Ban Lead Hunting Ammo: We Are Not Survivalists Any More
Warning: This article contains graphic imagery.
Ballistics short course: lead is dense and soft and cheaper than gold. These features make it attractive for use as ammunition. Dense means more shocking power on impact. Soft means instant deforming of the aerodynamic pellet or bullet into a big fat crushing deforming injury-inflicting instrument. The cheaper than gold part is self-evident.
Rifle and pistol shooters like lead bullets because the density holds speed and transfers shocking power. Shotgunners like lead pellets for the same reasons. A faster projectile with a flatter trajectory also makes it easier to adjust one’s aim.
I am no ballistics expert, but over the years I dabbled in reloading hot loads for a .270 rifle with a Mauser action and a glass-bedded Douglas barrel, so there are a few boxes of hand loaded copper and lead bullets in my tidy little armory. I also reloaded shotshells for bird hunting, and have dozens of cases of lead and steel rounds on hand. (I guess those lead rounds will be consigned to the target range.)
One BB size lead fragment can kill an eagle. Bird hunters can leave 400,000 pellets per acre of intensely hunted areas. Wild swans ingest lead pellets from both water feeding and land feeding.
In the 1980s, the government proposed a ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting. Ducks and geese and their allies feed in areas where hunters rain down millions of pellets of shot, of which only one or two ingested are fatal, and birds wounded with a few lead pellets were likewise doomed. Poisoning losses were widely decried. Steel shot pellets were the only available alternative at that time.
Sportsmen and gun aficionados protested. Steel, lacking softness and deformity, only punches holes in birds and does not kill them here and now, they said, correctly. Steel damages favored antique guns. Probably also true. Wacko enviros and animal lovers are depriving us of hunting and shooting and freedom, decried others, engaging in unfounded hyperbole.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) was pushing the anti-lead shot agenda under presidents both Democratic and Republican. Field studies, ballistics reports, Environmental Impact Statements, Congressional findings, filled the public record. The Second Amendment was invoked. It was a hot topic.
FWS decided to implement an early site-specific ban on lead shot at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in 1986, ahead of the scheduled nationwide ban for waterfowl hunting in 1991. My buddies and I hunt waterfowl there every fall. We were torn. We liked the idea of preventing geese and swans from dying from eating all of our copious misspent pellets, partly because most of us were not consistently efficient marksmen with fowling pieces. On the other hand, a box of lead shot 4s was about $3 in those days, and a box of steel shot 2s was about $10. One needed to shoot larger steel pellets to compensate for the lack of mass.
The cost was one thing, particular for us inefficient shooters. Crippling losses were another. Steel pellets do not deform or slow down much on their way through a duck; they penetrate like bullets instead of spread out like lead pellets. We would set up two parties on nearby islands, about 200 yards apart, with a spread of decoys between the islands. We would stretch strings of decoys out in lines to pull ducks down the lines into the group of apparently calm relaxed birds, only to take them out. Sometimes a bird would fly low straight over the hunters on the island, soon greeted by a hail of steel fired vertically. Often I saw a spray of feathers and entrails erupt above a fast-flying bird, a direct hit from a steel-firing shotgun, and the bird kept flying, only to die a mile away. Lead shot would have stopped that bird right now.
We learned and adapted. We bought larger shot and kept tighter chokes in our guns. We agreed that if a shooter hit a bird, everyone would fire again until the bird dropped lifeless. We did not take long shots, mostly. Crippling losses finally dropped. And of course with elimination of lead, ingestion losses stopped.
Lead shot continues to be universally used by hunters of upland birds: pheasants, grouse, partridges, quail, dove. This practice litters the landscape with toxic lead, but in generally diffused concentrations. There are exceptions. Near Hawk Springs (Wyoming) is a public hunting area where the Game and Fish Dept. plants pheasants and issues permits on a daily drawing. This area receives such intensive hunting pressure that the G&F banned lead shot there in the early 1980s. I don’t recall many complaints about reduced pheasant mortality, and there were not any significant protests by various NRA chapters and their allies.
Montana Dept of Fish, Wildlife & Parks tried the same thing at the heavily hunted Freezeout Lake NWR and related bird hunting management areas a few years ago, and gave up against the hail of public protest. This is a migratory staging area for hundreds of thousands of Canada Geese, Snow Geese and Tundra Swans, among dozens of species of waterfowl. I have hunted there with steel shot for decades. In an area with grain fields, irrigation drains, weed patches and little ponds, it is impossible to carry lead shot for the pheasants and steel shot for the teal and mallards, so, you carry only steel. It works. No Second Amendment concerns about personal safety, revolting against tyranny and feeding the family have been threatened or compromised here, at least in my view. Others disagree vehemently. I am sure we will hear from them in response to this column.
The game wardens at Fort Benton NWR in Montana carry magnets. Open up that double gun and test those shells. Gee, that was easy. No worries about the Second Amendment while afield today.
The controversies over curtailing use of lead shot for bird hunting pale in contrast to the latest debate about banning use of lead ammunition for all hunting. At first blush, one might point out that a typical bird hunter might fire dozens or even a hundred rounds in an exciting day of hunting, whereas a deer or elk hunter might fire once, or a few times. How much lead are we talking about from big game hunting?
The problem is this: lead bullets used for big game hunting, larger and heavier than shotshell pellets, hit the target with ferocious velocity, causing massive fragmentation and penetration of muscles and organs. Gut piles and trimmed out ruined (“bloodshot”) muscle tissues are left in the field, to be consumed by vultures, eagles, magpies, crows and mammals. It does not take much lead to kill a bird. The gizzard grinds up the soft lead and it dissolves in the blood.
My new issue of The Annual Report of the American Bird Conservancy, a can-do organization which preserves habitats and environmental conditions for birds, features a photo of a dying bald eagle. The latest issue of Audubon magazine features a searing indictment of lead ammunition by Ted Williams, a guy who irritates me often but not this month.
Williams found that copper rifle ammunition is about three times the cost of lead ($35 per box versus $14), but a box or two of 20 rounds will last most hunters a season or two.
Since 2000 there have been 276 documented cases of lead contamination (“plumbism”) in California condors, but lead ammunition remains legal for hunting in Arizona and California. There are only about 380 condors alive on the planet; one concludes that these numbers are alarming. Gov. Schwarzenegger did sign a bill in 2007 which will eventually protect parts of the condors’ range.
Closer to home, there are many hunting groups which donate venison to needy people. In 2007 the North Dakota Dept. of Health x-rayed packages of ground venison donated by the Safari Club’s “Hunters for the Hungry.” Fifty-eight of 100 packages contained lead fragments; 17,000 pounds of donated venison were recalled and destroyed.
Numerous hunting and gun lobbying groups have launched heated attacks on proposed legislation, legislators and anti-lead lobbyists. The debate won’t end soon.
Meanwhile we ban lead from paint, toys, jewelry and lots of stuff which comes from China. Why not hunting ammo?