Picking a good non toxic cartridge is not an easy task. There are countless choices, each of which varies in performance and cost. We are frequently asked which cartridge to buy. To answer this you must consider 4 elements: Quarry, Quantity Budget and Chamber Length.
You must look at the chamber lengths of the gun you will be using. Most English side by sides will have a 65mm chambers (2 ½ inch), many over and under will have 70 – 76mm (2 ¾ – 3 inch) chambers and some Semi-Autos will have up to 86mm (3 ½ inch) chambers. The majority of non toxic cartridges are 70mm +. Guns with 65 or 67mm chambers are limited to shooting Bismuth and Tungsten Matrix. Guns with 70mm + chambers have a large range of options which include steel.
Steel cartridges are the cheapest and poorest performing non toxic cartridge. However, they are widely available and most good gun shops will keep a reasonably good stock of them. Realistically I would want to shoot at least a 36gr 1 for geese and a 32gram 4 for duck. As long as you are sensible and restrict your range I do not see a problem with shooting steel cartridges. Gamebore makes a very good selection from the Mammoth Steel for geese to Game & Wetland Steel for duck.
It is imperative that you check your gun before shooting steel cartridges. Steel shot is much harder than lead and it is very important that you use cartridges suitable for your gun. The International Proof Commission (CIP) classifies steel cartridges into two categories: Standard and High Performance. In most cases standard steel can be used in standard guns and high performance steel can only be used in steel shot proofed guns. All steel cartridges should state if they are High Performance. In addition to this if shooting larger shot sizes chokes should be limited to no more than half.
The best piece of information available is the BASC information sheet on steel shot. This is worth reading before shooting steel. Please see:
Bismuth is a favourite among our customers. Eley produce 67mm cartridges which are great for side by sides and they perform well. Bismuth shot is available in a great range of cartridges from a 28gr 5 to a 46gr BB. They perform well, can be used with any choking and are kind to the guns. You should use one shot size larger than you would with lead, this is due the bismuth being slightly less dense. Bismuth is certainly not cheap but is definitely worth paying for. Eley VIP bismuth in a 32 gram 5 shot will cost in the region of £33 a box.
Hevi-shot is a very good alternative to lead. For some serious wildfowlers nothing else will do. It is a question of balance, if your sitting on the foreshore hoping to shoot the odd duck or goose most people do not mind paying a reasonable sum of money per cartridge. People who are shooting driven duck will most likely not want to pay £50+ for a box of 25 and instead will settle for steel at £6 a box knowing its limitations.
Hevi-shot is a combination of tungsten, steel and nickel. They produce a pellet which is denser than lead. Hevi-shot performs very well but should not be used to extend your range.
I was very fortunate to be out duck flighting a couple of weeks ago. I had decided to try some Gamebore Tungsten Matrix. They performed fantastically well, killed cleanly and at good distances. The added advantage was that they came with a fibre shot cup, so didn’t leave any plastic wads.
Tungsten Matrix is similar density to lead and is available in a number of different combinations. It has several advantages in that it can be shot through any choke and can be bought in a fibre shot cup. I believe similar shot sizes to lead are effective.