The political debate around the Adler shotgun, as with all things Australian politics, is toxic. But its affect on animals is much, much worse, writes Geoff Russell.
What’s the Adler shotgun debate about? I don’t mean the who said what when debate that has richocheted around our news media, but the guns themselves. For many, it’s something to do with them being rapid fire, and for others it’s the number of shots you can fire between reloads; which is eight.
But I think there’s a bigger issue that needs to be debated; namely whether shotguns of any kind should be allowed; not just here, but anywhere on the planet.
I won’t consider the ethics of killing whatever it is you want to kill, that’s a different issue; I’ll focus here only on the mechanics. But I will presume that the goal is killing, meaning killing quickly, as opposed to torture.
The canonical form of hunting torture is deer hunting, as practiced by English aristocracy with horses and dogs. By the time the animal is ready to be ripped apart by the dogs, they are in a state well past mere exhaustion.
Typically, three hours of running has totally depleted their energy stores and they are fuelling their frantic efforts to escape with muscle mass. These animals are naturally sedentary. Built for short bursts of speed to outpace predators built for even shorter bursts.
So how do shotguns compare? It’s much cheaper than using dogs and horses; so is it just animal torture for the masses?
Frequently, people use animal research to estimate impacts of an activity on humans. With shotguns we can reverse this pattern and use human research to shed a little light on what happens to animals shot with shotguns; and no country has more experience of this than the US.
I haven’t found raw data with a breakdown of deaths by gun type, but surgeons sometimes publish studies on dealing with the trauma of shotgun injuries as opposed to other types of guns. One study looking at 120 people found that only 56 percent of those who made it to hospital died. The rest lived on with varying rates of disability and parts of their face and head missing. Another study of 121 people reported a death rate of just 11 percent.
A study of 82 people who shot themselves in the stomach reported a death rate of just 18 percent. The long-term impacts of shooting yourself in the gut and not dying are probably no more appealing than losing half your face. Whatever the reason, shotguns are surprisingly unreliable killing machines.
For hunters, that’s part of the attraction. They can go out with their mates in a bunch, drunk or sober, and accidents will rarely be fatal. Just keep a distance of about 50 metres between yourself and the next gun and you’re pretty safe. The same isn’t true when using high powered rifles that can kill at a range of hundreds of metres.
But what about non-human animals? What do shotguns do to them?
There’s plenty of evidence and it all points even more strongly to the same conclusion. If you want to kill something, then a shotgun is not the weapon of choice. But if you are happy to inflict the extended torture of a slow death, then this is the tool for you.
A shotgun is a simple beast and very much the same now as it was on the 30th August 1888 when the 6th Barron of Walsingham shot 1,070 grouse to make his mark in the Guinness Book of Records.
Shotguns fire a bunch of small round pellets, rather than a bullet. These days the pellets are made from a variety of metals, but they used to just be lead. This has left an enduring legacy of lead pollution in many a field and wetland that will go on killing or sickening wildlife long after high-level nuclear waste is cold. Lead is forever.
The physics is simple, regardless of the metal, the pellets emerge from the gun and form a cluster with a known mathematical distribution. At a range of 35 metres, the width of the cluster is about a meter. It’s density is determined by the number of pellets in the cartridge and the choke of the gun.
Most shotguns have a slight inward taper that constricts the pellets and reduces the spread. A sawn off shotgun has no such choke, so apart from being concealable, it also has a very wide pellet scatter pattern.
All over the world, wildlife scientists – starting in the 1940s – have done studies where they catch various species of birds which shooters target with shotguns and X-ray them. Typically 10-40 percent will have pellets embedded in their body (here, here, here, and here… for example).
These are, of course, only the birds who were wounded but recovered. Other wounded birds will have died slowly after their injury.
Shooters shoot far more shots than they bag birds. Many shotgunners will swear blind that the birds they don’t bring down are unharmed. The X-ray studies tell a different story.
Studies on other animals are rare but an old RSPCA study on wallaby hunting with shotguns in Tasmania told a gruesome tale. The laws of physics haven’t changed so the date of a study is largely irrelevant.
Basically the shotguns did enough damage to slow the animals down, allowing the shooter to get close enough to beat them to death.
It was a small study – RSPCA inspectors went on 5 hunts and saw 23 animals shot at. Only 5 were killed by the shotgun, 11 were beaten to death and 7 escaped injured. Some of these animals were shot from a range of 10 meters, but still had to be killed by being beaten to death.
You can imagine that studies of this nature are rare. Shooters aren’t keen on people watching them beat animals to death, but that’s the reality and those animals are luckier than many who escape injured.
A more theoretical study on the effectiveness of shotguns killing foxes was done with shooters shooting models and then using estimates of the kinds of injuries that kill, based on corpses and autopsies estimate that the chance of killing a fox at a range of 25 yards with a shotgun are about 38 percent, much the same as the chance of seriously wounding it.
Such is the way of the shotgun and shotgun users. Some of the Adler fans might look civilised in a suit and tie, but that’s just smoke and mirrors.
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