; Steel shot - some technical and safety aspects
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Steel shot - some technical and safety aspects


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									Steel shot - some technical and safety aspects

Over the past few years, steel shot has been used by hunters around the world. The
reason for this is that good old lead shot has been proven to be toxic to waterbirds,
making millions of victims a year. However, many hunters are still sceptical about
the technical and safety qualities of steel shot.

Worldwide, many tonnes of lead are deposited in wetlands due to the use of lead shot.
Waterbirds are known to ingest the pellets, mistaking them for food items or grit, which
is retained in their stomachs to aid in food digestion. Since lead is a poisonous metal, this
feeding habit causes large-scale die-offs of waterbirds.

In a few countries, like Canada, the USA, Denmark and The Netherlands, lead shot is no
longer allowed for waterbird hunting. Hunters in these countries have been using
alternatives successfully for several years now. Still, alternatives suffer bad press,
prejudice and misinformation concerning their safety, effectiveness and impact on guns.
In reality they have much potential for many shooting situations, but they have to be used
with extra care.
“Generally hunters know very little about alternative ammunition. That is why they are
afraid to switch to non-toxic shot,” says Frédéric Pavat, product manager at Browning
International. “Often the problem lies with the users,” he continues. “Many shooters and
hunters don‟t know their own guns very well. The fear for using steel is a result of that.
With the exception of very old or already damaged guns, all guns are suitable for steel
shot. Damage to guns can be prevented by a proper use of the gun and the ammunition.”

Several high-quality non-toxic alternatives have been developed so far. Examples of
alternatives are steel, bismuth, zinc, tin, molybdenum, tungsten and several alloys of
these metals. Steel is the most widely used alternative because it is by far the cheapest
material and most readily available. However, steel does have a few disadvantages.
        Firstly, steel is a lot harder than lead. Its relative hardness, which is expressed on
a scale of 0 to 10 (diamond) is 4, while that of lead is only 1.5 to 2. The rest of the non-
toxic alternatives are approximately equally soft as lead. The hardness of steel increases
the chance of ricochet, or rebound, off hard surfaces. If general hunting guidelines are
followed, ricochet of steel shot is normally an issue in wetlands. Only in frozen wetlands
and in woodlands it has to be taken into account. Generally it is recommenced to wear
safety glasses in these areas, and to avoid shooting towards the ground or in dense forest.
When shooting in a group of hunters, an angle of 45 degrees relative to the neighbouring
hunter should be always be observed. In woodland areas used for timber production, the
use of soft alternatives (e.g. bismuth) is sometimes required to avoid damage to timber
        Then what about the issue of steel shot damaging guns? All steel shot is contained
in plastic wads to protect barrel walls from scratching or wear. “There is no longer any
issue concerning bore erosion as long as any pellet type harder than lead is contained in a
properly designed shotcup system,” explains Tom Roster of CONSEP, the internationally
active Cooperative North American Shotgunning Education Program. “As far as slight
bulging „damage‟ to chokes or choke tubes is concerned,” Roster says, “only steel shot,
cheap steel, tungsten-iron shot, and Hevi-Shot are issues. Even here the so-called damage
is either cosmetic or avoidable by proper use of the gun.” The risk of this barrel
expansion, or ring bulge, is larger with increased tightness of the choke, increased shot
size, use of very old or light-barreled guns, and use of High Performance Shot (which
increases shot velocity).
        The hardness of steel actually forms an advantage in some respects. The pellets
suffer only little deformation upon firing, which allows for a nice uniform shot column.
Lead pellets, on the contrary, are always slightly flattened when fired, which causes
scattering and consequently a less clean hit. Also, flattened pellets pull feathers into the
wound, which decreases penetration.

The CIP (International Proof Commission) is the independent authority which establishes
rules for the gun and ammunition manufacturers. According to the CIP, Standard Steel
cartridges can be fired through any gun proofed to the standard or magnum level for lead.
High Performance steel can only be fired through guns that have passed the so called
Steel Shot Proof, and that consequenlty have a “Steel Shot” stamp. Frédéric Pavat of
Browning International: “The CIP decided that the boxes of shotshells should show three
kinds of special warnings, along the lines of: „Avoid shooting on hard surfaces, water,
roads, frozen water etc..‟, „Do not use shot n°4 over 1/2 choke‟, and „Only use steel shot
in proofed guns‟ - normally guns are proofed at 1300 bar.” Precise brand specific
information can be obtained from the manufacturer. Often, manufacturers include a chart
in the owner manual of the gun, giving information about the recommended combination
of choke and shot type. “In summary,” Pavat adds, “all guns that are less than 15 years
old can shoot steel shot if the user respects the safety warnings that are written on the
cartridge boxes. All guns with removable chokes can shoot steel shot, for example.
However, very few hunters know about this.”

