Bismuth beats this expensive new pellet metal with lead-like range and field performance.
In the 1960s, lead became a four-letter word in a world of expanding environmental awareness. Although it’s long been a munitions designer’s dream metal, lead’s poisonous qualities began manifesting themselves in the outdoors. A landmark biological study by USFWS research biologist Frank Bellrose in 1959 determined that a considerable percentage of ducks were dying of lead poisoning after ingesting spent pellets that fell to the bottoms of ponds and lakes. Raptors were in turn imperiled when they fed on the carcasses of the poisoned ducks. Consequently, waterfowl hunting became endangered on both fronts.
Despite considerable opposition from hunters, the NRA, and a myriad of other organizations questioning the veracity of the study and the effectiveness of shot made of anything but lead, the feds stood their ground. More than 20 years ago nontoxic, or steel, shot was mandated in critical areas of various flyways and was gradually phased in as the only legal load for waterfowl. The entire country was covered by steel-shot rules in 1991. Canada followed suit in 1996.
Now a new shotshell material has come on the market: Federal’s Premium tungsten-iron loads, which debuted in 1996, but which haven’t been in wide availability until this year. We wondered how tungsten stacked up against steel, its forebear, pricey bismuth pellets, and, for comparison, lead. Based on our analysis, we think bismuth most closely resembles the performance of lead. Except for its nearly $2-a-shotshell cost, it is clearly a better field choice than either steel or tungsten, we believe. Details about how we came to this conclusion follow:
Steel shot was originally opposed because its extreme hardness imperiled the barrels of old shotguns. It lost its energy much quicker than lead due to its lesser density, and steel’s internal ballistics required a slower-burning, far-dirtier-burning powder. It was also prone to rusting in its hull; and its patterns were too tight and shotstring too short, which required a different sight picture and lead on flying birds. And, of course, it cost considerably more than lead shot.
Years of research and development followed at Winchester-Olin, Federal Cartridge, and Remington, resulting in vastly improved steel loads and performance. Most shooters adjusted, and some accepted the inevitable. Waterfowlers were convinced that steel sucked, but if they wanted to hunt it was their only choice. The anguished cries lessened but were never really silenced.
To be honest, today’s waxed, copper-plated steel or zinc-galvanized (to prevent rusting and choke damage) buffered loads are very effective on geese out to 40 yards in most shot sizes, and high-velocity loads from Federal and Winchester even push that envelope farther. But there is still a huge drop-off in performance when compared to lead.
“The industry has been looking for an alternative to steel since the first day it was introduced,” says Winchester-Olin Technical Marketing Services chief Mike Jordan, the company’s leading load designer in those days. “There were lots of substances to choose from, but each one seemed to have its drawbacks, either in performance or accessibility or it wasn’t accepted by the environmental community. That and they all cost a lot more.
“The two new alternatives that have been accepted (bismuth-tin and tungsten-iron) both have their drawbacks. They are not the final answer; we’re still looking.” An industry that has looked at everything from depleted uranium to molybdenum and varied polymers to polysyllabic entities only a metallurgist could love is still seeking the ultimate nontoxic shot. In the early 1990s bismuth became a front-runner among the lead-replacement wannabes.
Before that a Canadian ballistician was designing bismuth alloy mixes and loads and eventually enlisted a couple of British companies to load them. With U.S. waterfowlers frowning at steel, American developers became interested, and the Bismuth Cartridge Company of Dallas, Texas, was formed. It, too, enlisted the British to assemble the early loadings. Bismuth Cartridge was a very small firm, lacking the squads of lawyers and researchers needed to influence the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Thus bismuth’s acceptance by USFWS was delayed until 1995. Federal Cartridge Company responded the next year when the company introduced its Premium tungsten-iron loads. To offset any potential advantage Federal’s tungsten might gain in the waterfowl market, munitions giant Winchester-Olin formed an alliance with Bismuth Cartridge in January 1997.
