By Tom Roster
Plastics are everywhere in today’s world, and shotshell ammunition is no exception.
While plastics are wonderfully convenient and serve a variety of useful purposes, unfortunately they are not biodegradable. And that is becoming more and more of an issue as plastics wash up on beaches, circulate in massive quantities in our oceans and show up as widespread litter almost everywhere. Plastic shotshell hulls and wads left behind from hunting activities show up as unsightly litter in our marshes and uplands. In fact, plastic-hull litter has become enough of a problem that many public and private hunting areas now require sportsmen to pick up their hulls. While this resolves the hull-litter problem, there are still plastic wads spewed all over a hunting area that simply don’t go away and are never retrieved. And with the plastics currently used in wads, the problem is compounded, as the wads float. This makes them readily visible in watery environments, and it’s no longer unusual to see clusters of spent wads wind-rowed along the downwind sides of shorelines.
Enter MAXAM, the company that owns cartridge manufacturers Eley Hawk, in England, and Rio, in Spain and the US. Deciding to tackle the wad problem head-on, Rio engineers began experimenting to see if they could develop a fully biodegradable wad that would properly protect shotgun barrels from not only soft shot types like lead and bismuth but also hard shot types like steel. They succeeded, and I am impressed.
Rio USA’s new Royal Eco BlueSteel shotshell line was introduced in early 2019 but was not available for testing until this past fall. Initially available in only 3" 12 gauge with a 11/8-oz shot charge of steel BBs and No. 2s, 3s, 4s, 5s and 6s at 1,450 fps, the load contains Rio’s new Pro Eco wad. The wad is pale tan and of one-piece construction consisting of an overpowder cup, a cushioning section and a shotcup pre-slit into four petals. In fact, it looks just like a standard plastic shotshell wad—but it certainly doesn’t behave like one.
Rio claims that the wad is 100% biodegradable and totally water-soluble. It is made from organic vegetable materials that are nontoxic and will degrade within 30 days and break down into the soil in three months. As to its water-solubility, Rio claims that the Pro Eco wad will dissolve completely in water within 24 hours—less if the water is moving.
To test at least the water-solubility claims, I proceeded as follows. First I dropped a couple of Pro Eco wads into a container of water. Surprise: Instead of floating, they immediately sank. This is certainly Step 1 in removing an eyesore, but would they disappear? After two hours of submergence the wads already had begun to dissolve and substantially lose their shape. After four hours the wads basically had turned into a whitish mush in the bottom of the container. Within eight hours they were completely unrecognizable and had fully dissolved. Therefore, Rio’s 24-hour time frame for dissolution is no exaggeration.
In November I also left a couple of Pro Eco wads for 30 days on top of a dike separating flooded fields in my hunting area. At the end of that time the wads had begun decomposing substantially—literally falling apart. I couldn’t follow up after that, as it had begun to snow. In mid-February after snowmelt, I checked on the wads again and found nothing left but a little pile of granules.
In short, Rio and Eley Hawk (both companies load the same wad) have engineered an absolutely revolutionary shotshell component. This just goes to show that if enough effort and commitment are devoted to innovation, the impact on the environment can be substantially reduced. Nontoxic shot loaded in these wads—such as in the Royal Eco BlueSteel line of steel loads—will have no negative impact on the environment, provided hunters pick up and remove the non-biodegradable plastic hulls. And I’m not surprised that there is a growing demand among upland shooting preserves for biodegradable hulls made of paper with steel metal heads (which oxidize away in a short period of time) and fiber wads.
Bottom line: Shotshell ammunition can be much more environmentally friendly, if we want it to be.
For more information, contact Rio Ammunition.
To consult with Tom Roster or to order his manuals on reloading buffered lead and bismuth shot, reloading HEVI-Shot, or having shotgun-barrel-modification work performed or his instructional shooting DVD, contact: Tom Roster, 1190 Lynnewood Blvd., Klamath Falls, OR 97601; 541-884-2974, [email protected].