Double-Blind Study: No Difference in Lethality of Lead or Steel Shot

At the end of 2014, The State of Texas completed a 2-year study to, “evaluate the effectiveness of lead vs. non-toxic shot should ammunition regulations change in the future.”  As a result of its double-blind methodology, there was “virtually no difference between lead and non-toxic shot.”

I, for one, am very happy to see such detailed study going into the debate of shot selection. Armed with this information, those looking to move to alternative shot materials should be able to rest easy that the performance of the shot will meet lead’s high standards.

For a full official debrief, Texas Parks and Wildlife has posted the results to the public. They can be found here. 



Press Release at Completion:

TPWD Releases Dove Lethality Study Findings

AUSTIN – Texas leads the nation in dove hunting with roughly a quarter million hunters bagging 5 million mourning doves each fall. Their success afield should not change with the type of shot used, according to the results of a just-released study examining the lethality of lead versus non-toxic shot for mourning dove.

The field collection phase of the study was conducted in Brown, Coleman and McCulloch counties during the 2008 and 2009 Texas dove hunting seasons. After recording more than 5,000 shots fired by Texas hunters during the two-year project, and then necropsying 1,100 mourning dove, researchers determined no statistical significant difference in harvest efficiencies between the three loads tested, regardless of distance.

Non-toxic shot has been required for hunting waterfowl for more than two decades. Despite studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of non-toxic shot for waterfowl and other game birds, the results of this study were not a foregone conclusion, at least not in the perceptions of dove hunters. Recent dove hunter surveys indicate that some hunters still believe non-toxic shot to be inferior to lead.

“Our findings address the efficiency of lead and non-toxic shot on mourning dove,” said Corey Mason, a TPWD wildlife biologist and one of the authors of the report. “There continues to be a spirited national discussion on the use of lead and other types of shot and these results help inform one aspect of the conversation.”

This study is the first on the lethality of lead versus non-toxic shot under typical hunting conditions for mourning dove to be published in a scientific journal. The Institute of Renewable Natural Resources at Texas A&M University, Thomas Roster, and Texas Parks and Wildlife authored report will be published in the March 2015 issue of The Wildlife Society Bulletin, a peer-reviewed, scientific publication containing papers related to wildlife management, conservation law enforcement, conservation education, economics, administration, philosophy, ethics, and contemporary resource problems. An advance release of the report is available online at

TPWD officials believe the research findings may be useful to Texas hunters as they make decisions on the type of loads they choose for dove hunting.

“We absolutely believe in hunter choice and we also want hunters to be as informed as possible on matters affecting their outdoor pursuits,” said Carter Smith, TPWD Executive Director. “Dove are a shared international resource, and the question about whether or not lead shot should be banned for dove hunting is not something Texas is prepared to make independent of other jurisdictions and based solely on the findings of this study. This research offers an important data point in the larger discussion, but there are many other factors to consider.”

An internationally recognized shotgun ballistics expert, who has authored more than a dozen similar studies involving waterfowl and upland game birds, designed the study. The study examined three, 12-gauge, 2 ¾-inch loads designed and manufactured to mirror loads that are used most often by dove hunters. The different load types included: 1 ⅛ ounce of No. 7 ½ lead shot, 1 ounce of No. 6 steel shot, and 1 ounce of No. 7 steel shot.

The cost of the study was approximately $500,000 and was funded with dedicated Migratory Game Bird and Texas White-winged Dove stamp revenue.

Nathan S

One of TFB’s resident Jarheads, Nathan now works within the firearms industry. A consecutive Marine rifle and pistol expert, he enjoys local 3-gun, NFA, gunsmithing, MSR’s, & high-speed gear. Nathan has traveled to over 30 countries working with US DoD & foreign MoDs.

The above post is my opinion and does not reflect the views of any company or organization.


