Handloading Harder, Denser Shot
Handloader|February 2021
The Evolution of Tungsten Shot
John Barsness

Lead has been traditionally used for making shot for centuries. While not nearly as abundant as many other metals, lead is easily mined and refined, and also relatively heavy, malleable and corrosion-resistant. Unfortunately, ingesting lead can be harmful to various organisms, including ducks and geese feeding in commonly hunted areas, the reason the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting in some areas in 1987, and made the ban nationwide in 1991.

The first and still primary substitute was steel. The grade used in shotshells weighs about one third less than typical lead shot, which makes steel shot less efficient when traveling through the air. Essentially, it has a lower “ballistic coefficient” than lead shot of the same size. Steel shot is so much harder than lead it patterns well in more open chokes than many waterfowlers traditionally used – and can actually damage tighter chokes, or even cause barrels on doubles to separate near the muzzles.

Many waterfowlers initially reported steel wounded too many birds, but some hunters used shot sizes based on their experience with lead. Experimentation proved steel could work pretty well when using one or two sizes larger, especially when started at higher muzzle velocities. Steel shot also took up more room inside a shotshell, the reason 10-gauge shotguns made a comeback after decades of declining use, and Federal introduced the 3½-inch 12-gauge case.

Shot made of other nontoxic metals soon appeared, including softer shot for use in shotguns with tighter fixed chokes, and denser, harder shot for better longer-range results. I became acquainted with both in the mid-1990s, using relatively soft bismuth-tin shot in older guns, and harder, denser shot made partly of tungsten, about 1.75 times as heavy as lead and even harder than steel. (In the list of shot approved for waterfowl hunting by the USFWS, “tungsten” appears more often than any other metal.)

In 1996, Federal invited me to take part in a preproduction test of its Tungsten-Iron shot in Argentina, thanks in part to the late Bob Brister, one of the best American shotgunners and writers of his generation. (His book Shotgunning, The Art and Science remains in print, 44 years after appearing in 1976, partly because of its detailed analysis of how birdshot patterns on moving targets, accomplished by Bob shooting at a long board on top of a trailer towed by the family car driven by his wife Sandy.)

Along with Grits Gresham, several writers gathered in Minnesota before flying south, touring the Federal factory in Anoka and getting a rundown on the new shot from the company’s head ballistician, whose background was in rifles, not shotguns. The 12-gauge ammunition that had already been shipped to South America featured 2¾-inch cases loaded with an ounce of No. 2 Tungsten-Iron shot, because he believed kinetic energy to be the primary factor in “projectile lethality.”

Bob Brister was not a shy guy, and immediately explained rather forcefully that pattern density was just as important as pellet energy. Some shot had to hit a flying bird’s vitals, so the relatively small load of big shot would not work well at longer ranges, especially on ducks. The ballistician disagreed, but our experience in Argentina proved him wrong.

Down there, ducks and geese are often considered agricultural pests, so bag limits were very high and we shot a bunch of birds. The ammunition worked fine out to medium range, but at longer ranges the pattern became too thin for consistent results.

Part of the reason for using No. 2 Tungsten-Iron involved problems forming smaller shot sizes. Due to our results, Federal worked on the problem, and a couple of years later introduced ammunition with No. 4 and No. 6 shot, including 3-inch 12-gauge shells holding 13⁄8 ounces of shot. They sent me samples for field-testing, along with Tungsten-Polymer ammunition for older fixed-choke guns.

Other companies developed variations on the tungsten theme, and Eileen and I started testing them as well, partly by hunting waterfowl every few years with Ameri-Cana Outfitters in Alberta, Canada, at its Battle River lodge about 500 miles north of our Montana home.

Alberta, like the other “prairie provinces,” has great water fowling because its farms are the first seen by birds hatched in northern Canada. The hunting season also opens earlier because open water freezes earlier in Canada. We headed north every few years to try new kinds of nontoxic shot, not just tungsten but also steel and bismuth.

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