Steel Shot, is Bigger-Better?

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November 8, 2016
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I am often asked about 3” or 3.5” shells and exactly what I shoot.  I tell the same story every single time.  Let’s start with some history about the 3.5” shell shall we.  It was introduced in 1988 by Federal Ammunition to be shot with the Mossberg 3.5” Magnum shotgun.

The ban on lead shot took place in 1991 and the first steel loads were absolutely horrible.

So, manufacturers decided to come out with bigger shells with more shot to offset the difference between steel and lead.  Great idea!!  Said no one ever.

Now, let’s talk some ballistics and numbers for a moment.  A typical 3” steel load contains 1 ¼ ounces of shot, while a typical 3.5” load contains 1 9/16 ounces of shot.  That difference roughly equates to 20 more BB’s and 35 more #2’s.  So on paper it seems like a no brainer, more pellets on target= more dead birds?  Right!?!?!  It’s not that simple.

The 3.5” has quite a few disadvantages.

  • Recoil- If you have shot 3.5” shells for any amount of time, you know they kick a lot harder than their 3” cousins and make follow up shots more difficult.
  • Slower Cycling- It is a simple matter of distance. The bolt must travel rearward over half of an inch further during the ejection sequence, and then that same half inch forward to return to the receiver.
  • More Jams- This piggy backs on the above longer cycle. If your gun isn’t clean and well oiled, you are more likely to have jams and stove pipe issues with the longer 3.5” shells.

Ok, I said all that to say this, if you don’t pattern your shotgun with the loads you are going to be hunting with, you are completely clueless as to the point of impact and pattern quality.  Shooting more pellets out there in the wrong place helps nothing and will lead to more crippled birds.

I shoot 3” shells 100% of the time.  It doesn’t matter if I am goose hunting in a field or hunting flooded timber.  I can change my chokes to get the desired range of my average shot.  I typically shoot Hevi-Metal.  I like that it has half Hevi shot and half Hevi steel.  Hevi Shot is more dense than lead and gives me a more dense and lethal pattern than steel alone.  The 3” 1 ¼ oz #2’s I typically shoot are 1500 FPS and $209 a case.  However, they have rebates every year and after the $50 rebate with no tax or shipping they are $169 per case.  Not a bad price at all for what you are getting.

Now, let’s talk about density.  Can I throw a fistful of popcorn or handful of rocks further?  How about a baseball or wiffle ball?  When any of these objects leave your hand, they are traveling at the same speed, but the more dense an object is, the easier it is to maintain it’s speed at longer distances.  The super fast shells are often the least dense (popcorn/wiffle ball) and the slower shells are the more dense (rock/baseball).

We often say we want the best shell to do the job and cleanly kill birds.  But typically the “best” and the cheapest don’t come in the same box.  Sadly enough, most waterfowlers reach for the cheapest case of shells on the isle and then brag about saving $1 a box.  Trying to be frugal here in a sport that 99% of us aren’t hunting to survive just doesn’t make much sense.  We will spend thousands of dollars on boats, guns, waders, leases, gas, licenses and the list goes on.  But we will scrimp on the main ingredient to bring the birds out of the air?

There are no free lunches when it comes to steel shot.  Shells that lose terminal velocity rapidly and fail to penetrate will cripple birds and will force you to take a 2nd and 3rd shot to kill the bird.  While a superior shell would have killed the bird cleanly on the 1st shot.  So you will shoot more of the cheaper shells and think you are saving money.

People are often tricked by glittering advertisements stating “speed kills” and “drops ducks like rain”.  These ads are normally based on a version of physics that is only applicable in outer space.

Shot placement and having birds inside your effective range are the key ingredients to killing more birds.  But, if you haven’t patterned your gun, you really are just guessing as to what your spread really is.  Ducks and Geese don’t care how fast your shot is when you miss them.

I will finish up with a story I heard at a Bass Pro Shops Migration event.  A gentleman told me of his favorite 3.5” steel shot load and how it killed a crippled pintail swimming in a rice field stone dead at 70 yards!! I asked him was it the same shell that brought the bird out of the air?  He replied yes it was.  He also told me he hit the bird on his 1st shot in the air and shot it 2 more times on the way down.  But somehow he was missing the point that this “magic wondershell” failed to bring the bird down cleanly the first 3 shots in the air.  Any shell can have that 1 lucky pellet that hits a bird in the head or neck and kills them at 70 yards.  So keep it in perspective from a realistic standpoint.

I know not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think the BIGGER is BETTER when it comes to steel shot is asinine.

I will be going over the “non round” steel shot later on.  G’ Luck!!

Story by Shane Smith

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