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 Shotgun Shells

Shotgun pellets on turkey targetPellets


Steel ammunition is the most cost effective non-lead alternative to lead.  Steel is less dense than lead so ammunition manufacturers have solved this problem by increasing velocity. Hunters have also realized that increasing shot size when using steel shot offers increased performance on game. The biggest myth for steel ammunition is that it doesn’t kill game as effectively as lead based ammunition. In fact, recent studies have shown that using steel shotgun loads is no different than using lead based loads in terms of killing effectiveness. Nearly all shotgun ammunition manufacturers produce a steel shotgun shell.


One of the few alternatives that is denser than lead is tungsten or tungsten based alloys. Tungsten is often more expensive than lead based ammunition. Tungsten would be a great alternative to turkey, predator and pig hunters using buckshot. These game animals often offer limited shooting opportunities when compared to the high volume of ammunition a hunter goes through while waterfowl and upland game hunting. Manufacturers include Hevi-shot, Federal, Remington and Winchester.


Bismuth is a great alternative for hunters using vintage shotguns that may not tolerate the higher velocity or hardness of steel and tungsten ammunition provides. Bismuth is 86% as dense as lead, giving it excellent down range energy and similar ballistic characteristics. It is also the choice for hunters wanting similar characteristics of lead without paying for the price of tungsten based ammunition. Bismuth is the middle ground between steel and tungsten ammunition. It is slightly more expensive than steel however cheaper than most tungsten based shotgun loads. Currently Rio is the only manufacturer producing bismuth shotgun shells.


Shotgun slugs are designed for hunting big game. There are two different designs of shotgun slugs, saboted and rifled.

Saboted slugSaboted Slugs are undersized and fit into a plastic cup that falls off once the bullet has left the muzzle of the rifle.  Nearly all slugs are sabots and require a rifled shotgun barrel or rifled choke.  Sabots can be tipped or un-tipped and are mostly hollow-points. The majority of non-lead slugs are made from copper or a copper alloy; however some are made with steel, brass or zinc components. Most slugs open with 4 or 6 petals and retain most of their weight after being fired and provide high penetration and expand up to 2 times their original diameter. Examples include: Federal Trophy Copper, Remington Copper Solid , Winchester XP3, and Hornady Monoflex .

Rifled slugRifled Slugs are shotgun slugs that already have grooves on the slug itself to promote rotation of the projectile to increase accuracy after it has left the muzzle. These slugs were designed to shoot out of smoothbore shotgun barrels, however they can also be used in fully rifled or barrels with rifled chokes. There are two different metals currently being offered in non-lead rifled slugs. The first is a food grade safe tin metal. The second is made entirely of zinc. Manufacturers include Brenneke, DDuplex and Winchester.


How to Switch

Rifled slug (TKO) shot deerAll shotguns can shoot non-lead shotgun shells. The only exceptions are shotguns that have Damascus steel twist barrels and barrels with fixed full or tighter constricting barrels. If this is the case, bismuth is an alternative over lead when using vintage shotguns or shotguns that have fixed full chokes. If you are unsure about firing modern shotgun cartridges in your shotgun it is advisable for you to visit your local gunsmith and have them verify if it is safe to shoot.

Generally, when using non-lead shot you will use a choke with one degree less constriction than a lead-only choke. For example, to achieve a full choke lead shot pattern with non-lead, you would use a modified choke. For a typical modified lead shot pattern using a non-lead load you would use an improved cylinder. Trying to shoot a non-lead shot shell load through a full or extra-full lead choke tube will damage the shotgun barrel, choke and possibility yourself. Bismuth has very similar characteristics to lead and no action is needed when choosing choke constrictions.

Non-lead Turkey Loads

Patterning your shotgun is as important as patterning any other firearm. The goal of producing a great turkey shotgun is finding the right combination of choke and shot shell load that produces the tightest pattern possible. Although having a tight pattern is great for longer range shots on turkeys, close range shots become harder since the pattern is small enough to miss the turkey’s head completely.

Tungsten based turkey loads can be smaller than lead shot since tungsten is more dense. For the right balance of downrange energy and pellet count we recommend shot size ranging from #5-8 shot. The opposite is true for steel. Steel is lighter so we recommend using #2-5 shot size. Please check your state’s turkey hunting regulations for minimum and maximum shot size restrictions.

Non-lead turkey shotgun chokes include specialty made chokes for tungsten, Hevi-Shot or waterfowl chokes designed for steel. Specialty made chokes are usually designed for one specific brand of ammunition. Waterfowl chokes can be cheaper and typically shoot a variety of steel shot. If using a waterfowl choke, we recommend an extended choke designed for long range goose hunting.

Upland Game Loads

Shotgun loads for upland game are typically steel or bismuth shot. Steel loads for upland game range from #5-7 size shot depending on the game species. Steel is harder and will deform less then lead resulting in tighter patterns downrange. Modified and Improved Cylinder chokes are the most recommended chokes constrictions when hunting upland game with non-lead ammunition. Bismuth has nearly the same density as lead and size shot can be similar to lead shot. Examples include: Federal Speed-Shok Steel, Winchester Super-Target Non-toxic, Remington Sportsman Hi-Speed, and Winchester Super X Steel or Rio Bismuth


Find Bullets

We understand that finding ammunition for a particular rifle can be difficult, especially so with hard-to-find calibers.  While HWNL does not endorse any manufacturer or retailer over another, here are a few helpful tips to find ammo:

» To find common cartridges, use a search function such as gunbot.net or ammoseek.com.

» If it isn’t found by using a search function, find a custom ammunition loader.  Custom loaders can make any known cartridge, and some will use once-fired brass from the client to reduce costs.

» Visiting your local gun store and asking for non-lead ammunition may be the most convenient way to purchase non-lead ammunition. Knowing what brands and bullet models are available in non-lead before going to your local store is always a good idea.

» Bullets are widely available and we have found 293 cartridges loaded with non-lead bullets made by custom loaders. 

» Lastly, email nonlead@iws.org and use our experience to help you find the cartridge for you.


California DFW List of Certified Non-lead Ammo



  EMAIL US nonlead@iws.org