Steel Loads


Mr. Buck,

I enjoy reading your articles and I would like to hear more of your thoughts concerning steel shot performance. It seems from reading your articles that you are not a steel shot fan. Don’t get me wrong, I like lead, too. It’s great to reload, lots of fun components, it’s cheap and it works. Steel shot on the other hand cost more than lead, it’s not much fun for reloaders and the govt makes us use it! Anyway, I would like to hear from you concerning a few points of interest.

Doesn’t steel shot have some of the properties we are after in lead shot? It’s hard. It doesn’t deform. It has short shot strings. All resulting in more efficient patterns, right!

Yes, steel shot is lighter than lead but can’t the pellet weight difference be negated by adjusting to a larger shot size? I know, there are fewer pellets in any given load weight, but, here again, aren’t the patterns more efficient resulting in a higher percentage of available pellets in the working pattern? Wouldn’t the increase in efficiency make up for some of the reduction in the number of pellets in the load?

Before we get too far off track on efficiency and other scientific stuff, I am mostly talking about shooting ducks, relatively large targets. Don’t we need some idea of the minimum number of pellets in the pattern for the target size (ducks) and a minimum per pellet energy to penetrate vitals at the ranges we are shooting them in order to make some kind of sense from this stuff? The Choke Chooser tells us what choke to use to attain reliable pellet counts/pertentages on clay target applications, what about critters, any way to convert it to larger targets?

There’s a lot of hype in the shooting press and ammo company advertisements about Hyper-velocity ammo, particularly steel shot loads. Isn’t velocity, as it relates to spherical projectiles, a moot point once a certain threshold has been reached? Wouldn’t a 1,300 fps steel shot load be an appropriate velocity to supply adequate per pellet energy needs for duck shooting? Wouldn’t a 1 oz. load of #7s (430 pellets) at 1,200-1,250 fps be great for clay target practice, i.e., Win AA steel target load?

Other non-toxics may be better, maybe not, I don’t know. Does it really matter? The majority of hunters will not use them because of their price! Anyway, do they really provide an improvement in killing capabillity when it comes to most hunters? Most hunters, like myself, are just trying to put the pattern on the front end of the duck and if that is accomplished then the duck is dead, right! Of course, the duck is in range, there are enough pellets to ensure mulitple target hits, and the pellets have adequate energy to penetrate vitals! After all, isn’t that what we are after, clean kills.

Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I’ll eagerly await your responce.

Joe, OK

Dear Joe,

The basic problem with steel shot (actually iron) is that it is ballistically inferior to lead. It weighs less than lead and there is no way around that. The standard rule of thumb is that you have to go up two sizes in steel to equal lead. This is pretty accurate. #5 lead was a traditional duck pellet, so this would translate to #3 steel. When you work the numbers, #5 lead at 1250 fps has the same energy and time to target as #3 steel started at 1350 fps at 40 yards, though lead pulls slightly head as distance increases.

So, it really just becomes a question of pellet count. How many lead #5s at 1250 fps can your shell hold vs steel #3s at 1350 fps. 1-1/4 oz of lead #5s is about 213 pellets and there are plenty of loads that can push that load 1250 fps. Piece of cake. 1-1/2 oz lead loads at 1250 fps are also easy enough to achieve. That 1-1/2 oz lead load would have 256 lead #5s. There are also a number of 3″ lead magnum shells at 1-5/8 oz and over 1250 fps with 277 #5s.

On the steel side, Remington sells a 3″ 1-1/4 oz “Nitro Steel Magnum” load of #3s at 1375 fps. (Their 1-3/8 oz load does not meet our speed criteria of 1350 fps). 1-1/4 oz of steel #3s should count 194.

So, if you max out both 3″ shells with ballistically equivalent lead #5s at 1250 fps and steel #3s at 1350 fps, you get 277 pellets with lead and 194 with steel. That means that using lead you got 42% more equivalent pellets than when using steel. 42% more!!!

And don’t give me that stuff about steel patterning “better”. It doesn’t pattern any better than a high quality buffered lead load. Choke constrictions required may be different (though recent tests have shown many steel loads work best with traditional Full chokes), but the end result is about the same. And let’s just say that you think that steel does somehow pattern “better”. How much better? Is it enough better to make sup 42% more pellets? You gotta be kidding. It’s not even close.

Here’s a tasty analogy. If your max steel load magically puts 100% of it’s 194 #3s into the 30″ circle at 40 yards, a lead load of 277 #5s only has to put 70% in to equal it. If your Full choke runs a more realistic 75% pattern out of both steel and lead at 40 yards, your pellet count in with the steel #3s is the equivalent to using Improved Cylinder choke with the lead #5s. You want to use Imp Cyl on ducks at 40 yards? You think that will get you a clean kill?

I’m not saying you can’t kill ducks with steel. You sure can. I’m just saying that when shooting at normal ranges (out to 40 yards), you are going to have a much higher percentage of cripples and wounded ducks with steel than you will with lead when you max out equal loads. Has to be. Got to be.

And that children, is why steel sucks.

Best regards,

Bruce Buck
The Technoid writing for Shotgun Report, LLC
(Often in error. Never in doubt.)

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4 Responses to Steel Loads

  1. T.H. Milstead says:

    I mitigate this by using 2-3/4″ Hevishot in a Remington 1100 or Kent Tungsten Matrix. in a Perrazi MX 8. Strongly concur with picking your shots.

  2. jim rennie says:

    I agree with Bruce that steel shot is inferior. It takes a lot of patterning, choke tube changes and ammunition switching to get something that works. In addition, even though steel #3 has the same kinetic energy as lead #5, penetration tests in ballistic gel at 35 yards shows it isn’t the same, and #2 steel is required for the same penetration as lead #5. Of course, steel #2 has even fewer pellets in 1 1/4 oz. than #5 lead , which makes the pellet count problem worse. Ammo manufacturers push the high velocity loads with only 1 1/8 oz. shot, but the reality is that the extra velocity is almost gone at 35 yards, so you are better off with 1 1/4 oz. at 1400 to 1450 velocity.
    I find the only solution is to be selective with the shots you take at ducks, mostly within 30 yards, incoming birds or overhead birds, and pass on shots at ducks flying away from you. It’s the reality of using steel shot…….Jim Rennie.

  3. Steve Jacobs says:

    Bruce,
    Speaking of steel shot. Can I use steel in my 1970’s Zoli side by side ic or mod barrels without a problem? My club requires it because of a river behind the fields.
    Steve

    • Bruce Buck says:

      I don’t have a clue about using steel shot in a 45 year-old IC/Mod SxS. It is not recommended to use steel in ANY Belgian Browning from the ’30s to the ’80s, but some other makers have said that steel was OK in their guns if not choked over Mod. It is best that you contact Zoli directly…..

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