By Phil Bourjaily
When it comes to steel shot, speed kills. Or so we all believe. There's no question that early steel loads were slow and performed poorly. It's also true that once ammo makers boosted velocities, steel became more lethal. I remember when Winchester introduced some of the first high-velocity ammo in the mid-1990s. Compared to previous steel cartridges, the then-blistering 1,450-fps Winchester loads struck ducks and geese like lightning.
While 150 fps of added speed was a noticeable improvement, there were other reasons that second-generation steel outdid the early loads. New wads, powders, primers, and sealants made the shells more reliable and consistent. At the same time, hunters accustomed to shooting lead learned to choose larger pellet sizes to compensate for steel's lower density. Yet it was velocity that got the credit.
Last fall in Saskatchewan our group shot nothing but 1 1/4 ounces of Rio 2s rated at 1,300 fps. I had misgivings, until the shooting started and ducks, cranes, and Canada geese fell cleanly to our guns. Impressed by the slower ammo, I carried on my own low-velocity experiment at home, hunting geese with loads of BBs and BBBs rated from 1,260 to 1,300 fps. The results made me rethink the need for speed. Here are some good reasons for and against peppy loads.
The Case for Speed
Speed helps shooters in two ways. The faster a pellet travels, the more energy it retains. In fact, boosting a pellet's velocity by just 200 fps can give it 15 to 20 percent more energy, resulting in harder hits and deeper penetration into a bird's vitals.
Increasing speed also reduces the flight time of pellets, thereby cutting down the amount of lead you'll need by as much as 10 inches on 40-yard crossing shots. Sometimes that's enough to help a shooter put a pattern on the front end of the bird. Thus with faster steel you're hitting birds harder in the most lethal place.
The Physics of Steel
Although higher velocity translates into more energy, there's a catch. Round pellets have poor aerodynamics and lose velocity quickly. The faster you drive a sphere, the faster it slows down. That's especially true with low-density steel pellets. Push one load of size 2 shot at 1,450 fps and one at 1,300 fps, and by the time they reach 40 yards that 150-fps difference is down to just 45 fps. Launching steel pellets harder works, but it's not a very efficient way to increase energy.
At the same time, boosting velocity increases recoil, and not just a little bit. Shooters claim not to notice recoil—and perhaps some don't—but it can still kick your head off the gunstock, make follow-up shots more difficult, and lead to flinching. Also, increasing velocity decreases pattern density because faster pellets encounter greater air resistance. In another experiment, I compared the patterns of nearly identical loads that varied in speed by 175 fps. The slower loads patterned about 10 percent tighter than the faster ones. That means the slower ammo put more pellets on target.
Go Big or Go Fast?
There's another way to boost pellet energy, and it works without increasing recoil one bit. Simply switch to larger shot. A size 1 pellet moving at 1,300 fps retains more energy at 40 yards than a size 2 pellet traveling at 1,500 fps and will probably pattern tighter due to the larger shot size and lower velocity.
Interpret those figures as you please. The bottom line is that you should always choose the loads that pattern best with your gun and choke and earn your confidence in the field. If higher velocity helps you hit birds harder—or if you simply believe that it does—by all means shoot it. But keep in mind that there's more than one way to skin a goose. You might be pleasantly surprised if you take another look at slower steel. I certainly was last year.