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Dart guns

Dart guns and blowpipes are categorized as firearms in the UK. For the sake of clarity, from hereon all types of blowpipe and dart gun are described under the term ‘dart gun’.

  • Dart guns are commonly used in the chemical capture and/or medical treatment of wild or dangerous animals, especially in zoos, or for escaped animals such as cows.
  • The practical applications of dart gun use need careful consideration. Repeat injections using a dart gun are not practical, unless the animal is restrained in a confined area. Similarly, using a dart gun for the chemical capture of animals, such as rogue dogs, is not practical because in the time it takes for the drugs to work, the animal could well have disappeared over the horizon.
  • Prior to purchase, careful thought should be given as to whether a dart gun is really required. If it is, then further consideration should be given to the size and type of darts needed, as this will determine the specifications of the dart gun. It is logical to ensure that the dart gun purchased is not only powerful enough for the job, but also one that will be able to fire darts of a sufficient size. A larger gun is needed for firing darts carrying 10 ml of a drug.
  • There should be training for individuals in how to use dart guns safely: this may be provided by the supplier of the dart gun.
  • It is an offence to purchase a dart without having a licence, so the first step in getting a dart gun is to get a firearms licence.

Courtesy of N. Masters & J. Lewis (IZVG) Courtesy of N. Masters & J. Lewis (IZVG)

Firearms licences
Firearms licences are obtained from the local police force, under the Firearms Act of 1968. The licence needs to be renewed every 3 years. In general, police forces will require the following:

  • The gun cabinet. The dart gun will need to be kept in a gun cabinet. For the cabinet to be acceptable it will need to be manufactured and kite marked to British Standard BS 7558:1992. The cabinet should be kept in a protected part of the premises and hidden from public view. The keys should be available only to those people who have a firearms licence
  • Proof of identity and photographs of licence holder
  • Ammunition. In this case meaning the darts, needles and sleeves, should be kept in a locked cabinet, either within the gun cabinet or in a separate cabinet
  • It is important to remember that only those people with a firearms licence can have access to the gun cabinet contents. If there are a number of people involved it is sensible to appoint a firearms officer, who is in charge of the whole process
  • If a number of dart guns or other firearms are to be kept, then consideration should be given to having an alarm system.
  • If there is likely to be a requirement to borrow or hire a replacement dart gun (e.g. from a local zoo or wildlife park) in the event of the practice weapon being sent for repair, then this must be stated on the gun licence.

Drugs used in dart guns

  • Any drug can be used in a dart gun; however, the viscosity of the drug and the volume of the drug needed should be taken into account in the decision-making process. The dart gun supplier will supply notes on the correct procedure for loading, priming and cleaning of the darts. They will also advise on the pressures required for firing darts of different weights and over varying distances.
  • Many drugs used in darts are anaesthetics, and can be very dangerous. Suitable standard operating procedures (SOPs) should be developed for the loading, firing and cleaning of darts. For example, LA Immobilon is still commonly used in darts for anaesthetizing escaped cattle or large zoo animals. In these cases, handling such a dangerous drug in a loaded dart should be done with extreme care, with antidotes available and drawn up in a syringe ready to use. Note: it has been suggested that darts that have contained LA Immobilon should not be cleaned for re-use but placed into a sharps bin as soon as they have been retrieved.
  • It is illegal for any animal which has been given Immobilon to enter the human food chain, and any animal (e.g. deer, cattle) that has been darted with this drug must be marked with a special ear tag.
  • Apart from veterinary use of dart guns, there are a number of other establishments and groups that use dart guns and may request drugs. Most commonly this is either zoos, when the drugs are being used under the direct direction of a veterinary surgeon, or private individuals. In these cases, it is often LA Immobilon that is being requested, e.g. for use on deer farms or for escaped beasts. Before dispensing drugs, the veterinary surgeon should check the legality and correct procedure with reference to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) Code of Professional Conduct.

Standard operating procedures
Safety
Use of a dart gun (and all other firearms) is restricted to people who have been approved to use them by the Firearms Officer at the local police station, who will ensure compliance with the UK Firearms policy. No one else is allowed access to or use of a dart gun.

Nitrile gloves and suitable eye protection must be worn when charging/uncharging the darts.

Dart gun safety

  • The dart gun must be kept locked in a secure place unless its imminent use is expected or required.
  • The dart gun (whether loaded or not) should never be deliberately pointed at anyone, or anything that is not intended to be shot.
  • When the dart gun is being carried, it should be done in a way that will not alarm people, i.e. it should be kept pointed at the ground or sky with the bolt (if fitted) clearly open so people can see that it is not in a ‘ready-to-fire’ state.
  • The dart gun should not be loaded with a dart until the target has been identified and is in range, and it has been deemed safe to shoot with respect to the area around and behind the target. Thought must also be given to the possible occurrence of ricochets from objects around and from the chosen target.

