Unleaded Alternatives How today's best waterfowl loads pattern and perform

After testing thousands of rounds of nontoxic waterfowl ammunition, my right shoulder looked like it had been beaten with a hammer. But the pain was worth it. By testing today's best waterfowl loads, I was able to get a clear picture of how well all of these new and popular shells perform.

I tested five types of nontoxic shot in two 12-gauge autoloading guns (Beretta's A391 3.5 Xtrema and Winchester's Super X2). I shot each load through screw-in improved-cylinder, modified and full chokes at 25 and 40 yards. After firing I counted the pellet holes inside the standard 30-inch circle at 40 yards and within a proportionally reduced circle of 8.75 inches at 25 yards. The chart below lists the percentage of shot that made it into each circle.

There was one important factor that couldn't be tested for: deadliness. Manufacturers don't use set scales to tabulate how many foot-pounds of energy each pellet size needs to be deadly on ducks or geese. There are just too many variables--pellet density, size, speed, hardness--to be accounted for. There is also no industry standard for measuring the feet-per-second (fps) speed at the muzzle of waterfowl loads. The figures listed here are from manufacturers--some of them use tables from powder companies to calculate fps; others, like Federal, use computer programs that take density, velocity and shot size into account to calculate pellet energy.

This test made it clear that when buying steel loads, velocity is everything. Steel slows down faster than heavier nontoxics and therefore is considered to be a close-range alternative in many loads. As a result, you shouldn't sacrifice speed for more ounces of shot.

Increased weight, and therefore energy retention, is, of course, why we ante up for Bismuth and Hevi-Shot and Tungsten. But two other factors weigh in for all nontoxic shot types: pellet shape (some nontoxics have deformities that compromise accuracy) and price (shells that cost two dollars apiece quickly decimate budgets). Thankfully, both of these issues have been addressed with some of this season's new offerings.

HOW THEY FARED

BISMUTH

Bismuth pellets are round and contain only a few deformaties. The pellets are relatively soft, but buffers lessen pellets smashing together on firing. Some tin has been added to Bismuth pellets to make them more malleable. This has lowered the pellets' density but increased the number of pellets in each load. For instance, Bismuth lists 83 BBs in a 1 5/8-ounce load and 155 No. 4s in a 1-ounce load, yet I counted 95 BBs and 194 No. 4s, respectively.

The two shot sizes (BB and No. 4) of Bismuth in this test patterned consistently, with between 60 and 80 percent of the shot in the circles at both 25 and 40 yards. The BB size had plenty of energy for long-range shooting, but the smaller No. 4 in this test slowed down too fast for anything beyond moderate ranges. (800-759-3333; www.bismuth-notox.com)

FEDERAL OUTDOOR LIFE EDITOR'S CHOICE 2003

Because steel pellets are round and hard, they fly true. Large pellets, like BBBs, flare less from air resistance than smaller pellets. The Classic Heavy High Velocity 3-inch, 1-ounce load of BBBs put 88 percent of the pellets in the 40-yard circle when shot in the Winchester Super X2. With a cloud of large shot like that, there's little sense in shooting 3 1/2-inch shells. According to Federal, this load's foot-pounds per pellet at 40 yards is 11.76, which is more than enough for ducks or geese.

Federal's newest T-I shot is a 3-inch shell with 1 1/8 or 1 3/8 ounces of No. 5 shot. In our test, the 1 3/8-ounce load put over 150 pellets in 40-yard patterns, but with a pellet energy of only 2.96 pounds per pellet at 40 yards, the load is better suited to shots at moderate ranges. (800-322-2342; www.federalcartridge.com)

