Kent Cartridge Guide to Waterfowl Loads

© Bret Ayers

This content is brought to you by Kent Cartridge as part of a Sponsored Content Program. Ducks Unlimited editorial staff played no role in the creation of this content.

Today’s waterfowl hunters have a wide range of options when it comes to selecting shotgun shells. But selecting the right kind of shot and loads can be confusing or intimidating for some people, especially those who are new to hunting. Have no fear. Kent Cartridge has created this guide to help you.

This resource covers the various kinds of Kent Cartridge shotgun shells available to waterfowlers, and explains how and where they excel. We’ll take a look at how to balance payload, velocity and pellet count, things you’ll need to consider and adjust accordingly to your hunting style and location. We will also explain the role of shot density, hardness and pellet size in choosing the right load for the kind of waterfowl hunting you’ll be doing. Our hope is that you’ll use the material we’re providing to become more confident when it comes time to selecting shotgun shells for your next hunt.

Kent Cartridge’s commitment to versatility and innovative excellence

If there’s one thing we know for sure at Kent Cartridge, it’s that waterfowl hunting is not a one-size-fits-all activity. We have many passionate waterfowlers on our staff, and they understand what discerning hunters desire and need from their ammunition. That’s why they work tirelessly to develop and refine our products to ensure we have just the right load for any waterfowling application. With this in mind, let’s look at some of the characteristics and attributes of each of our non-toxic shotgun shell offerings.

Steel Shot

Steel shot is the “go-to” choice of many waterfowlers and has stood the test of time by proving its effectiveness. More ducks and geese have fallen to steel shot in recent decades than any other kind of shotgun shell, a testimony to its performance. With a density or mass of 7.8 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cc), it’s the baseline of waterfowling shot materials. No. 3 pellets of steel, Bismuth and Tungsten Matrix placed side by side will all appear to be the same size, but the steel pellet will be lighter than the other two when weighed on a scale. Steel shot is also harder than the metals some chokes and barrels are made of, which is why it’s advisable to use only choke and barrel combinations approved for use with steel shot when shooting it.

Kent Cartridge’s Precision Steel™ loads use shot pellets that are precision ground to near-perfect uniformity in size and roundness. The result is uniform patterns downrange. Our Precision Plated Steel™ shot is manufactured to the same tolerances as Precision Steel but adds zinc plating to the pellets for corrosion resistance.

Photo © Joseph Edwards

As already stated, steel shot is extremely effective when used to take waterfowl at ethical hunting ranges. But its baseline 7.8 g/cc density causes energy to bleed off a bit faster than denser alternatives. This can be compensated for by using larger shot sizes than are used with other kinds of shot. For example, many ducks are comparable in size to pheasants, and hunters use No. 6, No. 5 or No. 4 shot when hunting those with lead shot. But the performance of steel shot in flight makes it advisable to use No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 shot sizes for ducks. The general rule of thumb is to go two shot sizes smaller (meaning pellets are bigger) for waterfowl.

Bismuth

Bismuth’s characteristics make it an outstanding choice for waterfowlers. Its density of 9.6 g/cc (compared to steel’s 7.8 g/cc) allows it to retain energy in flight over longer distances, and it’s soft as lead providing greater malleability, which is important in delivering impact energy into a bird. The combination of higher density and relative softness give Bismuth several advantages.

With Bismuth boasting 24% greater density than steel, you can choose two shot sizes smaller and deliver equal energy to steel. In a waterfowling situation where you’d typically choose No. 2 steel shot, No. 4 Bismuth will do the job. Using Bismuth in a smaller shot size gives you more pellets per shot, a denser pattern, and thereby greater probability of a lethal pellet hit. Because of Bismuth’s malleability, pellets deform somewhat on impact as they dump lethal energy into waterfowl. As a result, the knockdown power of Bismuth is outstanding. Bismuth’s greater density also allows it to be less vulnerable to wind drift, enhancing accuracy. Bismuth responds well to choke constriction because it isn’t as hard as steel, which means you can use Bismuth with most shotgun barrels and chokes.

Tungsten Matrix

First introduced in 1997, this Kent Cartridge legacy product is still the only approved non-toxic shot that matches the physical and ballistic properties of lead. It remains a benchmark in innovation with its optimal blend of density, softness and shape uniformity.

