Correction On Steel


I’m a longtime listener, first time caller. I just finished reading your discussion of steel shot, and while I agree that it is ballistically inferior to lead, I vehemently disagree that it “sucks”.

After taking thousands of waterfowl over the past 20 years since steel shot was mandated in my area, I have come to have quite a bit of “seat-of-the-pants” experience in taking all types of waterfowl and even upland birds with it. Early steel loads were pretty marginal, but with the continual improvement in steel-shot techology there is much improvement in the killing ability of modern steel shot, particularly at velocities over 1400fps. So your comparison of modestly charged loads of steel shot with our old-faithful lead loads is lacking the latest improvements in steel shot technology.

There seems to be a dramatic increase in the terminal effects when steel shot is pushed faster than 1400fps. It could be a hydraulic effect, or a more efficient energy-transfer effect (similar to the energy transfer with lead due to leads’ maleability), when the individual pellets are pushed past the 1400fps threshold. I obviously understand that steel shot is not maleable under these circumstances, but there seems to be a very marked increase in energy transfer that approximates the same outcome obtained from lead shot. Regardless, there is a definite and observable increase in lethality with the faster steel loads.

Your diatribe on steel shot only focused on pellet size & counts and patterning. Although this is important regardless of the pellet material, the fact is that steel shot pellet counts can be adjusted to approximate the lead loads you mentioned by going to larger shotshells. The 3.5inch 12ga has really given serious waterfowlers the option of selecting loads that can carry similar pellet count to their old lead loads, so there is no longer a pellet count discrepancy to worry about. And the 3.5inch shell can offer good pellet counts and still drive the pellets above the magic 1400fps threshold.

Granted, on a similar-load/shell-length basis, steel does not offer the same advantages as lead, but as I’ve pointed out, everything can be accomodated by going to a larger shell that will hold more pellets and allow them to be driven at a higher velocity. When you accomplish these two objectives, steel really does perform similarly to lead.

What most surprises me, and somewhat perturbs me, about your discussion on steel shot, is that you end your retort with “it sucks”. Well, it does not “suck”, and I am disappointed that you would tarnish your reputation (at least in my eyes), by continuing to dredge up the same old hackneyed complaints about steel when you obviously haven’t kept pace with the latest steel shot developments.

Regardless of whether you agree with the Feds mandating of non-toxics to prevent lead poisioning, the fact is that steel is really quite good when utilized in the correct way, and you aren’t doing any good by adding fuel to the fire for a lot of dissenters that still resent the mandate towards steel. The shooting/hunting fraternity, and especially the younger members of such, doesn’t need to hear from the Technoid that steel “sucks”, especially when that’s really not the case with todays steel loads.

You have far more experience and expertise with most other aspects of shotgunning that I do, and that’s why I like to read your forum, but I’ve got to say I feel confident that I outrank you when it comes to waterfowling, and especially as it pertains to steel shot. No-one can be expected to have the most expertise and experience with every aspect of the sport, and when I know that don’t, I refrain from saying anything “sucks”, and that would be a good idea for you to follow, as well.

“Sometimes in error, but never says “Sucks”

Dear Bret,

Well, there it is. You’re right. I’m wrong. Due to the new shells, steel doesn’t suck as much as it used to. I should have pointed that out. I always try to base my comments on personal experience and in this case my personal experience is somewhat out of date. I still don’t like steel for other reasons that I’ll mention, but you are right when you note that the new 3-1/2″ 1450 fps Roman candle load does put new steel on a par with old lead. I should have concentrated on that shell length, rather than making the comparison with normal shell lengths.

Like millions of other waterfowlers, years ago I was unhappy when I was forced to make the conversion from lead to steel. I watched bird after bird that seemed hard hit fly away, while the closer birds were reduced to tatters. I was forced to switch from shooting nice guns in the blind to dealing with heavy-barreled ones that were purchased solely because they could withstand steel, not for any sense of balance or handling qualities.

