Non-toxic shot is now required in many areas to hunt state or federal land, even for small game. As a result, some of the smaller-size shot loads are being marketed as multi-purpose loads.
Last fall, I decided to look at some of the newer innovations in basic small pellet size steel shot. I decided to test Kent steel loads — specifically 1-ounce, No. 6 shot in a 2¾-inch housing.
Ballistics data indicated that at about 35 yards, this load loses effective killing power on ducks. At 30 yards, a No. 6 steel pellet sent downrange at 1,430 fps retains 692 fps of terminal velocity. However in another 10 yards, or the 40-yard mark, No. 6 steel has slowed to 579 fps, under the basic velocity requirement of 600 fps for adequate penetration.
Testing with a Remington 870 through a Dead Ringer choke, the load printed an average of 74 percent of the pellets inside of a 30-inch circle. The core and outer 10-inch ring coverage was excellent, providing a positive killing net for small ducks over decoys.
Biodegradable No. 5
I also tested a load offered by Kent Cartridge’s partner company, Gamebore England.
The 1⅛-ounce, No. 5 steel shot in a 3-inch, 12-gauge hull is called Silver Steel. The shotshell uses a special Bio-Wad system that is steel shot safe, and biodegradable as well.
While some areas of the United States require non-toxic shot, Europe requirements also demand that wad materials be made of material that will naturally decompose in the environment.
Ballistic data for Gamebore Silver Steel No. 5 shot is so sparse that I went to the range and set up chronograph equipment to get an idea of retained velocity after measuring the basic muzzle speed of the exiting pellets. I assumed No. 5 shot would be good to 40 yards if the No. 6 pellets were carrying enough energy to 35 yards, but in this business, nothing seems to be set in stone, or in this case, in a good, tight shotshell wad.
Setting up at 30 and 40 yards, I adjusted my armored chronograph photo screen rail, set my Oehler Chronotech 33 ballistic computer in a ground pit, and proceeded to shoot.
First, I recorded a muzzle velocity, and then downrange shots. The muzzle velocity was 1,339 fps at 3 feet from the shotgun’s muzzle. I couldn’t measure exact muzzle velocity because muzzle flash and gas burning past the photo velocity recording screens would yield an error if I measured any closer to the barrel.
At 30 yards, the No. 5 pellets were pushing through the recording screens at 765 fps by way of my Remington 870 and Dead Ringer choke tube. It was obvious the pellets had ample energy to get the job done on smaller feathered targets such as teal or quail.
My previous research has shown 600 fps on impact is ample killing velocity, but I have had very little experience shooting waterfowl with steel shot smaller than No. 3 pellets. In 2006, I attempted to harvest pheasants with No. 6 steel. The load failed completely, so I resorted to No. 5 copper-plated lead shot loads. However, last season, I again turned small steel loose on ringnecks in South Dakota. For the most part, I observed positive results.
I shot Winchester Super X Steel No. 6 waterfowl and upland loads. The 1¼-ounce loads killed just as many ringnecks as the 1⅜-ounce Winchester Super Pheasant loads. Range limits were still a factor, as my test gunners made careful choices in terms of target selection. After observing these results, I pressed the Kent No. 5 steel into service on pheasants. As with the Winchester steel shot loads, birds were taken successfully under 40 yards.
Inside of 35 Yards
No. 5 steel is light, so I was not convinced small shot sizes would effectively kill ducks. For most hunting, steel pellets of No. 3 or larger work best.
Still, I never figured I would see the day that No. 5 or No. 6 steel shot pellets could slip though the air fast enough to kill at mid-range distances. Not long ago, waterfowlers laughed at No. 4 steel shot pellets and regarded them as worthless.
During my testing, No. 5 steel still returned an almost workable 502 fps when pushed to the 40-yard mark. Despite being below the required 600 fps, chances are the tight patterns of near 90 percent inside a 30-inch circle would still pound a smaller game bird.
Based on the evidence, these loads are effective game-harvesting tools on smaller waterfowl or upland birds inside of 35 yards.
Gel Testing and pinned birds
I conducted further review using Perma Gel penetration test media and pinned ducks. I shot pinned, dead ducks at 35 yards with Kent No. 5 shot. The test didn’t reveal any great detail about just how effective the load would be, except that 11 pellets hit the bird.
Turning to Perma Gel ballistic medium, penetration averaged 3 inches. The wound channels typically lacked hydrostatic shock, but left a sharp, clean line across the ballistic gel because of the lack of any pellet deformation during entry. Small steel doesn’t carry much radial energy — the damage inflected by softer or larger pellets.
Ducks in the Corn
Hunting with Tyson Keller and Martin Hesby over decoys in a flooded South Dakota cornfield, I gave No. 5 Gamebore shot to my partners. I wanted to maintain consistency and shoot only this single load.
Keller and Hesby were ready to shoot backup, but follow-up shots were unnecessary. On the first two mallards at 35 yards, my shot stopped the birds as though they had hit a stone wall. Pellet counts were high, with one bird retaining 18 pellets in the body, two broken wings, a broken leg and three pellets in the head and neck. A stiff load of No. 3 steel will generally put three to five pellets on a bird 35 yards, so I was shocked at the pellet count delivered by the No. 5 load. We shot full limits of greenheads without a cripple. All birds were dead quickly.
The next day, we evaluated No. 6 steel Kent Gamebore and Winchester Xpert loads.
Scouting the previous night had indicated birds on a heavy flooded section, but the target hole was quite large — 150 yards by 100 yards — and good cover stood 10 rows off the waterline.
I opened the No. 6 steel test as a single mallard drake backflapped almost
down my barrel. It was a 25-yard poke, and didn’t prove a thing but that No. 6 steel can do the job at close range.
My second bird was a different story. The greenhead pulled up and turned just as I touched off at 35-to-40-yard range. The duck twitched and shivered, but regained flight control. One of my partners cleanly knocked the duck out of the air with a No. 4 steel load. For me, the duck would have been a cripple, proving range is the key element in shooting small steel shot.
We had each shot our limit of five mallards and a teal, when two groups of lesser Canada geese flew low and slow. We killed three geese with No. 4 steel, with a No. 5 load dropping a fourth goose. Never would I have considered a No. 5 steel shot pellet capable of taking a Canada goose. However, that is exactly what happened.
Stay Within Range Limits
Do we even need to consider small steel shot as an option? Yes, because more and more land is restricted to non-toxic shot use only. If you want to hunt snipe, doves or other small game, with the possibility of mallards, you might need small steel shot. You just need to be mindful of exact range limits and stay within them.
L.P. Brezny is a ballistics expert from Piedmont, S.D.