Making Sense of Nontoxic Shot
September 28, 2010
Lead will always be the standard when it comes to shot options, but today we can't always use lead. Read what our expert has to say about the newest shot materials.
by Layne Simpson
I can easily recall a time when nothing but lead shot was loaded in shotshells. Back then, the only decision hunters had to make before heading to the swamps and marshes was which pellet size to choose for the bird they were after. But as time passed, it was eventually decided for us that shot made of a less toxic material would be used for waterfowl hunting. From that point on, the picking and choosing became a bit more complex.
Lead is still the most popular of all the materials that hunters propel from the muzzles of their shotguns, and all things considered it is still the best material to use when making shot. Among other positive things, it is relatively inexpensive, it is readily available, and it is easily formed into round pellets on a mass-production basis. In addition to being quite dense, lead is relatively soft. This softness allows lead to travel through the barrel of a shotgun at great speed without damaging the gun's bore. Where it is still acceptable for use in hunting, clay target shooting and other activities, lead shot remains the best choice simply because it outperforms steel shot by leaps and bounds and it is far less expensive than shot made of other nontoxic materials. Lead shot can also be used in older guns that were not built to handle steel.
The downside to lead and the reason it was banned from waterfowl hunting is its toxicity upon entering the digestive system of a game bird. Most of the time, nontoxic shot is associated with the hunting of ducks and geese, but there are also places in the United States where it is required when hunting upland game as well. Rather than attempting to list those areas, I suggest that you contact your local wildlife agency.
Whenever a demand is created in the hunting and shooting industry, various companies are always eager to meet it head on, and this is exactly what has happened with shot during the past few years. First came ammunition loaded with shot made of iron (or steel, as it is commonly called) but other nontoxics eventually joined the battle as well. They include Tungsten-Iron from Federal, Tungsten-Matrix from Kent Cartridge of America, bismuth from Bismuth Cartridge, and, the latest in a growing lineup of exotics, Hevi-Shot as loaded by Remington. Federal once offered shotshells loaded with Tungsten-Polymer shot. This shot was basically the same as Kent's Tungsten-Matrix, but it no longer is available. With a gravimetric density of 7.86 grams per cubic centimeter (gms/cc), steel is the lightest of the bunch, followed by bismuth, at 9.60 gms/cc; Tungsten-Iron, at 10.30; Tungsten Matrix, at 10.60; lead, at 11.10; and, the real heavyweight in the ring, Hevi-Shot, at 12 gms/cc. Let's now take a closer look at each.
Hevi-Shot was used to take these mallards. It outperforms both lead and steel and can be used in any gun approved for use with steel shot. Photo courtesy of Layne Simpson
STEEL Anytime you drag up a chair and prepare to discuss shot, it is important to remember that the higher the density of the material it is made of, the more slowly it sheds velocity and energy during flight. Steel is only about 70 percent as dense as lead, so pellets of the same size made of those two materials differ considerably in the amount of energy they deliver downrange. For example, if No. 4 pellets made of both materials exit the muzzle of a shotgun at 1,350 feet per second (fps), they start their journey with the same amount of energy, but the lead pellet will strike a 40-yard target with 4.4 foot-pounds (ft-lbs) while the steel pellet will deliver only 2.4 ft-lbs. In order for us to deliver the same amount of energy per pellet with steel as with lead, we must increase its diameter by two sizes. In this case we would choose No. 2 steel, which delivers 4.4 ft-lbs at 40 yards, the same as for No. 4 lead. But we are not finished with this particular lesson yet.
Even when larger pellets are used, ammo loaded with steel shot does not equal the performance of lead shot loads at all ranges, simply because a shotshell of a given length is incapable of holding as many of the larger steel pellets. Staying with those same two shot sizes in our comparison, Winchester offers 2 1/4 ounces of No. 4 lead shot in its 12-gauge 3 1/2-inch turkey load, for a total count of 303 pellets. That same company's 3 1/2-inch waterfowl load is capable of holding only 1 9/16 ounces of No. 2 steel, for a total of 195 pellets. Even though the steel shot load delivers the same amount of energy per pellet, its effective range is considerably less simply because a pattern fired with it contains only 65 percent as many pellets.
Some who have read previous articles I have written on the subject seem convinced that I am against the use of steel shot on waterfowl, but this is not true. The primary reason steel shot will always have its place in the waterfowl hunting scheme of things is its low cost compared to that of shot made of other nontoxic materials. Until someone comes up with a nontoxic shot that greatly outperforms steel but costs no more, steel will remain the most popular shot among waterfowlers. When I am hunting with a modern shotgun capable of handling steel and distances from me to the ducks and geese I hope to bring to bag don't greatly exceed 30 yards, I'd just as soon have steel as anything else. Out to that distance steel performs well enough so long as the correct pellet size is used. The performance advantage realized by the use of shot made of higher density materials really does not become apparent until ranges begin to exceed 30 yards or so. As favorite steel shot sizes go, I prefer No. 2 for ducks and BBB for Canada geese, although I have taken a few honkers with BBs as well.
