If you’ve hunted waterfowl, chances are good that you know the feeling:
You swing through a perfect shot sequence and pull the trigger only to see the bird absorb the shot. He falters in the center of your pattern, steels himself against the sting of your shot, strives mightily to regain rank and the flock continues on its course away from you.
It’s frustrating — mildly heartbreaking, even, because you know exactly what the future holds for this bird. If you fall in with the majority of hunters, you don’t always count them towards your daily bag limit. In short; the number of ducks and geese that are shot is not the same as the number that makes it to the table. For some reason, we regard this as a cost of wing shooting. Sometimes in hunting, that’s the way it goes. Some degree of loss is unavoidable. But shouldn’t we strive to do better by our quarry?
There has been much ado in recent years about non-lead ammunition, and for good reason – it’s a conservation conversation well worth having. Currently, the conversation around lead-based ammunition is largely framed in terms of ecological and personal health in the big game hunting arena. Research in the last 15 years has highlighted the rates of fragmentation of copper jacketed, lead core bullets, potential lead exposure of scavenging wildlife while consuming the remains of game left in the field, as well as the risk of those lead fragments making it through the butchering process to end up on the table at home. For waterfowlers though, shooting non-lead has been a foregone conclusion for nearly 30 years.
For most, compliance with the 1991 ban has meant reaching for the nearest box of steel- shot shells and accepting certain compromises on how effective a tool the shotgun can be for taking birds. Now, wildlife biologists have estimated that in 1997, the use of non-toxic shot for waterfowl kept millions of birds from lead poisoning-related deaths. Although we can be proud of the conservation benefit of using non-toxic shot, many of us struggle with the reduced density of steel shot and the challenges reduced density creates for efficient terminal performance. Most, myself included, have taken these compromises for granted during the last 30 years and we’ve grown reduced ranges and less-lethal loads.
Thankfully, renewed hunter interest has spurred ammo manufacturers into offering more options in bismuth, tungsten, and mixed-media duplex loads that promise more devastating downrange effects.
Of course, our ammo options have never been binary; but economics have made it seem so. Bismuth, tungsten alloy, and even brass have been utilized in shot manufacturing as long as shotgunning has existed, and some have enjoyed popularity in small circles for decades. Only recently have the big ammo manufacturers began to broaden their use of these heavier-than-steel, non-toxic options, making them far more accessible for the average hunter. Of course, these premium products garner premium prices, but are they worth it? If they’re actually more effective, then the answer could be a surprising yes.
Personally, my aim is to have a bird in the bag for every empty hull in my pocket. If I can hit that mark, then not only am I reducing waste, I’ll also be leaving more birds in the air for the next time I return.
With help from Leland Brown of the North American Non-Lead Partnership, I embarked upon a grade-school style science experiment. We would test a range of shotgun ammunition and evaluate it for efficacy on two criteria: pattern density and penetration. Then, we would take our findings to the field where we could see if our expectations for terminal performance carried any weight.
As with any endeavor involving a shotgun, the first thing to do is pattern test. Pattern testing gives the shooter critical information about what’s happening downrange when the trigger is pulled. The act of firing a shotgun is such a variable equation, that between the gun, the choke, the charge, and the payload, it’s practically impossible to solve in one’s own head. Even the shotgun master Robert Churchill said to “dismiss all ideas of calculated allowances.” Every change of variable – shotgun, choke load, etc. – changes performance. All a hunter can do choose a weapon and some ammo, then head to the range.
To ensure some semblance of the scientific method in this experiment, we wanted to make sure we built in some replication, rather than basing all our evaluation on a single shot of each ammunition. That meant taking three shots with each load and calculating the average pattern. To make our lives easier, we built three pattern boards, measured out 35 sheets of paper with 30” circles printed on them, counted off 40 yards on our range, and commenced with testing. The gun was my Benelli Super Black Eagle 12 gauge and the choke was my usual Carlson’s Extended Modified tube. We selected a range of ammunition that would be suitable for most duck hunting situations and as comparable as possible while still being practical. It should be noted that a real test of shot density would isolate shot size or weight as well as speed as controls, but since we were selecting from commercially-available ammo we chose the closest analogs we could find. We relied heavily on the work of Tom Roster, who has put together a chart providing guidelines for shot size choice with different materials.
