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Why I Stopped Shooting Lead at Doves

Why I Stopped Shooting Lead at Doves

Doves and shotgun shells in a corn field

A thoughtful look at a hunter’s choice to stop hunting doves with lead shot

The first animal I successfully brought down was a dove. It was September in south Texas, and hot. The dove jumped up, wings whirring like they do, and I hit it on my first try. I was using lead shot, of course, and continued to do so for years after that. The boxes of lead shotgun shells I bought every late summer even had pictures of doves on them, and were called things like “dove loads.” I learned that the national average ratio for how many shells fired to doves shot was six or maybe seven to one. Either way, they’re hard to hit and, when the birds are really flying, you can burn through a box or three of shells with ease.

As a duck hunter, I was well apprised of the requirement to use non-toxic shells and abided by it religiously when hunting ducks and geese. I had heard the vague reasoning behind the implementation of these waterfowl rules, and the grumblings that accompanied having to abide by these standards. The spectrum of complaints ranged from general lamenting of the good ol’ days when a single shell of No. 6 lead would tumble multiple snow geese at 50 yards to the price of steel. The instigator of the misplaced laws was always lying squarely on the cultural boogeyman located to the west of lucid, reasonable Texas: California. And some condors or something like that.

My epiphany was during a lull in a dove hunt about five years ago when I started doing the math on the lead. It coincided with a time that my daughter, whom I should let be known is named Paloma, started eating doves. The equation in the field that day involved the sheer volume of lead being fired, and the revelation at home involved ingesting or chewing on single pellets. Lead, a poison, was being sprayed over active agricultural fields in shocking amounts, and I was proudly feeding tiny amounts of lead to my child. 

The math was easy, as an average shot shell for dove is a nice, even ounce. I think it was actually the physical weight of my ever-lightening shell bag that got me thinking. While most dove hunts require firing much more than 16 shells, this was a good starting point for the equation, and I realized that ten hunters firing a mere 16 times each would dump 10 pounds of lead, albeit greatly spread out, over a field in an afternoon. Over a season, if hunted ten times, this number is one hundred pounds, or half a ton of lead over a decade. And this is with relatively light hunting.

The public dove fields in south Texas where hundreds of hunters would shoot daily — and assuredly more than 16 shells — could literally hold tons of lead within their topsoil. These same exact fields provide my restaurant, in the off seasons, with produce like artichokes and kale.

The following seasons I would quietly purchase a case of low-brass steel shells for dove and a case of steel waterfowl loads each August, quietly using them as my friends continued to use lead. I never proselytized the use of steel, but would explain my stance if questioned. Most, if not all, seemed genuinely bemused by my voluntary use of steel and then simultaneously admitted to never giving much thought to the matter. We shoot lead at doves because that’s what we’ve always done, case closed.

This season I branched out. I offered to “pick up steel” for friends, as I was at the store already, no problem. I made a social media post about it. I decided, based on the mostly positive reactions, to speak a little more loudly about it because people seemed generally open to the idea of it, once the subject was brought up.

Steel shot is many things. 

Steel can be more expensive, but it’s not as expensive as the vast majority of people I spoke with thought it was. Accustomed to dealing with waterfowl loads, the assumption of most hunters was that it would be twice the price of lead. It is not. At my local big box outdoor store, steel shot is 50 cents to one dollar more per box of 25 shells. That’s as little as two to four cents per shell. It’s with great humor that I’ll entertain a hunter’s argument on this cost who has just spent hundreds to thousands of dollars on a property to hunt, the gas to get there and the unending amount of guns and gear needed to potentially blast a 5 ounce bird from the sky.

Steel is regarded as being more inefficient ballistically than lead. While this may very well be true, waterfowl loads have become increasingly deadly, and my personal experience with lighter dove loads has been overwhelmingly positive. I definitely wait for birds to be within reasonable range – both doves and ducks – before taking a shot, and don’t see this is as a negative at all. In an extremely rare show of good shooting on my part last season, I brought down 10 birds with 16 shots, with six of those birds being bigger pigeons, all with size 6 steel.

If it’s the efficiency of killing that lead offers, then allow me to reframe that argument: you want to kill more birds, ostensibly because you want to eat more birds. Killing game animals purely for fun is unethical, actually illegal according to most Waste of Game statutes and it is also terrific fodder for anti-hunters. Therefore, if killing and eating more doves with the improved help of lead shot is the goal, the very food quality of the dead birds is compromised by the lead pellets potentially lodged in the meat. If you just flat out do not think lead is harmful, prove it to me and go gargle some size 4s. 

Steel is a rule in many places, like federal lands and certain states. And this enforcement, not surprisingly, is where almost all of the pushback has emerged. People, myself included, do not like to be told what to do, nor do we like to be wrong. Or preached to, and I sincerely apologize if this seems preachy. This is why I oppose regulation banning lead shot, and why I believe that we, as hunters, should ban ourselves from using lead shot.

Hunters’ efforts to be painted as conservationists can be completely countered by the fact that we willingly – even with a viable, readily available and fairly priced alternative – spray lead by the ton over the very landscape that we purport to love, and then knowingly feed lead-infused meat to our families while touting it as pure and organic. 

Whether we continue to do this over cost, stubbornness or hatred of regulation, we are fighting a very disingenuous fight here.  Perhaps this is all an overreaction, but the onus is really now on proving why we shouldn’t be shooting steel – or other non-toxic – loads at game birds.  I have stopped shooting lead at doves and hope that you will, too.  The more steel we buy, the more the shotshell manufacturers will improve the performance of the shells and the more the price will go down.  We, as a group of conscientious outdoorspeople, do not need to be told what to do when we can simply do it ourselves.

View Comments (29)
  • Excellent article! I’ve followed a similar path, and now shoot only non-tox for all the game I pursue. And now that I’ve removed the lead from my ammo box, the next step is to find shotgun ammo that doesn’t have plastic wads. After all, even if you shoot lead-free, you are still tossing plastic into the environment every time you pull the trigger in the dove field or wetland marsh.

    HI wrote a recent blog post about it here:

  • I liked where you are going here, point well taken! You do point out Doves tend to be fast and unpredictable. To be sure that ‘lead” is being banned just about every where it is obvious in trying to buy it, lead shot has disappeared from a lot of the local big box stores. Now, my old shotgun is going to be replaced by a new gun capable of shooting steel. My old reloader will require new bushings to accept steel shot and on and on it goes. A change from lead shot to steel is good for the environment though I question the wear and tear on teeth when chewing one over the other. Though lead may be toxic it does give a little when my jaw teeth clamp down on it. And, rather then ingesting the lead shot I tend to spit it out right away. But yes, it is past time to change from lead to steel – my Dentist agrees although he may have an ulterior motive??? Know where I can buy an inexpensive 12 gauge pump? All in fun- your article should motivate a few of us to get with the program. Thanks

    • Right! I have an acquaintance that has broken two teeth on steel shot both requiring crowns at $1200 each. I told him that he could buy a lot of bismuth for $2400. I shoot bismuth only where non-tox is required. It’s nearly as effective as lead and although more expensive it isn’t too bad if you reload. Swallowing a bismuth pellet will only have the effect of alleviating any stomach problems.

  • Ingesting lead shot is NOT a good thing. That is the ONLY point from the author’s article we agree on. I think the author would agree, that the lead shot that is shot in dove fields besides being scattered wide as he says, will not ever get to the point it does in public shooting ranges. Yet on those ranges where it was tested the lead shot stays in the first few inches of the soil and does not leach into water supplies or do other damage. I have attached just one scientific study going back many years that proves that; there are more. The danger to ingesting shot can be eliminated by careful cleaning of the game. That should be done as a matter of routine and using steel shot does not alleviate that requirement. The failure to do the same when using steel shot will often require a trip to the dentist due to a cracked tooth or bridge work. If the area used for dove hunting is farm land, and they use lime to improve the soil (very common in some parts of the country) the lime will cause the lead to degrade very rapidly.

    If the author has somehow convinced himself and some of his buddies that he is helping to save the planet or their health from lead poisoning; I have no issue with his personal decision. However, it is NOT based on solid or even tangential proof. It is therefore not a valid premise to use for the furthering of the use of steel VS lead shot.

    Finally, the initial studies used to ban lead from waterfowl hunting were deeply flawed with a conclusion preceding any actual and repeatable evidence. If one takes the time to read those reports you will see that to be true. The 100s of millions of waterfowl that have been loss over the intervening years due to wounding by minimally effective steel shot; has never been factored into that otherwise flawed decision. Lead is not nearly the Boogy Man that the author and others want us to believe.

    • Thank you for participating in the conversation and bringing some great information. I’d like to just distill my stance a bit so we can see that it is very basic: I do not want to feed my kid lead, and no lead in a field is better than a literal ton of lead. That is all. If others hadn’t considered this before, maybe they will now and this may guide their personal actions. If we carefully clean all game of pellets as you say, then we don’t have to worry about biting down on them. I do try to remove as many pellets as possible, and everyone at the table – from when I shot lead to now – knows to chew tentatively. As far as efficacy, I don’t notice any difference in bringing down doves, though, with waterfowl, I do not have anything to compare it to as I’ve always been required to shoot non-toxic. My stance is purely my own, and I can’t state enough that I am not for any sort of legislation or more rules, just hunters taking a look at how we operate and consider the effects of our decisions. Again, I very much appreciate your being part of the respectful discussion.

      Best wishes,
      Jesse Griffiths

  • Jesse, thanks for writing this article. I work with the Sutton Avian Research Center in Bartlesville, OK and one of our current projects is lead education. While we are currently studying galliformes, the interest in lead free shot has to do with protecting raptors which are extremely susceptible to lead poisoning. Please take a minute to look at what we are doing, I think you will be impressed.

    • People like you that don’t believe in science or evidence or logic will never be convinced. Fortunately, more educated people are listening and changing their habits, as evidenced by most responses to this article.

  • Please note that the article is titled “Why I Stopped Shooting Lead at Doves”, not “Why You Should Stop Shooting Lead at Doves”. Upon reading the piece, you’ll see that I am opposed to regulations or new rules concerning lead, and merely suggest that hunters that are concerned about ingesting lead or spreading lead around their environment have alternatives. What don’t you ‘buy’? That lead is harmful?

    • I thought you were not on a crusade for other “converts” but just justifying your own decision & actions? What happened? You do realize that lead still occurs naturally in the environment and is essential to manufacture of batteries, wire sheaths, ship building, as well as protecting operators and patients from harmful radiation; just to name a few.

      How about going back to the live and let live approach?

  • We have been hunting the same fields with lead for decades. Based on your calculations, we should all be sick or dead. Fortunately, that is not what I have experienced. We are all allowed to make our own decisions but articles like yours support those that want to use this issue to take our rights away. Sad!

    • This is the same sort of “reasoning” employed by smokers. They don’t notice any ill effects, therefore it must be okay.

  • Being an old guy, I have older guns. I also like shooting vintage shotguns, including a wonderful AH Fox double I picked up a few years ago. PROBLEM, can’t shoot steel in any of my guns. I am considering starting to reload Bismuth. I would buy Bismuth shells but have you seen the price?

    Kaliforniastan has required “non toxic” Ammo for hunting just about everything. I believe that this is more about harassing gun owners than anything. Being a wild Boar hunter, I can’t tell you how many animals have run away because the bullets but a hole in the hogs, instead of knocking them off their feet like lead does.

    My contribution of lead to the environment is so minimal that to incur additional expense of guns and Bismuth does not pencil out. I like your thought process and the fact that you have made a PERSONAL decision but am concerned that you have given bad ideas to the Kaliforniastanian harassers.

  • David Sawyer brings up an issue with some of the older classic doubles. In addition, I would add another that has not been addressed by the author or any others and that is the limitations provided by steel or even other non toxic shot in small gauge guns. There are many, many hunters who prefer to hunt doves with small gauge guns of 28 gauge and .410. This is not a small insignificant number of hunters. Why do they do that? Because the dove is an easy bird to bring down although hard to hit. As such it lends itself to using small gauge guns like the .410 or 28 gauge. The hunters that use these less effective size guns really enjoy the challenge they present. There is very limited non toxic and a very exorbitant price for the 28 gauge. There is none that I am aware of for the .410.

    Forcing steel or non toxic shot onto the dove fields just means that these hunters that enjoy using the very light, dynamic and flat fun to shoot small gauges; just can forego any use for them in the future. No more of that class of gun in dove fields.
    The author would argue that it probably is an insignificant consideration to the unproven and largely imagined perils of lead; unless you are one of those gun owner/hunters.