The French National Office for Hunting and Wildlife (ONCFS) conducted a large-scale
research into many aspecs of the use of non-toxic shot. More than thirty types of
commonly used guns were tested during five successive hunting seasons, and almost all
of those fired between 200 and 1000 cartridges of steel shot. The objective was not only
to find out the impact on guns, but also to estimate the effectiveness in real hunting
situations. The results were very uniform. After five hunting seasons, none of the guns
had suffered any significant erosion or deformation. Also, the results in the field did not
indicate any difference between alternative shot and lead shot. The hunters used the same
number of cartridges per bagged bird with both types of ammunition. Also, under
controlled conditions, the degree of penetration and the pellet pattern showed no
significant difference between lead and alternative ammunition at a shooting distance of
thirty meters.
        The same experience is reported by Niels Kanstrup, director of the Danish
Hunters‟ Association. “Neither the number of hunters nor the annual bag changed
significantly since the introduction of a ban on the use of lead shot,” he explains. “The
first main worry – the risk of guns exploding or being damaged by steel shot – showed to
be unnecessary. Also, the lethality of alternative shot was investigated in several
scientific and more popular programmes, the result showing that lethality is connected to
hunters‟ behaviour - shooting distances - more than to the performance of the cartridge.”
Kanstrup even noticed that the switch caused an increase in the total efficiency of the
shot, as shortening of distances will increase the hitting probability markedly. “From the
moment hunters got acquainted with steel shot,” he says, “the process got the right
momentum. Therefore my advice to hunters would be: try the alternatives yourself!”

What’s next?
In summary, many of the prevailing opinions about non-toxic shot are unjust. If
instructions are observed, its use is both safe and effective. However, a few problems
persist. Firstly, it will always remain true that alternatives have different characteristics
compared to lead. They will never perform in exactly the same way. Their use requires
adjustment, both in hunting practice and in technique. Hunters will need to spend time
practicing at shooting ranges. They might have to have their guns proofed, and they will
need to adapt to new safety regulations. However, the experiences in the countries where
lead shot has been phased out, have shown that with time, uneasyness can well be
         Then there is the cost and availability factor. Alternative shot is on average more
expensive than lead shot. In countries that have already made the full switch, however,
prices have shown to drop to comparable levels. Legislation influences the demand, and
with increasing demand prices will drop. Still, higher quality cartridges, such as tungsten
polymer shot, will most likely remain more expensive.
         Developments are well on the way. In some countries legislative measures are
being taken, for example under international agreements such as the African-Eurasian
Migratory Waterbird Agreement (AEWA). At the same time, conservation organisations,
hunting organisations and ammunition manufacturers are working on coordination and
education networks. New types of alternative shot are being developed, and training
facilities are being improved. Last October, a workshop was held in Romania to
introduce the issue in all its aspects to Eastern European hunters. This workshop, which
was organised by AEWA and the Federation on Hunting Associations of the European
Union (FACE), comprised both the theoretical aspects and a practical shooting session,
and was very positively received by the participants.
         The factor which might well be the most important one, is the mentality of the
hunters. If they realise that non-toxic shot is a must in order to protect the waterbird
resource for the future, half the battle is already won. Adjustment to new types of
ammunition will only be a matter of time, and the hunting satisfaction, safety and
efficiency won‟t have to suffer. Niels Kanstrup: “In Denmark, the total ban on the use of
lead shot has been implemented in several steps, giving room for development and giving
the hunters a chance to adapt to the new situation. Hunters have been very open and
willing to take up the challenge, mostly with the overall motive of manifesting a good
image of hunters being a responsible partner in modern nature management. Looking
back, the process has absolutely been a case of „win-win‟.”
Nienke Beintema, Consultant
UNEP/AEWA Secretariat
Hermann-Ehlers- Str. 10
53113 Bonn
Tel.: (+49) 0228 -815 2414
Fax: (+49) 0228 -815 2450
E-mail: aewa@unep.de
Internet: www.unep-aewa.org

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