December 20, 2022
When talk of the switch from lead to steel shot for waterfowl hunting started stirring in the 1980s, we all knew what was coming. Well before steel shot was federally mandated in the 1991-’92 season, I’d been experimenting with it.
I bought bags of steel shot in various sizes, even the raw wads, and did my own reloading. The wads were one piece, no petals. I used wad splitters to create the petals and started analyzing petal numbers and the angles and depths of cuts to see how it impacted steel pellet flight. Mind you, back then, most of us used the same shotgun to hunt everything from honkers to ducks, quail to turkeys. Aftermarket chokes were unheard of in my little circle of high school hunting buddies.
Today, things have vastly changed. When it comes to selecting a shotgun shell to hunt waterfowl with, it’s a three part equation: The shell, the gun, and the choke.
While various metals have been used to create a more effective shot than steel, the eyes of many hunters were opened during the shotgun shell shortage of the recent Coronavirus pandemic. That’s when hunters grabbed what we could; two shot, five shot, steel, bismuth, blends, 3”, 2 3/4”, loads moving at 1,350 fps and others being spit out at 1,500 fps. If you were one of these hunters, you quickly learned that missing likely wasn’t due to your shooting ability, rather the constant switching of loads which moved at different speeds, thus altering your leads, not to mention the differences in patterns that came with it.
Steel, bismuth and tungsten are the three most used non-toxic pellet materials in today’s waterfowl hunting loads. I recently toured the HEVI-Shot factory near my home in Oregon and they laid it out very simply. They load steel that has a density of 7.8 g/cc, bismuth at 9.6 g/cc, and tungsten at 12 g/cc.
The denser a material, the greater its velocity will be, thus the more killing power it has at a longer distance. And because of the higher density, smaller pellets can be used which increases the chances of hitting the target. Also, smaller, more dense, pellets penetrate deeper than larger, less dense pellets. Broken down, this means when shooting heavy metals like bismuth and tungsten, you don’t need large pellets like BB for geese and 2 shot for ducks. Using HEVI-Shot’s tungsten loads, I’ve killed plenty of geese with 2 shot, even 4 shot, and number 4 tungsten shot is my go-to pick for most duck hunting, even divers.
Then there are blends, which HEVI-Shot is known for, and more manufacturers are creating. Some companies are blending different size steel, bismuth, along with steel and bismuth in the same loads. Late last season I shot some Boss 3” number 3 shot stacked over 5 shot. The copper plated bismuth mix killed big geese with impressive performance, even in their thick winter plumage.
Knowing the components of your pellet makeup is important in understanding what it’s capable of doing. HEVI-Shot’s pure tungsten shotgun shells aren’t cheap, but their level of performance puts them in a class of their own.
Blends of steel and bismuth, in varying percentages, offer hunters more choices. Bismuth is 22% more dense than steel, so hunters can use one size smaller than steel. What these blends achieve is a front end of smaller pellets with higher density, followed by larger, lighter steel coming out the barrel behind it. When swinging on birds this payload can increase the area of your shot string due to the rate of travel of two different materials.
I’ve shot lots of birds with all of HEVI-Shot’s steel and bismuth blends. My takeaway is the higher the percentage of bismuth loaded into a shell, the more birds I am hitting and killing. I’ve also been very impressed with the performance of Browning’s Wicked Blend in steel 2 shot with 4 bismuth on ducks and geese.
I’ve always had excellent success with Browning’s standard steel pellets for ducks and geese because the shot they use is round; at least that’s the reasoning I apply. I’ve experienced tight patterns and impressive penetration with it, even at extended ranges when finishing crippled birds.
To me, round shot just makes sense because of the physics behind it. In my mind and based on what I’ve seen, round shot travels in a more concentrated pattern for a longer distance as it flies through the air, and hits harder at longer distances, than odd-shaped shot. Then again, I’m a former science teacher–and athlete who threw spherical objects like footballs and javelins–and tend to overanalyze things, sometimes to a fault. But this fall I used Winchester’s new Blind Side 2 during multiple goose hunts in Canada. I was skeptical, but that quickly faded with my first round of shots, when three geese fell stone dead in the decoys.
Winchester’s improved Hex Steel Shot is still stacked, whereby maximizing pellet counts, and with it I killed many honkers, lessers, white-fronts and snow geese. It hits with authority, and post-mortem inspection revealed impressive penetration and tissue damage. It killed very well out to 45 yards. The load is not designed to be a long-range performer, rather a fast moving, penetrating option that’s ideal for busting big birds over decoys. I did finish off some crippled geese at nearly 60 yards with it, though, which caught my attention.
Then there are the wads. Ever since steel, bismuth, and tungsten became players in the world of shotgun shells, engineers have strived to create the perfect wad in order to maximize flight efficiency. Enter Federal’s Black Cloud. This load features 60% premium steel stacked on top of 40% of their FLITESTOPPER steel pellets. But in my experience, it’s Federal’s FLITECONTROL FLEX wad that makes the big difference. I first shot this wad in turkey loads, years ago, and it was a game changer. I’ve been shooting Black Cloud in a 20 gauge a lot this season, and have been extremity impressed with its performance on both ducks and geese.
Speaking of Federal, and HEVI-Shot, let’s bring big green, Remington, into the equation. HEVI-Shot started casting their own bismuth in 2019, and their sister companies, Remington and Federal, are now resourcing it to create their own loads of bismuth shotgun shells. I’m excited to see what these companies come up with in the very near future, especially if Federal uses their FLITECONTROL FLEX wad.
So, what does all this mean? All the metals, stacked loads, %s of one metal versus another, speed, ounces, and inches, and don’t forget, your gun and choke of choice? It’s simple, really. It means that in order to find the best performing shotgun shell load, you need to pattern test multiple loads.
What some of my buddies and I have done are pick up different brands, share, then shoot them. I’ll maybe grab three boxes of different brands, and they pick up other brands. Then we share shells and test each load, shooting and counting the number of pellets that smack a 30-inch circle on paper placed at 40-yards. Then we pick what we like and shoot birds; that’s the real test.
What you’ll see is that loads often shoot differently in different guns with different chokes. I’ve even seen loads pattern differently in identical models of the same shotgun, using the same chokes. You won’t know for sure until you test it.
With all the variables that impact the performance of a shotgun shell, patterning the load is essential. If you like using an extended full choke, it could restrict a payload more than a factory full choke. If you don’t like how a shell patterns with a full choke, try a modified choke. In some of the guns I shoot, steel and tungsten pattern better with a full choke, and bismuth patterns better with a modified choke.
To sum up my tour through the HEVI-Shot factory, they shared another way to think about shotgun shells. Steel satisfies hunters looking for a good option that is less expensive and is effective at close and medium distances. But a load that has both steel and bismuth is a better solution because a stacked load offers an increase to the shell’s overall lethal effective range while adding only a modest price increase. Bismuth is slightly more expensive than steel, but its performance is closer to that of lead, so a load of 100% bismuth could be an even better option for longer range effectiveness. Tungsten, on the other hand, comes with a larger price tag because it’s mined in very few places of the world, thus not easy to get, yet it’s the most effective at long distances compared to anything else due to its high density.
So, like I told my buddies, if you shoot and miss a lot, steel might be the best economical choice, but if you don’t miss much, tungsten could actually be the best bang for your buck…and there’s a lot of wiggle room between the two. Gone are the days of grabbing a box of BBs and going goose hunting, or some number 2 steel and chasing ducks. Today’s waterfowl hunter has choices, lots of them. With smaller, more dense shot offering a higher pellet count with increased penetration, it’s up to you to learn what shoots best in your gun, and what load is most lethal.