While cleaning out his barn recently, my neighbor came upon an old piece of literature.
Thinking I might find some inspiration for a story, he passed it along to me. It was the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s 1976-77 Migratory Bird Project Report.
There was indeed plenty of interesting stuff, but one item in particular caught my attention. The 1976 season was the first where the use of steel shot was required for waterfowling on the waters of Merrymeeting Bay (in 10- and 12-gauge guns).
The report notes: “Informal contact with hunters on the area indicated that the 1976 regulation was little more than a nuisance and irritation.” It goes on to say, “… without a doubt there was much violation of what appeared to be a very unpopular, unnecessary, and unenforceable regulation.” I reluctantly admit to being old enough to remember those days, and to being among the majority, at least with regard to my attitude.
I followed the letter of the law, albeit begrudgingly.
I, and most waterfowlers at that time, wasn’t overly impressed with ammo manufacturer’s early attempts to provide compliant loads. Being significantly lighter than lead, steel is faster, which required wingshooters to relearn how to lead flying birds. It also doesn’t have the knockdown power, which reduced effective range.
It wasn’t until several years later, while working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that I witnessed first-hand the necessity of the change. We found lead shot was abundant in soil samples taken from feeding areas, and in the gizzards of waterfowl found dead or dying months after the hunting season.
While hunters were bemoaning their new burden, ammo makers were feverishly looking for alternatives to the much maligned steel shot.
They tried all manner of non-toxic alloys and elements like tin, zinc, tungsten and bismuth. They continue to tinker, but today most major manufacturers offer several choices in non-toxic alternatives to steel that are quite effective.
Meanwhile, both gun and ammo makers also sought ways to make more powerful steel loads. They moved first to 3-inch, and eventually 31/2-inch loads, and guns chambered to accept them. These combos provided similar ballistics to the 10-gauge, but with a bit less punishment on the shooter.
About the same time waterfowl aficionados were perfecting non-toxic shot, biologists and volunteers with the National Wild Turkey Federation were restoring turkey populations to huntable levels, and interest in turkey hunting was rising dramatically.
Turkey hunters were quick to adopt the larger loads and chambers from their hip-booted brethren. And as lead shot was (and still is) permitted for turkey hunting, they could shoot even more effective loads.
Then someone noticed that some of the non-toxic alloys were actually ballistically superior to lead. One of the first to stand out was Hevi-Shot. Instead of being perfectly round, like most shotgun pellets, Hevi-Shot pellets were misshapen.
As a result, they held a much tighter pattern at longer ranges, a particularly desirable trait for the turkey hunter. When combined with longer shells and more powder, they practically doubled the effective killing range of a turkey gun — from 25 to 40 or even 50 yards. Meanwhile, waterfowlers are now meeting or exceeding effective ranges not known since the days of lead shot.
Someone once told me when confronted with an obstacle you should view it not as a problem, but an opportunity. I initially thought it was just business school rhetoric, but have since found it a pretty useful philosophy.
Few of us welcome change. But when we find it thrust upon us we have little choice. We can grumble and learn to live with it, or we can find ways to exploit it for a better purpose.
Bob Humphrey is a freelance writer and registered Maine guide who lives in Pownal. He can be contacted at: