With the prohibition of lead shot for waterfowl hunting in 1991, ammunition manufacturers found themselves involved in a seemingly endless search for an effective alternative. Through the years, that search led to the development of shot shells using various lead substitutes, ranging from steel to bismuth-tin and several recipes in which tungsten is the main ingredient — all in an attempt to replicate the knockdown power of lead.
Products using steel shot tend to be much less expensive than the other options, but hunters have always viewed steel shot with some disdain. Steel is not as dense as lead, so it makes sense that steel shot doesn’t carry the energy downrange that lead shot does, or that the more expensive nontoxic alternatives do. That means hunters, in some cases, have to adjust their hunting style to find success with steel.
Though manufacturers actually began working with steel shot years ahead of the lead ban, and despite the development of other lead alternatives, companies such as Winchester continue to push the steel envelope. After three years of engineering research, their newest product has gone … well, you might say it’s just a little flat.
“We’ve got it on the flat side. In fact, there’s six of ’em,” said Brad Criner, product manager for Winchester’s shot shell offerings. “If you can picture a cube or a pair of dice with some rounded-off corners, that’s basically what it looks like.”
Criner is describing the shot loaded in Winchester’s Blind Side waterfowl ammunition. You could realistically call it a square, a cube or a box, but technically speaking, it’s a hexahedron. The company calls it Hex shot. But why go with tiny cubes rather than traditional round shot pellets?
“The advantage is it actually allows you to stack them in the shell, and we get up to a 15 percent increase in packing density out of ’em,” Criner said. “We’re able to get one-eighth of an ounce more shot in the same space as we were before with an ounce-and-a-quarter. That frees up a lot more room in that shell, so we can do some other things.”
One of those things is using what Criner called a reversible hinge powder cup. It allows Winchester to reduce peak pressure upon ignition, which in turn means the company can include more powder and thus increase shot velocity. This, Criner explained, means you get the benefit of “that heavy ounce-and-three-eighths load, but you’re getting it at an ounce-and-a-quarter velocity of 1,400 feet per second.”
Another benefit of the hinge powder cup is a reduction in felt recoil and thus improved shooting performance. As the industry increased shot weights trying to attain the lethality of lead, the result was increased recoil.
“You don’t notice it on the first two, three, four or five shots, but you start shooting six times and above, whether you realize it or not, a lot of people start to flinch,” Criner said. “And a little bitty flinch, by the time it gets out to 35, 40, or 45 yards, you’re talking seven, eight, 10 feet that you’re missing.”
As for downrange efficiency, Winchester says its little hexahedrons are designed to hit “like high-velocity tumbling bricks … maximizing energy deposit and knockdown shock within the bird.”
The focus in 2011 is the waterfowl market. Starting in June, you should be able to find 12-gauge loads in 3- and 3½-inch configurations on store shelves, but you can expect Winchester to quickly “branch out to other gauges, other shell lengths, and we’re looking at different shot sizes,” Criner said.
Estimated cost is $19 to $21 a box.
Freelance writer Doug Nielsen is a conservation educator for the Nevada Department of Wildlife. His “In the Outdoors” column, published Thursday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is not affiliated with or endorsed by the NDOW. Any opinions he states in his column are his own. He can be reached at email@example.com.