In the early 1600s, the first crude shotguns appeared, offering many advantages over the muskets of the day-not least of which was the ability to shoot birds in flight. With the advent of these new "scatterguns" came the birth of wingshooting.
Early shotguns had limited effective ranges, for barrel choking wasn't introduced until after the American Civil War. Unchoked guns did well to place more than 40 percent of their shot in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. Gun historians still debate the origins of the revolutionary concept of choking. With little conclusive evidence to determine whether American Fred Kimble or Englishman W. R. Pape was first to develop the shotgun choke, any statement favoring one over the other probably has more to do with which side of the Atlantic one lives on than with fact.
The invention of the first practical, all brass, center-fire shotgun shells helped usher in the breech-loading shotgun by the mid-1800s. By the 1870s, a less-expensive shell, consisting of a brass head and a tightly wound paper body, was introduced. Unlike the all-brass shells, the paper cartridges were sold already loaded from the factory, another notable step in the evolution of shotgunning.
Guns and Their Make
Prior to 1873, most double-barreled guns were the product of British gunsmiths, works of art out of reach of the average American hunter. But in 1873, Remington introduced its first double-barreled shotgun-armament in keeping with Remington's established tradition of producing quality guns with affordable price tags. As fine as it was, the Remington offering didn't supplant the well-established British doubles. Pragmatic Americans, however, found pump guns more to their liking around the mid-1880s. A significant advancement in pump guns occurred in 1904, when Stevens introduced the Model 520, the first hammerless pump gun.
Perhaps no pump gun ever reached the notoriety of Winchester's famed Model 12, released in 1912. The Model 12 became the standard by which all other pumps would be judged. Its quality machining and smooth operation have never been matched, nor are they likely to be, for producing such quality today would price the gun beyond the range of its intended market.
On December 17, 1901, a bellwether date in the history of shotgunning, legendary gun designer John Browning received a patent for his now-famous Auto-5 repeating ("autoloader" or "semiautomatic") shotgun. The A-5's effectiveness soon won it an ardent following among hunters and market gunner, who admired its efficiency and ability to cycle rounds without needing a pump. Technological advances helped win more fans of the autoloaders, improving their reliability and convincing a generation of shooters that autoloaders were the guns of the future.
This is not to say that early autoloaders had no drawbacks. Most early entries could not readily cycle different loads with mechanical adjustments. Surprisingly enough, the first 12-gauge autoloader that could handle most 12-gauge loads without jamming was introduced by Smith & Wesson, the now-famous handgun maker.
In 1960, the first plastic shotshell hulls were introduced, ushering in the modern era of shotshell reloading. Mayvill Engineering Company (MEC), the venerable Wisconsin company that manufactures shotshell reloaders, has sold more than 2.5 million reloaders, testament to the popularity of reusable shotshells. The plastic hulls decay at a geologic pace, however, and hunters who leave their hulls behind in the field contribute to an insidious form of pollution. In Zutz's words, "ýthere is little difference between pitching a beer can from a car window and dropping empty plastic hulls into the marsh."
Steel and Other Nontoxic Shot
Listen to conversations around modern duck clubs, and you're apt to believe that hunters never missed when using lead shot. Conversely, steel shot, some contend, is to blame for everything from high crippling rates on ducks to high blood pressure in hunters. Like it or not, the evidence that lead shot was poisoning millions of waterfowl and other species led to the initial steps that banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting. Despite what is commonly believed, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service never intended lead shot to be banned for waterfowl hunting nationwide.
Instead, wrote biologist William Anderson in a report for the International Waterfowl and Wetlands Research Bureau (IWWRB), "in a twist of irony, legal actions intended to restrict the use of nontoxic shot ultimately had the opposite effect. The federal government's original plan in 1976 called for converting only those counties in which an average of greater than two waterfowl per square mile were harvested annually. Thanks to legal actions, this plan was never fully implemented, and the ensuing legal tug-of-war eventually manifested in the court-reinforced decision to require nontoxic shot for all waterfowl hunting throughout the United States."
Though it may make little sense to require steel shot for, say, goose hunting in a field where it is perfectly legal to hunt pheasants or other upland game with lead shot, there is a widespread consensus among wildlife biologists that lead shot poses a hazard to waterfowl in areas where gunners repeatedly use it. In one U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service study, it was estimated that roughly 6.5 million birds were saved thanks to the switch from lead to steel shot in heavily hunted areas from 1986 to 1991.
Still, many hunters are skeptical and contend that steel shot has substantially increased the number of crippled ducks. The loss of more wounded birds, the argument goes, offsets the number of birds saved by the switch from lead to steel. When scientifically tested, however, steel shot performed as well as lead in bringing birds to hand. Could it be that poor shooters found a handy alibi for their inability to kill birds when steel shot came the waterfowling scene?
The search for a nontoxic alternative to steel continued, however, with nearly forty attempts being made-and failing. In some cases, the new shot was too expensive to produce in quantity. In other instances, the chosen substances held no ballistical advantage over steel. Others were lead-based and, therefore, ultimately doomed to fail the tough toxicity standards set by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. One such shot was developed by Canadian John Brown, a carpenter by trade and a waterfowler by passion. His nickel-plated lead shot held the ballistic requirements of an effective waterfowl load, but failed to pass as a nontoxic alternative to steel shot.
