Steel shot for pheasant hunting and other non-toxic options in an advanced world of modern shotgun ballistics
Thirty years ago, the thought of being forced to use anything other than lead shot for bird hunting caused people to go crazy. Utterings of missing birds because lead shot wasn’t used were common. It could’ve been real, or just a little crutch to lean on when a hunter was having an off-day. Regardless, nobody liked it when steel shot was introduced and became mandatory in many areas. Ammo has come a long ways over the past 30 years, and people can’t use the fact that they weren’t shooting lead as an excuse anymore.
Why non-toxic ammunition for pheasant?
It’s no secret that lead shot is harmful. Lead shot can be picked up by birds, dissolved in birds that are non-mortally hit with it, eaten by scavengers like foxes, coyotes, and raptors from the carcasses of non-recovered game. The list goes on, and like anything in the animal kingdom, the circle of life makes everything go in a loop. Non-toxic shot is a great alternative for those looking to leave the smallest footprint possible. It’s the eco-friendly choice. In some areas, it’s also mandatory.
Where is non-toxic shot essential for pheasant?
The United States banned lead shot for hunting waterfowl in 1991 and at least 26 states have instituted lead shot restrictions beyond those mandated for waterfowl hunting. Non-toxic ammunition is required on most state land for pheasant in South Dakota, and is required to hunt many Waterfowl Production Areas and Management Areas in Minnesota. There’s even a proposal to ban lead shot in the farmland region of southwestern Minnesota.
Anywhere there’s water present, non-toxic shot should be considered. This includes fields that may have small pockets of standing water or drainage, and any areas where ducks or other migratory birds may be present. If you’re hunting an area with lead only, and a big, fat northern mallard jumps up next to you, you cannot legally pull the trigger. Why not carry legal, non-toxic shot in areas where you can shoot a mixed bag?
What are the alternatives to lead ammunition?
Twenty years ago, lead reigned supreme. Many would say that statement still holds true today. There’s no debating that lead shot is effective. It’s dense, carries energy over a long distance and it hits hard. However, non-toxic alternatives have come a long ways over the last 20 years. Steel, bismuth, tungsten, tungsten-alloy, and specialized mixed-metal ammunition are all great alternatives to lead.
I’ve shot a plethora of alternatives, and I keep coming back to a few select favorites when I’m hunting pheasants with non-toxic shot. A large-pellet steel shot was my go-to for many years, and still works well for me today. The rise of tungsten has really changed how I look at non-toxic shot, and may end up taking up a lot more space on my ammo shelf. While it may be more expensive than steel, tungsten hits like a hammer and maintains speed at extreme distances. For late-season roosters, tungsten is the ticket. Hybrids like Prairie Storm Steel and Hevi-Shot provide the shooter with a mixed payload of different metals. Bismuth is great if you’re using a classic shotgun as it’s soft and won’t be harmful to an older barrel. As I stated, there are a lot of alternatives to choose from.
I personally take to pheasant hunting with non-toxic shot much like I would take to hunting diver ducks. If I can cleanly harvest a fat, northern diver duck that’s skating up my diver lines at Mach 8 with non-toxic ammunition, I can surely take down a pointed pheasant.
Shot and choke sizes for steel and more
If I’m using steel shot, I prefer a larger shot size. While I may use lead in No. 6 for early season roosters, I’ll utilize No. 2 or 3 steel shot if I’m using non-toxic load. Steel isn’t as dense, so I try to make up for that by using a larger pellet, which increases energy. The larger pellets knock birds down dead. If I connect with No. 2 steel, the odds of the rooster getting away aren’t good, especially inside of 30 yards. The new Speed Shok from Federal Premium Ammunition offers 12 gauge 3-inch 1 1/4 ounce No. 2 shot which cuts 1450 feet per second. Exceptional for steel, it also features a lead-free Catalyst primer. Another great option in steel is Prairie Storm FS Steel. We all know that speed kills, and No. 3 Prairie Storm FS Steel cuts out of the barrel at 1600 fps. This 3-inch shell has a 1 1/8 ounce shot charge, and works great for early and mid-season roosters alike. The FS stands for Flitestopper, as the payload is 50 percent standard steel and 50 percent Flitestopper steel which optimizes patterns and creates larger wound channels.
For late-season roosters and as an alternative to straight steel, check out Federal Black Cloud TSS. Touted as one of the best waterfowl loads available, I can promise that it’s absolutely deadly on pheasants as well. The 3-inch 1 1/4 oz mix of No. 3 Flitestopper steel and No. 9 tungsten is a great combination. Tungsten is 56 percent more dense than lead, and more than twice as dense as steel. It maintains velocity father, hits hard, and penetrates very well. It also features the Flitecontrol Flex wad that opens from the rear controlling the release of the payload causing consistent patterns. The biggest downfall of tungsten is the cost. The results are worth it if you can cleanly kill more birds using a completely lead-free shotshell.
Speaking of patterns, choke selection is a common question for non-toxic loads. Hunters who don’t pay attention to chokes or choke selection may not realize that certain chokes cannot be used with steel shot. If you’re not going to order a custom or specialized choke, you’ll be safe using a modified choke. Most of the modern loads on the market will pattern extremely well out of almost any modified choke.
Don’t let the fact that the WMA down the road doesn’t allow the use of lead shot deter you from hunting. The non-toxic ammunition of today is reliable and deadly. Plus, when you’re pulling the trigger you can take solace in the fact that you’re doing your part to be eco-friendly.
Matt Breuer has been working in the outdoor industry for over 15 years, guiding, writing, promoting, volunteering, and working with several conservation groups. He’s on the Board of Directors of the MN Sharp-tailed Grouse Society, and is a recruitment and retention coordinator with RGS. He owns and operates Northcountry Guide Service & Promotions in northern MN. Link up with Matt by visiting www.northcountryguides.com .