Getting the Lead Out

For better or worse non-toxic ammo is coming

By Rob Breeding

I remain on the fence about lead ammunition. I gave it up for waterfowl decades ago; we didn’t have a choice. The uplands are a different story.

For pheasant I’ve largely converted, as so many of my favorite haunts, to require non-toxic ammunition.

Hunting pheasants with non-toxic didn’t come at too great a price. Limits are generally three birds across most of the West. I suppose a dude could run through a box of shells taking a three-bird limit, but alternatively, you might consider trap and skeet lessons, or golf.

That’s made more expensive but better shooting lead alternatives, such as bismuth, a reasonable option. A box of 10 sets you back quite a bit more than a 25-round box of lead shells. But when I was mostly hunting the waterfowl production areas around Kalispell, along with the occasional weekend trip down to Ninepipes, 10 shells covered at least a couple of hunts.

I didn’t consider lighter steel for pheasant because it didn’t seem a necessary sacrifice. Expensive bismuth shoots and kills a lot like lead and the consumption rate for shells isn’t that high.

Quail are another matter. In all their iterations, these game birds are unquestionably my favorite to hunt. I like to eat them. I like the way many quail hold for a pointing dog. I like to be in the places quail like.

And quail can be a heck of a lot harder to hit. Not that pheasant are easy, but a big rooster offers up a sizable target compared to quail. And quail limits are much higher. Running through a box of shells, or more, isn’t that unusual on a day’s hunt.

Quail across their range are mostly huntable in places that still allow lead shot, so it was only recently that I was forced to consider alternatives.

Quail don’t occupy the waterfowl production areas of Montana as pheasant do. But farther south, on the plains of Nebraska and Kansas, bobwhite quail can be as common as pheasant on these non-toxic zones. And quail are too shell intensive to hunt with bismuth.

Compounding this costly problem, a few years ago I traded in my 12 gauge for a 20 as my go-to shotgun. Twenties are common, second to the 12 gauge in popularity, but non-toxic options can sometimes be hard to find, and the cost skyrockets.

So I’ve adapted to steel for quail hunting, at least part of the time. And I’m pretty satisfied with the quail killing power of steel. No. 7 shells are readily available, and they put these smaller birds on the ground efficiently.

Harder steel shot also tends to cut through feathers better than lead. Softer, heavier lead sometimes pushes feathers ahead of if, into the meat, and needs to be tweezered out during cleaning.

I’ve developed a system for this mixed-shell hunting. I transfer my shells to quart-size resealable plastic bags, with the shot size and type written on the bag with a marker. When I hunt, bags with the appropriate shells go into my vest pockets. At the end of the hunt I take the bags out of the vest, along with any spent shells, then repeat the process at my next spot.

It’s easier and neater than scooping handfuls of loose shells in and out of my vest. Also, the ammo doesn’t rattle around as I hunt.

So far I’ve never messed up and loaded my vest with the wrong stuff. In all my years of bird hunting I’ve never been checked by a warden either, but if I was, I’d like to think my system would be persuasive in professing my innocence.

For better or worse non-toxic ammo is coming. Lead is now banned for all hunting in California. I doubt it will be the only lead-free state for long.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.