By Phil Bourjaily
When it comes to shotshells, lethality is the mother of invention. The ban on lead shot, now ancient history, spurred manufacturers to rethink shotshells as they struggled to make nontoxic pellets that performed as effectively as lead. Their efforts over the past 25 years have resulted in a number of innovations, including a new cartridge—the 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge—as well as denser, harder pellets made of various materials propelled at ever-increasing speeds. This dizzying array of new and better shotshells means that choosing a duck load isn't as easy as deciding between 2s and 4s anymore.
Here's a quick guide to 10 of the leading waterfowl cartridges to help you pick the right one for your hunting needs.
Winchester Supreme High Velocity Steel
Winchester's black-hulled Supreme High Velocity steel, which came out in the late 1990s, was the first fast steel load I ever shot. At 1,450 feet per second, this load was 75 to 100 feet per second faster than anything else available at that time. As soon as I shot it, I quit complaining about steel and started killing ducks and geese, and it remains my standby steel load. It has a good balance of power and speed without excessive recoil. I shoot 3-inch 2s for ducks and 3-inch BBs for geese, and I have shot these enough to know that if the bird doesn't fall, it's not the shell's fault. Winchester is a proud partner of Ducks Unlimited. winchester.com
Hevi-Shot and other tungsten-iron pellets are the most promising alternative to steel, but at a high price point. Hevi-Shot maker Environ-Metal has found a way to lower the cost by combining 50-50 mixes of tungsten and steel to create Hevi-Metal. These loads are composed of smaller Hevi-Shot pellets stacked on top of larger steel shot. My testing shows that the Hevi-Shot portion of the load migrates to the outer edges of the pattern as the shot flies downrange, where it helps to fill out the pattern. hevishot.com
Kent Fasteel Waterfowl
Many waterfowlers who want value and performance from their shotshells choose Kent Fasteel Waterfowl. As the name implies, this ammo is fast, with 3 1/2-inch loads pushing the envelope at 1,625 feet per second. Cut one open and you'll find uniform, perfectly round steel pellets that provide good patterning performance. They cleanly kill ducks and geese and are affordable—what more could you want?
But sometimes a high-speed load isn't necessary. This year, Kent introduced TealSteel, a 1 1/4-ounce load of steel 5s that travel at a modest 1,350 feet per second. With a payload of just over 300 pellets, TealSteel has enough shot to ensure multiple hits on small ducks. The lower velocity is adequate to bag teal and it decreases recoil to the point that you won't feel beaten up after hunting in a T-shirt. kentgamebore.com
Remington Hypersonic Steel
Remington's Hypersonic steel achieves velocities of 1,700 feet per second thanks to a wad that more or less turns the shell into a two-stage rocket. A hollow stem on the bottom of the wad extends down into the powder and over the primer. The primer ignites only the powder in the stem, pushing the wad down the barrel before the rest of the charge ignites. With more space in which to burn, the powder doesn't generate dangerous pressures, even as it achieves velocities that were previously unimaginable with 1 1/4- and 1 3/8-ounce payloads. The wad exits the muzzle as an intact shot cup, splitting open in flight to release the pellets, which get to the target in a hurry.
I had a chance to shoot a lot of HyperSonic in Alberta when it first came out. These cartridges were available only in 2s at the time, and they performed superbly on snow geese, white-fronted geese, and medium-sized Canada geese as well as ducks. Remington is a proud partner of Ducks Unlimited. remington.com
Federal Black Cloud
Federal's Black Cloud combines two components seemingly working at cross purposes into one load that has become a favorite of many hardcore duck hunters. Forty percent of Black Cloud's pellets are ringed like Saturn, and their poor aerodynamic shape should cause them to shoot wide-open patterns. The other 60 percent are round, however, and a Flitecontrol wad holds the entire payload together for about 15 feet beyond the muzzle before releasing it. This keeps the pattern tight and the velocity high.
For hunters who prefer to shoot ducks over decoys there is Black Cloud Close Range, loaded with 100 percent Flitestopper pellets and a wad engineered to release them sooner for more open patterns. Black Cloud Snow Goose, on the other hand, is made to hit harder, with shot traveling at 1,635 feet per second. federalpremium.com
If you go through ammo by the case, price may be the most important number on a box of shells. Rio BlueSteel is the latest budget steel brand. Rio is a new name in steel shot, but Rio lead loads have been available in the United States for a few years and are a popular low-cost shell among target shooters. Rio's parent company UEE (Union Española de Explosivos) has been in business since 1896, and it makes every component of the shells itself. Between the Rio and Kemen lines, the company loads around 400 million shotshells a year.
BlueSteel offers 3 1/2-inch, 3-inch, and 2 3/4-inch loads in both high velocity (1,550 fps) and slower, heavier payloads of up to 1 9/16 ounces in 3 1/2-inch 12s. There are also 2 3/4- and 3-inch 20-gauge loads. rioammo.com
Winchester Blind Side
Winchester's Blind Side offers a different take on the concept of pairing spreader pellets with tight-patterning wads. Blind Side shells contain 100 percent hexagonal pellets in a Diamond Cut Wad that keeps the pellets corralled until they are several feet out of the barrel, then releases them as vanes on the side of the wad pop out to increase drag. The six-sided shot stacks more efficiently into a hull, allowing for heavier payloads. Despite their poor aerodynamic shape, these loads pattern well. At 1,675 feet per second, Blind Side's high-velocity ammo is one of the fastest loads around. winchester.com
Hevi-Shot Speed Ball
New from Environ-Metal is Hevi-Shot Speed Ball, which makes use of the same blended-shot formula found in Hevi-Metal while boosting velocity to well over 1,600 feet per second. Speed Ball loads also come with copper plating added to the steel pellets, which slightly increases their weight. Instead of reducing payloads while increasing velocity to keep pressures low, Environ-Metal uses a ball at the bottom of the shot column in each Speed Ball round. The ball provides a cushion for the shot, which keeps chamber pressures lower and safer when the load accelerates to 1,650 feet per second. hevishot.com
Winchester Xpert Hi-Velocity Steel
Winchester found a new way to make steel pellets at a lower cost, and passed those savings along to budget-conscious hunters in the form of its Super X Xpert Hi-Velocity steel loads. Whatever the manufacturing process, these pellets don't appear to be as uniform as conventionally cut and polished steel shot, but I have used them with good success on ducks, geese, and pheasants. These loads pattern more openly in some guns, which is not a bad thing if you hunt over decoys. winchester.com
Kent Tungsten Matrix Waterfowl
Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend Kent Tungsten Matrix to their patients who chew nontoxic shot. Not really, but Kent Tungsten Matrix remains my favorite nontoxic pellet. And if you can afford to pay $3 per shell, it's the closest thing to lead in terms of density and patterning. A mix of tungsten powder and polymer blended to just below the density of lead, this shot responds to chokes like lead and hits like it, too. It is completely safe in many older gun barrels, and so soft that it's actually chewy when you accidentally bite a piece at the dinner table. Although Tungsten Matrix is available in waterfowl and upland loads, I use my small supply primarily in my double guns for pheasant hunting. kentgamebore.com