Tungsten-alloy pellets are stretching the distance at which we can ethically take winged game.
By Dave Henderson
The gobbler is answering every cluck and yelp I throw his way, but he's clearly not interested. Three hens are accompanying him toward the roosting area higher in the draw.
Guide Roger Dubs and I have been chasing this band of Merriam's up and down the deep cut ravines of Wyoming's Black Hills country for a couple of hours, and we're now resolved to the gobbler's indifference. But we're burning daylight on the next to last day of the hunt, and a storm front is approaching. It may well be our last chance, so I slip into the Ponderosa pine tree line above the birds as they feed their way up the draw.
Within minutes, they wander into view, crossing the high park. The laser range-finder reads 58 yards to the gobbler, and it's clear he won't come any closer, despite my come-hither ministrations.
Understand that I am adamantly opposed to long-range shots at turkeys. Experience has shown 40 yards to be the extreme range, even for a veteran shooter with a good-patterning turkey load. Any success beyond that falls more into the realm of luck than ballistic performance. In 20-plus years of turkey hunting, I can count on one hand the number of shots I've taken that were longer than that - and each was either a miscalculation of yardage or a special circumstance.
Today, it's special circumstance. I've done exhaustive pattern testing with the gun, choke and load, and know its potential at various ranges. Plus the load is tungsten, which means the pellets will carry plenty of energy at this distance.
I yelp twice, then line up the Remington 870 SP-TH's TruGlo fiber-optic sights with the gobbler's red head. When he extends his neck to answer a yelp with a goggle, I squeeze the trigger.
Recovering from recoil, I see the bird flopping away the last few seconds of life, having stepped in front of a snarling swarm of Hevi-Shot No. 6 pellets.
"I figured we were done for sure," Roger says, wandering down from his perch 40 yards up the hill. "I thought he was too far to shoot."
"Too far" has always been relative, but today's tungsten-alloy turkey loads really stretch the envelope. I debated long and hard over the ethics of including the yardage figure in this story. And I am by no means advising that anyone shoot such a distance without a thorough knowledge of the load's pattern and energy - and plenty of experience shooting it. But tungsten turkey loads can pattern tight enough and will kill beyond 50 yards.
Tungsten loads have been around a while. The key to the success of the newest versions is the quality of their patterns. Tungsten is an element that is denser and therefore heavier than lead, but is much harder and far less malleable. To be used in ordnance, it must be mixed with something softer. Iron, tin, nickel, copper and various polymers have been used with varying degrees of success by Federal, Kent and Environ-Metal.
Federal Cartridge made the first major moves with tungsten-iron and later tungsten-polymer non-toxic loads for waterfowl in the 1990s. Kent Cartridge followed with tungsten-tin alloy loads. Early tungsten-based loads were difficult to pattern, and the payloads had to be smaller than lead because of the thick wads required to protect barrels from the extremely hard pellets. The saving grace was that the denser, heavier tungsten-alloy pellets carried their energy so much farther that smaller shot sizes matched the effectiveness of large lead pellets.
The difference between the new loads and comparably sized lead pellets varies from 25 to nearly 35 percent, meaning, for example, that tungsten-alloy No. 6 shot pretty much outstrips lead No. 4 in energy.
Metallurgist Darryl Amick came up with the answer to the patterning problem in the form of Hevi-Shot in the late 1990s. At first, he couldn't convince any major manufacturer to load his unique tungsten-nickel load, despite its properties. Amick's Oregon-based Environ-Metal Inc. eventually hired specialty loader Jay Menefee of Georgia to load shells under the Hevi-Shot label, and my first experience with the wonder alloy came when Jay suggested I try the hot new loads in the goose season in the late stages of the 20th century.
They were remarkable. I'm old enough to have hunted waterfowl with lead before it became a four-letter word to environmentalists. Hevi-Shot's effectiveness brought back fond memories of those days. The load patterned much better than any tungsten alloys I'd tested.
When Remington started loading and marketing Hevi-Shot in 2002, it retired my favorite lead turkey loads. Alas, Big Green announced last August that its relationship with Environ-Metal, the maker of the shot marketed under the Hevi-Shot brand, would end in the fall of 2005. Remington said there should be no immediate shortage of Hevi-Shot for waterfowlers or for turkey hunters next spring.
Remington's Hevi-Shot had been such a home run in the turkey market that it was only natural that Federal and Winchester would react. But it took quite a bit of research and development before they had answers.
Federal's Heavyweight is billed as a "proprietary tungsten alloy" and is virtually an identical tungsten-iron blend to the company's (then under different ownership and guidance) original mid-1990s shot. It is still very heavy: 35 percent denser than lead. But a totally different manufacturing process from Asia - and Federal's innovative Flitecontrol wad - have greatly improved the load.
