A Guide to Non-toxic Shotshells
- 15 Apr, 2019
In 1991, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) banned the use of lead shot for hunting migratory waterfowl because it was discovered that certain bottom-feeding waterfowl species such as diving ducks, loons, and swans were inadvertently ingesting spent lead shot while feeding on aquatic plants and either becoming sick or dying as a result. Consequently, shotshell manufacturers were forced to find alternative metals for use in shotshells. However, even though eighteen years have passed since the ban on lead shot was enacted, a tremendous amount of misinformation still exists regarding non-toxic shot. So, in order to aid both beginning and experienced waterfowl hunters to find a non-toxic shot that is acceptable to them, let’s take a closer look at the five most popular types of non-toxic shot.
Bismuth/Tin Alloy Shot –
Although somewhat more expensive than steel shot, Bismuth alloy shot tends to perform significantly better than steel shot does and thus, many experienced waterfowl hunters prefer bismuth alloy shot over steel shot. In fact, bismuth shot is actually made from a combination of bismuth and tin and, because it has nearly the same weight and density as lead shot does, it performs very similar to lead shot. In fact, bismuth alloy shot performs almost exactly like lead shot in both pattern density and penetration and thus, it results in a clean kill more often than steel shot does. Plus, because bismuth/tin alloy is far more malleable than steel shot, it will not cause damage to older shotgun barrels.
Tungsten-Matrix Shot –
Another viable alternative to lead shot for older shotguns that are not specifically designed to handle steel shot is Tungsten-Matirx shot which is made from a combination of ninety-some percent tungsten combined with a plastic polymer. Due to its composition, it too has nearly the same level of density and malleability that lead shot does. But, it can be fired at higher muzzle velocities and forms very consistent patterns out 40 or 50 yards. So, even though tungsten-matrix shotshells tend to cost more than bismuth alloy shotshells, the lead-like performance of tungsten-matrix shot enables increased muzzle velocity which results in more kinetic energy as well as superior accuracy which, in turn, results in fewer shots fired and more birds killed.
Steel Shot –
Steel shot was one of the first alternatives to lead shot to hit the market after the ban on lead shot was enacted. However, because steel shot is both harder and less dense than lead shot, it performs differently. In fact, because steel shot weighs one-third less than lead shot does, it does not have as much inertia and thus, it may not kill as cleanly as lead shot of the same diameter at the same distance. In fact, the lack of clean kills is the complaint most often expressed by experienced waterfowl hunters. But, shotshells that incorporate aerodynamically-stabilized wads and premium-plated round steel shot do aid in retaining energy and thus, are more effective.
In addition, because steel shot is harder than lead shot, it does not deform as it is propelled from the muzzle and strikes its target and thus, it forms a denser pattern and penetrates more deeply than lead shot does. However, by using a more open choke such as an Improved Cylinder or Modified choke, you can alleviate the pattern density problem when shooting at closer ranges. Thus, by combining premium shotshells with the right chokes, steel shot can be just as effective as lead shot.
But, it should also be noted that some older shotgun barrels may not be able to handle steel shot due to the fact that steel is so much harder than lead. Therefore, both bismuth-tin shot and tungsten-matrix shot are the perfect non-toxic alternatives to lead shot for older shotguns.
Tungsten/Iron Alloy Shot –
Another viable choice when choosing a non-toxic shot is tungsten-iron alloy shot which combines the favorable qualities of both lead shot and steel shot. Because tungsten-iron alloy shot is only slightly less dense than lead shot and has about the same density as tungsten-matrix shot, tungsten-iron alloy shot provides a level of performance that is very similar to lead shot. In fact, when compared to steel shot, tungsten-iron shot delivers more kinetic energy per pellet than steel shot does which results in a greater range and cleaner kills than when using steel shot.
However, unlike bismuth-tin alloy shot, tungsten-iron shot is actually harder than steel shot and thus, it is best reserved for shotguns with barrels that are specifically designed to handle steel shot. In addition, because tungsten-ion shot is harder than steel shot, it requires that manufacturers incorporate a plastic shotcup with thicker than normal petals in order to protect the interior of the barrel from damage which means that less shot can be packed into each shotshell. But, hunters can compensate for this discrepancy by choosing longer shells.
Last but not least, there is Hevi-Shot which is made from a combination of tungsten, nickel, and iron and has become very popular with some waterfowl hunters since its initial debut in 2001. Similar to tungsten/iron alloy shot, Hevi-Shot is heavier than lead shot and thus, Hevi-Shot shotshells contain a higher pellet count than lead shotshells do.
In addition, because Hevi-Shot is harder than steel shot, it can be fired at significantly higher muzzle velocities than lead shot without deforming and thus, it has a significantly greater range combined with a higher degree of retained energy than even tungsten/iron alloy shot. Consequently, Hevi-Shot is often advertised as being “Deadlier at Distance” which is precisely what has made it so popular among avid waterfowl hunters. However, due to its composition, Hevi-Shot is also one of the most expensive lead shot alternatives on the market! But, if you are willing to accept the extra cost, then the increased level of performance can be well worth the cost.
So, even though some lead shot alternatives do not provide the same level of performance that lead shot does while others tend to be prohibitively expensive, the fact is that, as responsible hunters, we all have an obligation to help conserve the wildlife that we hunt. Consequently, that means acknowledging the need for non-toxic alternatives to lead shot when hunting waterfowl so that future generations of hunters can enjoy the same experiences that we have.
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