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OF SMOKE AND FEATHERS: STEELSHOT

posted Oct 20, 2011, 12:49 PM by Peter Lucas   [ updated Dec 27, 2012, 7:21 AM ]


By Richard Norton

Part One

(A special thanks to Richard for submitting this Article)

 

 

  As of 1991 the entire country requires the use of "approved" non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting, as well as, for many other species of migratory and non-migratory critters that as of very recently now require non-toxic shot. Those hardest hit were and still are the lovers of classic double guns. I know of many classic double guns that were retired from the marsh only to become safe queens. Waterfowl hunters have been dealing with non-toxic ammo in various parts of the country for many years prior to 1991 but in the past few years even big game and upland hunters, including the old school "long hunters" are just now beginning to see the forced use of non-toxic "green" ammo with it's higher price tag and lesser efficiency. However the lack of performance isn't as noticeable in a high powered rifle or on easier to kill upland game. There is a lot of reference to lower velocity 12ga smokeless steelshot cartridge data throughout this article that I believe to have a lot bearing on shooting steel shot in a muzzleloading shotgun. Steelshot is a fickle beast with a strange bite, containing venom that is full of myth, misinformation and "creative marketing", I will try to concentrate on what has consistently worked well for me and my group for the last 20 of the 30 plus years of water fowling with a 12ga muzzleloading shotgun.

   In late January of 1987 we found out that my hunting area was to require the use of non-toxic shot in all gauges for waterfowl. Today steel is arguably the the most economic approved non-toxic shot choice, even if it is the least efficient non-toxic choice. In early spring of 1987 steel shot was the only choice. At this point we ordered a case of every factory 12ga steelshot load in every size from #4's to "T" that was on the market and started patterning steelshot through two dozen different 12ga cartridge guns, including running some make-shift penetration tests. We learned a lot about the patterning characteristics of steel shot.

   The first thing that we learned at the patterning board is that with steelshot, pattern percentages have little meaning. We had many, many 100% patterns that were unusable, because of the clustering of pellets (clumpy/patchy) causing many large holes in the patterns. By my way of thinking, making these patterns cripplers. Percentages don’t kill game, proper patterns with large enough pellets for the game being pursued, kills game very well. I like patterns to be very even with a little central density, with an even fringe that are dense enough overall, for the game that I am pursuing at the distance that I plan on shooting. I have always been willing to work to obtain decent patterns for clean kills. Consistently and without any cripple losses always being my key goal. Once large enough pellets are used I will always take pattern over velocity ... to a point. Today with the many improvements that have been made to modern factory steelshot shells, what I consider a perfect killing pattern is still very elusive with any "hard" non-toxic shot type, especially steel shot, however, not impossible to consistently achieve.

   The second thing that we learned at the pattern board; is that steelshot, contrary to popular myth, generally does not pattern better than premium plated lead shot. Steelshot patterns may produce high percentages but fall short on pattern density, pattern quality, pellet count and pattern to pattern consistency. All the areas where premium plated lead shot shines, especially at longer distances. This statement will most likely create some flack because even though percentages are only 1/3 of a pattern, percentages have been the generic method of measuring patterns pretty much since the development of chokes. There is actually a complex mathematical formula for figuring out pattern quality, which I will not be getting involved with at this time. The biggest problem with this mystical formula, like the percentage method, both were developed for lead shot patterns.

   ALL of the "hard" non-toxic shot types require a heavy plastic wad of some kind to protect the barrel and some of the super tungsten shot types need a double wad system.  I actually gave up on shooting a muzzleloading shotgun for a waterfowl season or two, because I couldn’t dependably get steel shot reloading components.  That changed when Ballistic Products and MEC reloading offered purpose designed steelshot wads and dependably began offering various sizes of steelshot. The MEC 3" 12ga steel shot wad was one of the most versatile wads that I have ever used in a 12ga muzzleloading shotgun. Just about any large pellet that I poured down the barrel patterned well with this wad... from lead 00 buck to steel #4's and everything in between. I can't for the life of me figure out why MEC discontinued this beautifully performing wad. When I ran out of the MEC wad, I called MEC and was told that the Ballistic Products multi-metal wad was almost identical. Although the Ballistic Products multi-metal looks very close to the MEC steel shot wad, after lots of patterning I can tell you that it isn’t even close performance wise.