KENT CARTRIDGE

Kent Cartridge's Impact Waterfowl loads made with Tungsten Matrix shot are 95.9 percent tungsten and other malleable materials and 4.1 percent polymer. Tungsten Matrix shot is soft enough to shoot through any shotgun that accepts modern lead loads. Matrix pellets are also round and full, with only a slight belt around the middle from the forming dies, so they fly straight. The 3-inch, 1 3/4-ounce load with No. 1 shot put 80 percent of its pellets in the circle at 40 yards when shot in the Winchester Super X2. With 7.8 foot-pounds of energy per pellet at 40 yards, they should be deadly on geese at long range. The 1 3/4-ounce load of No. 5s does the same to ducks, but because pellet energy falls to 2.85 foot-pounds of energy per pellet at 40 yards, this load should be restricted to moderate ranges. (888-311-5368; www.kentgamebore.com)

REMINGTON

Remington has continued to expand its line of Hevi-Shot, a tungsten-nickel-iron alloy that is 10 percent heavier than lead. This year Premier Hevi-Shot Nitro Magnum High Velocity Waterfowl Loads have been added in 12-gauge 3- and 3 1/2-inch shells. The 3-inch load adds 125 fps over its predecessor. Its 1 1/4-ounce load of No. 4s still retains 4.5 foot-pounds of energy per pellet at 40 yards.

Remington has vastly improved Hevi-Shot pellets since it started loading them. But 20 percent or so of the pellets were teardrop-shaped or contained voids. These pellets don't fly straight, which resulted in some poor patterns. However, the dual targets showed that most of the pellets that flew true at 25 yards continued to fly straight at 40 yards. Hevi-Shot patterned tightly with full chokes in both the Winchester and Beretta guns.

Another addition to the Remington line is Sportsman Hi-Speed Steel, which has 25 to 150 fps more velocity than regular Sportsman loads. Sportsman Steel's lower price comes from the use of plain steel pellets instead of the zinc-galvanized steel loaded in Remington's Nitro-Steel shells. (800-243-9700; www.remington.com)

WINCHESTER AMMUNITION OUTDOOR LIFE GREAT BUY 2003

The Winchester Xpert Steel loads show that the 2 3/4-inch 12-gauge is still alive in the duck blind. The Xpert 1 1/8-ounce load of No. 2s held patterns of 69 to 76 percent at 40 yards. The load's muzzle velocity of 1,300 fps runs out of steam at about 35 yards (at 40 yards they have only 3.5 foot-pounds of energy), but that's plenty of reach for decoyed ducks. At just $12.80 for a box of 25, they edged out the competition for our "Best Buy" award.

For a long reach on geese, go for speed. Winchester's Supreme High Velocity Drylok Super Steel 3 1/2-inch shell launches 1 3/8 ounces of BBs or BBB at 1,450 fps. Copper-plating helps the big pellets flow through chokes. With 72 to 79 BBs in 40-yard patterns and each pellet packing 8.61 foot-pounds of energy, a goose does not have the option of flying away. Patterns with the BBB load showed 56 pellets drilled into the 40-yard circle, each with 10.64 foot-pounds of energy. (618-258-2000; www.winchester.com)

Waterfowl Loads

MANUFACTURER/MODEL Bismuth Cartridge Bismuth

Shell length/shot load/shot size 3 inch, 1 5/8 oz., BB

Muzzle velocity 1,300 fps

Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards 11.8

Cost $18.79 for 10

Total number of pellets 95 pellets

Percentage of pellets in circle WINCHESTER SUPER X2 25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL 64/69/73

Percentage of pellets in circle WINCHESTER SUPER X2 40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL 43/76/69

Percentage of pellets in circle BERETTA XTREMA 25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL 61/81/69

Percentage of pellets in circle BERETTA XTREMA 40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL 64/64/63

Pattern VG

Range E

Price/Value F

Final Rating VG

Comments Bismuth added more tin this season to make its nontoxic shot more malleable.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Bismuth Cartridge Bismuth

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 2 3/4 inch, 1 oz., No. 4

[Muzzle velocity] 1,312 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 2.97

[Cost] $16 for 10

[Total number of pellets] 194 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 46/54/81

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 38/58/75

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 69/81/79

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 56/68/73

[Pattern] VG

[Range] G

[Price/Value] F

[Final Rating] G

[Comments] A slightly changed formula means more pellets now fit into each load of Bismuth.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] EDITOR'S CHOICE Federal Cartridge Classic Steel HHV

