The Mystery of Tungsten Shot in Shotshells

By Randy Wakeman

I started using tungsten-based shot back in 2010. The first bird I took with it was a nice Iowa gobbler my late friend Tony Knight called in for me in the spring of 2011. That hunt is on video, , including a gobbler I called in for my Dad the next day. As of this writing, it has been 14 years using various tungsten-based shotshells. The two gobblers in the video were taken with 20 gauges, using 1-1/2 oz. of Federal Heavyweight #7 shotshells. The Federal loads are 15g / cc density. At the time, Federal offered a 'low recoil' turkey load in 20 gauge with a 1-1/8 oz. payload, which I used on wild pheasants and mallards. I've been impressed with the substantially better than lead performance of tungsten based shot for the last fourteen years straight.

There is only one serious objection to Tungsten Super Shot and other tungsten shot materials and that is the high performance price that goes along with the high performance shot. Other than that, 18 g/cc TSS gives hunters everything they have always said they wanted: lower recoil, longer effective ranges, cleaner kills, and less shells used. As an approved “no-tox” shot material, you can use it most anywhere.

Thanks in part to the old comedy marketing teams of Hevi-Shot, there is still a goodly bit of confusion for a pound of feathers and a pound of Tungsten Super Shot both weigh right at one pound. Some of the claims are still quite fanciful, like fake penetration numbers. Ballistic gelatin has nothing at all to do with birds. While TSS is more lethal than lead, that is only up to a point.

While density gets talked about, it is still actual mass and velocity that breaks bones. One ounce of #7-1/2 TSS is about 214 pellets. One ounce of #6 lead is about 222 pellets. The actual weight per pellet of #7-1/2 TSS is similar to #6 lead. P = MV, or momentum. Lacking the brittleness of bismuth and the deform-ability of lead, the far stronger TSS alloy clearly does smash bones better when the pellet momentum is similar. As smaller, spherical pellets of similar mass push far less air, strike velocities are higher, along with less drop and wind drift.

While TSS #7-1/2 does out-penetrate #5 lead, it also creates a much smaller wound channel in concert with its smaller diameter as compared to the larger #5 lead pellets. TSS #8 does mostly shoot through pheasants, but mostly does not mean all the pellets all the time. One example was the very last wild pheasant of the season. My brother-in-law was using a 16 gauge, front-loading with lead #6 with lead #5 in the second barrel. I was using TSS #8. The first shot of lead #6 did not connect, the second shot of #5 lead did as did the TSS #8 fired at the same time.

What cleaning the rooster found was zero #6 lead pellets, four #5 lead pellets, and two TSS #8 pellets in the bird. What this and countless other examples have shown me is that most TSS #8 and most all TSS #7-1/2 pellets blow through wild pheasants, but just like when you asked your mother if that fish had any bones, the answer is that it isn't supposed to, but be careful.

Apex TSS load construction, shown above.

As it turns out, TSS shot is generally easier on chokes and forcing cones than steel. This isn't because of the hardness, for TSS is far harder than steel shot. Radically smaller TSS #7 pellets flow through chokes with markedly less stress and less opportunity for bridging than BBB steel. The same is true for your TSS #8 mallard load as compared to high-velocity #2 steel to a lesser degree. The old Hevi-Shot was nasty gravel compared to smaller, spherical Tungsten Super Shot, sometimes needing Mylar wraps to prevent barrel damage. Apex uses both buffering and their special tungsten wad with their TSS loads, shown above.

Trulock Chokes has been at the forefront of TSS choke development. Smaller TSS shot can benefit from what would be considered radical constrictions with lead. An example is Trulock's 20 gauge standard Invector chokes for TSS, using .060 inch constriction for #7 TSS and .065 inch constriction for #9 TSS. Trulock reports that they have been unable to damage their chokes with small diameter TSS.

I've used lead on most everything all of my life. Lead is still a great choice in 12 gauge, particularly with Winchester Rooster XR loads. Buffered 1-1/4 oz. 20 gauge loads in #4 or #5 shot has always been excellent wild rooster medicine to about 50 yards. However, when using a 20 gauge I'm not interested in dropping below lead performance levels which is exactly what happens with steel and bismuth. It is the same situation, but even worse, for upland hunters that want to use their 16 and 28 gauges. That's the beauty of TSS: you can use a 1 oz. load of TSS in your 20 gauge and out-perform any 12 gauge or 10 gauge steel load by a large margin.

If you are interested in TSS loads, shot size selection is easy. TSS #8 is a great choice for turkey, ducks, and wild pheasant. For Canadian geese, TSS #7. My absolute favorite for wild pheasant is 1 oz. buffered TSS #7-1/2. The only unfortunate thing in the marketplace is many TSS are way too fast. There is zero reason to push any TSS load past 1300 – 1350 fps. That is not what several manufacturers want, but it has to do with propellant availability more than anything else. The faster TSS loads do not throw more open patterns, for TSS is spherical and does not deform. The faster TSS loads just offer needless recoil and work some gas actions harder than needed, that's all.

Currently, TSS is the de facto performance standard for turkey hunting. For upland and waterfowl loads, if you are performance-minded, you might want to get your ducks in a row right now rather than waiting for the fall. It is a situation where demand often exceeds supply, and the more people that experience TSS, the more they will find it very hard to settle for the old steel and bismuth routines.

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