Shotguns & Shooting  |  08/02/2017

Nontoxic Loads for Pheasants: How Do They Shoot?

By Greg Breining

If you’re thinking of switching from lead shot to steel or other nontoxic material for your pheasant hunting, you could study ballistics tables, count pellets and compare densities of different shot.

Or you could ask a couple of shooting and hunting writers who have poured more shot through their gun barrels than most of us would shoot in a century of hunting seasons.

That’s what we did. We asked two writers for their anecdotal and somewhat subjective thoughts about hunting with nontoxic shot and how shooting it compares with using conventional lead ammo for upland birds.

One expert is South Dakota shooting and ballistics writer L.P. Brezny, author of Gun Digest Guide to Modern Shotgunning. The other is Iowan Phil Bourjaily, shotguns editor for Field and Stream, and frequent contributor to other publications, including Pheasants Forever Journal and Ducks Unlimited.

Their take of nontoxic shot? The stuff works, and they use it even when they could use lead. But each has a different take on what he prefers to shoot.


Until recently, Brezny’s go-to pheasant load was oh-so-very-conventional number 5 copper plated lead. “I use that as a benchmark,” he says.

Then a few years ago a major manufacturer delivered a case of ultra-high-speed 3-inch 12-gauge shells loaded with number 2 steel. Brezny had a friendly competition between two groups of friends, the “Minnesota hunters” shooting lead 4s and 5s, and the “South Dakota boys” shooting steel. (Though a long-time Minnesotan, Brezny now counts himself a South Dakota boy.) At the end of the day, “I would say we outgunned them three birds to one,” says Brezny. “And clean kills out to 70 yards. It was absolutely wicked, wicked quick stuff.”

Okay, not exactly scientific. But even as anecdote, the evidence was strong enough to convince Brezny to switch to steel for much of his shooting.

As the story suggests, Brezny and his South Dakota friends didn’t have to spend any time adjusting their leads to accommodate steel’s higher velocities or fiddling with their chokes to adjust to its tighter patterns.

“I never paid a bit of attention to any of that. I pick my gun up, I point, and I shoot. The other guys with me it’s the same thing,” he says. “Just keep the barrel ahead of the bird. It’s going to cross through that payload somewhere.”

Despite his fondness for high-speed steel, Brezny shoots other non-toxics, with good results. Bismuth, he says “has good properties. I see no issue with it at all.” Tungsten-matrix, the tungsten-polymer blend, dispatched untold numbers of birds for him in South America. “Just like a laser,” he says. “Excellent material.” And heavyweight tungsten-nickel-iron alloys such as Federal Heavyweight — “it’s overkill. It’s that dang good.”

The only adjustment he makes now is to open his choke when he shoots hard nonmalleable shot such as steel and super-dense tungsten alloys. Wads such as Federal’s Flitecontrol or Remington’s Xelerator do plenty already to keep patterns together. “You’re probably doing yourself a disservice by constricting down too tight,” he says.

As for non-steel alternatives to lead, the only drawback is cost, he says. “That’s your problem. There comes your Achilles heel right there. What the industry found out is people aren’t going to pay $4 a shot shell,” he says. “Really, it’s
not necessary.”


Unlike Brezny, Bourjaily doesn’t like high-speed steel. “Because I like to pheasant hunt with lightweight bird guns — and 1,600-feet-per-second with an ounce and a quarter of shot really kick. Those are brutal. And we’re just shooting pheasants. They’re not giant Canada geese or anything. They’re pheasants.”

Which is not to say Bourjaily doesn’t shoot non-lead loads for pheasants. He does, most of the season. “I usually shoot nontoxic shot until waterfowl season is over, just in case I run into a snipe or a duck. There was a time my setter found a crippled duck for me, which I realized had I been shooting lead shot I wouldn’t have been allowed to pick up.”

He likes some of the denser nontoxic materials because they can be loaded to lower velocities and still retain speed and energy downrange. His favorite is Tungsten-Matrix — and not only because it has near-lead density. He likes it, he says, “for the not particularly scientific reason that when you bite it, it squishes in your teeth rather than hurts. You can serve pheasant to anyone and not have to worry about biting into a pellet. It also has other advantages, too. It responds to choke about like lead does. It hits hard.”

Bismuth is similarly soft, though not quite as dense. And it is significantly cheaper than various blends of tungsten (though about twice the price of steel). “It’s a good substitute, but I don’t think it’s quite as deadly as the others. My take on that is more anecdotal than anything else,” Bourjaily says.