First some background: density is the operative metric here.
The steel used in shot is about 7.8 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc). Bismuth is the next densest at 9.6 g/cc then lead at 11.34 g/cc. Finally, tungsten occupies a range from Hevi-shot’s Tungsten X at 9.8 g/cc all the way up to TSS’s 18 g/cc spherical shot. As the density number climbs, shot manufacturers are able to pack more pellets into their payload because each pellet can be smaller and still achieve the same weight, which can potentially improve shot patterns as well. Higher weights mean greater inertia, meaning better velocity at range, which in turn translates to improved penetration and terminal performance. These denser materials also have greater inertia, and maintain velocity longer. This means their downrange transfer of energy is greater, so the pellets fly further, faster, or penetrate deeper than their less-dense analogs.
For steel, we used Kent’s Fasteel 2.0 in a 3-inch No. 2 as well as Federal Black Cloud and Winchester’s Blindside, both also a 3-inch No. 2. As we moved toward bismuth, mid-density tungsten alloys, and duplex loads, we transitioned to No. 4 shot with Hevi Shot’s Hevi Hammer Steel/Bismuth Duplex (15 percent bismuth by weight), Hevi Bismuth, Hevi Tungsten, and Rio Bismuth. Lastly, we arrive at the shotshells loaded with the heaviest commercially available shot material TSS – an 18 g/cc spherical tungsten pellet. Due to their density, a No. 9 tungsten pellet weighs nearly the same as a No. 5 lead pellet, allowing a 1-ounce shotshell to carry more than twice as many pellets.
Once we had established which offerings produced the most desirable patterns from my gun, we proceeded to test for penetration. To do this, Leland supplied a 10 percent density synthetic ballistic gelatin which we fired each ammo into from 30 yards. We chose this distance because my average duck shot is usually closer than the 40-yard standard that is used in pattern testing. Each block was 6 inches wide by 6 inches high by 8 inches deep. Once fired, we then measured the minimum, maximum, and mode penetration of all the pellets that impacted the gel. We discounted the Federal Black Cloud load from this test, as the patterns were full of gaps, and there were Black Cloud pellets in the Black Cloud TSS load that we could use to examine terminal performance.
Interpreting results can be a challenge, particularly because of the number of variables we have to consider: overall pellet count, hit percentage, and then overall impression of the pattern are all part of the equation. Common sense dictates that the more pellets that hit within the 30-inch circle the more likely we are to get a good hit into the vitals of a bird.
There are several ammunition types that do well. By doing well, I mean putting over 100 shot within the pattern area, as well as keeping the efficiency of shot close to 60 percent at 40 yards. Top of the line for those metrics is Federal’s Black Cloud TSS, putting over 200 pellets into the target area, with a hit percentage of 73.89 percent. It should be noted that a majority of those pellets are No. 9s. Examining the penetration test in gel, those do a good job of penetrating, but there may be issues with damage in a larger bird.
Kent Fasteel 2.0 surprised us with high performance. Putting over 100 pellets on average into the target area and with a 61.71 percent hit percentage, it was fairly efficient at putting pellets on target. Looking at the distribution of the patterns, they were also well balanced, not leaving large gaps. Federal Black Cloud had a decent hit percentage at 68.8 percent, but the low pellet count in the target area raises some questions about how effective it will be in the field. Visually inspecting the pattern, we decided to cut it from the gel testing, in part due to the poor pattern, but also because there were black cloud pellets in the Black Cloud TSS load that we could look at the wound pattern in the gels.
The Hevi-shot loads were slightly confusing. Their hit percentage didn’t get out of the 50s for all the loads, yet on a whole, they put good pellet counts on target. Inspecting the shot during the average pellet count for shell showed that the bismuth and tungsten shot tended to be odd shapes, which may contribute to erratic flight through the air. That may influence pattern shape, pushing pellets to the outside of the pattern.
