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Lead shot has been used for hunting since antiquity. It is soft enough to not damage the bore of a gun and yet dense enough to deliver a lot of kinetic energy to a target. It is also cheap and readily available. However, the dangers of toxic lead to waterfowl and other predatory critters led the US Fish & Wildlife Service to ban its use for waterfowl hunts in 1986. Since then, nontoxic shot made of steel, bismuth, tungsten, or other metals has been used in place of lead.
When hunting upland game birds like dove, pigeons, quail, woodcock, rail and snipe, #6 shot is the most popular size. For larger upland game birds like ruffed grouse and partridge, #2 shot is more suitable. For turkeys, #12 bird shot is often the most effective choice.
The density of lead shot is controlled through alloying it with varying amounts of antimony, which hardens the pellet. The higher the percentage of antimony added, the harder the lead. Cold lead shot, with less antimony is called chilled shot and is preferred by waterfowl hunters for its improved pattern densities at longer ranges. Warm lead, with more antimony, is referred to as magnum shot.
To make the most of any lead alternative, shooters must jack up velocity and compensate for lower shot density by using chokes designed to work with softer steel shot. Other factors, such as a lower diameter ratio between shot sizes, will impact penetration. For example, Kent’s Tungsten Matrix has about the same density as high-antimony lead and thus allows you to go a full shot size down (i.e. Hevi-Shot 6’s penetrate about as well as lead 5’s).