Guns, Doves and Steel

Almost as heated as the debate over legalizing dove hunting in Iowa was the fracas over what type of shot Iowans would shoot at doves. Iowa Governor Terry Branstad originally signed off on the Natural Resources Commission's decision to mandate non-toxic shot for doves statewide. Hunters, gun owners and the governor's son threw a fit until he reversed the decision to permit lead shot. Rather than rehash the political and environmental arguments for and against steel, out of curiosity I thought I would shoot it at doves this year to see how it works. Here's what I found so far:

Cost
Nearly every angry post and letter I read online complained about the high price of non-toxic shot, with many claiming steel costs $20 per box and more. I don't know where those people are shopping because at local stores lead and steel dove loads cost exactly the same: $5.99 a box.

Patterns
Despite what you hear, steel does not always pattern more tightly than lead, especially in the smaller shot sizes. My Beretta 391 with a Cylinder choke tube throws 40% Cylinder patterns at 40 yards with 1 ounce, 1300 fps loads of Winchester Xpert Steel 7s. Steel also enjoys a slight edge in pellet count over its lead equivalent (422 steel 7s per ounce vs 410 lead 8s/oz.) and it often patterns more efficiently than lead, with fewer pellets lost from the pattern through deformation.

Ballistics
No question steel is less dense and therefore ballistically inferior to lead. 1250 fps lead 8s hit with much more energy than equivalent 1300 fps steel 7s (.91 foot pounds per lead 8 pellet vs. .63 ft/lbs for steel 7s at 40 yards). Lead has a faster time of flight, too (.1398 seconds to 40 yards for lead 8s vs. .1561 seconds for steel 7s).

Some people think you have to relearn how to shoot steel because it has a different "feel," starting out fast and slowing quickly. I think the "feel" you need is a feeling of confidence in your ammunition. A round of sporting clays with my dove gun and loads before the season convinced me that if I point my gun at targets the same way I do with lead, they break solidly.
**
In the Field**
While lead beats steel on paper, I can't complain about steel's performance in the dove field, and neither can my friends who stocked up on steel dove loads before the non-toxic restriction was lifted. I have hit more than I missed and killed a few at longish range. I have seen only one bird hit hard that kept flying, and that one I marked and found dead where it landed. There is even one added benefit to steel: when I do miss, I get to blame my ammunition instead of myself.