Most other tungsten-based shot on the market mixes nickel and iron with tungsten to attain the desired density. At Kent Cartridge, we combine pure tungsten powder with a special polymer binder in a patented mix that produces pellets matching the malleability and density of lead (10.8 g/cc). The process also results in superior pellet uniformity that is essential to outstanding patterns downrange. Our Tungsten Matrix pellets cut right through wind with minimal susceptibility to wind drift. The increased density of this shot compared to steel means hunters can choose shot two sizes smaller than they would use with steel while still maintaining per-pellet energy. Ability to use smaller shot means more pellets in the air per shot and greater pattern density, and with a softness equal to that of lead, Tungsten Matrix shotshells can be used in fixed-choke firearms and with chokes ranging from full to improved cylinder. As is the case with both lead and Kent Bismuth®, Tungsten Matrix pellets begin to flatten on impact with waterfowl to deliver outstanding bird-slaying impact energy.

Guide to load selection

Many variables are considered when choosing the proper shotgun shell load for a waterfowl hunt. The purpose of this guide is to assist you in understanding the optimal balance between shot size, shot type, payload and velocity in regards to the species of waterfowl you’ll be hunting, the hunt’s location, site setup and type of shotgun you intend to use.

Species

It’s widely understood that the larger the species of duck or goose, the larger the shot size recommended for hunting success. But with many new hunters experiencing their first waterfowl hunt this year, it’s worth reviewing that the smaller the number on the shotgun shell box, the larger each individual pellet is. No. 2 shot pellets, for example, are larger than No. 4 shot pellets. The larger the number of the shot size, the more pellets in the shell. The more pellets in the shell, the denser the pattern and higher chance of a lethal hit on a duck or goose. Let’s look at an example.

A 12-gauge, 3-inch shell with a 1-3/8-oz. load of No. 4 Kent Bismuth® contains 215 pellets that leave the barrel at 1,450 feet-per-second (fps). A shell with the exact same dimensions holding 1-1/4 oz. of No. 2 Fasteel® 2.0 has 156 pellets that leave the barrel at 1,500 fps. To a duck 10 yards away, it won’t matter which you use. But as distance increases and the shot spreads, the difference may become apparent because the Bismuth pattern will have 28% more pellets in it. At a range of 30 yards, the denser pattern provided by Bismuth could be a factor in your hunting success.

With smaller ducks such as teal, their size and speed present a challenge that requires a dense, forgiving pattern. Kent Cartridge’s 12-gauge, 1-1/4 oz., No.6 TealSteel® load contains 394 Precision Steel pellets. That’s nearly twice the amount of pellets in the No. 4 Bismuth loads we mentioned. And because teal are typically shot at close to medium ranges, our TealSteel offers an affordable, highly effective way to bag your limit.

Hunting location and weather conditions

This is where understanding payload and velocity come into play, especially when using steel shot. There’s only so much room for shot and powder in a shotgun shell. Put in more powder and you have to reduce the pellet count. Put in more pellets and you have less room for powder. It’s a balancing act requiring extensive research and testing of the kind our engineers at Kent Cartridge excel at.

Fasteel2.0 Long from Kent Cartridge on Vimeo.

Because steel shot is less dense than Bismuth and Tungsten Matrix, we have to play with physics a bit to maintain shot impact energy. Impact energy, density and speed are dependent on one another. Change one, and the others will have to change accordingly. If we reduce density, we must increase velocity to keep terminal energy levels up. Let’s crunch some numbers using real world shotgun shells and hunting applications.

Our Fasteel® 2.0 lineup offers a versatile range of length and payload options. For illustration purposes, we’ll consider 12-gauge, 3-inch shells with different payload configurations.

  • 1-1/8 oz. of No. 2 shot, 140 pellets, 1560 fps*
  • 1-1/4 oz. of No. 2 shot, 156 pellets, 1500 fps*
  • 1-3/8 oz. of No. 2 shot, 172 pellets, 1300 fps*

*muzzle velocity

Let’s say you’re hunting ducks in flooded timber. It’s a situation where long shots (30-40 yards) will be unlikely. Because your shots will be at close-range, it would make sense to choose a load that offers you more pellets (and therefore a denser pattern) at the expense of a bit of velocity. Load (C) above does that for you. Yes, you sacrifice a bit of speed and energy compared to the other loads, but you’ll have 32 more pellets in the air than load (A), and at ranges of 10-25 yards the velocity difference is negligible from a practical standpoint.

