After Lead?

When I hunt waterfowl, I shoot non-tox ammo, usually Kent steel and tungsten matrix loads. When I hunt upland birds or whitetail deer, I shoot lead ammo. But not for long. I've decided to switch* to copper bullets for deer hunting and I am looking for a suitable non-tox alternative to shoot in the uplands.

North Dakota rooster taken with copper-plated lead shot.
Steel shot does not play nice with my Darnes, 
so I need to find an alternative non-tox ammo.
Copper bullets for deer won't be a problem. They are widely available, and their slightly higher price is not really an issue since a box of 20 rounds will probably last me several years. But finding a suitable non-tox load for upland hunting is going to be tough because my go-to guns for grouse, woodcock and pheasant are Darnes. And the steel loads available to me here just don't play well with those sweet, sweet side by sides. So if I want to go lead free, I have to crawl down the rabbit hole of non-tox, non-steel shotshells.

Currently, my options are:

Kent Cartridge's Tungsten Matrix: By far the best stuff you can throw down-range. Period.  Unfortunately, the only TM shells currently available are stout loads of larger shot designed mainly for waterfowl, not grouse and woodcock.  Kent used to make a shell called "TM Upland" with a somewhat lighter load of smaller shot, but it seems to be discontinued.

Bismuth shells: Less expensive than tungsten matrix cartridges, and if you load your own, you can come up with decent load for smaller upland birds. Unfortunately, stocks of bismuth come and go as fast as a 17-year-old farm boy with a bad case of the trots at the local bordello. One day you see bismuth shells listed on the WhizBangMart website and the next day they are listed as 'out of stock'... probably because the company that made them switched to making stomach remedies for 17 year old farm boys with the trots.

Nevertheless, I am hopeful that Rio Ammo's new facility in Texas will start cranking out decent, affordable bismuth loads before the season opens this year. If they do, and if my Darnes like them, Bismuth will be my upland go-to shot.

Niceshot: Pack an awesome punch and are highly rated. Unfortunately Niceshot shells have the same 'here today, gone later today' availability as bismuth and, when they are in stock, have nearly the same buzz-harshing price tag as tungsten matrix.

Hevi-Shot Classic Doubles: Surprisingly 'in stock' most of the time at various outlets. Unfortunately, at over four bucks a pop, they are even more expensive than tungsten matrix and niceshot shells. Even worse, when tested against the competition, Hevi-shot Classic Doubles always end up in last place. Randy Wakeman concluded that: Kent Tungsten-Matrix wins, beating the pants off of Hevi-Shot Classic Doubles every time by no small measure. Bottom line, if I'm paying close to a fiver each time I pull the trigger, the stuff coming out the end of my barrel better be the equivalent of a fine single malt scotch, not Bud Light Clamato.

So is there anything else out there? Anything on the horizon? Well if you live in Europe, the answer is yes. Several ammunition manufacturers in France, Italy, Germany and elsewhere have introduced brand new shells with some very interesting loads. Let's look at the options:

Steel loads that they can be used in older guns. Realizing that there are still huge numbers of hunters using shotguns that were never intended to shoot steel, the CIP, Europe's governing body for firearms safety standards has come up with an interesting solution: create guidelines for steel loads specifically formulated to reduce (if not completely eliminate) the risks of shooting steel guns not approved for steel shot. The standard includes limits for chamber pressure, velocity, momentum and shot size. The goal is to ensure that steel shot marketed in CIP countries does not compromise the safety of "...the most vulnerable guns, namely old, thin-walled, perhaps poor-condition guns." You can read about CIP standards and how they differ from the SAAMI standards used in the US in this excellent article here.

So that means that almost all of the major ammo makers in Europe such as FOBRottweilSellier-BellotFiocchi and many of the smaller firms (there are dozens of them) sell 'Standard Pressure' steel shotshells that are supposed to be safe to shoot in older guns. The loads are lower in pressure than High Performance steel loads but also have the same thick plastic shot cups designed to minimize barrel damage.

Now I can practically see your eyes rolling at the thought of a low pressure, (low performance?) steel load. After all, even the best steel loads, when compared to similar lead loads, can be anemic. So why the heck would you want to water them down even more? Well, if you hunt snipe and woodcock, as I and millions of European hunters do, there is no problem. Most shots are in the 15 - 20 yard range and the birds are not 12-pound late-season honkers. So low pressure steel shells are probably just right for that sort of game.

