By Phil Bourjaily

The switch from lead to nontoxic shot is ancient history, but the spirit of innovation that has resulted in much-needed improvements in waterfowl loads lives on. Every year, we see more and better ammo alternatives for waterfowl hunters, and if you are willing to pay a premium price, there are now several options available that perform as well as or better than lead loads.

Introduced in the early 1990s, bismuth-tin alloy was the first nontoxic steel substitute to arrive after the lead shot ban. With superior density to steel (9.6 grams per cubic centimeter compared to steel's 7.86), bismuth alloy pellets hit harder than steel and were safe in old guns that steel shot could damage. They were expensive, however, and brittle, often breaking up upon firing or when they hit bone. The original manufacturer, the Bismuth Cartridge Company, went out of business following the death of founder Robert Petersen and the emergence of competitors like Hevi-Shot and Kent Tungsten-Matrix. Ten years later, with the price of tungsten-iron pellets skyrocketing, bismuth suddenly doesn't seem so expensive after all. Technology has improved the pellets, and bismuth shot is now offered by three manufacturers.

Rio loads bismuth shot in 10-round boxes of 12-gauge through .410 in shot sizes ranging from 3 to 7. This year Kent Cartridge began development of bismuth loads with shot sizes as large as BBs made by a proprietary process that renders pellets less frangible. There's even a 1-ounce, 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge load with a biodegradable fiber wad. Velocities range from 1,350 to 1,450 fps. The Kent loads come in 25-round boxes and sell for just $32 to $45 per box, which is a deal for heavier-than-steel ammo.

New for 2018, Winchester adapted the resin-buffer Shot-Lok technology that makes its Long Beard turkey loads so deadly and applied it to bismuth. The new Xtended Range bismuth loads contain 1 5/8 ounces of size 5 shot with a velocity of 1,200 fps. Although probably best used for turkey hunting, it delivers tight patterns (equivalent to steel 3s) at longer ranges for waterfowlers.

One way to lower the price of tungsten-iron shot is to reduce the amount of tungsten in the pellets. Hevi-Shot's new Hevi-X takes that tack. The original Hevi-Shot was heavier than lead. These pellets are heavier than steel, but lighter than the original. The Hevi-X size 2 shot that I examined had a pellet count per ounce comparable to that of steel 1s. These loads sell for $28 to $40 per box of 25.

Tungsten Super Shot (TSS) was the surprise hit of turkey season, not only because of its long-range performance but also because turkey hunters were willing to pay $7 to $10 per shell for it. TSS is the heaviest pellet on the market with a density of 18 grams per cubic centimeter compared to lead's 11.1. Apex Ammo offers two steel-TSS blends for waterfowlers in 12- and 20-gauge loads similar to Hevi-Shot's successful Hevi-Metal ammo line. The Platinum line contains half an ounce of TSS 9 shot (ballistically close to lead 5s but with a much higher pellet count) on top of steel 2s, 4s, or BBs. The company's Standard waterfowl loads combine a quarter ounce of size 9 TSS shot with standard steel pellets. These loads put a lot of pellets on target at 40 yards when I patterned them. The Platinum loads cost about $4 per shell and the Standard around $3.

Make Your Own Ballistic Gelatin
To take your shotshell testing to a higher level, try shooting your favorite waterfowl loads into gelatin. Because shotgun pellets don't penetrate as deeply as rifle bullets do, even small gelatin blocks are big enough for shotshell testing. Buy unflavored gelatin in packs containing 32 quarter-ounce packets. Mix all the packets into eight cups of water in a metal bowl. After the gelatin sets for about three hours, put the bowl into a larger metal bowl of water and heat it on the stove until all the gelatin melts. Next pour the mixture into a greased 64-ounce plastic container. At the range, pop the gelatin out and shoot it. Your gelatin won't be the same density as that used by manufacturers, so you can't compare your results with gel data from other sources, but you can make some useful observations.