A Non-Toxic Shot Update

A few years ago I wrote an article that appeared here in Guide Outdoors that described how I made the transition from using steel shot to tungsten non-toxic shot. In that article I discussed the “in the field” differences in knockdown power and penetration and the overwhelming superiority of the tungsten alloy shot.

Since then there have been even more improvements in legal, non-toxic shot. Below is some information that may help you with your decision on which variation might best meet your needs.


This is still my preferred shot. The alloy of tungsten and iron has 94 percent of the density of lead and delivers excellent downrange energy. Because of its extreme hardness it requires a thicker shot cup that restricts the amount of shot that each shell is able to deliver down the barrel and ultimately to the target. Higher capacity 3-1/2-inch for 12-gauge or magnum 10-gauge shells solve this dilemma, making tungsten-iron a good choice for open-water ducks or pass-shooting geese.

hunter with ducks taken down with shot
The author prefers tungsten-iron shot for taking ducks over decoys. (Photo by Luke Terstriep, Jr.)


Coming onto the market in the early 2000s, Hevi-Shot has developed quite a following among duck and goose hunters in spite of its hardness and top-ranking price. This alloy of tungsten, nickel and iron is 10 percent denser than lead shot and the harder pellet qualities produce tight patterns that are very effective for delivering pellets on target. Another great aspect of the energy/pellet weight combination is that you can drop down a pellet size or two, gaining more shot pattern density without losing effective knockdown power.


Bismuth was the first premium non-toxic load to receive federal approval in the North America. As for density, bismuth is listed right next to lead. Since Bismuth is only slightly less dense than lead it is nearly perfect for the lead-shot purists. Bismuth hits harder than steel, but is also as soft as lead, which means that you can shoot it in older firearms or barrels with tighter chokes. Although Bismuth is heavier, due to the thicker shot cup required with steel and tungsten-steel loads, Bismuth shells will have a volume of pellets.

Comparing a 12-gauge, 3-inch No. 4 load, steel has 127 pellets; tungsten-iron has 125 and Bismuth 175. In addition to the increased number of pellets, the payload is greater with 44 percent more shot weight with this same load. An increased number of pellets and greater payload can produce a much higher percentage of pellets on target and with the similar impact of lead, and much quicker kills. Bismuth in its pure state is somewhat brittle, so the manufacturer created an alloy of 3 percent tin to reduce that.

Hunters with geese after hunting
With light goose season approaching, choosing the right non-toxic load is crucial. (Photo by Mike Roux).

Tungsten Matrix

I list this alloy last because of all the approved non-toxic loads, the combination of tungsten and a plastic polymer identified as Tungsten Matrix is most closely related to lead. A density that is 97 percent of lead along with an even softer surface produces comparatively loose, long-range patterns that are favorable for those close shots as well as midrange duck shooting. If you hunt an area where a hard knockdown is mandatory, Tungsten Matrix would be a good shell to have in your elastic loops.

I do not want to overwhelm you with data, but the list below may add just enough valuable information to validate your choice of non-toxic shotshells whether you shoot them at waterfowl or upland game.

Density of Various Materials (grams per Cubic Cm):

  • Lead — 11.1-11.3
  • Steel — 7.9
  • Bismuth-Tin — 8.9
  • Tungsten-Iron — 9.2
  • Eco Mass — 11.0
  • Tungsten-Bronze — 12.0
  • Tungsten-Tin-Iron — 11.0
  • Iron-Tungsten-Nickel — 13.5
  • Tungsten-Iron-Copper-Nickel — 10.0-14.0
  • Federal Heavyweight — 15.2
  • Hevi-13 — 13.0
  • Hevi-Shot — 12.0
  • Wingmaster HD — 12.0
  • Hevi-Steel — 9.7

Experiment to see what shot will best fit your needs.

Discover a large assortment of shotgun shells when you visit Sportsman’s Guide.

Mike Roux in an internationally known outdoorsman and author. His experience with shotguns and ammunition is extensive. Not only has he shot registered skeet for decades, but he hunts small game, turkeys and waterfowl with shotguns, as well. He is also the Director of the Pro Hunting Staff for Mountain Screamer Game Calls, giving him ample opportunity to experiment with different shotshell loads.


Leave a Reply

Commenting Policy - We encourage open expression of your thoughts and ideas. But there are a few rules:

No abusive comments, threats, or personal attacks. Use clean language. No discussion of illegal activity. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and generally hateful comments are not tolerated. Keep comments on topic. Please don't spam.

While we reserve the right to remove or modify comments at our sole discretion, the Sportsman's Guide does not bear any responsibility for user comments. The views expressed within the comment section do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of The Sportsman's Guide.