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.
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.
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.
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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