I have been hunting turkey, waterfowl and upland game for as long as I can remember. For the first 30 years or so of that time, everything was fine. Then the Federal government banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl in 1991. Now, some 20 years later, we see some state and federal regulations banning lead shot for both upland and turkey hunting. If it isn’t happening in your area yet, be thankful. Just be aware that it will and when it does you need to be prepared. With this article I hope to shed some light on what is available right now in regards to non-toxic shot for turkey.
My hunting buddies all claim that I must have a crystal ball, because I changed over to non-toxic shot for everything many years ago. Yes, it did cost me more to buy non-toxic, but the time that has passed has allowed me to learn both its benefits and its drawbacks. A great deal has changed in the world of non-toxic shot since 1991, and while those changes have all been for the better, it is important to know how the ammunition works for your shooting and your gun. There is a bit of learning curve when you first start using non-toxic and now is the time to learn. The turkey blind is no place to find out what your shells will, and will not, do.
When I first switched to non-toxic shot there was nothing on the market specifically for turkey hunters. After all, they would never dare consider banning lead shot for turkeys. Think again. I ended up using #4 steel, in 3-inch magnum, basically a waterfowl load. Would it kill turkey? The answer would be yes. Was it ideal for this situation? Definitely not. Fortunately, three manufacturers had the foresight and could see what was happening in the world of turkey hunting. These forward thinking companies, Remington, Federal and Environ Metal (Hevi-Shot), started producing a non-toxic turkey round. The problem was that at that time the non-toxic choices were steel and Bismuth-tin, neither of which are good choices for turkey as neither have the knockdown power to consistently bring a turkey down with one shot. A non-toxic material had to be found that was as good, if not better, than lead. Tungsten was the answer. Remington started producing Wingmaster shells, Federal came out with Heavyweight Turkey shells and Environ Metals produced Hevi-Shot Magnum Blend, all using tungsten as the main component. Tungsten, being heavier than lead, lived up to its potential. The main problem with using tungsten is the cost of the tungsten, which puts these shells way out of range for most hunters, as well as the cost in damage to your chokes if you aren’t using the right ones. As there were no laws banning lead, and still aren’t in many areas, the new rounds didn’t sell, no matter how good they were. The lack of sales made Remington to stop producing the Wingmaster, leaving Federal and Hevi-Shot still in the market. Recently Federal Premium came out with 3rd Degree, which is a blend of #5 copper plated lead, #6 Flightstopper lead and #7 Heavyweight tungsten. I have yet to kill a turkey using 3rd Degree, but it seems to be the best of all worlds.
What makes tungsten so good is that it is heavier than lead and harder than steel. This makes it more accurate with having plenty of knockdown power. Lead, because it is a soft material, deforms as it leaves the barrel, making it less accurate. The end result is less shot being on target. Steel, on the other hand, doesn’t deform at all, but it does lose energy very quickly, resulting in better accuracy, but no knockdown power when you need it most. Manufacturers, to compensate for lightweight of steel have increased the payload behind the pellets, thus increasing their velocity. Faster moving pellets don’t necessarily mean more dead birds. In some cases, which I have seen in upland hunting, the faster moving pellets will actually pass through the bird, which could mean more lost or crippled birds. With all of that said, tungsten or tungsten mix is still the best way to go for turkey if you are using non-toxic shot.
When it comes to figuring what size shot to use, throw everything you did with lead out the window. With lead we all used #4 as the base. Some people went as low as #6 and as high as #2. With tungsten you need nothing larger than #7. When I first saw that I really began to have my doubts. I made a few calls to both Federal and Environ Metal and expressed my concern. Thankfully, with both companies, the people answering the phone were hunters and they assured me that #7 shot in tungsten is more than enough to make a one shot kill on a turkey. It is all because of the properties of tungsten. Heavier than lead, #7 tungsten is like shooting #4 lead. The small shot and the accuracy of tungsten means that more of the shot will be on target, thus assuring a one shot kill.
When buying non-toxic turkey rounds, make sure you know what the laws are in the particular area you plan to hunt. When non-toxic turkey rounds first came out many states were a bit behind the times when they set the regulations. My home state of New Hampshire was one of them. The State of New Hampshire regulations stated that only #2, #4, or #6 shot can be used for turkey. Thankfully, they, and the rest of the country, has changed the regulations so that #7 shot can be used to hunt turkey. While Federal Heavyweight comes in #7, Hevi-Shot Magnum Blend is a mix of #5, #6 and #7 shot.
Today I shoot mainly Federal Heavyweight rounds. These three inch shells work perfectly in my Mossberg 500 12 gauge. Despite my success in the past with these rounds I still get out and pattern them before the start of spring turkey season. While my gun hasn’t changed in the past 20 years, my eyes have. It is always good to get out and make sure you can hit what you are shooting at.
Before you go out and purchase non-toxic turkey rounds make sure your gun is up for it. Some older guns aren’t designed for these rounds and using them could present a potentially dangerous situation. Steel and tungsten do not have the “give”of lead. Double check in your gun’s manual or contact the manufacturer to make sure. Make sure the chokes you use are designed for the less forgiving steel and tungsten rounds. It is better to find out now than in the field where you could damage your gun, or even worse, hurt yourself or someone else.
By Dana Benner