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posted Nov 10, 2011, 10:30 AM by Peter Lucas



By Richard Norton

This is the second part of a two part Article written by Richard Norton regarding steel shot loads for muzzleloading shotguns. In the first part of the Article Richard shared his knowledge regarding how to develop good patterns with steel shot . In the second part of the Article, Richard addresses what is perhaps the much more important issue. The lethality of steel shot loads in a muzzleloader.

Penetration Tests

     The real eye-opener for us with steel shot was the penetration tests. Remembering that at the time ballistic gel wasn't as readily available as it is today. Our penetration medium was telephone books, that were taped closed, then soaked in a garbage can filled  with water over night. Today, in some parts of the country, ballistic gel can be easier to come up with

Penetration Test Results


Load 1: 1 -3"  1 3/8 oz win dryloc steel #BB @ 1265fps avg 99 pel.

Load 2: 1- 2 3/4" 1 3/8oz copper plated lead #4's(Win lubaloy) @ 1330fps avg 186 pel. buffered
 # of pellets  recovered
 type of shot
 page found
lead #4  
 1steel #BB 847
 2 steel #BB 913
 1 steel #BB 946
 1 lead #4  
 1 lead #4  
 1 steel #BB  1093
 4   steel #BB    
 3lead #4      
 8lead #4    
 5 lead #4
 5   steel #BB
 1 lead #4  1210
 steel #BB 1245
steel #BB    

steel #BB     19  hits     Average Page 1128               

lead #4's       21  hits     Average Page 1123        

than several dozen 1500+ page telephone books. I will be the first to admit that 12ga factory steelshot loads have come a long way since the early spring of 1987. I feel that the results of these penetration tests still have a lot of relevance when considering the use of steel shot in a muzzleloading shotgun.

        This particular penetration test was taken directly out of my old load/pattern data. All of us participating at the time found the results very surprising and educational to say the least. Our standard lead handload for duck's was used as a direct comparison. I chose this penetration test out of the four for this particular steel shot load that I had data from because of the similar number of pellets recovered. One round of each load was fired into the saturated phone book at a measured 40 yards, at 14 feet above sea level. The temperature of this penetration test was 35/40 degrees, humidity was 80% and overcast. Pellets (front edge) found within a few pages of each other (+/-) were rounded off. Results of the other three penetration tests for this steel shot load were similar, with the exception of substantially more lead #4's recovered.

        So far the 3" Win dryloc 1 3/8oz steel #BB seem to be performing the best of the steelshot all-around so far. Pellets were basically free of deformities before firing and setback dimples were minimal. I was surprised to see that the steel #BB penetrated about the same as the plated lead #4's, even a little better, as ALL that I have read tells me that they should out perform the lead #4's by leaps and bounds in penetration as well as, in percentage of patterning. These are the loads we use every day and the field results mirror this test. So much for the two size larger theory. The Win dryloc steel #BB are the only steel pellets to have impact deformation on the front of the pellets to date, but only in the dry telephone book test.

       Copper-plated lead #4's (in most cases) still average substantially more pellet hits per shell, potentially delivering more energy to the bird, than the steel #BB. Though these particular steel #BB generally patterned well enough and have enough penetration for clean kills beyond 50 yards on mallards. Aside from some minor setback dimples, the few plated lead #4's that were deformed, appeared to be deformed from hitting steel shot pellets already in the wet telephone book. Otherwise, most of the lead #4's looked like they just came out of the bag. 

   Taking in to account that copper-plated Winchester lubaloy was quite possibly the best performing lead shot ever made, the steel shot didn't really fair that bad, even with it's very poor size to weight ratio and low pellet count. Unfortunately Winchester no longer offers their copper-plated lubaloy lead shot for sale to reloaders, nor have they for over 25 years and if they did, current laws wouldn't allow it to be used for waterfowl.

   I have found over the years that because of steel shot's poor size to weight ratio, and larger frontal mass, penetration with steel shot at the lower velocities (MV of 1200fps +/-) is about 12% less than premium plated lead shot of similar weight/velocity depending on shot size, distance, velocity and temperature. This percentage seems to increase when velocities are decreased and decreases when the velocities are increased. The larger steel shot pellet sizes (B, BB, BBB, T) is where we are still achieving the more efficient penetration at all test distances, with steel #BB and #BBB being the most efficient for us at 40 yards. Of course with the compromise of substantially fewer pellets. Fortunately, and very, very generically speaking, steel #BB and #BBB seem to pattern well from most 12ga guns.

   Of the well over 100 different shotguns that I have patterned or been directly involved in patterning with non-toxic shot, I have only witnessed two 12 ga cartridge guns and only one 12ga muzzleloader that consistantly pattern steel #2's best.  Three of the four stainless steel Ruger over and under's that I have been directly involved in patterning, consistently appear to prefer 3" steel #1's. Remembering that every shotgun is an individual, there is nothing carved in stone about which gun will pattern what best, but, if I bought a 12ga stainless steel Ruger over and under tomorrow, the first 3" steel shot load that I would pattern it with would contain steel #1's with a Carlsons extended Modified in the bottom barrel and a Carlsons extended Improved Modified in the top barrel. 


Putting it all together; real world shot size                                


On the pattern board one ounce of steel #4's did very well. The way that steel #4's work on pigeons, crows, rails and close pheasants from my 12ga muzzleloading shotguns, I had to try the combination on small ducks (bufflehead), despite what the penetration tests were trying to tell me. Like with the steel #7's on pigeons, the results were disastrous. I lost more cripple ducks on each of those two days with steel #4's than on any other day before or since. I figured that the first day could have been me not doing my part, so I tried the steel #4's again on another day during a week when I was shooting exceptionally well. It was a learning experience that still makes me sick to my stomach when I think about it. I should have paid more attention to the results of my makeshift penetration tests. Lower velocity steel #4's at 40 yards penetrated the saturated paper (and in separate incidental tests, 3/8" plywood) about the same, actually only slightly better than and with about 1/2 the pellets of premium lead #7.5's. Rough autopsies of rails (marsh birds, about the size of a ruffed grouse but, tougher) shot with steel #4's from a muzzleloading shotgun, also showed the penetration of steel #4's to be pretty much identical to high antimony lead #7.5's from a muzzleloader .

