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Premium steel shotgun ammo for duck hunters

Although premium non-toxics have commanded the bulk of waterfowl ammo attention in recent years, regular old steel has quietly continued bagging ducks and geese. While premium non-toxics are highly effective, steel remains the shot type of choice for most waterfowlers.

The reason is simple economics. Most premium non-toxics are tungsten based, and tungsten costs considerably more than iron. Although tungsten might be more effective than steel, in today’s economy, many hunters just can’t afford ammo costing $2 or $3 per round. So they opt for the more affordable mainstay — steel.

Ammo manufacturers have noted steel’s continued popularity, as reflected by recent waterfowl load introductions, all of which are steel-based. However, steel tends to either zip through birds (over-penetration) or get caught up in feathers (under-penetration), because it’s light and fast and it loses energy quickly. That’s why larger shot sizes and higher velocities often are used to maintain lethality, both of which come at the price of decreased pattern density.

Manufacturers have taken a couple very different approaches in their attempts to make steel shot more effective. One solution is to use odd-shaped shot that causes larger wound channels and massive blunt-force trauma, such as Federal Black Cloud’s sharply banded FLITESTOPPER steel pellets.

Although Black Cloud was the first commercially successful odd-shaped load, the concept isn’t entirely new. A few years ago, Polywad’s Jay Menefee developed an odd-shaped steel shot he called Squounds, because its shape was neither square nor round. Later, it was dubbed Aerosteel by Pinnacle Ammunition, which was set to load the shot commercially before suddenly going out of business. I’ve tested both Squounds and Aerosteel and was impressed by both. Ducks dropped stone-cold dead.

The second approach is to take regular round steel and make it better, whether through zinc plating or increased velocity. Remington did this with HyperSonic steel, which took high velocity to a new level. At 1,700 feet per second, it’s the fastest commercially loaded shotshell ever.

Winchester Blind Side

Winchester went the odd-shaped shot route with last year’s introduction of Blind Side steel. Loaded 100 percent with six-sided Hex pellets that look like tiny dice with rounded corners, this cube shot is designed to cause maximum impact trauma for cleaner kills. Blind Side folded ducks with authority last fall.

The square shape also allows the shot to be stacked inside the hull. Winchester calls this “packing density.” Indeed, if you cut open a shell, the Hex shot is neatly stacked inside the Diamond Cut wad designed to efficiently deliver the shot downrange. The result is more pellets per shell, resulting in denser patterns. Three-inch, 12-gauge magnums have 1 3/8 ounce charges, while 3 ½-inch super magnums are stuffed with massive 1 5/8 ounce payloads. For 2012, 2 ¾-inch 12-gauge (1 ¼ ounce) and 3-inch 20-gauge (1 1/16 ounce) loads have been added. Initial shot sizes were No. 2s and BBs, joined by 1s and 3s in 3 ½-inch this year, and 1s, 3s and 5s in 3-inch. No. 2s and 5s are available in 2 ¾-inch 12-gauge and 3-inch 20-gauge. Velocities are a reasonable 1,400 fps in 12-gauge and 1,300 fps for 20-gauge.

Kent Silver Steel

Kent Cartridge opted for the second approach, taking something that was already working and making it even better. Kent’s no stranger to high velocity steel, igniting the hyper-velocity craze several years ago with its Fasteel line. Last year, Kent took regular round Fasteel shot, plated it for better corrosion-resistance and penetration, threw in some improved, custom-blended powders, and the result was Silver Steel.

This premium steel load smacked ducks hard last season. Initially available in 3-inch and 3 ½-inch 12-gauge, with respective 1 ¼-ounce and 1 ½-ounce payloads of 2s or BBs, this year No. 1s were added to the 3-inch variant. Like Blind Side, velocities are adequate but not punishing — 1,450 fps in 3 ½-inch and 1,480 fps in 3-inch.

Hevi-Metal

Hevi-Shot took a middle-of-the-road approach to the steel-shot conundrum. While Hevi-Shot is extremely effective, its tungsten composition also makes it extremely expensive. Hevi-Shot’s response was Hevi-Metal, a hybrid load featuring a 50/50 mixture of regular round steel shot and tungsten Hevi-Shot pellets. Hevi-Metal combines Hevi-Shot lethality with inexpensive steel-shot filler to maintain dense patterns.

The process through which Hevi-Shot is created often results in shot that is misshapen, not round. Hevi-Metal again combines the best of both worlds — premium round steel shot for pattern density, and odd-shaped Hevi-Shot for maximum wound channel trauma — a true hybrid load.

Hevi-Metal is available in 10-, 12- and 20-gauge in a variety of shot sizes. Listed shot size is based on the measurement of the steel-shot content. Hevi-Shot pellets tend to run three sizes smaller than their steel counterparts, but have correspondingly similar downrange energies and penetration. For example, Hevi-Metal 2s combine steel 2s with Hevi-Shot 5s. Hevi-Metal has proven lethal on everything from tiny teal to large Canadas and is my go-to load for high-flying snows. It’s a great choice for waterfowlers on a budget desiring Hevi-Shot performance at steel-shot prices.

The Price Of Performance

All three of these premium steel offerings — cube-shaped Blind Side, round Silver Steel and hybrid Hevi-Metal — fall within the same price range, averaging around $22 to $25 per box of 25 rounds, give or take a couple dollars depending on retailer and shell length. That might be more than traditional steel offerings, but premium steel costs much less than other premium non-toxics (most sold only in 10-round packs). Premium steel nicely splits the difference between bargain steel and expensive, high-end non-toxics. Are they worth the money? Pick up a box or two this season and see for yourself. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Choking Premium Steel

After purchasing a box or two of premium steel, the next question you’ll face is which choke works best with these new loads. The same waterfowl choke used for shooting other non-toxics will work just fine, but here are some aftermarket options I’ve found work particularly well with premium steel. Although I used full chokes in most instances, other constrictions are available.

When shooting Blind Side at ducks last fall, I used a Carlson’s long-range Black Cloud choke. This year, Carlson’s offers Blind Side-specific tubes designed for shooting Hex shot. (www.choketube.com, 785-626-3700)

While it’s intended for Black Cloud, Kick’s Vortex choke performs equally well with Kent Silver Steel, in my experience. I used a full tube, and ducks fell. (www.kicks-ind.com, 800-587-2779)

Hevi-Metal BBBs and a Hevi-Shot choke: that’s my recipe for disaster when gunning snows and Canadas. Most memorable was a big blue that came whistling down from the heavens in a free-fall, hitting the ground nearby with a resounding thud. (www.hevishot.com, 541-367-3522)

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