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Washburn outdoors: The day I invented the buffered shotgun shell

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Washburn Outdoors

The moment of reckoning had arrived. It was do or die, and I didn’t make my move until the closest Greenhead was back peddling for a landing.

By now, I think everyone has heard how Al Gore claims to have invented the internet. It’s a well-known story. But the inconvenient truth of the matter is that the former Vice President never actually made the claim. Instead, the oft repeated legend sprang from a misrepresentation of comments made by Gore during a '99 campaign interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.

But although we’ve all heard that false “I invented the internet” story time and again, fewer people – like maybe nobody – has ever heard the true-life account of how yours truly was responsible for the invention of the buffered shotgun shell. OK – maybe that’s a stretch. I’ll walk it back a bit and just say that I at least developed the first experimental version of the now outrageously popular shotgun ammo. In fairness, I should also note that my invention did not result from any careful thought or planning on my part. Instead, it came about purely by accident – kind of like the guy who stumbled while walking across the kitchen floor and invented the peanut butter & jelly sandwich.

For those not familiar with the product, “buffered shotgun shells” are produced when finely granulated plastic beads are used to fill the air spaces between lead or steel pellets. Upon ignition, the synthetic buffering cushions the shot charge which reduces pellet deformation and results in tighter patterns and increased downrange efficiency. The very first of these now wildly popular buffered shotgun loads – the one I invented – wasn’t developed under closely controlled conditions at the Olin, Remington or Federal Ammunition Company laboratories. Instead, the original recipe was cooked up right in the bottom of my duck boat under actual field conditions. Really!

The event occurred long ago in a time when ducks were plentiful and our culture had not yet been afflicted with iPhone, Facebook, Twitter and all of those other distractions that currently prevent people from focusing on any one item for more than 2 or 3 seconds tops.

It was mid-November and a full-fledged winter storm system was sweeping across the northern Great Plains. The Dakotas and most of northern Minnesota was already buried in several inches of wet snow. Roadways and schools were closing. In Iowa, strong winds, sleet, but no measurable snowfall was predicted. From a duck hunter’s perspective, the conditions couldn’t have been better; an absolutely perfect day for being on the marsh. At least that was the unanimous predawn consensus when Ed Kotz, Bob Humberg, Guy Leath, and I assembled at the Zirbel Slough boat ramp.

Launching our homemade one-man duck boats, we began push poling for the far side of the marsh. Getting there was no picnic. The rising wind had already whipped the open water into a cauldron of baby whitecaps. But cattail beds were abundant on the marsh that year. Once we had made our way to the edge of the tall vegetation, a myriad of natural potholes provided quieter waters. Upon selecting one of the larger openings we quickly tossed out our decoys which resulted in a communal spread of around 120 or so blocks.

The storm was really cleaning house up North, and it didn’t take long to determine that it was going to be a day to remember. In the half light of an approaching dawn, a constant parade of high-flying ducks – mostly mallards – could be seen racing southward. Many of those flight weary flocks had already begun scaling down from altitude and were piling into the cattails like no body’s business. Some of those birds even began splashing down among our decoys. Legal shooting time had not yet arrived and our retrievers whined with impatient enthusiasm.

Ducks continued to fog the marsh as we counted down the final minutes. Time seemed frozen as the air filled with the hiss of set wings and constant chatter of sociable hens. At long last, shooting time arrived and the hunt began. Although ducks continued to pour in, the shooting was not as easy as you might suspect. The wind continued to roar and, despite a continual supply of birds descending to the decoys, there were plenty of close-range misses. But there were plenty of hits too and our bag of ducks began to add up. The dogs were getting the workout they desired, and we had soon neared our legal limits.

There was a shrill honk and looking up, we spotted an adult blue phase snow goose laboring into the wind. Although we didn’t have any goose decoys that day, we did have a couple of goose calls. When the “eagle head” came to investigate, Humberg folded the goose with a single well-placed load of No. 6s from his Remington Wingmaster.

The ducks kept coming and before long everyone had reached their daily bag limit – that is everyone except me. I still had one duck to go. I was shooting my favorite shotgun – a Navy Arms double barreled, muzzleloading 12 bore. But there was a problem. Although I still had plenty of black gun powder and paper wadding, I had run completely out of lead shot. Everyone else was shooting conventional shotshells which I couldn’t use.

There was still a shred of hope. In the excitement of repeatedly reloading my shotgun, I had managed to spill a quantity of loose shot onto the floor of the cockpit. Although most of the floor was soaking wet, there was a small mostly dry area to my back. There, lying amidst the pulverized marsh mud and flakes of dried duck weed, lay a good number of No. 7 ½ lead pellets. Sweeping the area with my glove, I eventually gathered enough of the mix to form a partial load. Pouring the dubious blend down the right barrel, I seated the damp concoction over 90 grains of gun powder and sealed the load with a thin cardboard wad.

The next flock of mallards appeared and upon spotting our spread, set their wings for the decoys. It was my last chance. Do or die; the moment of reckoning had arrived. Huddled beneath my marsh grass boat blind, I waited to make my move until the closest greenhead had extended his bright orange webs and was back peddling for a landing. Shouldering the muzzleloader, I cocked the hammer and hoped for the best. When I pulled the trigger, the old shotgun roared with authority; belching a fiery cocktail of pulverized marsh muck, duckweed, smoke, and lead. I’ll never really know how much shot was in that pitiful charge or just how much the muck and duckweed buffering affected my pattern. What I do know is that the load was enough to tip that mallard over on its back.

Decades later, ammunition companies would begin touting the long-range lethality of their individual brands of buffered shotshells. Little did they realize that, purely as a matter of necessity, the original prototype of those loads had been tested many years before. Not in their sanitized state-of-the-art laboratories – but rather in the bottom of a muddy, homemade duck boat during a stormy morning on North Iowa’s Zirbel Slough.

Photos: Washburn Outdoors in North Iowa

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Reach Washburn’s Outdoor Journal at iawildlife.org/blog.

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