Shotgun Shells – 2 ¾” – 3” – 3 ½” – Analysis

Many times, in many hunting forums, especially ones that deal with duck hunting, there seems to be a controversy regarding they type of shells used. And, not so much by brand, or even shot size (although you will get strong opinions on that too), but it is the length of the shell more then anything.

Since the advent of the requirement of non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting many people who used to use 2 ¾” shells for duck hunting in the “good old days”, when we could use lead shot, have had to reanalyze their choices when it comes to non-toxic. Although there are some substitutes, such as Bismuth or Tungsten that come closer to lead shot in performance, due to their high prices most hunters in the marsh opt to use steel shot so I will concentrate on steel shot vs. lead shot in this analysis.

It has been said that you have to go up two sizes in steel shot to get near the performance of lead shot. The main reason for this is due to steel’s lighter weight per pellet. I won’t go through all the shot sizes but in this short article I’ll concentrate on a old time (lead days) favorite load 1 3/8 ounces of #5 shot in a 2 ¾ inch shell.

First we must compare the shot its self. #5 lead shot is 0.12 inches in diameter. Since we measure the weight of shot in grains we have to do a little math. One ounce equals 437.5 grains. In an ounce of #5 lead shot there are 170 pellets. If you divide 437.5 grains by 170 pellets you find that each pellet is 2.58 grains. If you do the math for #5 steel you’ll find that weighs 1.80 grains, only 70% of the weight of #5 lead.

Since, by conventional wisdom, you must go up two shot sizes to achieve near the same performance when going from lead to steel then we need to compare #3 steel shot. #3 steel shot is 0.14 inches in diameter. There are 158 pellets in an ounce of #3 steel shot. If you divide 437.5 grains by 158 pellets you find that each pellet is 2.76 grains.

Weight is what carries velocity. If you have lead and steel shot of the same size the lead will carry its velocity further as it weighs more then the steel of equal size. It is, for an exaggerated comparison, like throwing a rock vs. throwing a foam packing peanut of the same size. You know which is going to carry further.

Now, this is not to say we’re trying to stretch our shotgun’s range and become skybusters, what we’re trying to do is get near same performance out of steel shot as we used to enjoy from lead shot.

Now we need to look at shell capacity. You can stuff the same number of the same sized shot into the same sized shell but you’re not going to get the same weight. A load of 1 3/8 ounce of lead, about the most you can get in a 2 ¾ inch shell, will yield you 234 pellets of #5 lead to send downrange. Putting 234 pellets of #5 steel in the same shell will give you just less then an ounce of shot, there being 243 pellets of #5 steel in an ounce, so you’d actually be 9 pellets short of a full ounce of steel shot.

To get the same weight of steel shot in a shell you would have to put 334 pellets into the shell, 100 more then with lead shot. This takes a 3 ½ inch shell to achieve. For example, the offerings in Federal Speed Shok Steel Waterfowl ammo are the following, 2 ¾ inch – 1 1/8 ounce, 3 inch – 1 1/8 and 1 ¼ ounce and 3 ½ inch – 1 3/8 and 1 ½ ounce.

So, now that we know how much shot, weight wise, we can get in each length of shell, how do we figure which to use to get comparable performance to lead? We have to go back to the physical numbers again, since we’re going up two shot sizes to get the same velocity performance, or killing power, out of each individual pellet.

#5 lead 1 3/8 ounce (which, as a reminder, will fit in an 2 ¾ inch shell) contains 234 pellets. Since we now know that we need to go up two sizes in shot size to get the same velocity or killing power out of each individual pellet then we need to figure out how to send about the same number of larger shot out to meet your bird. 1 ½ ounces of #3 steel equals 237 pellets, just 3 more pellets then our #5 lead 1 3/8 ounce load.

Now, another aspect of steel vs. lead is that with lead loads the shot is relatively soft in comparison to your steel gun barrel. This always means that some of the shot would be flattened and deformed as it made its way through the barrel and choke. This always resulted in “flyers”, shot that would go slightly off course due to no longer being round in shape. With steel you don’t have this problem. The steel shot is approximately 3 times harder than lead and you should get very few “flyers” with steel. This actually allows you to step down your choke, as steel will give you a slightly denser pattern. Most recommendations are to use a Improved Cylinder choke for shooting birds over decoys, about 35 yards max give or take and then a Modified choke for anything further then that. Most don’t recommend a Full choke as it is a little tight for the steel shot that won’t deform.

There you have it. An analysis of steel vs. lead shot. I’m sure there will be as many opinions about this as there are shotguns on the Wildlife Area on an opening Saturday but when it comes down to it each hunter must decide what they feel gives them the best performance and what they shoot best to bring down the birds. Good luck, no matter what you decide to use come opening day.

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