Brown's search continued, however. He discovered that a substance called bismuth-the active ingredient in the widely used digestive medicine Pepto Bismol-had many of the handling properties of lead, with a specific gravity roughly halfway between that of iron (steel) and lead. Bismuth's density advantage allows it to retain energy longer and, because you don't have to compensate with larger, less dense shot-as is the case with steel-you can expect better pattern density.
Buoyed by his initial tests of homemade bismuth shot, Brown took his idea to Los Angeles publisher Robert E. Petersen, a well-known shooter and collector of fine double shotguns. Petersen had long been interested in finding a nontoxic alternative to steel, preferably a new shot that wouldn't damage the thinly walled barrels of this high dollar guns. Thanks to Petersen's financial backing of extensive toxicity studies, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service appeared ready to approve bismuth as a nontoxic substance for shot, giving American waterfowlers a choice of shots for the first time since the nationwide ban on lead for waterfowling was implemented in 1991. Questions about the world supply of bismuth and the cost of producing bismuth cartridges remain, so it is still unclear how the market will respond to this shot, especially as the many steel shot detractors come to discover that they are as apt to miss with bismuth as they were with steel and lead.
Some of the criticism against steel is not without merit. Early steel loads suffered from a technological time lag, since steel shot posed new problems for gun and ammunition manufacturers. Slow-burning powders had to be used to keep the hard steel pellets from binding in the chamber and cone bore portions of a shotgun. Unlike lead, the steel pellets would not readily deform to accommodate the payload passing through the constricted choke. Under too much pressure and too tight a choke, steel shot posed the risk of causing ring bulging in a gun's bore.
Early steel loads also lacked the wet-proofing of modern loads; if they got wet-an inherent likelihood when waterfowling-the shot would rust. While such pellets would not form a solid steel slug as is often thought, rusted pellets could lose some of their aerodynamic properties. Most steel shot used today is coated with a micro layer of copper or other rust inhibitor. High-density plastic shot cups ("wads") also had to be developed to protect barrels from the hardened shot.
None of this changed the fact that the lighter steel pellets lose their energy faster than do lead pellets. Despite what some hunters believe, steel shot is not larger than lead shot. Shot sizes are identical; that is, a No. 4 steel pellet and a No. 4 lead pellet are both .130-inch in diameter. The difference, then, is that steel pellets weigh about 30 percent less than do lead pellets of the same size. This is the fact behind the concept of selecting steel pellets two or three shot sizes larger than the lead shot formerly used for waterfowling.
The idea is straightforward enough. If you use No. 4 lead, for instance, you'll want to switch to No. 2 steel to approximate the ballistic property of the lead 4s. The larger steel pellets will retain their energy longer, compensating for steel's inherent shortcoming in density. It's true that with larger shot there will be fewer pellets per shell, but the perfectly round steel pellets help offset this loss by distributing a more even pattern than does lead shot, which is often swaged in the firing process.
Because the harder steel shot does not deform like lead, large steel pellets can bunch up when fired through tightly choked guns. This increases stress on shotgun barrels, which can ruin patterns, cause ring bulging, and present a safety hazard to shooters. Consequently, some shotgun manufactures recommend not shooting steel shot larger than No. 1 in guns with full chokes, especially older guns that lack the stronger barrels made for shooting modern steel loads.
Selecting the best steel loads for your favorite kind of waterfowling should start at the pattern board, for each gun and load combination may bring unique results even if both gun and shotshell are from the same factory. Having tried a number of load and choke combinations in 12 gauge, I've found that steel No. 2s perform best out of the modified 12-gauge I typically employ when duck hunting. Ballistically, that makes sense, given that the pellet energy of a No. 2 steel shot pellet is similar to a No. 4 lead pellet at 40 yards. Much has been made of the supposed tight patterning of steel shot, but experts have cautioned against assuming that steel loads will always pattern tighter than equivalent lead loads fired from the same gun. Again, test loads for yourself.
I've found steel shot sizes smaller than No. 3 to be too light for most mid-to large-sized ducks, though teal readily succumb to these loads at close to medium ranges (25 to 40 yards). After comparing the relative effectiveness between the 3 ý-inch 12-gauge and the 10-gauge for geese, I've opted for the larger payload of the 10 gauge loaded in BBBs or Ts. The large steel pellets mean that pattern density will decrease, but the larger 10-gauge loads help offset this by providing slightly more shot capacity. The larger pellets, too, retain energy longer and can, if used by skilled wingshooters, consistently kill birds at ranges of 60 to 70 yards.
Much hyperbole has been both spoken and written about how hunters must adjust their leads when shooting steel shot. Malarkey! Lead and steel shot share similar muzzle velocities, which means the distance one leads a bird in flight with either shot should be the same. For instance, the difference in muzzle velocity between a 1 1/8-ounce load of No. 2 steel and a 1 ý-ounce load of No. 4 lead is only 35 feet per second-the steel being slightly faster. Translated, that means there is only two-thousandths of a second, or 1.4 inches, in lead differential at 40 yards between the two. If you're missing with steel, you will very likely miss with lead.
No matter your gun and load combination, sift through recommendations from armchair waterfowling experts carefully; otherwise, you'll be up to your gizzard in half-baked wisdom if you're not discriminating. Perhaps the best advice is to adopt a test-it-yourself approach to unsolicited advice, for it's always wise to leave the guesswork and theories to neophytes.
[Information courtesy of Chris Dorsey, author of Wildfowler's Season-Modern Methods for a Classic Sport]