Steel Shot: Does Speed Kill?

Five minutes to go on the final hunt of 2016-17, and a Canada locked up but wouldn’t commit to the … Continued

Five minutes to go on the final hunt of 2016-17, and a Canada locked up but wouldn’t commit to the decoys. I shot it crossing at almost 40 yards and it went loose, dead in the air, and crashed into the stubble a long, long way from my blind. While it was my last shot of the year, it wasn’t quite the last word on the question I’ve been wondering about this season: does speed really kill? I’m beginning to think it doesn’t matter nearly as much as we think it does.

Conventional wisdom, to which I have subscribed in the past, is that steel shot needs to be driven at speeds of at least 1450-1550 fps to be effective, and that even more velocity is more better. Conventional wisdom also holds that loads in the 1260-1350 fps range are too slow to kill anything and that steel shot was worthless until ammo makers boosted velocities. This year, I decided to shoot slow steel to see what would happen.

My experiment started in Saskatchewan, where our group shot Rio steel loads of 1 3/8 ounces of 2 shot at 1300 fps. For three days we killed ducks, Canadas and cranes, even though 2 shot is on the smaller side for big birds. We shot almost everything at reasonable range over decoys, it’s true, but still, birds fell dead. We had cripples, sure, but not at any higher rate than I have seen waterfowl crippled with faster shot.

At home I hunted geese with 1300 fps BBs and BBBs, plus a few 1260 fps loads, and once again had no trouble killing birds. I specifically remember cleaning that last goose and seeing that even at longish range, low velocity BBs had penetrated feathers, fat, muscle and bone to lodge in the vitals of a 12-pound goose.

Now that the season is over and there’s nothing to hunt, I bundled up and did some patterning the other day, comparing some higher and lower velocity loads. First I tested some of my own handloads which were identical except for the powder charge and, hence, velocity. The 1300 fps (ballpark guess, I didn’t chronograph it) loads outpatterned the 1500 fps loads, putting almost 10 per cent more pellets into a 30-inch circle. Then I tried Winchester DryLok BBs, comparing a 1300 fps 1 9/16 ounce load to a 1475 fps, 1 ½ ounce load. Once again, the slower load enjoyed a nearly 10 percent patterning advantage over the fast stuff.

Low velocity would seem to hold the patterning edge, but high velocity has its advantages, too.

I shot BBs into phone books at 49 yards and compared 1300 fps loads to 1475 fps load to 1700 fps Remington Hypersonics. There was a definite increase in penetration as velocity went up although since the faster you drive a pellet, the faster it slows down, that advantage diminishes over distance.

There is the question of lead. The difference in leads between a 1300 fps load vs a 1700 fps load on a goose crossing at 40 mph at 40 yards is about a foot.

This doesn’t end the argument about slow and fast loads. What my experiment this fall really taught me was the slow steel kills, too, better than a lot of us—including me—think it does. For now, given the choice between more pellets and more speed in a shotshell, I’ll take more pellets, and, of course, reserve the right to change my mind in the future.