Non Toxic Shot and Upland Hunting
By Tom Hayes

Over the past 10 years a strong trend to require use of non-toxic shot for upland hunting has emerged. Many, if not most, Game Farm / Hunting Preserves in Minnesota and Wisconsin now require the use of Non-Toxic shot.

I visited the Wisconsin DNR website and encountered the following two informational statements: 

As of March 2007, twenty five states have enacted requirements for hunting with non-toxic shot beyond the Federal requirements for waterfowl and four additional states are working on similar restrictions.


Lead poisoning has been reported in 37 species of birds beyond waterfowl.

I took the following excerpts from the hunting regulations for:

In the fall of 2007, Good Go Ing converted to the exclusive use of non-toxic-only at the facility. 

A few years ago I would have reacted fairly negatively to that news. But since I do some pheasant hunting each fall in South Dakota and in Iowa I have been shoved in the direction of hunting upland birds with non-toxic shot as a matter of requirement. I went to the websites for those two states and captured the following information:

  • Iowa - Non-toxic shot is required to hunt all game animals (except deer and turkey) on selected public hunting areas in north-central and northwest Iowa. See the current hunting regulations booklet for a list of areas where non-toxic shot is required. 
  • South Dakota - Non-toxic shot use is mandatory for small game hunting with shotguns on all South Dakota State Game Production Areas, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers land, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation Wildlife Production Areas managed by SDGF&P, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Wildlife Refuges and Waterfowl Production Areas.

After numerous trips to both states for (primarily) pheasants I have learned to adapt and now it is not a big deal. There have been a lot of advancements in the design of the shells and there is certainly a much better understanding of the capabilities of the loads that there was even three years ago.

Test Gun & Ammunition

Probably the biggest downside to non-toxics is their price compared to good old-fashioned lead. While it is now possible to get non-toxics that not only rival, but in many ways out perform lead, they come with a price tag that will scare you. One example of this sticker shock is the line of Hevi-Shot at over $3.00 per shell!

How well do non-toxics work for upland? Good question. While hunting pheasants and sharptail grouse / prairie chicken in South Dakota over the past few years I have come to the conclusion that it is just fine. As with waterfowl hunting, “skybusting” is never a good idea and an even worse one with steel – which is the only “N-T” I use. I draw the line at paying the big prices for shells that come 10 to a box. 

Jason Gooding and I went out to do a simple and not necessarily scientific test of non-toxic loads the other evening after I escaped from my day job.

Briefly, we did all the test shots from a 12 gauge and used a couple of brands of steel shot along with a box of Bismuth and a box of Hevi-shot. We shot tests at 20 and 30 yards which we decided were reasonable distances for hunting over dogs at Good Go Ing, and tried Skeet, Improved Cylinder and Modified chokes as we felt these represented the most likely choices chosen by patrons.

Test shots were fired at large pieces of cardboard with an aiming point near the center. We looked mainly at pattern density and declared as “minimum acceptable” any array of hits that did not leave huge gaping holes in the coverage that would potentially lead to a lightly wounded bird.

In a nutshell, our conclusion is that shooting the $10.00 per box Federal Steel or Winchester XPert shells in number 4 to 6 with a Modified choke (12 ga tested ) is altogether adequate for birds out to 30 yards. 40 yards is just “too far” for a high confidence killing hit unless you go to the much more expensive “Hevi-Shot” loads in #4, which will probably do the job but will run you over 3 bucks a pop.

Jason has the test targets and the left over shells so be sure to discuss this with him when you are out at the club this fall.