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Some of America’s best pheasant hunting is on Federal Waterfowl Production Areas where hunters are required to use non-toxic shot. Thankfully, upland hunters are no longer limited to simply using steel duck loads on roosters and quail. Today, there are several specialty steel, tungsten, tungsten-steel hybrids, and bismuth options to choose from. The following loads were designed specifically for hunting upland birds in non-toxic zones.
One of the most effective non-toxic upland loads is Hevi-Metal Pheasant. Like Hevi-Metal waterfowl loads, it features a duplex payload of tungsten-based Hevi-Shot pellets stacked atop standard steel pellets. The Hevi-Shot pellets provide long-range lethality, while the steel component fills in gaps and improves pattern density. Using steel shot also reduces the overall cost per shell compared to a 100 percent Hevi-Shot load. The result is tungsten performance at a reasonable price. Hevi-Metal Pheasant is available in both 2 3/4-inch 12- and 20-gauge in shot sizes 4 or 5. The 12-gauge offering pushes its 1 1/8-ounce payload at a speedy 1,500 fps, while the 20-gauge version throws a 7/8-ounce charge at 1,300 fps. Roosters I’ve bagged with Hevi-Metal Pheasant suffered multiple lethal pellet strikes, which is always the best way to prevent wounded runners from escaping.
Kent’s new Bismuth Upland features 9.6g/cc bismuth pellets that are 24 percent denser than steel. However, they are also softer than steel so they won’t damage barrels or chokes, making Bismuth Upland one of the best non-toxic choices for use in old guns with tight, fixed chokes that aren’t steel shot safe. 12-gauge options include a 3-inch load with 1 1/2 ounces of number 5s at 1,350 fps, and a pair of 2 3/4-inch loads with 1 1/4-ounce and 1 1/16-ounce payloads of 5s or 6s at 1,350 and 1,325 fps respectively. The 2 3/4-inch 16-gauge offering has 1-ounce of 5s at 1,300 fps. The 3-inch and 2 3/4-inch 20-gauge loads both have 1-ounce payloads of 5s or 6s at 1,400 and 1,200 fps respectively. The lone 2 3/4-inch 28-gauge load has 7/8-ounce of 6s at 1,200 fps. Early bismuth loads only came in 10-round packs, but Kent offers Bismuth Upland in conventional 25-round boxes.
Federal’s Prairie Storm FS Steel combines a 50/50 mix of both regular round steel pellets and banded FLITESTOPPER steel pellets to create an ultra-lethal yet non-toxic upland load. That’s 10 percent more FLITESTOPPER pellets than the 60/40 blend of Black Cloud waterfowl loads. Prairie Storm steel is available in both 3-inch, 12- and 20-gauges in shot sizes 3 or 4. The 12-gauge load throws its 1 1/8-ounce charge at an incredible 1,600 fps, while the 20-gauge version pushes its 7/8-ounce payload at 1,500 fps, which is equally impressive for a sub-gauge load. At those speeds, upland hunters won’t have any problem connecting with fast-flying roosters—or an excuse for missing. Delivering the payload downrange is Federal’s proven FLITECONTROL wad which holds the shot together longer. While this may technically be a “pheasant” load, don’t be afraid to use it on ducks, too.
Blind Side Pheasant is comprised of 100 percent cube-shaped, steel Hex Shot. The pellets’ six-sided form provides multiple cutting edges that cause increased trauma and deep wound channels, which is just as necessary on roosters as it is on waterfowl. The desired result is quicker, cleaner kills. Hex Shot’s dice-like shape also allows it to be stacked within the shotshell hull for heavier payloads and denser patterns. Winchester’s specialty Diamond Cut wad is designed to deliver the Hex Shot on target with optimal consistency and pattern performance. Blind Side Pheasant is currently available in 3-inch 12-gauge with 1 3/8-ounce of number 5s at 1,400 fps and 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge with 1 1/4-ounce of 5s also at 1,400 fps. Those seeking 20-gauge or other shot size options should check out Blind Side’s waterfowl offerings, some of which would work equally well on upland birds in non-toxic zones.
Rio’s Royal BlueSteel has gained a reputation among waterfowlers for being both effective and affordable. Now upland hunters can enjoy that same value with Rio Game Load BlueSteel. New this year is a 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge load with 1-ounce of number 5s, 6s, or 7s at 1,325 fps designed specifically for hunting upland birds such as quail and pheasants. It joins a pair of crossover waterfowl/upland 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge loads in the Game Load BlueSteel lineup, one with 1 1/8-ounce of 6s, 5s, 4s, 3s, 2s, or BBs at 1,400 fps and the other with 1 1/4-ounce of 5s, 4s, 3s, 2s, or BBs at 1,350 fps. There’s also a 2 3/4-inch 20-gauge Game Load option with 7/8-ounce of number 5, 4, 3, or 2 steel shot at 1,345 fps. For even more power, check out the 3-inch 12- and 20-gauge options in Rio’s Royal BlueSteel line, such as the 12-gauge Magnum 32 with 1 1/8-ounce of 6s through BBs at 1,550 fps.
More than a few WPA pheasants have succumbed to Remington’s affordable steel loads over the years. Sportsman Hi-Speed Steel is the latest in a long line of non-toxic ammo from Big Green that’s both economical and effective. Designed primarily for waterfowl, Sportsman Steel is available in 10-, 12-, and 20-gauge and in shot sizes ranging from 7 to BB. However, for roosters, stick with number 2s or smaller to maintain sufficient pattern density. Upland hunters will be most interested in the pair of 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge offerings with either 1-ounce of number 6s or 7s at 1,365 fps or 1 1/8-ounce of 2s or 4s at 1,375 fps. In 3-inch 12-gauge, there’s a 1 1/4-ounce load of 2s, 3s, or 4s at 1,400 fps and a 1 1/8-ounce load of 2s or 4s at a screaming 1,550 fps. In 20-gauge, there’s a 2 3/4-inch 3/4-ounce load of 7s at 1,425 fps, or a 3-inch 1-ounce load of 2s or 4s at 1,300 fps.
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Backridge is a fairly new ammunition company out of Tennessee that specializes in non-toxic ITX shot. There are two varieties: ITX-10 is denser than bismuth and ITX-13 is denser than lead. For upland hunters and sub-gauge fans, Backridge offers a sweet little 28-gauge load with 7/8-ounce of number 6 ITX-10 shot at 1,250 fps. “This is a hard-hitting little shell we worked up based on our already successful 28-gauge (lead) offerings that have seen a lot of use in the last couple of years on the sporting clays and quail fields,” reports Backridge’s Adam Ziegler. Another good upland option is the 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge load with 1 1/4-ounce of ITX-10 number 6s at 1,290 fps. “We are aiming this load at our repeat customers who hunt both waterfowl and pheasants in lead-free areas,” says Ziegler. Backridge is also working on custom 16- and 20-gauge non-toxic loads for future introduction.