We all know what a shotgun shell is, right? Are you sure? Not all shotshells are alike. While just about anything available will do the job, it’s the little things you need to be aware of that can increase your success.

Speed sells, but who’s buying?

A short while ago, we were obsessed with speed. I could throw in a few quotes from Ricky Bobby here, but you know what I mean. There was a speed war being waged in the shotshell market for a time. It seemed like every manufacturer was taking basic steel shot and pushing down the barrel faster and faster. Standard velocities for a 12 gauge, 3-inch magnum load quickly rose from 1,200 feet per second (FPS) to 1,500 and beyond. Several manufacturers’ 3 ½- inch loads were hitting 1,700 FPS.

What good does the extra speed do for you? It goes back to when the laws were passed making non-toxic shot required for waterfowl. The density of lead made it fly significantly different than early steel shot loads, which weren’t great. Poor velocity had hunters crying foul and looking for alternatives. That desire for performance lead in two directions at first.

Federal Premium released the first 3 ½-inch 12 gauge loads in the late 1980s. It was a joint venture with Mossberg to increase payload, although originally designed as a turkey gun. Steel shot loads soon followed. The goal was to capture some of the performance of the 10 gauge in a readily available product with a wider commercial appeal. It was also an attempt to increase the lethality of the steel shot load by putting more powder behind it and making the load bigger.

A half-inch can make quite the difference in payload.

“Technically, 12 gauge 3 ½-inch shotshells have the ability to contain more shot and are launched at higher energy levels (payload/velocity balance), thus they have the ability to be used on longer shots,” said Erik Carlson, Federal Premium Shotshell Product Development Manager.

The next advancement was speed. Manufacturers played with different powder and load combinations to increase speed. From the late 1990s to today’s market, we have faster loads than ever before. The problem inherent with steel shot loads is that the density of steel is less than the density of lead, meaning that a BB-size pellet of lead will weigh more than the same size pellet made from steel. With this decrease in density, the steel load loses velocity much quicker, reducing range and lethality. The industry answered by pushing the shot out of the barrel faster. The waterfowl hunting world was ready and waiting.

Aside from advancements in powder, there were also leaps in wad technology. The latest wads were cupping the shot tighter coming out of the barrel and hold it together longer, increasing the overall mass of the payload and increasing both speed and range.

Better shot

With the search for new things driving the market, advancements in the actual shot construction soon followed. One of the first advancements was making the steel shot perfectly round and uniform. A few years ago, Federal Premium introduced its FlightStopper FS Steel, with its center cutting ring that stabilizes the shot in the air and creates devastating wound channels on birds. Winchester also released its Hex shot in the Blindside ammo line. The Hex shot packs tighter in the shotshell, increasing the density.

There was also a huge push toward steel alternatives for shot materials. Alternative metal ammunition became a highly competitive market, with HEVI-Shot, Winchester’s Xtended Range, Kent’s Tungsten Matrix, Federal’s Ultra-Shok, and Remington’s Wingmaster HD, among others. Tungsten, bismuth and other blends offered non-lead alternatives that had the shooting characteristics of lead shot, but were legal under the federal regulations. They remain a bit of a headache for conservation enforcement officers looking to collar violators, especially with those who hand load their own shells.

The biggest issue with steel alternative, non-toxic loads is the expense. Most of the manufacturers sell these loads in 10-round boxes at a cost equal or greater to a 25-round box of steel or more.

There are some great advantages though. For one, the advancements in powder that came from the speed revolution propel these new loads at great speeds and they carry the energy well. In shooting tests at the range, I have seen lethal pellet counts at 100 yards and more from 12 gauge, 3 ½-inch loads of BB and F shot. Of course, I’m still not taking that shot in the field, but it is good to know. This is also good news for hunters who have the occasional coyote come over to check out the decoy spread. More than one coyote has made this fatal mistake around me.

Depending on the load, a 3-inch shell may produce a higher velocity than the same shot in a 3 1/2-inch shell.

There has also been a push to combine steel shot and the alternative loads in one shell. These shells give hunters the best of both worlds at a lower cost. HEVI-Steel loads from HEVI-Shot are a very popular example.

These advancements have hunters looking to mix it up when it comes to shells. Companies are still selling more 3-inch 12 gauge loads. When the 3 ½-inch shell was first introduced, there was a big surge in moving towards the longer shell because of its bigger payloads.

“While I don’t have hard data to reference specifically, I think the trend back towards the 3-inch is in large part to the advancements in steel ammunition technology,” said Tim Brandt, marketing and communications manager for Federal Premium. “Products like Black Cloud allow hunters to get outstanding performance without having to move up to 3 ½- inch shells. That being said, 3 ½-inch options are still very popular, and many hunters prefer them.”

The side effects of speed

There is a side effect and one that affects every hunter out there. In shotguns, as with anything, with any action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, with the increase in speed, there is an increase in recoil. If you’re not ready, an increase in recoil can lead to an increase in misses.

“I like to think of the ‘hunter’ and ‘weapon/ammunition’ as a system that has a different optimum balance for everyone,” Brandt said. “The excess recoil in large shotgun shells may quickly create bad habits for hunters, causing an increase in missed birds.”

With that, shotgun manufacturers have been looking at recoil reduction systems. One of the best on the market is Beretta’s Kick-Off system. The Kick-Off is a hydraulic dampening reduction system that reduces recoil 44 percent, Beretta claims. It uses two hydraulic recoil dampers incorporated into the stock. The recoil energy is gradually dissipated by the hydraulic dampers. Other companies have used anything from mercury-filled weights in the stock to massive shock-absorbing recoil pads.

Ported barrels do reduce recoil and muzzle jump to some extent, but at the cost of increased noise back to the shooter. If you’re shooting in a blind, boat, or pit with other hunters, they will surely notice the increase in noise. Hearing protection is a must.

With all of the advancements in shotshells and shotguns, waterfowlers have a huge advantage. But you still have to practice. You still have to find the birds and get them to come in. And you still have to be able to hit them when it comes time to pull the trigger. It may be better, but it still isn’t easy.

Images by Derrek Sigler

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