Back in the early 90s, waterfowl hunters took matters into their own hands, as they usually do, to correct a serious health problem with the birds they hunted. Ducks and geese were ingesting lead pellets while feeding in water and were dying by the thousands of lead poisoning. Apparently, lead shot traveled into the birds' gizzards, where the powerful organ crushed and then mixed body acids with the pellets, causing the usually benign metal to become chemically toxic.
Now lead in its pure, metallic form is not considered poisonous to humans and animals unless it is eaten, or that particular creature has been shot. Hunters have been spewing lead pellets everywhere for at least several centuries and very little environmental damage was ever seen, at least on dry land. But when advances in biological technology proved that waterfowl were eating round lead shot instead of round seeds at popular gunning areas, something had to be done to protect the resource.
Rather than shutting down duck hunting altogether, hunters and the US Fish and Wildlife Service banded together to come up with a non-toxic, lead shot replacement. The obvious choice, steel pellets, instantly took center stage.
The first steel shot loads were awful. I know, because I shot and hated them, and so did a lot of other shooters. On a trip to Chesapeake Bay for diver ducks, I could actually watch the shot charge emerge from my gun barrel and occasionally intersect with a flying duck. Very few went down dead, and the shell-to-bird average was incredibly bad.
The reason? Shot-shell engineers loaded their ammunition with basically the same components as lead and hunters found them to be less than desirable. Slow and expensive, the inferior shells crippled birds and damaged steel gun barrels, and because steel BBs were a lot harder than lead and did not deform, their ultra-tight pattern densities sucked. Hunters discovered that an open choke worked far better than the historical full-choked guns, forcing hunters to buy expensive new ones or somehow re-barrel their old ones.
Shot shell manufacturers slowly began fixing the problems and by the turn of the century, necessity, being the mother of invention, had devised terrific ways of dealing with the toxic shot problem. Physics, superior case wads and newly created gun powders now permitted steel to be driven faster and faster, hitting harder and harder, and hunters finally began accepting steel as their lead shot replacement.
When other non-toxic metals were approved, hunters rejoiced. Bismuth, tungsten, nickel and other metals quickly became the in thing to use while gunning the marsh. The shells patterned well, did not hurt gun barrels, and, in some cases, actually outperformed lead. Velocities in the new non-toxic shells gradually increased and those fortunate enough to afford them had a field day with loads nearing or exceeding 1,450 feet per second.
The new loads, unlike steel, were extremely expensive. A hunter missing three shots from a pump or auto could easily expend nearly ten dollars at a single duck, and that was just too much for the average Joe Duck Hunter. By watching their shots and only firing at birds well inside of 40-yards, frugal hunters retained steel as their first choice and still killed a ton of birds.
By 2004, steel shot speeds had steadily increased, some close to 1400 feet per second, and getting faster each year. For the last few seasons, hunters have basked in the glow from loads traveling at 1550 FPS, which meant that hunters could simply touch the beak of an in-range flying duck with the bead of the barrel, pull the trigger and go pick him up. Forward allowance, or lead (pronounced 'leed'), became secondary to good gun fit, camouflage, decoy placement and close range. Pellets hit harder, penetrated deeper and led to a higher hydrostatic shock factor with more instantaneous kills and far less cripples.
This year, look for more of the same type of velocity increases in steel shot. Remember, speed kills, and today's loads really get out there in a hurry, with some ammunition manufacturers shells exceeding the 1550-FPS landmark.
For instance, as I write this column, I'm looking at a brand new box of 3-inch Remington 12-gauge loads I was asked to try out, each shell crammed with one-and-a-quarter-ounces of number four steel shot. Called HyperSonic steel, the 'hyper' velocity claims on the box are for an amazing and unheard of 1700-fps. That's a lot like shooting a bolt of lightning at a duck, my friends.
The way I have it figured, by the year 2015, hunters will no longer be aiming at the head or beak of a flying, 30-yard duck. Instead, with the ultra-fast loads sure to be on the market by then, a hunter might have to aim behind the fast-moving target just to hit it.