New nontoxic, high-density shotgun ammunition is pricey and complicated
But clearly better at dropping waterfowl

By John Hayes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Soft enough to cheaply press into tiny balls, gentle on shotgun bores, and with a density that pushes through dense feathers and tough skin, hunters and ammunition manufactures have long considered lead the best material for shotgun shot, particularly for waterfowl.

It's also the best poison for randomly killing wildlife. Particularly waterfowl.

With early resident goose season opening Sept. 1 in Pennsylvania, and regular seasons now on the books, waterfowl hunters are starting to wade through the complex and expensive options regarding nontoxic shot.

Since 1991, when lead shot was outlawed for waterfowl hunting in the United States, wetlands and waterways have grown more or less free of toxic lead. The regulations apparently worked: researchers say waterfowl populations are healthier and more numerous, and hunters and wildlife agencies at the state and federal levels are generally happy about it.

"The science was very clear that waterfowl were taking up lead shot as part of the feeding process and it was hurting the population," said Joshua Winchell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The evidence that it's working is that you can test the waterfowl themselves for lead levels. There's been a significant improvement in the health of waterfowl."

In the early days of nontoxic shot use, hunters learned to take closer shots with lighter iron loads, commonly called "steel shot," after learning the hard way that the lighter iron falls faster, and can bounce off feathers or wing a bird without dropping it. Steel shot is inexpensive, however, and 3-inch 12 gauge loads remain popular with waterfowlers.

But they're nowhere near the best ammunition for ducks and geese. The ammunition industry has invested much research and development into nontoxic materials nearly as heavy as lead that can be efficiently shaped into shot. While experimentation continues, U.S. Fish and Wildlife has approved the use of nontoxic, high-density shot that includes combinations of bismuth, tin, tungsten, nickel, bronze, copper and iron.

"The muzzle velocity [for steel shot] is about the same, but the heavy materials hold the velocity longer and the spread patterns are better," said Dave Westwood, hunting manager of the Gander Mountain store in West Mifflin. "They're expensive -- that's the only problem -- but they shoot farther, you'll hit more and wound fewer ducks."

Retail shops near waterfowl migration routes that pass over Erie often carry a greater selection of waterfowl loads, but local hunters can find nontoxic, high-density ammunition closer to home, if they look for it.

Federal's Black Cloud FS shells are packed with tungsten-iron shot pressed in an odd shape -- cylinders with a rim. The company claims the shape holds tighter patterns, and the tungsten-iron can be fired from all shotguns.

Remington Wingmaster HD is essentially what used to be called Hevi-Shot. A tungsten, nickle and iron composite, it's the heaviest of the nontoxics -- heavier even than lead. Because the shot's density holds velocity at longer ranges than lead, some waterfowlers reduce shot size by one level to get a denser spread: No. 6 for ducks, No. 4 or 2 for Canada geese. The HD loads should be used only in newer guns made to withstand abrasive steel shot.

Brace yourself for sticker shock in the ammunition aisle. Remington Wingmaster HD sells for about $34 for a box of 10. Other nontoxic, high-density shells are slightly less expensive. But don't chew out the clerk. Shot made from the new materials costs a lot to produce.

"The cost of this ammunition is an issue," said Winchell. "But I think it may be forcing waterfowlers to pick their shots more wisely when they know there's $1-plus in the chamber. ... But because of this, there's more birds in the air."