Shotgunning: Super fast loads

November 27, 2013

Fifteen years ago, I discovered my dove tallies quickly went up whenever I used Winchester Super Speed instead of slower target or promotional loads. At a speedy 1,350 feet per second, I didn't have to lead darting doves nearly as much, which enhanced (or compensated for, depending on perspective) my shotgunning skills. Birds bagged increased proportionally as velocity increased.

About 10 years ago, high-velocity turkey loads also came into vogue, although I never understood the need for speed when shooting at a small, unfeathered, mostly stationary target. To me, pellet density, not pellet speed, is the more important issue with turkeys, and as velocities increase, pellet counts usually decrease. Therein lies the rub of high-velocity loads: speed is often achieved at the cost of pattern density.

High-speed loads make much more sense for fast-flying waterfowl. However, velocity gains again often come at the expense of lower pellet counts. For instance, a typical 3 ½-inch, 12-gauge steel-shot load has a standard payload of 1 9/16 ounce at around 1,300 fps. When velocity jumps to 1,550 fps, payloads drop to 1 3/8 ounce, a decrease of 3/16 ounce, or around 23 No. 2 pellets. Similar decreases also occur in high-velocity 3-inch and 2 ¾-inch loads. I'm all for higher velocities and shortening lead, as long as patterns don't suffer too much. Thickly feathered fowl require multiple, deep-penetrating hits. While speed enhances penetration, there still must be enough pellets on target to get the job done. Creating loads that are both fast and effective requires a delicate balancing act between speed and pattern density.

Kent's Fasteel started the high-speed craze among waterfowl loads, pushing the velocity envelope over 1,500 fps. Winchester answered with Hi-Velocity Xpert, followed by Federal's Black Cloud Snow Goose, which broke the 1,600 fps barrier. These 3-inch 12-gauge BC loads catch up to speedy snows at a whopping 1,635 fps. However, the payload is reduced to only 1 1/8 ounce, fine for decoying birds, but a bit sparse for the typically tall shots high-flying snows often present. Kent's 1,625 fps Fasteel offering has a respectable 1 ¼ ounce payload, albeit in a 3 ½-inch shell.

More recently, Remington took high velocity to a whole new level with HyperSonic Steel. Its incredible 1,700 fps is the fastest factory shotgun load available. Remarkably, all 12-gauge offerings reportedly boast the same 1,700 fps velocity, regardless of payload and shell length, which ranges from 1 ¼ ounce and 1 1/8 ounce in 3-inch to 1 3/8 ounce in 3 ½-inch. Velocities are kept consistent and within safe parameters by the two-stage Xelerator wad. A small, powder-filled ignition chamber above the primer initially ignites upon firing and starts the payload moving forward within safe pressures. Then, the primary powder charge in the surrounding main chamber ignites and accelerates the payload up to 1,700 fps. Remington claims HyperSonic shortens lead by up to 11 percent, or around 8 inches at 40 yards.

Not wanting to be left out, this year Winchester introduced a high-velocity version of Blind Side that, at 1,675 fps, snaps at HyperSonic's heels. What was initially a mild-mannered, mid-range load of 1,400 fps has turned into an all-out speed demon. However, payloads of cube-shaped Hex Shot have been reduced from 1 3/8 ounce to only 1 1/8 ounce in 3-inch, and from 1 5/8 ounce to 1 3/8 ounce in 3 ½-inch.

Hevi-Shot's latest waterfowl load, Speed Ball, addresses the need for speed without compromising payloads. Initial 3-inch 12-gauge offerings have a respectable 1 ¼ ounce payload at 1,635 fps, while 3 ½-inch loads have a heavy 1 ½ ounce charge at 1,650 fps. The shot itself is a 50/50 blend of smaller, pattern-filling Hevi-Shot pellets layered above larger, thickly copper-coated steel pellets of comparable energy, all sitting atop the Speed Ball.

The Speed Ball is a round, cork-like ball placed inside the wad beneath the shot. Upon ignition, it protects and cushions the shot from setback forces, while also managing recoil and keeping chamber pressures within safe levels. The result is a super-fast load that, in theory, doesn't kick as bad as other high-speed varieties.

You see, besides reduced payloads, velocity also comes at another price: recoil. It makes sense, considering how Newton's Third Law of Motion reminds us that for every action there';s an equal and opposite reaction. The faster a load exits the gun, the harder it hits on the other end. While gas-operated autos aren't mandatory for high-speed loads, they're certainly recommended over pumps, doubles and recoil-operated guns. Your cheek and shoulder will thank you for it.

Speed Ball hasn't totally eliminated recoil, but Hevi-Shot is on the right track, although I'd still recommend a gas gun for maximum comfort. Last fall, Speed Ball accounted for a rare triple on Canadas, as I collected my limit of three honkers with as many shots, a feat accomplished, I believe, thanks in part to the minimal muzzle rise generated by Speed Ball in the soft-shooting Browning Maxus semi-auto I was using.

If 1,600 fps or 1,700 fps loads seem too hot, consider some milder options, like Rio's affordable 3 ½-inch Royal BlueSteel, which pushes a 1 3/8 ounce payload at a reasonable 1,540 fps, or Hevi-Shot's various Heavy-Metal offerings at 1,500 fps. For example, at 1,500 fps, Hevi-Metal High Speed is one of the fastest 10-gauge loads available, yet has a decent 1 ½-ounce payload. Talk about recoil management. High-velocity kickback becomes barely perceptible within the confines of a heavy, 10-gauge semi-auto cannon.

Patterning high-velocity loads also can be tricky. Kent discovered pattern quality and consistency deteriorated when speeds exceeded 1,625 fps. Other companies have employed methods of graduating acceleration (the aforementioned Xelerator wad and Speed Ball) to maintain safe chamber pressures, protect the shot column, and keep patterns from being blown. Care also should be taken not to overchoke high-speed loads. For example, Carlson's recommends loads faster than 1,550 fps not be used in their tightest, long-range waterfowl chokes. Although I've used tight chokes, results were mixed. For extremely fast non-toxics, modified is a safe bet, and probably nothing tighter than improved modified. The IM Browning Goose Band choke I used on that honker trio performed quite well with Speed Ball. With IM, you'll get a bit more distance and pattern density out of the lighter payloads without overconstricting and blowing patterns.

Whether perceived or real, the need for speed seems here to stay. Because most of us miss ducks from behind, a velocity boost that shortens lead certainly can't hurt. Just remember: speed comes at a price, in the form of reduced payloads and increased recoil. Manage those two factors by using moderate choke constriction and soft-shooting semi-autos, and high-velocity loads can quickly become an ally.