BISMUTH Another shortcoming of steel shot is the fact that it can damage the barrels of shotguns built prior to its widespread acceptance. This holds especially true for old doubles with extremely thin barrel walls. The introduction of bismuth shot solved that problem, and, even though early production runs had a few teething problems, shot now being made of that material delivers excellent downrange performance. During the past few years I have sent several pounds of bismuth flying through the air at waterfowl, mainly because I enjoy hunting with vintage guns. While bismuth's density is greater than that of steel, the density of bismuth is a bit lower than the density of lead, so I usually choose No. 5 shot when hunting ducks with my old Fox Sterlingworth. The situation may eventually change, but as I write this, bismuth and steel are the only nontoxics available to handloaders. I have shot quite a few ducks over decoys with 3/4 ounce of bismuth handloaded for a 28-gauge Winchester Model 12 and find it to be about as effective as the 2 3/4-inch 12 gauge loaded with steel shot, with much less recoil. As factory ammo goes, bismuth is available in 12, 16, 20 and 28 gauges and in .410 bore.
TUNGSTEN-MATRIX Tungsten-Matrix shot as loaded by Kent is slightly heavier than bismuth and close to the same density as lead. Almost as soft as lead, it too can be used in vintage guns. Pure tungsten has a gravimetric density of 16 gms/cc, so it is considerably heavier than lead, but that material alone is far too expensive to use in making shot. Tungsten starts out extremely hard, but when it is blended with just the right amount of plastic (or polymer, as it is commonly called), it becomes about as soft as lead and its density is lowered to close to that of lead. This also reduces its cost considerably. I have hunted a lot with Tungsten-Matrix in 12-, 16- and 20-gauge guns. I prefer No. 3 shot for ducks and wild-flushing pheasants, No. 6 for smaller game birds such as quail and Hungarian partridge, and No. 1 for geese. This marvelous shot is available from Kent in 2 3/4-inch, 3-inch and 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge loadings, as well as 2 3/4-inch and 3-inch loadings of the 20 gauge.
Kent recently introduced a low-recoil 20-gauge load with an ounce of No. 6 at 1,240 fps. Since it is loaded to an extremely mild chamber pressure of just over 8,000 pounds per square inch, I am looking forward to using it when shooting ducks over decoys with my 1940s vintage Westley Richards double. My first experience with Tungsten-Matrix took place several years ago on a duck hunt in Uruguay, and I have been sold on it ever since. On that same trip, I also shot perdiz over pointing dogs and found the Tungsten-Matrix shot to be the equal of lead in the uplands. When given a choice, I hunt ducks and geese a great deal with a 1924-vintage Fox Sterlingworth, and it shoots beautiful patterns with Tungsten-Matrix shot. But then, so do most of the guns I have tried it in.
TUNGSTEN-IRON As one might expect upon hearing its name, Tungsten-Iron shot loaded by Federal is a mixture of tungsten and iron. With about the same density as Kent's Tungsten-Matrix, it delivers more individual pellet energy than steel when pellets of the same size are compared. Even though Tungsten-Iron shot is harder than steel shot, it can be used in guns designed for use with steel. Federal's use of a plastic shotcup with extremely thick petals protects the shotgun barrel from damage, but the extra thickness takes up a lot of room and this reduces the amount of shot that can be loaded when compared to bismuth, Tungsten-Matrix and Hevi-Shot. The heaviest shot charge available in the 3-inch 12 gauge, for example, is 1 3/8 ounces, which adds up to an average of 192 No. 4 or 129 No. 2 pellets. Despite the lower pellet count, I find Tungsten-Iron to be one of the best choices available for dropping Canada geese at ranges just beyond the reach of steel. I especially like the 10-gauge and 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge loadings with No. 2 shot for geese and No. 4 for ducks. Federal also offers ammo loaded with a mixture of Tungsten-Iron and steel pellets at a lower price.
HEVI-SHOT Hevi-Shot as now loaded by Remington is the newest player in the nontoxic-shot game. Composed of tungsten, nickel and iron, it is the heaviest of the nontoxics. At a density of 12.0 gms/cc, it is heavier even than lead. Owing to its extreme hardness, Hevi-Shot should be used only in guns designed to handle steel shot. The first time I experienced the fantastic performance of this revolutionary new shot was while hunting ducks. I later used it even more extensively in Remington's new 12-gauge Model 332 over-under, as well as a 20-gauge Model 11-87 while hunting waterfowl, blue rock pigeons and perdiz in Uruguay. Ducks of all sizes solidly hit inside 30 yards exploded like feather pillows in midair, but, more importantly, each and every shooter there made dead-in-the-air kills at ranges for which steel would have consistently crippled at best.
I have used Hevi-Shot a great deal on waterfowl, and while it has proved to be an outstanding performer for that application, I am even more impressed by what it does to a turkey gobbler at ranges I had previously considered foolish to try with a shotgun. All of the gobblers I have taken with it fell victim to Remington's 1 5/8-ounce loading of No. 6. All were one-shot kills and all of the birds were killed stone dead in their tracks.
Since Hevi-Shot is a bit more dense than lead, I have decided that one shot size smaller is not a bad choice, as it increases pattern density considerably. I like No. 6 for turkeys and ducks, No. 4 for small geese and No. 2 for Canadas. Remington is presently loading Hevi-Shot in the 3 1/2-inch 10-gauge and 3-inch 20-gauge, as well as the 2 3/4-, 3- and 3 1/2-inch versions of the 2-gauge shell. For now, you can get any shot sizes you want so long as the shot sizes you want are No. 2, No. 4, No. 6 and No. 7 1/2.
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