Mary Arm's "Steel 24" shells are fairly typical standard pressure loads.  Their 20 gauge shells contain 24 grammes (about 7/8 of an ounce) of nickel-plated steel # 5 or # 6 shot in a specially-designed wad. They are said to be safe for all chokes and have a maximum effective range of about 35 yards.

Non-steel loads. Tungsten Matrix and Bismuth Loads are available throughout Europe. And yes, they cost and arm and a leg there too. But there are also other alternatives that are available there, but have not (yet?) made it to North America.

Zinc/Tin. Shells loaded with shot made from a combination of zinc and tin have been on the European market for a while now. Available from Clever Mirage in Italy, Mary Arm, Tunet in France, and Sellier-Bellot in the Czech Republic, they are apparently safe for all guns and chokes but are only recommended for close to medium distances, about 30 yards max. They are more expensive than steel or lead loads, but not as expensive as Tungsten matrix or Bismuth.

Copper. Bullets made from pure copper have been on the market for a while now and are becoming more popular among big game hunters. But pure copper shot has not been offered in shotshells, until now. FOB in France recently launched a new line of shells called Sweet Copper (for some reason, the French love giving English names to hunting related products). Vouzelaud also offers shells loaded with copper shot, but they add a proprietary ACP bio-degradable wad.

Not to be outdone, Germany ammo company Rottweil also announced shells containing copper shot called "Copper Unlimited" (yes, they love English names as well). Available (so far) only in 12 gauge it is said to be a "... high-performance lead-free cartridge that rivals lead shot cartridges. The cartridges contain shot made from pure copper - copper is both heavier and softer than soft iron shot. The advantages to the sportsman include increased effective ranges of up to 40 metres and up to 15% more energy delivered to the target. This improves one's chances of success since more pellets can be put into the cartridge than with the same load weight of steel. In addition, the softer copper shot makes forest and field shooting possible again since the danger from ricochets is greatly reduced."

Copper is a sort of 'in-between' option. It is softer and heavier than steel, and lighter, but harder than lead. It is less expensive than tungsten matrix, but substantially more than zinc/tin. It will be interesting to see how the European market responds to copper shot and if it will ever make its way over to this side of the Atlantic. After all, copper plated shot is allowed here, so why not solid copper shot?

Bottom line: After reviewing all my options, there are only a few solutions. Here they are and the chances they ever happen.

  • Give up shooting my Darnes. Never. Ever. Sorry. Ain't gonna happen.
  • Win the lottery. One chance in a gazillion. Ain't gonna happen...but I will still buy a ticket.
  • Move to Europe. I would totally be down for that.... about 10 seconds after I win the lottery.
  • Cross my fingers and hope that bismuth ammo finally sees the light of a reasonable price.

* My decision to stop shooting lead is a personal one. I've written about lead shot before and it is becoming increasingly clear that as hunters and stewards of the environment, we really should look for alternatives. And yes, I understand that there are people who disagree with me on the lead ammo issue, and that's fine. I am not out to convince anyone to stop shooting lead. Do whatever pops your airbag.

UPDATE: I was asked for more information on why I choose to go lead free in the uplands even though lead is still OK to shoot in many areas I hunt. Here's my answer:

The reasons that I am currently looking into non-tox and non-steel shot options range from strictly regulatory to purely personal. I've thought a lot about the issues involved for quite a while, and no matter how I slice 'em, when added up, they all point to a non-lead future for me.

On the regulatory side, I live in Manitoba, Canada. The laws up here mandate that I use non-tox shot for all migratory birds. So, unlike other jurisdictions where non-tox shot is only required near or in wetlands, when I hunt ducks, geese or snipe, even in a field or forest, I cannot use lead. I am allowed to use lead for woodcock (for now) but I often encounter timberdoodles in areas that also hold snipe (my favourite bird to hunt) and ducks (my favourite bird to eat), so I feel that I should at least make an effort to find a suitable non-tox load that I can use no matter where I am, or what I am hunting.