Pattern using cork wad and buffer to dampen vibrations



Pattern using buffer only

   This did lead me to the Ballistic Products BP-12 TUFF wad which was designed specifically for 1 ounce of steel shot. The BP-12 TUFF wad with four slits to the base performed this solitary purpose better than any other wad that I have poked down the barrel of a 12ga muzzle loading shotgun. This wad was also discontinued. The Ballistic Products  "12 ga Ranger" wad also handles 1 to 1-1/8 ounce of steel shot just not as well in most of my 12ga muzzle loading shotguns. The exception to this statement is my 12ga Navy Arms with 1-1/8 ounce of steel shot. A phone call to Ballistic Products assured me that the current production BP-12 wad (actually a shot cup) would handle my steel shot needs. This turned out to be a good thing when I purchased my first Pedersoli 12ga muzzleloading shotgun with screw in chokes. After a whole lot of trial and error the BP-12 TUFF and the BP-12 wads are the only steel shot wads that I found that would easily fit past lip in the barrel at the bottom of the choke tube, and still slide down the barrel easily after the barrel was heavily fouled if I forgot or chose not to use a lubricated fiber wad. The BP-12 TUFF handled steel shot (and the other "hard" non-toxics) better than the BP-12 for me, but, the BP-12 is more versatile. Handling lead buck and bird shot better than the BP-12 TUFF ever did. Again the BP-12 wad like the Bp-12 Tuff wad requires four slits to the base otherwise patterns get clumpy and strung-out (vertically or horizontally) regardless of shot type. Which, from inspecting fired wads, I am assuming to be from the wad not opening evenly at muzzle loader velocities. Now that Pedersoli has determined which wad to use, shot size is the next choice.

    I already had 5 to 10 pounds of every size steel shot from #4 to "T" from cutting open 12ga factory steelshot cartridges to get an average pellet count and inspect pellet quality. Except for steel #B, then as today factory steelshot cartridges weren’t/aren't offered in steel #B. Back then MEC was the only source to readily obtain steel #B so I ordered a bottle, yup, a plastic bottle not a bag. Now most of the reloading supply houses stock just about every size of steel shot. After tossing a couple of hundred patterns with the with various 12ga muzzleloading shotguns, I still couldn’t come up with a combination that made me happy with any steel shot size large enough for waterfowl. Most of my steel shot patterns were clumpy and thin, lacking any central density, with enough holes in each pattern for an entire flock of mallards to fly through. Again like with the smokeless cartridge guns, steel shot patterns from a muzzleloading shotgun, percentages mean very little. At this point I started to apply some of the knowledge that I learned when reloading smokeless steel shot cartridges and things started to pan out better.  Except for steel # 1's, I simply cant get them to pattern well enough, out of any of my 12ga muzzleloaders with any combination of wads and buffer.

      I personally always use at least one 1/8" nitro card and a 1/4" lubricated fiber wad of some kind covered under any plastic wad in any/all of my muzzle loaders. This helps keep velocities up and plastic fouling inside the barrel down. If plastic build-up becomes too heavy thin out the lube on your fiber wad. The cork wad inside the plastic shot cup is forced into the base of the shotcup with a short starter before I go into the field. Also dont make the same mistake that I made... seat the plastic shot cup on top of the card and fiber wads empty, then pour in the shot and buffer. Pushing the plastic shot cup and shot down as a single unit gave me some pretty bad batterns. An over shot card wad on top of the fiber wad under the plastic shot cup can help stop classic dounut patterns by preventing the fiber wad from clinging to the plactic shot cup.I hope that this will help in your selection of what non-toxic shot to pour down the front of your muzzle loader.

   Buffer with steel shot you might be asking? Absolutely! Just not for the same reasons as the "soft" shot types. Steel shot and the other "hard" non-toxic shot types have a problem with clustering pellets together with in the pattern. From everything that I have read and experienced, this clustering of pellets is caused by vibrations passed from one pellet to the next. There are several ways to even out steel shot patterns. One is to place a smaller gauge CORK (not felt, not paper, not vegetable fiber...) filler wad in the base of the shot cup. A 20ga cork wad in the base of a 12ga shot cup, 12ga cork wad was in the base of a 10ga shot cup... ect. The second is to add a measured amount of buffer. Remembering that too much buffer can destroy patterns and violently raise pressures to dangerous levels. These two little tricks help to greatly decrease or even stop the occurrence of these vibrations, resulting in the evening-out of pellet distribution within patterns

. Rather than a cluster of eight or ten pellets here and there. After trying every buffer on the market and several buffers that are no longer on the market, Precision Reloading spherical buffer has long been my buffer of choice for steel shot and the other "hard" non-toxic shot types, with Ballistic Products mix #47 buffer being a distant second.

    If you are planning to hunt waterfowl this season with a muzzle loading shotgun and steel shot I am going to highly recommend that you consider keeping company with a good dog. Remember to make sure that your gun is approved for steel shot. If there is any doubt don’t use steel shot. Never exceed the manufactures recommended loads.

Continued in Part 2

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