Now consider a different hunting situation. You’ll be hunting in a farm field for snow geese from a layout blind near a decoy spread. It’s not unreasonable to expect some longer shots in the 35-40 yard range. Such a situation requires the pellets you put downrange to maintain as much of their knockdown power as possible. To do that, you don’t want to sacrifice speed. Load (A) above would be a good choice. Load (A) lwith a muzzle velocity of 1560 fps delivers the payload to a bird 40 yards away with its pellets having the same terminal energy that load (C) does at 30 yards with a muzzle velocity of 1300 fps.

We’ve thrown a lot of numbers at you, but don’t panic. You will be doing this all in your head in no time if it’s new to you.

Weather

Weather impacts waterfowlers in a number of ways, wind drift is just one of them. Because steel shot is less dense than high-density shot, high winds can blow it off target and disperse patterns somewhat at longer ranges. It’s not so much of a factor when hunting in flooded timber or other locations where trees or terrain create a natural shelterbelt, but wind can really make long shots a challenge when hunting at prairie potholes and open fields. In these situations you’ll want to consider switching to a smaller payload, such as from load (C) above to load (A). The added speed exposes the pellets to wind for a shorter time and pushes them through to the target. Another option would be to go with a larger shot size where the added weight of each pellet offers a bit more wind resistance. But perhaps the best suggestion we can offer for hunting in high winds would be to switch from steel to Bismuth or Tungsten Matrix shot. The added mass of those high-density loads offers them greater resistance to wind drift and will require less drift compensation on your part.

Moisture is another weather element hunters must contend with, and waterfowlers will almost always find themselves in or near wet environments. Hunting can be excellent on foggy, drizzly days when birds are flying low, but that moisture needs to be cleaned off your gun, ammo and other gear quickly after the hunt to prevent rust and corrosion.

That’s why Kent Cartridge offers our Precision Plated Steel™ loads. They’re manufactured to the same tolerances as our Precision Steel but with zinc plating for corrosion resistance. This offers a degree of protection when shells are exposed to high humidity and limited direct moisture contact, whereas non-plated steel can readily rust after being exposed to high humidity, moisture, and especially saltwater environments.

Gauge, shell length and recoil – Kent Cartridge offers several waterfowl loads in 12- and 20-gauge that are highly effective on waterfowl and deliver an optimal balance between velocity, payload and recoil management. Generally the shorter the shell, the less recoil. Hunters who are sensitive to recoil may want to stick to 2-3/4" shells, which typically “kick” less than 3" and 3-1/2" shells. Since there’s less volume available for shot in shorter shells and sub-gauges, you could use smaller shot pellets to increase pellet count and pattern density. Here are two loads to compare.

  • 12-gauge, 3", 1-1/8 oz., No 2 steel shot, 140 pellets, 1560 fps,
  • 12-gauge, 2-3/4", 1-1/16 oz., 3 steel shot, 168 pellets, 1550 fps

As you can see, velocities on the two loads are nearly identical. The payload on (E) is a little lower than (D) in terms of weight, but it delivers 28 more pellets for a denser pattern downrange with less recoil to the shooter. The size of each pellet, however, is smaller with load (E) so the size of the waterfowl you’re hunting could be a factor in your choice.

Closing

We hope this guide makes load selection a bit easier for you. We’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to all the shotgun shell loads Kent Cartridge has to offer, and we really do have a load for every hunter and situation. We’ve provided a chart showing pellet counts and shot size to help you find the load best suited to your hunting needs. For more information, visit https://kentcartridge.com or drop by a Kent Cartridge retailer near you.

Fasteel 2.0 Timber Promo from Kent Cartridge on Vimeo.

This content is brought to you by Kent Cartridge as part of a Sponsored Content Program. Ducks Unlimited editorial staff played no role in the creation of this content.