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 3 inch, 1 oz., BBB

[Muzzle velocity] 1,450 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 11.76

[Cost] $16.95 for 25

[Total number of pellets] 77 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 68/55/90

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 52/73/88

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 84/78/92

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 66/86/78

[Pattern] E

[Range] E

[Price/Value] VG

[Final Rating] VG

[Comments] A combination of price and performance took our Editor's Choice award.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Federal Cartridge Premium Tungsten/Iron

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 3 inch, 1 3/8 oz., No. 5

[Muzzle velocity] 1,300 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 2.96

[cost] $18.95 for 10

[Total number of pellets] 230 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 55/65/77

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 45/54/68

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 69/71/77

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 66/67/65

[Pattern] VG

[Range] G

[Price/Value] F

[Final Rating] G

[Comments] This is a good short-to-medium range load for decoyed ducks.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Kent Cartridge Tungsten Matrix

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 3 inch, 1 3/4 oz., No. 1

[Muzzle velocity] 1,250 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 7.8

[Cost] $17.26 for 10

[Total number of pellets] 133 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 39/52/80

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 43/71/80

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 68/77/88

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 50/59/62

[Pattern] VG

[Range] E

[Price/Value] G

[Final Rating] VG

[Comments] Tungsten Matrix retains plenty of energy downrange with larger shot sizes.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Kent Cartridge Tungsten Matrix

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 2 3/4 inch, 1 1/4 oz., No. 5

[Muzzle velocity] 1,400 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 2.85

[Cost] $13.56 for 10

[Total number of pellets] 197 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 30/42/57

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 25/45/49

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 60/70/71

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 41/46/62

[Pattern] G

[Range] G

[Price/Value] VG

[Final Rating] G

[Comments] This speedy duck load is frugally priced and packs a punch to medium ranges.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Remington Sportsman Hi-Speed Steel

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 3 1/2 inch, 1 3/8 oz., BB

[Muzzle velocity] 1,550 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 7.5

[Cost] $15 for 25

[Total number of pellets] 99 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] N/A

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] N/A

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 82/70/79

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 78/79/82

[Pattern] VG

[Range] VG

[Price/Value] E

[Final Rating] VG

[Comments] Hi-Speed steel consistently patterned well with all chokes and at both ranges.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Remington Premier Hevi-Shot Nitro Magnum

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 3 inch, 1 1/4 oz., No. 4

[Muzzle velocity] 1,450 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 5.13

[Cost] $19 for 10

[Total number of pellets] 158 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 13/27/61

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 30/24/50

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 35/47/65

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 38/49/62

[Pattern] F

[Range] E

[Price/Value] G

[Final Rating] VG

[Comments] Hevi-Shot patterned fairly, but has amazing energy retention at long range.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] GREAT BUY Winchester Xpert Steel Loads

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 2 3/4 inch, 1 1/8 oz., No. 2

[Muzzle velocity] 1,300 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 3.5

[Cost] $12.80 for 25

[Total number of pellets] 141 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 44/52/74

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 39/60/69

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 64/79/84

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 69/70/76

[Pattern] VG

[Range] VG

[Price/Value] E

[Final Rating] VG

[Comments] Winchester's Xpert Steel Loads are a deal worth checking out.

[MANUFACTURER/MODEL] Winchester Supreme High Velocity Drylok Super Steel

[Shell length/shot load/shot size] 3 1/2 inch, 1 3/8 oz., BB

[Muzzle velocity] 1,450 fps

[Foot-lb. per pellet @ 40 yards] 8

[Cost] $28.15 for 25

[Total number of pellets] 79 pellets

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] N/A

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [WINCHESTER SUPER X2] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] N/A

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [25 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 59/63/73

[Percentage of pellets in circle] [BERETTA XTREMA] [40 YARDS I/C / MOD. / FULL] 58/70/80

[Pattern] VG

[Range] VG

[Price/Value] G

[Final Rating] VG

[Comments] This speedy steel load is a smart money-saving choice for geese.

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