April 14, 2021
Since the ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting back in 1991, at least 30 states have enacted further restrictions on lead ammo on some level. Not all relate to turkey hunting, but some do. Here in the East, a number of states are considering requiring non-toxic loads for turkey hunting; at least a half-dozen posted bulletins last year encouraging and strongly recommending hunters give non-toxic alternatives a try.
Ban or no ban, it makes little difference. Turkey hunters are quickly discovering the ballistic and terminal performance of some non-toxic shot materials match or surpass that of lead and are making the switch. That’s good news for the environment, but bad news for turkeys. Here’s a look at three lead alternatives you might consider this season.
Steel shot weighs about a third of lead pellets of the same size and is less dense. This means it slows down faster than lead shot and sheds energy rather quickly. Although manufacturers have worked to increase velocity, steel shot still delivers less energy when compared to lead shot of comparable size. These two factors make steel less effective and not an ideal choice at long range—say beyond 40 yards or so. To compensate for the lower weight, lesser density and loss of velocity, it’s not uncommon for turkey hunters to load up with steel shot one or two sizes larger than what they would use in a lead load.
But steel shot has some advantages over lead and can certainly be deadly on turkeys. Steel shells contain more pellets than their lead counterparts of the same size. The popular No. 4 steel load may contain as many as 300 pellets depending on the charge, while a lead shell of the same size contains just over 200. Steel shot also spreads less and delivers tighter shot patterns than lead, meaning more pellets strike the target.
Perhaps equally important is steel shot doesn’t flatten out upon impact. Unlike lead pellets, steel shot retains its true form from the minute it exits the barrel to impact, and close-range penetration means deeper, more lethal wound channels.
No manufacturer sells a turkey-specific, steel-only load, though some, like Hevi-Shot, offer loads with steel plus another material. Hevi-Metal Turkey, which combines steel and Hevi-Shot, is one such example.
Bismuth by itself is frangible; that is, it breaks apart upon impact. This was a problem early on, but today’s bismuth loads are alloyed with 4 to 6 percent tin to provide the necessary cohesiveness to hold together as it departs the barrel and impacts the target. Bismuth-based shells cost more than steel, but in terms of ballistic and terminal performance they are far superior and well worth the extra few dollars.
A number of manufacturers offer three-inch, bismuth-based, 12-gauge shells with No. 3 to No.7 shot. For turkeys, sizes 5 to 7 will get the job done nicely and are popular choices. Bismuth is also available in 2 3/4-inch 20-gauge shells, typically loaded with No. 5 and No. 6 shot, for those who prefer small-bore guns.
What makes bismuth such a good non-lead alternative is its density. Bismuth pellets are similar in density to lead and provide similar ballistic velocities, retained velocity and energy, pattern density and terminal characteristics upon impact. An added bonus is that unlike steel, bismuth shot can be used and performs well with older lead-only barrels and chokes.
Tungsten is the most lethal of the non-toxic turkey shot materials. The reason, in part, goes back to density. Depending upon the manufacturer, today’s tungsten turkey loads have a density close to 60 percent higher than lead. As we all know, higher density equates to more retained energy, and no other commercially available lead shot alternative is as dense as tungsten.
Tungsten shot is also many times harder than lead, allowing it to retain form at short and longer ranges alike, and because of this it maintains better patterns. Because tungsten is heavier and harder, smaller tungsten shot performs on the same level as larger lead shot, allowing for more pellets per shell.
My old No. 5 1 3/4-ounce heavy field lead loads carried less than 300 shot pellets on average, but a 1 3/4-ounce load of No. 9 tungsten carries more than 600 pellets. The weight and hardness of tungsten also makes it a viable alternative in lighter 20-gauge and even .410-bore guns. The range limits on these guns will be shorter but just as deadly.
Tungsten loads are available with No. 5 to 10 shot for most gauges. Whatever the size, tungsten provides a deadly combination of retained speed and energy, resulting in deep penetration beyond what is considered normal shooting range.
The only downside to tungsten is its cost. Last spring, a box of five 3-inch shells loaded with No. 7 shot got me a penny back in change from my $50 bill. Good thing my home state has a two-bird limit during the spring season. I still had three shells left for fall.
TESTING AND PATTERNING
As with lead shells, patterning your gun with non-toxic loads is of utmost importance—but be prepared to experiment a bit. Not all non-lead loads shoot the same. Every shotgun is different, and your gun may shoot one type better than another.
In general, thanks to changes in wad technology and the addition of buffering agents, most modern shotguns can shoot these popular non-toxic loads, though certain chokes or specialized tubes may be required or recommended for peak results. Steel loads are not recommended for pre-1969 guns, older Damascus barrels or in modern guns with fixed or tighter removable chokes. If you’re unsure which non-lead alternatives can be used in your fixed- or interchangeable-choked gun, or what choke is best for a certain load, check with a qualified gunsmith or the gun’s manufacturer.
Lead loads may be with us for some time yet, but as more hunters discover that non-toxic alternatives can be equally or more effective, and game departments become more concerned with lead’s toxicity in the environment, it’s only a matter of time before more and more states impose bans. Now’s a good time to find the right alternative for you.