Dart safety

  • Charged darts should be kept in a purpose-designed container and not carried in a pocket or loose in a bag.
  • If available, the safety cap must always be kept on the needle of charged darts and only removed when the dart is being loaded into the chamber of the dart gun.
  • After use, the darts should be recovered as soon as is practical.

Materials

  • Dart gun (e.g. Dan-Inject)
  • Darts appropriate for species
  • Gun cabinet (this must be securely attached to a solid wall with bolts)
  • Anaesthetic or other drug
  • Bound dart gun usage book.

Procedure
Preparation prior to use: Before the dart gun can be used, the darts are made ready with the desired quantity of anaesthetic for the animal. The choice of anaesthetic will be determined by the availability of drugs and other factors decided by the veterinary surgeon (and the scientist in charge of the study where appropriate).

Charging the dart

  1. Remove the hypodermic needle from the protective case (if applicable). Slide the green/red silicone sleeve on to the needle so that the injection holes are located at the centre of the sleeve. This can be achieved by rotating the needle whilst exerting pressure on the sleeve. The green/red silicone sleeve must only be used once.
  2. Remove the red stabilizer from the dart; if necessary, using a venting pin, release any retained air from the dart syringe air chamber.
  3. Hold the dart with the air chamber uppermost. Using an air-filler syringe fitted with a coupling adapter connected to the drug chamber, position the black plunger at the rear of the chamber.
  4. Reverse the dart so that the drug chamber is now uppermost. Using a suitable syringe filled with the required drug, slowly inject the drug into the chamber. Ensure that a sufficiently small gauge needle is used to allow air from the drug chamber to be expelled without displacing the drug.
  5. Mount the hypodermic needle on to the dart syringe boss using pliers and locate it firmly by rotating it slightly whilst applying pressure.
  6. If available, apply a safety cap over the needle and seat it firmly on the dart.

Pressurising the dart

  1. Hold the dart horizontally with the needle/protection cap uppermost. Mount the coupling adapter on to a clean, dry syringe of suitable size to charge the dart in a single go. Introduce the correct amount of air into the syringe (see below). Connect the syringe securely to the air chamber of the dart and with a smooth continuous action, inject the air into the dart air chamber.
  2. Now the same amount of air is let in to the syringe though the coupling. The red plunger will act as a non-return valve and retain the air, under compression, within the dart.

    WARNING: the dart is now pressurised and extreme caution must be exercised at all times.

  3. 3. Place the red stabilizer firmly on the rear of the dart.

Correct air pressures for dart types

Dart type Drug volume (ml) Volume of air injected (ml)
S 150 1.5 10–12
S 300 3.0 12–14
S 500 5.0 15
S 10 10.0 20

Procedure after use
Discharging an unfired dart:

  1. Remove the red stabilizer from the dart.
  2. Holding the dart vertically, depress the red plunger to release air pressure using the venting pin.
  3. Remove the protection cap from the dart.
  4. If using proprietary medication/drug bottles with rubberized seals, insert a plain hypodermic needle, directed away from the operator, into the seal before proceeding to the next step. This will allow excess air pressure to vent from the bottle.
  5. Holding the dart with the needle pointing downwards, insert the needle into a suitable receptacle as far as possible. The silicon sleeve will slide along the needle shaft exposing the injection ports.
  6. Hold the dart with the attached bottle. Using a coupling adapter on an air-filler syringe, steadily and smoothly insert 12 ml of air into the dart air chamber. The air pressure will slowly force the black plunger forwards and inject the drug into the bottle.

Note: drugs must not be kept in dart syringes for prolonged periods. The extreme pH of most drug formulations will adversely affect the plunger and dart barrel after 3–4 days.

Cleaning the syringe:
After releasing any remaining air from the air chamber, hold the dart vertically with the black plunger upwards. Fit a coupling adapter to a filler syringe and flush the drug chamber with warm water. Repeat several times.

Note: syringes must not be sterilized by steam or have heat applied to them.

Cleaning the needle:

  1. Remove the green/red silicone sleeve from the needle and discard it.
  2. Remove the needle from the syringe using pliers. Removing the needle after use can prolong the serviceability of the dart, as the mounting hub will remain in better condition and retain its shape for longer.
  3. Rinse the needle by passing warm water through it several times (giving free passage), so that the two injection ports are free from debris and foreign material.
  4. Sterilize the needle by a suitable method.

Note: it has been suggested that darts that have contained LA Immobilon should not be cleaned but discarded directly into a sharps bin.