Understanding Tungsten Shot

September 23, 2010

tungsten shotIts benefits come from the fact that it is denser than any other shot material, including lead, steel or bismuth. To understand how the density factors into performance, let’s look at two spheres about the same size, a golf ball and a ping-pong ball. The golf ball is far denser and will fly farther and hit harder. Now reduce that size down to two single No. 4 pellets, one steel and the other a tungsten alloy. Get the picture? The tungsten will fly farther, hit harder and penetrate deeper. That means more birds, farther out, with fewer cripples.

To give you an idea how the densities of different materials compare to lead, look at Chart I. If lead is a 10.3, then you can see how much lighter (less dense) the others are by comparison, or how much heavier, as is the case with tungsten.

The beauty of tungsten is you also can reduce shot size and retain all the benefits of the larger lead or steel, with a lot more shot in the pattern. If you normally use No. 4 shot, switch to No. 6 in a tungsten load for a bigger pattern, more range and more forgiveness.

For an idea how effective tungsten is, look at Chart II showing the performance of a single No. 4 pellet of each material fired at the same velocity. It is readily apparent.

tungsten performanceA few years ago, I decided to see just how good this stuff was. I took a mallard I killed that morning, tacked it up over a Shoot-N-See target and shot at it with a tungsten load at 70 yards. Every pellet totally penetrated the duck and left a mark on the target. Neither steel nor lead gave me that result — not even close.

Today, all shotshell manufacturers offer tungsten-alloy loads. The original, Hevi-Shot, is irregularly shaped and mixed in size, yet patterns better than it has any right to. Winchester, Federal, Remington and Kent offer tungsten-based loads that are more uniform in size and, like the Hevi, pattern very well.

Choosing the Correct Choke for Tungsten

We can manhandle lead and, to a lesser degree, steel, by simply forcing it through varying choke restrictions until we get it to behave the way we want it to. Not so with tungsten. Tungsten has a mind of its own and doesn’t play by the rules when it comes to choke.

For most tungsten loads I’ve tested (and I’ve put a small fortune into the pattern board), a modified choke delivers the overall best results in most guns, including over/unders and semi-autos. There have been rare instances where a full choke showed some improvement over a modified — one 12-gauge Spartan o/u and one Franchi semi-auto — but I attribute that to barrel quirks. We don’t know why it’s so, but the densest, most uniform patterns with tungsten most commonly come from modified or improved modified chokes. My tungsten guns always are choked that way.

Can you shoot tungsten in a normal barrel?

tungsten density

Tungsten is definitely harder than steel, and as such, there have been a flood of warnings about not shooting it in ultra-high-end guns or through standard chokes. It will leave marks in a choke tube, but as of yet, I’ve not seen any adverse effects in a barrel.

I wasn’t aware of the concern when I first began testing the then-new Hevi-Shot, and ultimately marred some tubes, but, and this is curious, those marred tubes don’t diminish the patterns in any way, even when I go back to lead or steel shot. My guns are tools, not works of art, so a bit of streaking or scratching in the tube doesn’t bother me. If you have concerns, just switch to a hardened choke tube made for tungsten or steel.

Tungsten Price Problems

Perhaps the only drawback to tungsten is the price. As I said previously, there are only two working mines producing the stuff, and the biggest one sits smack in the middle of China. They’re squeezing us, pricing it through the roof, and even at a high price, they are reluctant to turn loose of much of it.

As long as we have an insatiable appetite for tungsten-carbide drill bits and light bulbs with tungsten filaments, the Chinese are going to keep their supplies tight and sell us those products at a premium. There are some inactive mines elsewhere being fired up, but that will take time.

Tungsten is great stuff, and it will put a lot more birds in the bag, but for now, it is pricey. For the close-timber or flooded-marsh hunter, steel is still the most economical, but for the big Canadas and snows, this stuff drops them with a thud!