Lead has been king of the uplands since the dawn of black powder. There are some inherent disadvantages of lead, but for the vast majority of bird hunters, it still reigns over the rest. In the past few decades, there have been many pushes to move away from the hard-hitting element due to environmental concerns. Steel shot is another option, but due to the lack of density, it doesn’t pack nearly the punch of lead.
As a waterfowler, I had always seen steel shot as a necessary evil, mostly because other nontoxic shot options were far too costly to shoot upwards of three cases of shells per year. However, when I went to the uplands, it was a treat to fill both barrels with lead-packed shells. I would spring for three $30 boxes, because on a good year I wouldn’t burn through them. The sheer knockdown power of lead was supreme, and a 40-yard shot with #6s was going to do the job if I did mine.
In the past few years, I caught on to what some claim to be magic shot. It hits harder than lead, but doesn’t have the environmental impacts. What’s this magic shot? Tungsten Super Shot—better known as TSS. There’s no smoke, mirrors, or rabbits popping out of hats. It all comes down to science.
TSS vs. Lead
Let’s go back to high-school physics to figure out why TSS is superior to lead in performance. The biggest factor as to why it outperforms lead lies in its density. Why does density make a difference? What would hurt more if I threw it at you, a golf ball or ping pong ball? My pick is the golf ball. It weighs more than the ping pong ball, with about the same volume. Lead checks in at 11 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc), and is pretty dense as compared to steel, which only weighs in at 8 g/cc.
That’s why you end up shooting larger shot sizes in steel, and don’t have the ability to make cleaner kills at longer distances. These densities are trumped by TSS, which checks in at 18 g/cc. Over twice the density of steel, and over 60-percent more dense than lead. That means this golf ball is really going to hurt! TSS even beats a hevi-shot alloy, which lands at 15 g/cc.
The performance advantages of TSS don’t end at density. Lead is a soft metal, and thus susceptible to deformation. Don’t get density and hardness confused—they are two different properties. Take a hammer and hit a lead pellet. It will smash under the force of the hammer. Now, do the same with steel. It won’t deform nearly as badly as lead. Lead pellets often get compacted in shells and lose their round profile. Deformed pellets are the enemy to pattern density. This is the cause of “flyers,” which are pellets that don’t fly straight upon leaving the barrel. In comparison, steel is much harder than lead, and as long as the pellets are round when manufactured, they’ll retain their profile while in the shell. The best of both worlds is TSS; it has the density and the hardness, so pellet deformation won’t be a problem.
Here’s where it all comes together. If you have a denser pellet, it means you’ll be able to use a smaller pellet and still maintain the same kinetic energy as a larger, less dense pellet. The advantage of using a smaller pellet is you’re going to have more of them. More pellets equates to better pattern densities. A #9 TSS pellet has the same knockdown power as a #6 lead pellet. The difference is an ounce of #6 lead will have about 222 pellets, and an ounce of #9 TSS has over 350 pellets. That’s 60 percent more pellets!
What if I told you I shoot early season roosters with #9s or #10s, and when those late-season birds get wary, I’ll only step down to a #8 pellet? Imagine a swarm of 500 bees flying downrange. It’s pretty impressive. I’ll also stick to an improved-cylinder choke, or when I need to make the long shot, step up to a light-modified or modified. You have the ability to shoot a more open choke, giving you a larger margin of error because the sheer number of pellets are able to fill out the pattern.
The merits of TSS have been proven by the turkey hunting community. Many have been hand-loading shells for decades, but only recently has it been mass manufactured by companies like Federal and Apex Ammunition. The results are nothing short of incredible, as it has made sub gauges such as .410 a very viable 30-yard gun.
If the wheels are turning, you’re catching my drift! Now, my 6-lb. 28-gauge is a year-round pheasant gun, and I no longer have to drag along a hefty 12-gauge for spooky late-season roosters. The same thing can be said about my little .410, and after patterning it, there is a slim chance you’ll ever find me carrying a 12-gauge, if only for nostalgia.
There are few things in life more pleasurable than shooting into a covey of bobwhites, or a big rooster busting out from under the nose of a pointing dog at 10 yards. Unfortunately, wild birds, especially on public lands, really don’t care to be shot at, so that 10-yard shot often ends up being 40 or more yards. This is where TSS shines! With denser pellets, and much more of them, you’ll easily be able to reach out and not just touch, but rather crush, that wild rooster. Tungsten is also a nontoxic element, thus making it legal for any public lands where you’d be relegated to using steel shot.
There is one caveat to TSS: It’s expensive, and commercial options are relatively few. I started reloading TSS four years ago, and a pound of TSS costs between $40 to $50. That means if you were to load a box of 1-oz. shells, it would cost you about $70 per box. It’s time for you to scrape your jaw off the floor, as I was in the same place. There’s no doubt TSS isn’t going to be for everyone, and I can hear many of you saying, “I’ll just stick with my $11 box of lead.”
So, why in the world would I shoot something worth double that of a premium box of lead? In one trip, I shot nearly half as many TSS shells as I would with lead, and I had no wounded birds. There is another option to gain some of the performance of TSS and still maintain your checking account, and thus your marriage. You can blend TSS with lead, and still reap the benefits.
If you’re interested in giving TSS a whirl this year, one of the options is handloading. When I first started loading turkey shells, I had to dust off my dad’s trusty MEC 600. However, I learned there wasn’t much of a need for a reloading machine. All you need is a scale, powder, hulls, wads, mylar sheets, some various cork and felt fillers, and a roll-crimp tool. It’s a very manual process, but it’s satisfying. If you’re interested in giving it a go, the foremost expert of handloading TSS is Hal Abbott. Go on the internet and search “reloading TSS,” and you’ll run across Hal in many forums under the name of HawgLips. If you purchase TSS shot from him, he’ll be more than happy to give you his tested reloading recipes. He just asks that you not share it. Hal’s prices are fair, and he will have tested loads for every gauge in nearly any situation you might face with a scattergun over your shoulder.
There is another option if you’re not interested in the time investment to reload. Federal Premium Ammunition launched their Custom Shop in August, and the engineers in Anoka, Minnesota would be more than happy to build you a TSS load or blend to fit your needs.
Is TSS magic? Nope. But it will sure give you the upper hand on your next bird-hunting adventure. If you’re looking for the best performance in the field, TSS far outshines anything on the market.