Pick Your Shot: Choosing A Non-Toxic Shotshell
Steel, Bismuth, Tungsten and TSS… these are the major players for shot in the non-toxic category and they all kill birds with varying degrees of effectiveness and cost. However, choosing the right non-toxic shotshell or load in today’s world can be confusing. Gone are the days of going to the hardware store and grabbing whatever was on the shelf and going hunting. There are a lot more choices out there now and options available for every budget and performance level. Yes, even with ammo shortages. Buying online is often the best way to get ammunition in today’s world and there are manufacturers that specifically cater to that option.
Time to break down the various shotshell loadings commonly available to wingshooters today and look at what the best choices are. Yes, I’m going to give you my unvarnished opinion as well.
Steel is the cheapest and most readily available option and all of the major manufacturers have both premium and budget conscience options. Today’s steel is a far cry from the garbage that I grew up hunting with. In fact, when it comes to bang for the buck I’m picking steel every time. With proper pellet selection and good shooting, steel kills very cleanly.
My top pick for steel is 3” #2’s for everything except small ducks, then I choose 3” #4’s. Either of these loads work well on pheasants too. I like 1 ⅛ oz or 1 ¼ oz loads cooking along at 1450 fps or more, these do the job very nicely on both ducks and geese over decoys. For factory chokes don’t go tighter than modified, steel patterns tighter than lead which is what factory chokes are based on. My top aftermarket choke pics are Pattermaster and Rob Roberts’ T2 .
I’ve shot ALL the major brands of steel over the years and I always come back to Federal Premium, either Black Cloud or “Blue Box” Speed-Shok.
Bismuth is next on the lethality and price scale when it comes to non-toxic shot. It has made a resurgence the past couple of years due in large part to BOSS Shotshells. Those of us who remember its first iteration were dubious about its performance living up to the “lead like” performance bill. However, BOSS seems to have it figured out and a lot of wingshooters are having excellent success with their copper plated loads. You have to order factory direct to shoot BOSS.
Federal Premium also has a bismuth offering in their MEATEATER line of ammunition. This lineup is specifically designed to provide a one box for everything option for wingshooters, getting us closer to the “good old days”. I’ve personally shot the 2 ¾” #4’s and can vouch for their lethality. I dropped both big greenheads and wild late season roosters with equal authority. I didn’t feel the need for a 3” version of this shotshell. However, if I were looking to hammer honkers with this Federal offering I’d choose the 12ga., 3”, #3’s and never look back.
Chokes for Bismuth are the same as for steel with IC and Modified being the winners. You can choke it tighter if desired but I’ve never needed to.
Tungsten comes in second for best lethality and second to the top in price per shell. Many companies offer Tungsten loads but Hevi-Shot remains at the top of the heap for offerings. I’ve shot their HEVI-METAL blended load extensively and it has always left me impressed. It’s also a fairly affordable option to get the performance of tungsten without the extreme cost. My go to for this shotshell is a 12ga, 3”, #3 for everything but if you’re a goose guy and still have a big old 10ga, the 3.5” BB loading is jaw droppingly devastating on honkers. All of the pure tungsten loads offered by Hevi-Shot are wicked good and their sub-gauge offerings are without par in this category. I especially like the HEVI-XII 3”, #6 loading for the 28 gauge.
Again, this is a spendy category but if you can shoot you’ll notice a dramatic reduction in cripples per shot. Shoot IC, Modified or IMP Modified for chokes.
TSS, these three letters have taken the wingshooting world by storm the past few years and rightly so. There has never been a more lethal shot for taking birds. If you are looking for the best of the best and don’t worry about price then TSS shotshells should be in your gun. Keep in mind that the most popular and cost effective way for manufacturers to load TSS is to combine it with steel so blended loads are very popular.
There are a lot of options for TSS loadings and it seems that an entire crop of boutique ammunition manufacturers has popped up around TSS. Almost all of these companies are web-based so do your digging on the internet. That said, in my experience there are two standouts when it comes to TSS shotshells: Federal Premium and APEX Ammunition.
APEX Ammunition is a veteran owned company who jumped on the TSS train early. I shot my first APEX loads back in 2017 and they were exceptional. Handload quality in every single shell was what I came to expect from APEX and they still don’t disappoint. For straight TSS loads APEX offers 10 round boxes and for a 12ga I’d pick the #7.5 load for everything from pheasants to swans. If looking for a TSS/Steel blend my choice would be to blend #2’s and #7.5’s (#2 steel, #7.5 TSS). Customization is a nice option available from APEX.
Much like Sauron in Lord of the Rings I’ve spent my wingshooting life looking for the one “ring to rule them all.” Okay, so not a ring but a shotshell and I found it two seasons ago in Federal Premium’s Black Cloud TSS loads. I’ve said it multiple times but this is like shooting birds with depleted uranium! I rarely, if ever, have cripples and my shell per bird count drops dramatically shooting this stuff!
Federal decided to combine the success of their supremely deadly TSS turkey loads with the proven effectiveness of Black Cloud and the result is akin to Superman and Wonder Woman having a child. Black Cloud TSS loads consist of a blend of 60% TSS 7’s or 9’s with FLITESTOPPER steel in either BB’s or 3’s. This is wrapped up in a FLITESTOPPER FLEX wad that holds the shot column together longer for unmatched patterning.
If it sounds like I’m high on these loads it’s because I am! They are pricey but if you’re looking for the ultimate in shotshell performance, this is it. If I had to pick only one of these offerings to do it all I’d choose the BBx7 load and run it through a factory IC or Modified choke. Federal Premium also offers the Black Cloud TSS in 20ga and I’m itching to put these through the paces more this fall.
Well, there you have it. My rundown and opinions on non-toxic shotshell offerings. Are there companies I left out? Yup. Will my opinions run opposite of some of you? Yup. There are so many shotshell manufacturers operating today that it’s almost impossible to cover them all and I know there are standouts among them, Kent Cartridge and Migra Ammunitions are two of these. As for my opinions? Well, they are after all just opinions but they come with the weight of more than three decades of wingshooting experience so take them as you will. One thing is for certain, today’s shotshells are better than at any time in the history of wingshooting and we are better for it.