  • Josh

    No difference…on doves. That’s because you can almost scare a dove to death with the shot, and any standard shotshell load, including 410, is really overkill. Next up they’ll be doing a study of lead vs steel on grasshoppers and meadow voles.

    Ducks are a whole ‘nother story.

    • ThomasD

      Well, they didn’t “need” to study ducks because you have no options to use lead on waterfowl thanks to the Feds.

      “Proving” that steel “kills” as well as lead is just the necessary step towards banning lead for upland game.

      No mention that steel shoots the same as lead. Because it does not.

      • Paladin

        Just curious, as I guess I don’t shoot enough to know the difference between how steel and lead shoot differently, what differences are you talking about? When I got into waterfowl hunting, non-toxic shot was already mandatory, so I have never had a chance to compare similar loads.

        Also, correct me if I am wrong, but as outdoorsmen, shouldn’t we be more concerned with how mercifully the chosen loads kills our game?

        I don’t think I would necessarily always choose non-toxic shot, but in certain areas where excessive lead shot could contaminate a water source or environment, I got no problem using non-toxic.

        • pun&gun

          Steel is lighter, so it doesn’t hold velocity as well and it doesn’t pattern as well as lead. I’ve also heard complaints of increased wear on the firearm. Not as big a deal on a cheap shotgun, but if you’re into taking pheasants with a fine antique double, that might stick in your craw.

          • Paladin

            Gotcha. Thanks for the info. I can certainly see why it would be an issue for some hunters.

          • Joshua

            the problem of Steel causing damage in old guns is at the choke. the lead shot will compress as it passes the constriction of the choke. Steel does not compress as well, though the plastic shot cup used in modern shot shells certainly helps, even the plastic has to go somewhere, and old guns often will use a softer steel than is used in the steel shot, resulting in the barrel deforming before the shot does.
            the second problem of steel shot in modern shotguns is weight, because steel is so much lighter than lead, in order to get the same terminal effect you have to increase the velocity, which in the same barrel length means a faster burning, higher recoiling powder. which puts extra wear on the shooter’s shoulder, the gun, particularly semi-autos that are not equipped to deal with over gassing. This can also cause serious problems in older guns as they may not be rated for the higher pressure steel loads usually achieve. all the way around steel shot is an entirely different proposition than lead, and it is one of the only affordable “non-toxic” loads, the second being Bismuth, at over twice the price, and Bismuth is faintly radioactive.

          • hoochbear

            Sorry, Joshua. Believe the powder has to be more slow burning. Other than that you’re right on. Yup, more powder. typically 1/8 less ounce of shot for the same length load. Shell for shell, less dense, less lethal steel being pushed faster. Oh, and did I mention, no matter how many pellets you cram into the payload, lethality per pellet drops rapidly.

          • Jeff Smith

            This. The show American Shooter did a comparison on sheet metal between the two at various differences to show this problem. It’s a pretty significant difference.

          • hoochbear

            Wonder how the 2 kinds of shot would show up in ballistic gelatin? Of course, there would need to be calculations of the impact physics. Might take a lot of ballistic gelatin, too.

          • Jeff Smith

            I’d be interested in seeing that. If I remember correctly (it’s been 15 years or so), the test they performed was penetration on sheet metal at 25, 50, and 75 yards. Lead penetrated at all distances while steel only penetrated at 25 yards. I imagine those results would be similar in ballistics gel.

            PS – The segment was showing the (then) new tungsten shells that were nontoxic and matched the penetration of lead.

        • ThomasD

          I’d also add that, due to the lack of retained velocity with the lighter steel shot, it is often loaded hotter for higher initial velocity. This has two undesirable effects, first it beats the heck out of you (especially from a light upland type shotgun) with recoil; and second it takes some getting used to with less than usual lead necessary at close range, and more than usual lead necessary at long range.

          Which is bad enough for ducks, but is an absolute nightmare with crossing doves or flushing quail.

          Birds are fragile critters. Long before any sort of firearms we were killing them with thrown sticks.