    • William, here are the current steel listings for .410 and 28 gauge. Plus for reloading, BPI TPS wads make things pretty easy/simple, cheap:

      28 ga
      Federal Speed-Shok steel 5/8 oz, #6 @1350 fps
      Federal Game & Target, 5/8 oz, #6 @1350 fps
      Federal Upland steel 5/8 oz, #6, 7.5 @1350 fps
      Hevi-Shot steel 5/8 oz, #4 @1350 fps
      Winchester steel 5/8 oz, #6, 7 @1300 fps

      Federal Speed-Shok steel 3/8 oz, #6 @1400 fps
      Federal Game & Target, 3/8 oz, #7 @1400 fps
      Federal Upland steel 3/8 oz, #6, 7.5 @1400 fps
      Winchester steel 3/8 oz, #6 @1400 fps

      BOSS copper plated bismuth loads are:
      28ga: 7/8oz #4,5,7@1350fps
      .410: 9/16oz #5@1325fps

  • I switched from lead shot to steel for one reason: Raptors. Almost the first pigeon I ever shot coasted overhead in a death glide, but barely made it to the ground before being scooped up by a local red tailed hawk, which carried it off to a nearby rooftop and immediately began to eat it. A deer hunting buddy who was into banding and monitoring local predatory birds had previously alerted me to how vulnerable these birds are to poisoning, but I had somehow assumed I would be able to collect all my dead pigeons – not true. For the sake of the predators – I have watched falcons, bald eagles, and hawks all pick off downed birds – it was obvious that only non-toxic shot would do. I now use the Federal Upland Steel #6 with excellent results.

  • I am in favor of using science and evidence to educate hunters that lead pellets do not penetrate soil to poison groundwater, nor do solid lead pellets in soil magically leach poison into crops. Then I’d like to explain further to them that using lead lets them use old shotguns with thinner barrels safely, rather than having to rush out to buy MORE guns which of courses taxes resources and adversely affects lower income and minority hunters.

  • Great article. I exclusively use steel shot now mostly because I took a hiatus from hunting for about a decade due to military service. Came back home and wanted to begin hunting again, but lead shot was not allowed in pheasant release areas nor waterfowl areas (obviously). My issue was that hunting maps of release sites and such were vague at best, and it was hard to be sure if I was in a steel shot area, so I just started using steel shot all the time to be safe.

    My results were counter to everything I had been taught. I hit just as many birds as I did with lead. I do tend to use a slightly bigger shot size, but that’s it. I’ve had no issue “not having enough power to drop birds” as I’ve always been told lead hits harder. Occasionally my buddies will ask why I’m using steel shot for dove or even quail. I basically just say it’s because it protects me in the event I’m unsure of the grounds I’m on (the maps are atrocious), better for environment (even if it’s just a tiny bit), and I’ve notice no difference in my game collection since switching to all steel.

  • I checked the MSDS on lead years ago. It’s only harmful if it’s ingested, and like was said already the responsibility for preparing game for the table falls solely on the hunter. If you choose to eat lead pellets that’s on you. I personally remove anything I don’t want to eat, to include bruised or bloodshot meat, any fur/feathers that got dragged into the meat by shot, and lead shot itself. Then I soak game birds/small game in saltwater overnight to further draw out blood or anything else. After that game is either bagged and frozen or prepared for the table, at which time I will examine it again and remove anything I may have missed the first time. I’ve been hunting for 44 years and never ingested any lead because I pay attention to detail and have taught others to do the same. It’s common sense, and it’s what my Dad taught me.

    If this were a legitimate issue we would have seen lots of hunters, not to mention game and other non game animals die of lead poisoning by now. How long have people been hunting in this country with lead ammo, not to mention in other parts of the world? Unlike smoking, I am not aware of any legitimate scientific studies linking the use of lead shot or lead bullet ammunition to lead poisoning in game animals, hunters, raptors or anything else. If there are any please let me know. I’m not interested in agenda driven junk science. I do think there is an agenda to eliminate hunting however. Thank you for your time.

    • Ok, I’m letting you know, as requested. There is plenty of scientific evidence that lead poisoning affects raptors. Just because you don’t like the results, that doesn’t make it junk science. You’re entitled to your own (flawed) opinion, but not your own facts.

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