By Jessica Haavisto
The shotgun shell aisle can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Lead, steel, bismuth, tungsten, let alone making sure you choose the right shot size. Where you’re shooting and whether you’re trap and skeet, upland or waterfowl hunting will make a difference as well.
Some areas require you to use non-toxic shot which means lead is out. But do you need to pay for tungsten? No. Proof is in the pudding here. This metal is so expensive and the way the pellets are formed, the shot patterns are dismal. These are overkill so don’t waste your money.
At the trap and skeet range, go ahead and use lead. It’s cheap. You’re going to go through a lot. And you’re hitting an inanimate object that you don’t have to make sure dies quickly and ethically. It is also going to be easier on your shoulder and your barrel(s).
When you’re hunting, however, you want your shots to count. You want your patterns to count.
Lead is soft. As soon as lead starts traveling down your barrel and bumping into things, small dents are made reducing the potential velocity and retained energy of each pellet. This equates to less consistent patterning.
If you’re one of the few who successfully hits their fowl with their first shot every time, this may not be important to you. If you’re like most of us who can’t hit moving targets well, you may consider upping your ammunition game.
Steel shot is the most well known answer to the non-toxic category but it is less dense than lead and retains less energy and consistency than lead cutting your effective hunting range to roughly 30 yards. You need to use one or two sizes larger in steel shot to be comparable to lead shells and to reach out further.
While steel is non-toxic, it is also very hard and very rough on your equipment. You need chokes and barrels that will hold up to steel shot. And steel can also corrode and rust so don’t ever leave steel shells in your action or mag.
Bismuth used to be disliked due to pellets coming apart before you even loaded the shells in your gun. However, new technology has greatly improved bismuth pellets and made them a viable option.
Not as dense as lead, but extremely more dense than steel, bismuth pellets maintain velocity, energy and pattern nearly as well as lead does. With better penetration and more shot per shell than steel, why would you not put a ballistically better shot down range?
If you use cheap shot and miss on the first and second trigger pulls, is what you have in the chamber good enough to hit let alone deliver a fatal blow, to a target that is most likely outside your range anyway? Most likely not. If you’re one to take that third shot, how many times do you wound a bird and watch it fly away?
What if you had better shot in your gun and instead of just wounding a bird and having to it shoot again, you deliver that fatal blow with one trigger pull. Maybe your box of shells costs more but if you’re using a third to half of the shots you used to, then you’re really not out the money in the long run.
Steel shot may cost you around $0.65 or more per trigger pull. Good bismuth shot can be as little as $1.00 or as high as $2.00 per trigger pull. If you want to stick with lead shot where it is legal to hunt with, consider Hi-Bird shot or Prairie Storm at around $0.80 per trigger pull.
Copper plated lead shells or shells with more powder or improved wads increase your velocity at further range for upland birds. And copper plated pellets are okay to shoot through older barrels or barrels and chokes not rated for steel.
So if you’re shooting two to three times to kill one bird with cheap lead(where applicable) or steel vs one shot to kill with bismuth or higher quality steel or plated lead (where applicable), you’re spending less per kill and increasing your chances of an ethical, fatal kill on your first trigger pull.
I recently came across this issue when I got drawn for a Sandhill Crane hunt. These large birds need to be hit in the head in order to kill them. You can wound them, break legs and wings etc… if you aim for their large bodies and don’t make fatal head shots.
On occasion I try to hunt dove, which are aerial acrobats by the way, and quail. My shot to bird ratio isn’t all that good and while I was going to practice a couple times with clays, I wanted to be sure I was sending the correct pellets at the head of a crane which is about the size of a dove.
Bismuth is what we decided to use. Kent brand three inch BB and number 2 shot. These cost around $32.00 per box of 25 and they were well worth it in the end. Tags filled and memories made. And I cannot wait to do it again and try my hand at more bird hunts.
While our ethics and morals become increasingly important in spreading our message about hunting and our lifestyle, it is important to do everything you can to walk the talk. So don’t be afraid to spend a little more to give yourself the best opportunity with quality shot shells when it matters most.