      • hoochbear

        AMEN. It would be VERY interesting to know when: a/ steel shot became mandatory on Wildlife Refuge hunts; and b/ steel became mandatory on all duck hunting, in Georgia & Alabama (specifically with reference to Eufaula NWR) Seems to me that has been more than just a couple decades ago. more like 30 years? and i’ve been duck hunting since 1965.

    • Sianmink

      Yeah, the difference is immediately obvious on bigger, tougher waterfowl.

      • hoochbear

        I guess mother nature just produces a tougher, hardier duck today? EH? 😉

  • Spencerhut

    Steel shot is much harder than lead and causes much more stress on the guns. Many / most older guns and chokes are not rated for the use of steel.

    • Marc

      Shot cup, problem solved. Not enough stopping power? Use one size larger shot, problem solved. Lead isn’t toxic because it comes from the earth? I guess mercury and arsenide aren’t either. I’ve had it with the stubborn lead cult bullshit. If you love lead so much, why don’t you eat it? Lead acetate aka lead sugar, enjoy your meal.

      • Joshua

        arsenide? you mean arsenic? also, shot cups don’t solve the problem of over pressure. in order to get the same impact force out of a lighter projectile you must up the velocity, simple physics, also simple physics, if you want to increase velocity in the same barrel length you must increase the pressure. which many older guns aren’t rated for. and for every size larger shot you get an exponentially smaller number of pellets. even with a plastic shot cup the compressive force of the choke must go somewhere and the shot cup isn’t quite enough absorb it all, and if it was, there would be no point in having a choke because you haven’t effected the shot. in order to get a longer pattern using a choke, you must compress the shot at the choke, and steel does not compress. I agree, lead is toxic, we have known that for years, is it as toxic as we are told it is? that I don’t know. but steel is toxic too. as is copper. everything is toxic to one level or another, and steel does not behave the same way lead does. this is not some “Stubborn Lead Cult” any more than you are the “Bloody Steel Nanny-State” we are people who, having done what research we can, have decided the risk posed by lead shot does not fully outweigh the problems with steel shot.

        • hoochbear

          To this, I ask of the “Steel Crowd, ” check & recheck the crippling loss. And, having confidence that your gun and shell will do the job ranks way up there in my book. Not knowing what you’re shooting I wonder how IN-confident many shooters would feel with any double-blind test (shell type not known to either test proctor -presenter- or hunter). My preferences are Rem 7 1/2 & 8 heavy dove loads, and Win AA 9’s. You figure–

        • Grindstone50k

          “is it as toxic as we are told it is? that I don’t know”

          • Joshua

            see Spencerhut’s comment below. also, my father very well remembers when he was a kid that lead pellets came in a cardboard tube, and that while going pellet hunting he would bite open the cardboard tube and hold the pellets in his cheek, spitting them into hand as he needed them one by one, and he’s fine, high IQ, and healthy as a horse. I as well spend a great deal of time in direct exposure to toxic substances and have never had a problem. so, is Lead as Toxic as we are told it is? I have never seen the effects of lead poisoning in my life, nor has my father seen it in his. and we’ve seen a fair amount of exposure, both personally and among people we know and work with. so, I don’t know

          • Grindstone50k

            You do know the difference between actual science and personal anecdote. Prolonged exposure to high levels of lead has been *proven* to cause numerous health issues. Do you also think asbestos doesn’t cause cancer? Arsenic isn’t dangerous? How about radiation? After all, I’ve eaten NUMEROUS bananas, in which the potassium is very radioactive, yet I’m super duper fine!
            Seriously, do your research. Chewing on a couple lead pellets when you’re a pre-teen a few times a week for a short time is NOT science. It’s just stupid.