The new wad is actually an inverted version of a conventional shot cup, and Federal Cartridge's parent company's background in advanced weapons and space systems played no small part in its development.
Where standard shot cups have long petals that peel back from the front and "blossom" quickly to free the charge, the Flitecontrol wads feature solid tubes at the leading edge with short rear petals. These are flared by expanding gases and act like braking flaps on an airplane wing. As a result, the wad stays with the charge longer and gradually releases the pellets in a more uniform and denser manner.
The denser patterns and industry-leading density make for a remarkably effective turkey load. I scored a dead-in-its-tracks hit on a big Rio Grande gobbler in Texas when he hung up on the far side of a barbed wire fence at 51 yards last spring. The load's patterns in the .675 Remington Hevi-Shot choke tube at 40 yards left no doubt in my mind as to its potential lethality over 50.
Winchester's new Xtended Range load is a veritable twin of Hevi-Shot, at 10 percent heavier than lead. Winchester's marketing never mentions its tungsten (with copper-nickel-iron) makeup, probably to avoid the appearance of jumping on the tungsten bandwagon. Big Red makes a big deal out of the roundness of the Xtended Range pellets, which can be perceived as a comparison to Hevi-Shot's random-shaped pellets.
It is by far the softest and most versatile-patterning load among the new ones I've tested. Patterns were absolutely deadly beyond 40 yards with a HS Strut Undertaker tube in a Thompson/Center Encore 12-gauge shotgun. Remarkably, it also patterned well out of my .660 Rhino tube in a 24 inch backbored Ithaca Model 37 barrel in a testing session on my home range.
Hevi-13 is Environ-Metal's latest concoction, probably introduced to keep stride with the other new loads this year. Hevi-13 is slightly more than 20 percent heavier than lead, and about 8 percent heavier than Remington Hevi-Shot, placing its density between the Federal and Winchester loads.
The Environ-Metal engineers achieved this by increasing the percentage of tungsten in the load, and offsetting the resultant hardness with a unique coating of molybdenum disulfide. This is the same stuff with which Winchester coats its Fail Safe rifle ammunition. The coating makes the irregularly shaped Hevi-13 pellets slicker and more friendly toward one another in their passage down the barrel.
I did exhaustive pattern testing with all four tungsten-alloy choices this year, before and after hunts where I took three birds with the Federal, Remington and Winchester brands. Range testing was conducted on 10-inch targets at various yardages and later at turkey head targets using a .695 Hunter's Specialties Undertaker tube, a .660 Rhino tube, a .683 Hastings tube and Remington's .675 Hevi-Shot tube. Each was shot through in the aforementioned Remington 870 SPS-TH (thumbhole), Ithaca M37 and Thompson/Center Encore shotguns.
I tried to level the platform by testing all 3-inch versions with No. 6 shot, but it was still pretty much an apples-and-oranges comparison. Each load had a varying number of pellets in the hull, different velocities and hardness. Each barrel also had a unique internal diameter, and thus a different choke constriction.
The Winchester Xtended Range load worked fairly well with all the constrictions, but, strangely, showed its best (and virtually identical) performance through the .660 Rhino and the .695 HS Strut Undertaker choke tubes - the tightest and most open of the testing tubes.
But the 1æ-ounce Winchester load simply had more pellets in the hull since its shot is softer, allowing a thinner walled shotcup to be used. Hevi-Shot, Heavyweight and Hevi-13 all had 1-ounce payloads.
Remington Hevi-Shot, Hevi-13 and Winchester Xtended Range all posted velocities of 1,225 feet per second at the muzzle, while the smaller Federal Heavyweight load was at 1,300 fps.
Xtended Range consistently put the most pellets in any pattern, although Federal Heavyweight was better on some targets with certain chokes, and was always very close. The Federal load did not shoot well out of ported choke tubes, throwing very inconsistent patterns. My guess is that the ports somehow compromised the Flitecontrol wad's flaps, affecting its ability to manage the payload.
The Federal, Remington Hevi-Shot and Environ-Metal Hevi-13 loads, with much harder and fewer pellets in the hull, all favored the .675 constriction.
Citing the number of holes in various patterns here would be tedious and meaningless. The numbers vary shot-to-shot, even with the same load, and the patterns achieved with any of my chokes and guns would differ from yours simply because of the difference in barrel interior diameters and how they relate to the various choke tube diameters.
The bottom line is that the tungsten-alloy loads are deadlier at longer ranges than their lead counterparts, but only if the shooter finds the optimum choke constriction for the specific load and demonstrates the ability to put the pattern in the right spot.
Reprinted from the December 2005 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.