Because both tungsten-matrix and bismuth are soft like lead, you can shoot them through old guns built before the days of steel shot.

Bourjaily also shoots a “layered” load known as Hevi-Metal — a combination of steel and denser tungsten-alloy pellets — for pheasants. “There’s no reason for that to work as well as it does,” he says. “If you shoot it, it looks terrible on paper. It seems like all of the Hevi-Shot goes to the outside of the pattern. But for whatever reason, it kills very well.”

Despite his fondness for dense-like-lead shot, Bourjaily does shoot steel — often, because that’s what most of his readers shoot. He prefers slower loads with bigger pellets. “The best, most efficient way to boost pellet energy is to shoot bigger shot,” he says. “I usually shoot 2s and 3s.”

In a perfect world, Bourjaily would open his choke for hard pellets such as steel and tungsten alloys. “It would be a good idea. Do I do it? No. I usually leave whatever is in the gun, in the gun.” He paraphrases competitive shooter Andy Duffy: “Chokes are a matter of inches and most shots are missed by feet.” He usually shoots an improved-cylinder or modified choke for pheasants, anyway.  “I try not to worry about it too much. I’m a believer that the less you worry the better your shoot.”

He’s not concerned that steel shot doesn’t carry energy and speed to long distances as well as denser materials. “I don’t take long shots if I can help it. Long, going away shots — never if I can help it.” A pheasant’s muscular grit-filled gizzard shields the heart, lungs, and head from a going-away shot. And the fine feathers on the rump tend to entwine shot and reduce penetration.

The 40-yard going-away shot — I’ve killed birds like that, and people do, but I hate losing pheasants. Those birds — watch them land and chase them up again,” says Bourjaily. “Crossing shots are different. I’ll take those because there’s a lot of vital area to shoot at.”

Bourjaily avoids long shots just by his style of hunting — usually by himself or with one other hunter, each working behind a dog. “I’m sure there are cases where long shots at pheasants are routine, but not how I hunt. Most birds are shot within 20-25 yards of the gun.”


Bourjaily’s and Brezny’s preference for large steel shot — the number 2s and 3s normally used for waterfowl — are substantiated by a systematic and large-scale experiment by the Cooperative North American Shotgunning Education Program (CONSEP) and several state and federal game agencies 20 years ago.

During the test, hunters killed more than 300 pheasants at a North Dakota hunting club, shooting factory-loaded ammo with number 2, 4, and 6 steel shot at 1375 feet per second. They shot birds at distances ranging from less than 20 yards to more than 60. The purpose of the study was to find the most effective steel shot size because even then steel was the nontoxic shot the vast majority of hunters chose to shoot.

The number 2s performed better than the 4s and 6s at all ranges. They killed or immobilized birds at a much higher rate and produced far fewer wounding loses. According to a report on the trial in North Dakota Outdoors, “Of all birds struck with the No. 2 steel load, 108 were retrieved and 10 were lost, an 8.5 percent wounding loss rate. No. 6 steel produced a 13.6 percent wounding loss, and No. 4 steel came in with a 14.3 percent wounding rate.”

Necropsies on dead birds showed that number 2 steel “had a significantly higher mean depth of penetration and percentage of pellets that penetrated all the way through and exited the bird, than did the other two loads.” Number 2s were also more effective in breaking wing and leg bones, allowing for the recovery of the birds.

Despite the much lower number of number 2s in the 1-ounce payload, (111 pellets, compared with 177 number 4s and 326 number 6s), hunters were just as successful hitting targets with the bigger pellets. According to the report, “We did not find a difference in the hunters’ ability to hit the target, regardless of the number of pellets in the shell.”

The test also showed, perhaps not surprisingly, that hunters did much better at closer range. They lost fewer than 3 percent of birds shot at less than 30 yards and more than 15 percent shot over 40 yards.

Lethality of a pellet is a function of energy, and heavier number 2 pellets have more energy when they hit.  Modern loads like Prairie Storm Steel can achieve increased energy with higher speeds and number 3 or 4 shot, matching and exceeding the number 2s of 20 years ago.

The takeaway? Steel performs really well at distances most hunters shoot pheasants. And steel has only gotten better over time.

And if for whatever reason you want to shoot something else — because you’re willing to pay more money for just a few shots in the field, or you’re shooting a cherished old double gun, or you carry a smaller gauge with 2¾-inch chambers, or you don’t like recoil — there are effective alternatives.

As Brezny says, the rap against modern nontoxic shot “makes no sense whatsoever. It’s all old wives’ tales. This stuff is good. It really is.”