          • Joshua

            recorded observation is the basis of all science. also, “you do know the difference between actual science and personal anecdote.” thank you for noticing. and while it may surprise you to know this, I shoot steel when hunting waterfowl. I cook my food thoroughly, I don’t smoke and I limit my alcohol intake. I understand “prolonged exposure” and I also understand chemistry. and Asbestos doesn’t cause cancer, unstable asbestos causes cancer. and I understand that Arsenic and lead like most toxic elements are toxic, hence the name, in “high levels.” now, how long do you have to hunt a river to achieve “high levels” of lead? I also understand the process whereby predators receive exponentially more toxins than the prey they eat. but on that count I’m more worried about my neighbor losing half a tanker of herbicide into the creek up river from me than I am about maybe half a dozen rounds worth of birdshot a year.

          • Grindstone50k

            “recorded observation is the basis of all science” What you and your dad experienced isn’t science and you trying to pass it off just invalidates any further attempt you’re making at appearing to come from a position of intelligence.
            I didn’t say one whit about hunting with lead. Go back and re-read. I was addressing the original comment questioning whether or not lead is toxic to begin with. THAT is the idiocy that we’re talking about here. You’re either lacking in reading comprehension or just misdirecting.

          • Joshua

            and your being salty for the sake of being salty.
            were commenting on an article about hunting with steel vs. lead. Pardon me for assuming that as a result your comment would be about hunting with lead. but you know what? fine you win, I don’t care about this discussion, I didn’t start this discussion, I entered it because a question was asked, first, and then someone was being distinctly stupid and unpleasant, and like a hopeful, naive fool I thought I could offer another point of view and have things be civil. but you have successfully crushed my internet feelings.
            go you
            good bye

          • Grindstone50k

            Go chew some lead.

          • Joshua

            so your even a sore winner, good to know.
            get a life

      • Spencerhut

        Actually I did chew on a pulled .22 Lr slug quite often when squirrel hunting as a kid when I did not know better. Sort of like gum that didn’t wear out. I cast bullets, load my own ammo, eat game shot with lead and have normal lead levels in my blood and have never tested abnormal for lead, oh and I have a 148 I.Q. Go be a troll someplace else.

        • Grindstone50k

          Better submit your scientific findings to the Mayo clinic so they can alert everyone that lead is totally non-toxic!

  • Zebra Dun

    Well it is lethality, not actual stopping power or time it takes to kill.
    A .22 untreated in the guts has the same lethality as a shot to the head from a .357 magnum, lethality wise that is.
    Now time to die is some what different.

  • Zebra Dun

    The problem is lead contamination fears.
    Lead is shot all over mother earth, and that’s bad putting lead there. Not actually considering the lead came from mother earth in the first place I ask, what is the problem?

    • TJbrena

      You ever seen what lead poisoning does to an animal? I volunteer at a place that rehabilitates injured birds of prey. We mostly get birds native to AZ, but sometimes birds that migrate or are bought through dubious means (like a Eurasian Eagle Owl) end up here. There’s more than a few raptors that end up non-releasable because of lead poisoning they don’t recover from. Biomagnification means that any sort of chemical contamination hits apex predators the hardest.

      I’ve got nothing against hunting or hunters, I’m just saying lead poisoning sucks, and it sucks hard for all involved.

      • toms

        Chemicals such as PCB’s and pesticides are not elemental lead. Lead from firearms is very very insoluable. The whole lead buckshot is poisoning california condors was nothing more than an environmental coup aimed at the shooting sports. This is coming from an ex employee of the USFWS.

      • Zebra Dun

        Well, lead is out there, by shot, by old car batteries and new, by all the old devices and uses that lead was utilized as, paint etc.
        You and I will never remove all the lead that is out there and to stop lead shot is about as useless an endevour as there is.
        I’m not worried about it.
        Fact is…I don’t care.

    • nadnerbus

      lead comes from the environment in the form of Galena, an ore. It is a stable mineral in that form, not a potentially reactive pure metal.

      • ThomasD

        Your chemistry is exactly backwards.

