Fact or Fiction: Steel vs. Lead Shot

steel_vs_lead_shot_FWaterfowl hunters generally use a slightly wider choke to achieve similar pattern performance as lead shot. Is this truly sound advice, and does steel shot really pattern tighter than lead?

When lead shot was first banned for waterfowl hunting on a national scale in 1991, manufacturers scrambled to provide a non-toxic shot with ballistics comparable to lead. The results — as hunters who experienced this transition might attest — sometimes fell short of that mark. Steel remains the most common non-toxic shot, but hunters still complain about its performance, as well as crippled birds and missed opportunities.

So what gives? For starters, steel is both lighter and harder than lead. What this means is that the softer lead, while flying faster than steel because of its heavier weight, may have a tendency to deform in the barrel, resulting in wider patterns with more variation. Steel, though lighter and traveling slower, is believed to hold its shape better in the barrel and produce tighter patterns.

While this was certainly true in the early days of steel shot, I wondered how manufacturers today are adjusting non-toxic loads to achieve greater performance. Would commonly available steel shotshells still pattern noticeably tighter than similarly sized lead shells?

steel_vs_lead_shotTo test the performance of lead and steel shot, I conducted a simple pattern test similar to those performed when evaluating shotguns at Shotgun News. Shooting was done offhand with a Benelli M2 12-gauge shotgun and took place at a standard distance of 40 yards.

The loads included two varieties of lead and two varieties of steel. Due to their popularity among waterfowlers hunting small- to medium-sized ducks, all of the shells tested were No. 4 shot.

The two lead loads tested were Federal Premium's Wing-Shok High Velocity and Federal Premium's Prairie Storm. The Wing-Shok is an upland game load that fires copper-plated lead shot at a velocity of 1500 feet per second (fps), and for testing I chose the 2 ¾-inch Wing-Shok with a 1 1/8-ounce shot weight. The Prairie Storm is also an upland game load, but it contains both copper-plated lead and Federal's Flitestopper nickel-plated lead shot, has a slower velocity of 1350 fps and features Federal's unique Flitecontrol wad. I chose to test the three-inch offering with a shot weight of 1 5/8 ounces, the heaviest out of all loads tested.

The steel loads tested were Kent's Fasteel and Federal Premium's Black Cloud. The Fasteel, as its name suggests, is a high velocity steel load for waterfowlers, and the shells used for testing were 2 ¾ inches in length, had an advertised velocity of 1550 fps and a shot weight of 1 1/16 ounces, the lightest of all shells tested. The Black Cloud loads, which fire both regular steel pellets and Federal's Flitestopper steel shot and utilize the Flitecontrol wad, had a three-inch length and a 1 1/4 — ounce shot weight.

Prairie-StormPrior to testing, I cut open three shells from each box to determine an average number of pellets for each load. Predictably, the two 2 ¾-inch loads held the fewest pellets, with Federal's Wing Shok holding 159 pellets and Kent's Fasteel holding 202 pellets on average. The Black Cloud loads contained on average 217 pellets, while the Prairie Storm loads had the highest average at 238 pellets.

During the testing process, I fired 10 shells from each box — five through an improved cylinder (IC) choke and five through a Modified choke — for a total of 40 shots. Both IC and Modified chokes are commonly used for hunting and therefore logical choices to test performance. Many manufacturers also recommend against using Full chokes with steel shot, another reason why I chose the IC and Modified chokes.

To determine how tightly each shell patterned, I drew a 30-inch diameter circle around the impact point for each shot fired and then counted the number of hits within the circle. After this, I divided the number of pellets striking inside the circle by the average number of pellets found within each shell to determine the pattern percentage.

The Federal Premium Wing-Shok shell performed as expected of a lead shotshell, delivering just over 40 percent of the pellets inside the 30-inch circle on average when using IC. With a Modified choke, the Wing-Shok did a bit better, registering close to 60 percent of pellets in the circle on average.

In line with the general consensus of waterfowl hunters, the Kent Fasteel and Federal Black Cloud produced tighter patterns than the Wing-Shok with both IC and Modified chokes. The Fasteel yielded a pattern percentage of about 61 percent with IC and 71 percent with Modified, while Black Cloud shells generated on average a pattern percentage of 60 percent with IC and 68 percent with Modified.

Typically, a Modified choke paired with lead shot will yield a pattern percentage somewhere between 55 and 60 percent, while a Full choke will yield 70 percent or higher. Since both the Fasteel and Black Cloud shells averaged around 60 percent with IC and 70 percent with Modified, this suggests that the practice of using a slightly wider choke with steel shot is likely a wise one.

The only real surprise during testing was the performance of Federal's Prairie Storm. Interestingly, the Prairie Storm shells produced pattern percentages on par with those of the two steel shells, generating about 68 percent for both IC and Modified chokes.

I have some thoughts about why this, and they mostly center on the shell's design. As with the Black Cloud loads, Prairie Storm utilizes Federal's special, rear-braking Flitecontrol wad, which doesn't open up immediately like conventional wads but instead features a set of flaps that create drag once the wad leaves the barrel. The flaps gradually pull the wad away from the shot, which Federal suggests results in a tighter and more consistent pattern downrange.

The Praire Storm shells are also buffered, meaning that a granulated material has been placed within the shotshell. This material, with its sand-like texture, absorbs impacts and protects shot (especially soft shot such as lead) from deforming in the barrel and choke. This allows the pellets to retain their round shape and maintain a better trajectory.

Federal's Prairie Storm loads illustrate that lead shot can certainly be made to pattern tighter, but this test is concerned with whether steel shot can achieve the same performance as lead shot, not the other way around. That being said, the Prairie Storm presents an interesting opportunity to upland game hunters. With its tight patterning performance, it seems capable of putting a high number of pellets on birds, especially as distances stretch and other, quicker-spreading loads become less effective.

With the exception of Prairie Storm, results from testing show that steel does, in fact, pattern tighter than lead. Steel shot fired through an IC choke results in a pattern similar to that produced from lead shot fired through a Modified choke, and steel shot fired through a Modified choke yields a pattern akin to lead shot fired through a Full choke. For waterfowl hunters hitting the blind or wingshooters hunting on refuges or in states where only steel shot is permitted, choke choice should certainly reflect this phenomenon.

Comparison of spread patterns at 40 yards with various steel and lead loads through an Improved Cylinder Choke. (Click to Enlarge)

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