Several years ago we patterned some early-generation bismuth loads and found that the pellets occasionally shattered upon setback. However, in 1995 we didn’t see any indication of shattering in the then newly-buffered Bismuth Cartridge loadings or the Eley Hawk version. The bugs are apparently out of the alloy formula and its weight advantages are intact. But don’t look for bismuth to flood the market. There simply isn’t very much of the stuff available in the few American and South American mines unearthing it. But it’s a start.
Federal’s new tungsten-iron load might be more accurately named “improved steel.” Given tungsten’s extreme hardness, copious amounts of iron must be added in order to soften the alloy sufficiently to die-form and heat-sinter it into pellets. Federal’s Premium Tungsten pellets are actually 60 percent iron and 40 percent tungsten. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has completed its Phase I studies, and in August 1997 conditionally approved tungsten-iron shot as a nontoxic alternative to lead and thus legal for waterfowl hunting across America. Final approval is expected next year as Phase II toxicity studies are being conducted this fall.
The prices of either shotshell material may well make waterfowlers find they didn’t hate steel as much as they thought they did. Expect to pay as much as $1.80 every time you pull the trigger on a Winchester Bismuth load. Federal’s Premium Tungsten is wholesaling at $1 more per 10-round box than bismuth.
How We Tested
Federal currently loads tungsten-iron in only BB and No. 2 shot sizes in 1- and 1 1/8-ounce loads. We tested 3-inch versions of each and matched them against Winchester-Bismuth BBs and No. 2s (both 15/8-ounce loads), Federal Premium High-Velocity Steel in BBs and No. 2s (11/8-ounce loads), and Federal Premium Magnum Lead in BBs and No. 2s (17/8-ounce loads).
Using a 12-gauge Ithaca M-37 pump and its Winchoke system as a test gun, all loads were fired through a Pact II chronograph system (20 rounds each) to determine the high, low, average velocity, and deviation. Each load was also patterned on Federal 30-by-30-inch targets at 30, 40, and 50 yards, taking the average density of five patterns. We also fired each load at a 12-inch square sheet of 20-gauge sheet metal at 30 yards to test relative penetration.
The bismuth, tungsten, and steel loads were also field tested on decoying geese at Chuck Tiranno’s shooting complex near the Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge in western New York during that state’s early Canada goose season, where 101 geese were taken in the first 14 days of the season. All of the loads killed cleanly at ranges from 20 to 45 yards with no malfunctions. The bismuth and tungsten loads shone in long shots (50 yards) in high winds that blew steel pellets off course.
What We Found
Advertising for the new tungsten-iron load touts the fact that it is 94 percent as dense as lead, 32 percent denser than steel and 10 percent denser than bismuth. It is also 30 percent harder than steel, which in our view should throw up a red flag for seasoned shooters.
Like steel, hard tungsten-iron shot should not be fired through double guns or older thin-walled barrels or choke tube systems—areas where bismuth and lead are acceptable. Tungsten-iron shot patterns tighter than bismuth or lead (much like steel loads) since pellet hardness limits deformation at setback or as the shot passes through a choke. The tungsten-iron pellets are so hard that a very thick plastic wad must be employed to protect barrel walls. The wad takes up more room in the hull than do wads in the other loads, leaving less space for pellets. The wads routinely followed the pattern through the targets at 30 and 40 yards despite crosswinds.
We tested relative hardness by crushing pellets with pliers (tungsten-iron and steel wouldn’t deform, while bismuth-tin and lead-antimony both squashed flat). But a more definitive measure comes from a chart based on the Brinell Scale of Hardness showing tungsten-iron pellets measuring 260 compared to steel’s 200, bismuth-tin’s 27 and high-antimony lead’s 12 score.
We found that the relatively large (BBs and No. 2) tungsten-iron and steel loads patterned very uniformly through the Ithaca’s conventional modified choke tube while bismuth-tin, like lead, could be effectively choked down to full choke. Patterns of 87 to 90 percent (30-inch circle at 40 yards) could be achieved with all loads with the right chokes.
