were three new entrants into the fray that were discussed, which is interesting since we are currently in a flat market where “duck stamp” sales average about 1.4 million per year—down from 2.4 million in 1970.
So, in preparation for the inevitable phaseout of lead in the uplands, there are some prudent ideas for you to consider to extend your days afield and enjoy working dogs. First, get to know the “tool” (your gun) that you prefer. Pattern your scattergun at the range on a four-foot square board at 35 yards with various nontoxic shell brands, specifications, choke tubes, and document the performance factors. Do not believe all the advertising hype—find out for yourself. Some of these “deadly loads” feature hangover level recoil at no extra charge. Next, get expert coaching on busting clay birds and focus on the “looks” you have trouble with. A leading expert on shotgun performance, Tom Roster says, “The average-Joe bird hunter has never patterned their gun and is lucky if he shoots two rounds of skeet per year.” Don’t be like Joe. A $4 shotshell won’t make you a better wingshooter, but an $8 box of steel loads can be effective out to 40 yards on wild pheasants through a gun held in the hands of someone who knows how to use it.
David M. Zumbaugh is a freelancer and conservation editor for American Waterfowler magazine. He is a member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America and Outdoor Writers of Kansas, and is on the board of directors for the Kansas Wildlife Federation.