   Steel #2's didn't work that great on the larger seaducks and steel #2's are never what I plan to have in the gun when hunting them. If I am hunting oldsquaw and one of the larger seaducks happens to come in closer than 20 yards on a day that I am confident that I can pull off a head/neck shot, I have killed them cleanly with steel #2's. If I lack any one of those conditions I simply won't shoot at whitewing scoter or eider with steel #2's in my muzzleloader. Steel #2's don't work bad at all for the smaller ducks like oldsquaw, bufflehead, wood ducks and teal. In fact steel #2's are my steel shot size of choice for teal. My 12ga Pedersoli is the muzzleloading shotgun that likes steel #2's. So with lot's of little pellets and almost perfect patterns, the steel #2's seem to be a good fit for teal. Steel #2's, if loaded hot, also do a fair job on mallards, if the distance is kept short. After keeping a running total of cripple losses for the past 30 years or so, cripple losses are a little too frequent for me when steel #2's are used exclusively in the muzzloading shotguns for mallards. At muzzle loader velocities you should also expect to find pellets in the meat when eating mallards killed with steel #2's or smaller steelshot pellets. Steel shot isn't very easy to chew, regardless of pellet size.

   Remember the stainless steel Ruger over and unders mentioned earlier? The Rugers are over bored and actually have a bore diameter closer to that of a "standard" 10ga. If you can find a steel shot 10ga wad (or possibly a larger diameter 12ga wad with a mylar wrap inside it) that will readily fit down the barrel of your 10ga muzzle loader, I would try steel #1's first, that is, if you are only shooting mallards or smaller ducks ... not geese or seaducks. I personally have never shot waterfowl with steel #1's tossed from a muzzle loader, simply because I can't seem to get them to pattern from any of my 12ga muzzle loaders; but, my experiences with the lower velocity 12ga smokeless cartridge loads has left me with the feeling that steel #1's would not be my first choice for the larger seaducks or geese. On the larger seaducks (whitewing scoter and eider) the lower velocity steel #1's gave us what I consider the to be among the worst kind of cripples. Crippled birds with no visable signs of a hit. These body shot birds would fly out 1/4 to 1/2 mile and simply fold up dead. In any situation other than open water on a calm day, these birds would most likely have been lost. Rough autopsies of these long cripples revealed multiple pellet hits, about half of which were just sitting against the breast plate, with a lot of heavily congealed blood between the breast plate and the breast muscle/meat. On the other hand surf scoter and mallards at 35 yards or less when  hit as well, didn't appear to have this problem.

   When we got to steel #B (.170) and steel #BB (.180) is when we started to consistently see dead whitewing scoter and eider pretty much every time we pulled the trigger. Penetration at muzzleloading shotgun velocities is enough that we don't find many pellets sitting against the breast-plate. If we do our part and hit what we are shooting at, we don't lose many cripples. The only problem with the steel #B and #BB is the low pellet count making good patterns an absolute must. Mallards and steel #B or #BB are about the best match for the lighter powder charges (volume to volume-ish) with a muzzleloading shotgun and steel shot. Again assuming that good enough patterns can be obtained consistently.

    Steel #BB didn't perform well for us on geese. Don't get me wrong steel #BB will kill geese...just. Even keeping shots to less than 30 yards, steel #BB are a little light for geese with a muzzleloading shotgun. When doing the rough autopsy we consistently find pellets that don't punch through the breast-plate. With regularity, the steel #BB just slide along the breast-plate into the wing joint, disjointing, not breaking the wing.  Not the consistant clean kills that I greatly prefer. Which is why I am hesitant to recomend steel #BB for geese when using a muzzleloading shotgun. Either way when keeping distances short, I guess a muzzleloading shotgun with steel #BB can put geese on the ground, surprisingly, without many cripple losses. When it comes to geese with a muzzle loading shotgun, spend the money for Bismuth or Niceshot.

   One ounce and 1-1/8 ounce of steel #BBB (.190) and steel #T( .20) were both dissappointing from my 12ga

Pedersoli's, as there simply isn't enough pellets. The #BBB patterns were consistently very even, just too thin and lacked any central density. I even tried stacking the steel #BBB and steel #T pellets like buckshot. I still havent been able to get a dense enough pattern for consistant clean kills. The steel #BBB are still a work in progress.

   If cost is the main factor in your selection of steel shot for your non-toxic shot needs, don't forget to add the unseen costs like; plastic wads (in addition to card and lubricated fiber wads), extra rounds per bird, lost cripples, extra fuel and the possibility of an unexpected trip to the dentist. Bismuth and Nice Shot may actually work out be only slightly more expensive than steel shot. When hunting from a boat while shooting steel shot exclusively we almost always use more fuel. Seaduck hunting we have used as much as two times more fuel, when compared to exclusively shooting Bismuth or NiceShot. When bulk Bismuth shot was $97 for a 7 pound jug ($13.86 per lb) it actually cost us less in the long run to shoot Bismuth than to shoot steel shot at $2 per pound.


   Again 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. Bismuth and Nice Shot are much more efficient and generally don't require plastic wads or a half dozen shots to finish off a strong cripple just outside the decoys. Always follow standard safety procedures and never exceed the manfactures recomended loads.