I also hunt a lot in the Dakotas. And while much of the hunting we do there is on private land were lead is still OK, from time to time, we do hunt on public land where non-tox is required. Of course, the easy solution would be to leave my Darnes in the truck and shoot steel in my steel-approved guns. But I really, really love my Darnes and I shoot them far better than my other guns (I am a mediocre shot on a good day, but in 2013, I went 14 for 14 on wild ND roosters with my Darne 20 gauge and last year I got 15 birds in 21 shots with my 16 in South Dakota). So if I can find a way to use my favourite guns, no matter where I am, or what I am hunting, I would be a happy man.

And finally, one of the greatest pleasure I get from hunting is sharing the harvest with family and friends. Every year, I provide duck, goose, grouse, snipe, woodcock and deer meat to people close to me, including young children. And that motivates me, more than any law ever could, to do my best to get lead out of the equation. After all, wild meat is the healthiest, most organic, free-range food under the sun. But running the risk of contaminating it with the residues of toxic metals just doesn't sit right with me, especially when there are less toxic options available.

So those are the main reasons I've been spending waaaay too much time online trying to find non-steel alternatives to lead shot. But, as already stated above, I am not out to convince anyone else to stop shooting lead. Do whatever is legal where you are and shoot whatever loads you want.

Owners of vintage guns rejoice! There are now TWO brands of bismuth ammo on the market, and they are very competitively priced. I mentioned Rio's bismuth ammo, and it seems that at least some loads are now listed as 'in stock' on the Natchez website, but remain 'backorderable' on the Cabela's site. The 20 gauge shells I'm interested in go for $18.99 for a box of 10, or 17.99 if you buy 10 boxes (100 rounds), so just under two bucks a pop.

But there is a new kid in town, with a better price! Kent Cartridge recently announced "the rebirth of an old favorite" by introducing their new Bismuth Premium Shotshells. According to their website they have "... taken everything that was great about bismuth and made it better. Kent’s proprietary manufacturing technique produces bismuth pellets of superior integrity and ballistic capability. This shot is safe for the environment and suitable for use in fixed choke and high grade shotgun barrels".

Even better, checking the listing on the Cabela's website shows that the 20 gauge shells I'm interested in go for $15.99 for a box of 10 (just over a buck and a half a pop).  Yesterday, I called the Kent Cartridge office in Canada and the nice lady on the phone told me that Kent Bismuth shot will begin shipping to my local dealer in 'late spring or early summer'. YES!!!! It looks like my trip down the rabbit hole of finding decent, affordable non-tox, non-steel shotshells for my Darnes may be paying off.

Enjoy my blog posts? Check out my book Pointing Dogs, Volume One: The Continentals


  1. Adding to the non steel, non toxic problem is the fact that non toxic loads are primarily intended for waterfowling and consequently are high velocity, high pressure, high payload gun busters. A number of years ago a local store obtained a stock of 20 or so boxes of light upland bismuth loads. The prices were stratospheric. Every payday I went down and purchased one or two boxes. In about five months I had purchased the entire stock as no one else was buying them. The money is long gone and forgotten and I have now have a life time supply of non toxic, non steel upland ammo. I will probably have enough left over to put in my will for some deserving hunting partner! Some times you just have to bite the bullet and do it!

  2. I applaud your very fine article about a very complex issue. As a lifelong hunter and shooter, I don't like to think that I have done harm to species I want to protect. But, as the president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia, one of the world's leading teaching and research hospitals for wildlife and conservation medicine, I have seen the results of lead toxicity in species like the bald eagle, and many others. In 2013, the Wildlife Center admitted 42 bald eagles. Sixty percent of them had measurable levels of lead in their blood stream...sometimes lethal levels. No amount of lead is "safe". These birds are getting the lead by scavenging game or nuisance animals that are not recovered, or the entrails of deer and other large game species which are field dressed. We find the fragments! A fragment of lead the size of a grain of rice--one or two #6 shotgun pellets--can kill and eagle in 48-72 hours! If we educate ourselves about this issue, and voluntarily make the switch to nontoxic shot, we can avoid regulations and bans....approaches we don't want. No sportsman wants to kill any animal that is not our intended quarry.

    Here is the link to a white paper I prepared on this subject.

    Again, thank you for his fine post, and for your leadership on this issue!

    Ed Clark, President
    Wildlife Center of Virginia

  3. Simply a lover of guns and firearms, loved your blog for sharing something in such a detail. Shotguns has always been one of my favorites. This can always make things really safer for you and all. You can also give a try to the MA Gun License to maintain safer and secured for your loved ones.