With this data, it only made sense that we should head to the field to fill in the rest of the puzzle. Now to properly evaluate terminal performance on game, we would need to conduct hundreds of tests. Since that was not in the cards, we would have to settle for snippets of data and make inferences from what we gathered. Considering these constraints, we chose to focus our efforts on the shells that performed the best on paper, so we went into the field with Federal’s Black Cloud TSS No. 3/9 and Kent’s Fasteel 2.0 No. 2s.
We decided to hunt some small streams in central Oregon where jump-shooting would provide the most reliable opportunity. I started with my gun loaded with Federal’s TSS and almost right away a small flock of widgeon at about 30 yards presented us with our first volley. I fired two shots and connected with two birds, admittedly though, neither were in the dead-center of my pattern. Both flew over 100 yards before setting back down and expiring. Their necropsies revealed what we had suspected, which was that both were perforated by a couple No. 9s but no No. 3s had connected. All but one tungsten shot passed all the way through, and appeared to transmit the shock necessary to fold either one up. With the cobwebs knocked off, we moved on to a group of mallards at a similar distance. When they got up at about 25 yards, two shots were fired and two fell. One hit squarely with both No. 3s (three of them) and No. 9 (more than I could accurately count) tungsten from a Federal Black Cloud TSS Shell folded. The other, hit with Kent No. 2s fell and expired quickly thereafter. We went on to harvest several more teal and were even surprised by a covey of fat chukar on our way back to the truck. Both clearly demonstrated the difference in terminal performance between No. 4 shot and Tiny No. 9s.
No surprises here: there is no silver bullet.
The key to killing birds is still a well-placed shot within a familiar range. Wingshooting is a messy collection of variables, and even with the odds in the hunters favor a matching outcome can be elusive. That having been said, there are tangible benefits to some of these heavier-than-steel loads that we tested.
I would be remiss not to acknowledge that most of these options are not cheap. They ranged from $15 for a standard box of 25 for Kent’s Fasteel 2.0 to $59.99 for a box of 10 for Apex Ammo’s TSS Waterfowl. There’s no doubt that this is the limiting reagent for most hunters, and while I’m personally ready to pay more for a product that will reduce my ecological footprint, $5.99 per round is prohibitively expensive for me, even if my gun had liked them.
Both on paper, and in the field Federal’s Black Cloud TSS has proven itself to be impressively effective. The patterns and hit percentages of this particular load have born out and the combination of tiny No. 9 tungsten super shot and steel has taken everything from chukar and teal to Greater Canadian Geese with consistency that seems to be on the cusp of perfection. I have to imagine that a similarly consistent pattern made up of 100 percent No. 8 or No. 7.5 TSS would be a one-size-fits-all solution for most wingshooters.
At the outset of this test, I had hoped that I might stumble upon a magical cocktail of metal and gunpowder that might bestow superpowers upon my shotgun, and of course I did not, but I did learn a lot about the limits of my shooting, and in doing so, brought a new level of clarity to my time in on the river or in the marsh.
I finished out my season with a few more boxes of Black Cloud TSS and found myself liking it more and more, and count myself lucky that it gets along with my duck gun, as it seems to work well on every bird I’ve been lucky enough to encounter.
I find myself shooting less, and returning home having had a better time, and with heavier braces of birds to boot! Perhaps most importantly, the shots I don’t take have surely left more uninjured birds on the water and in the sky – whether that is attributable to a product, or the process may be unclear, but it has undoubtedly helped me on my path to being a more efficient sportsman.
I’m very grateful for the guidance provided by Leland Brown of the North American Non-Lead Partnership. This would not have been possible without him.
The North American Non-Lead Partnership works collaboratively to minimize the unintended impacts of lead ammunition on wildlife and support the continued contributions of legal hunting to wildlife conservation. Their work is deeply interesting, and their contributions to conservation are considerable.
Tristan Henry is a lifelong Oregonian and perennial student of wild food and wild places. Tristan spent his youth in wetlands and on farms of rural western Oregon, where he cultivated a sense for stewardship and love for cooking. After college, he relocated to central Oregon, where he manages a small advertising agency, co-chairs the Oregon Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, chases elk with his bow, and wanders the hills with his wife and dog in search of food and fun.