Tungsten is faster and harder than anything else on the market, making for better penetration at long ranges, according to Federal. Using 3-inch BB loads for comparison, Tungsten loads were faster (around 1,420 fps) than comparable bismuth-tin (1,220 fps) or lead (1,205 fps) and bordered on steel velocities (1,400 fps). But the velocity difference fell mostly on the relative weight of the payloads, tungsten-iron being lighter due to the lesser number of pellets.
Pellet count found that bismuth-tin averaged 81 BBs per load tested (more room in the hull), compared to 59 BBs for the tungsten-iron loads; 94 lead BBs, and 81 steel BBs. Steel-shot fans will correctly bring up the point that because of differences in density, comparisons should be made to two shot sizes smaller in pellets constructed of other mediums. Thus steel BBs should be compared to bismuth-tin No. 2s (138 pellets) or lead-antimony No. 2s (163).
Thus, although tungsten-iron pellets are denser (faster) and harder and individually carry their energy farther than the others, the payload gain combined with velocity gave bismuth-tin significantly better energy at the muzzle (15 percent higher than tungsten-iron) and at 40 yards (32 percent greater, according to Winchester figures). Winchester-Olin testing claims that its test-firing of bismuth-tin and tungsten-iron into ballistic gelatin showed bismuth loads creating a wound channel 19 percent greater than tungsten loads.
Performance against the 20-gauge galvanized sheet metal at 30 yards was very telling. Federal marketers were crowing that their Premium Tungsten BB load could penetrate 20-gauge sheet metal at 50 yards. They apparently had found 20-gauge metal much softer than ours, but we found that tungsten-iron BBs did indeed rip through the medium at 30 yards but failed at 40.
Goose hunters, however, are not overly concerned with ripping penetration. They are, after all, targeting 6- to 9-pound feathered creatures with hollow bones, not light aircraft.
Steel, which draws considerable complaint for ripping through birds without imparting energy (often leaving a poorly hit bird to fly off 300 to 400 yards before dropping to the earth as crippled coyote bait). Steel pellets are also notorious for ricocheting off water, stones, or decoys and sailing prodigious distances. We believe that tungsten shot offers the same potential in spades.
Steel BBs heavily dented the sheet metal at 30 yards, while lead and bismuth-tin BBs flattened nicely against the metal with very shallow dents.
Guns, Gear & Game Recommends
• Despite the marketing blitz that is putting Federal Premium Tungsten at the forefront of high-tech legal goose loads, we feel that its performance is significantly inferior to that of Winchester-Bismuth loads, and the tungsten material carries a higher price tag. Furthermore, tungsten-iron’s potential is also limited by its hardness, which means smaller pellet loads will be difficult to develop.
• Steel is still steel, our testing shows. If you’re used to shooting steel and can’t afford bismuth, we think this shot material is still a satisfactory choice for many shooters, as long as they don’t expect killing performance on big birds to reach out past 45 yards.
• Bismuth’s demonstrated superiority in energy transfer and wound channel size simply make it a better killing load, in our view. Bismuth loads really do approach lead load performance, while tungsten comes off as a simple improvement over steel. Granted, Winchester-Bismuth is no bargain at $1.80 per shot. But it can be shot out of any gun, any choke, using a variety of wads and comes in 41 different loadings in six shot sizes and six gauges, compared to Federal Premium Tungsten’s current four loadings, two shot sizes, and one gauge. Meanwhile, bismuth-tin patterns like lead—which is what we’re all looking for in a nontoxic alternative—and it can be shot through any gun. It throws a far more forgiving spread than steel or tungsten-iron and exhibits shot-stringing characteristics similar to those of high-brass lead loads.
Overall, it will take an awfully sensitive hand with a shotgun to notice the performance difference between lead and bismuth-tin, and that’s what we’re looking for in the goose field.