        Lead sulfide (galena – the most common way lead is found in the earth) is a salt of lead, and therefore more soluble in the body than pure elemental lead, so would be of more potential concern when ingested.

        But the truly dangerous form of lead is lead oxide, aka lead sugar. That is the form most readily absorbed, and so most toxic to the body. It was once a very common whitening agent and is what made that paint chips a serious problem (and yes it does taste sweet – which explains why kids used to eat them so readily.)

        Elemental lead is the least soluble, and least reactive, so safest form.

        • nadnerbus

          I stand corrected.

      • Zebra Dun

        It’s still lead.
        It can react and will.
        It doesn’t matter whether it’s a bullet or just a ore one day it’s lead and it’s natural as H2O, they have a petition to ban this too ya know, Di Hydrogen Monoxide, it got 30,000 signatures once.

  • There are few things worse than biting into a delicious duck breast and tasting the savory juices of the animal… and then clamping down on a steel ball.
    Oh how I hate steel shot for anything.

    • Fruitbat44

      Which is worse than biting on a lead ball, why? Just curious.

      • Lead gives and is soft. Steel shot can send you to the dentist.

        • Frank

          And lead shot can send you to poison control center.

          • If you are ignorant enough to knowingly swallow it after having bitten down on it.

          • ThomasD

            If that were true then most waterfowl and big game hunters over the past three hundred years would have died an untimely death. It wasn’t too long ago we shot everything with pure lead ball and nothing else. Also many early jacketed bullets had problems with fragmentation.

            Swallowing a pellet of lead is not a good idea, but it is also not life threatening.

        • Fruitbat44

          Fair enough.
          Hmmm . . . I suppose running a magnet over the game beforehand isn’t really feasible. Probably not.

    • Grindstone50k

      Couldn’t a magnet help solve that problem?

      • I suppose, but I generally do not have a magnet powerful enough to yank tiny steel balls out of duck innards.

  • hoochbear

    My own experience is that: steel #6 may or may not approach lead #7 1/2 in overall lethality. But there’s no way steel #7 should ever be used on doves. I have seen way too many birds coast in to a thicket at 200 yards. And the most telling failure of steel #7 is when birds land near you, spurting blood from at least 2 to 3 different wounds & not near dead. Most pathetic & inhumane. And at all distances? LMAO. I’d rather shoot lead #9’s than any steel #7.
    As for ducks, a high brass #4 lead used to fill the bill for virtually any duck at reasonable range, ie 40 yards. Now we’re told that we need to keep shots inside 30 yards, use 2 sizes larger shot eg #2, blah blah blah. Is it any wonder that duck hunters have gone to humongous loads like 3 1/2 in magnum? You fill in the blank. ___.

  • HKGuns

    As a Dove hunter I will tell you this study is total BS and there is no way to account accurately for all of the variables involved. Using steel on Doves is flat out inhumane…I have wounded more Doves using steel than I dropped shooting lead. Oh, and no, you can’t scare Doves to death either.

    Lead is far and away better for humanely hunting Doves. Steel is so light it blows right through them and they don’t even realize they’re hit.

  • EvansBrigade

    ….this is basic physics….F=M x A….force equals mass times acceleration….when you lighten up the mass by going to steel you have to ramp up the acceleration….some of the new waterfowl loads attempt to do that by adding hotter powder….but this leads to chamber pressure issues….especially for those of us who like to shoot vintage guns.

  • noob

    Ha. A double-blind study that actually involves shooting from a blind. I see what you did there.

  • Southerner

    It appears the basis of this study revolves around the ability of the “average” dove hunter to actually hit doves in flight. Since most hunters are arguably not highly skilled in the art of wingshooting, it follows that such shooters will be most successful in placing a shot pattern on swift and erratic flying birds only at the short ranges where steel shot remains effective. Given the apparent conceptual foundation of this study, the lack of a discernible difference in in the number of birds bagged with lead or steel shot would be an understandable conclusion.