The Truth About Steel Shotshells For Waterfowl Hunting

Are your steel shotshells getting the job done for you? Do you need to check out tungsten or bismuth? Successful hunters have these questions down to a science.

November 2009 was a good month for ducks -- if you were in the middle of a certain South Dakota heartland and a flooded cornfield.

You can get good velocities and downrange energy with steel shot. Make sure you bring a few brands and chokes to the range before your hunt. You never know what the right combination will be. Photo by L.P. Brezny.

Tyson Keller, of Avery Outdoors, pro-staff hunter Martin Husby and I were hip deep in flooded corn as the first trio of early morning mallards cut low and slow over the corn and straight into three waiting shotguns.

With loads based on a very simple Kent Game Bore 3-inch, No. 5 steel shot payload, ducks were dropping as if they had been hit by No. 2's in 3 1/2-inch shells.

Why is that important? Steel shot has turned the corner in terms of performance, and the loads being taking afield today are not your granddad's, or even your dad's shotshells.

At one time the only way to make up the loss of lead's weight was to turn to very expensive tungsten- or bismuth-based shot. Today, thanks to advanced propellants, wads, and the shot itself, modern shells are producing very positive results downrange.

These new powders tend to keep pressure low at the chamber and spread out the "burn" event down the gun barrel. This makes for more velocity per an individual load, and also better patterns as well. Loads like Federal's new Black Cloud, and now special ultra-high-velocity Snow Goose recently tested by the Avery team, indicate that steel shot can move at 1,650 feet per second and cut forward allowance on a fast-moving target by several feet.

Federal, with their development of the FliteControl wad, has revolutionized payload containment systems. And Remington has also come forward with a new wad system and a load reportedly moving out of a 12-ga. barrel at a hot 1,700 fps with steel shot. While I have not tested this new system yet, I can't wait to send this shotshell down range into a block of ballistic gelatin and onto a pattern board.

Just to give you a good idea of what I'm talking about, recently an informal poll of pro staff and other professional waterfowl hunters was taken by a waterfowl products company. Here are the results gathered from the 110 participants:

  • Gauge type: 72 percent said 12 gauge.
  • Load size: 60 percent said 1 1/4-ounce steel.
  • Shot size: 48 percent BB's; 36 percent No. 2 steel.
  • Common shooting range: 68 percent 30 yards or under. Maximum range indicated, 40 plus.
  • What type of shot material is most preferred: 100 shooters used steel shot. 10 shooters tungsten iron or other designer types of shot.

What this poll indicates is that since professionals shoot steel almost all the time, it would behoove you to familiarize yourself with the capabilities of steel shot and make your own selection accordingly. Remember, the pros need results to stay in business. No grip-and-grin shots in photos means less product going to the hunting market down the road.

What about those "designer" loads?

I call any higher-priced special materials shotshell a designer load because these are opulent systems for taking waterfowl. When a shotshell hits $3 or more each, it's a New York-style, Madison Avenue designer product pure and simple.

However, when the best is required, as in hunting fur, like coyotes, or specialized work on targets like swan or crane in pass-shooting situations, turning to tungsten iron shot, or bismuth shot is possibly a good idea. These materials increase pellet energy on target, and shoot fast and flat in the process. Yes, these are the best of the best, but with good decoying, solid calling, and birds inside 50 yards there are a pile of steel shot loads that will get the job done at 1/8th the price.

Lately, companies like EnviornMetal Inc. have been working with steel and tungsten blends under the name Hevi-Metal and Hevi-Steel to cut back on the price per shotshell a great deal. These loads are very good when used correctly. Don't try and push them up at space stations in the field. Keep your range realistic. If you do this, yes, the blended high-priced product and common iron shot will do a good job for the hunter.

I would be remiss if I didn't include some mention of the massive advancement in shotgun choke design taking place right now. Steel, tungsten, or even lead shot; the development in state-of-the-art chokes today is aiding in getting much better downrange performance from everything that comes out of a shotgun barrel.

If you want to shoot tungsten shot, buy a tungsten shot choke from Hevi-Shot. If you're searching for a high-end payload control system, check out Pattern Master and some of the new upcoming designs in advanced chokes, or research the folks at Angleport, Briley, and about 30 others. Limitless is the word when best describing the many ways you can work toward the perfect pattern nowadays.

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