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Giving guns a shot of iron
Frank Graham
May 19, 1969
Shotgun shells loaded with lead are fatal to ducks in more ways than one, and the industry is trying to come up with a substitute metal
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May 19, 1969

Giving Guns A Shot Of Iron

Shotgun shells loaded with lead are fatal to ducks in more ways than one, and the industry is trying to come up with a substitute metal

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Lead is a weighty problem that has agitated waterfowl experts for most of this century. Tons of it, in the form of shot fired at ducks and geese, pave the hard shallow bottoms of some of the country's finest hunting grounds. After the hunters go home, feeding ducks mistake the shot for seed or grit, swallow it by the billful and die, swiftly or otherwise, of lead poisoning. Some biologists estimate the "wastage" at one million ducks a year.

There have been sporadic attempts to coat lead shot with nontoxic substances, or substitute other metals. Until now, none of them had proved successful. The synthetic coatings quickly dissolved, the alternate metals damaged gun barrels or lacked lead's wallop. But a long series of tests carried out during the last year at the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife's Patuxent research center in Maryland dispel all bugaboos about iron except its cost.

"If and when industry can manufacture a soft iron shot economically," says Ralph Andrews, a biologist with the bureau, "it will kill ducks as efficiently as present loads of lead shot. And it won't result in an increase in the loss of crippled ducks."

All of which comes as a jolt to the ammunition makers. Though the industry cooperated handsomely with the bureau, contriving an ingenious automatic shooting device and supplying specially manufactured iron shot for the tests, it was not quite prepared for the results. Now it must adopt the alternative to its "polluting" product with all deliberate speed or face that recurring nightmare of big business—federal legislation.

In the past, most shooting tests were carried out on a small scale, and thus were inconclusive. But at Patuxent some 2,000 game-farm mallards gave up their lives to discredit a couple of old wives' tales about iron. The tests proved that No. 4 iron shot performs as well against ducks as No. 4 lead shot. They also proved that iron, properly softened, does not damage gun barrels.

The appropriate cautionary remarks accompanied the biologists' report on the tests at Patuxent, but, nevertheless, the industry was disturbed, and the bureau sensitive.

"There's no story in iron now," one bureau official said. "It's so expensive to produce that it might as well be gold or silver. Pesticides are the big story at Patuxent this year."

But the real feeling at Patuxent is that industry had better pick up the iron pellet and run with it. Lead poisoning among ducks has been described and deplored by gunners for a century, and the damage grows more severe as good habitat shrinks. Ducks congregate at the remaining choice feeding grounds, and hunters follow the ducks. As a result, most stray pellets fall where they are most likely to be picked up and swallowed.

"The average hunter fires five shots for every duck he bags," says Frank C. Bellrose Jr. of the Illinois Natural History Survey. "As many as 1,400 pellets may be deposited on waterfowl hunting grounds for every duck killed."

Researchers probing the bottom of Wisconsin's Lake Puckaway found 118,000 lead pellets an acre. Sixty thousand an acre were scooped off the bottom of marshes along California's San Joaquin River, and 64,000 an acre at Heron Lake, Minnesota. An estimated 6,000 tons of pellets are sprayed out over waterfowl habitat each year. Much of it sinks into the ooze, but where bottoms are hard, the lead and the trouble pile up.

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Maryland 628 0 3
Wisconsin 617 0 3
California 4412 0 4
Minnesota 1076 0 0