While I have no doubt at all that you far outrank me in the duck blind, I do have the opportunity to shoot a fair number of ducks with both steel and lead even today. For the past couple of years I’ve gone duck hunting in Entre Rios Provence in Argentina where lead shot is legal and limits are exceedingly generous. I also gun at shoot-to-retrive trials where we use live ducks and must use steel on them. I would never compare shooting at retriever trials to real waterfowling, but you do get to see what happens to an awful lot of birds that get hit with the steel loads the retriever association supplies it’s guns. My only steel-proof gun is a 2-3/4″ Beretta 303, so I never got into 3-1/2″ steel shells or even 3″. Compared to the lead I used recently in Argentina, the steel shot loads I was using simply couldn’t compare. When I really go duck hunting in the US, I use Federal’s Tungsten Polymer which performs identically to lead in my 2-3/4″ guns and is extremely satisfactory.

And that’s where I made my mistake. The steel loads I used were mostly 2-3/4″ 1-1/8 oz #4s. I didn’t own a 3-1/2″ gun and didn’t even think about trying 3-1/2″ shells. Well, it just shows you. If you don’t keep up, you fall behind. After receiving your well reasoned email, I did a little research, ran some numbers through Lowry’s ballistics computer program and spent some extra time rooting around the ballistic web sites. I learned that the Federal (and the others) new steel 3-1/2″ 12 gauge load will launch 1 3/8 oz of steel shot at an advertised 1450 fps. This load gives you 172 #2 pellets, each pellet having 4.16 ft/lb of energy at 40 yards. That’s every bit the equivalent of the old lead duck killing 2-3/4″ load of 1-1/4 oz of #4s (169 count) at 1330 fps giving 4.17 ft/lb at 40 yards. It’s also about equal to the 3″ 1-3/8 oz (186 count) #4 Tungsten Polymer/Matrix loads at 1330 fps giving 3.74 ft/lb at 40 yards.

I still resent steel for forcing me to buy a special 3-1/2″ gun just to make it the equal of a standard lead load, but you are right when you say that the new 3-1/2″ shell puts it on the same footing as lead. My biggest complaint about the 3-1/2″ guns I’ve seen so far has been that they don’t function properly with standard target loads. I’m a big believer in practicing on clays with my hunting guns in the off season and would really rather not practice with magnum shells just to make the gun work. Though I haven’t shot one yet, perhaps the new 3-1/2″ Beretta Xtrema may be able to deal with a broader range of shells than the efforts from Browning, Benelli and Remington. We’ll see.

On the other side, since the 3-1/2″ steel costs just about half of what the 2-3/4″ Tungsten Polymer loads run, there may be a bit less pain in buying a gun just for that 3-1/2″ shell.

Bottom line: Steel no longer sucks, but it does force you to go out and buy a new gun.

Best regards,

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

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4 Responses to Correction On Steel

  1. Bart says:

    I love to read The Shotgun Report Bruce and have great respect for your opinion except as it applies to your recent column on steel shot. I suggest you check in on the work of Tom Roster.


  2. jim rennie says:

    Steel shot still sucks ! But we can live with it by picking our best shot opportunities, less than 35 yards for #2 steel. Going to a 3.5 inch shell in a special gun designed for it and enduring the recoil equivalent to an elephant gun is ridiculous. I want to use the same gun I use for pheasants when I hunt ducks, so I use 3 inch shells, 1 1/4 oz of #2 steel at 1400 fps, and respect the limitations of the steel load……Jim.


  3. jon bastable says:

    I thought his comments were a bit over the top, even if factual…how many of us can tolerate a 3-1/2″ shell??


  4. Del says:

    If steel forces you to go out and buy a new gun I have one comment … Perfect! Also – I think there are a lot of readers who would like to see your review of the Beretta Xtrema and maybe even compare it to the Rem VersaMax.


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