I am no doubt dating myself, but I had a lot of years of waterfowl hunting before lead shot was banned. To say I think steel is an abomination is an understatement. I honestly believe that a lot more ducks die of wounding loss than ever would have died from lead poisoning. But, the sad fact is, we are stuck with the stuff. The early steel shot ammo was so bad I stopped waterfowl hunting for several years. After two days of pounding snow geese with some of the first steel shot, many of them so close we could see the pellets hit, only to watch them fly off to die someplace else, I hung up my waders for a few years. Improvements came quickly back then and I reluctantly started waterfowl hunting again in the early nineties.
Bismuth and tungsten showed great promise as workable alternatives, but both are pretty much gone now. All the big ammo makers dropped tungsten waterfowl ammo due to the high cost of materials. As far as I know, bismuth is no longer loaded in shotshells, either. Hevi-Shot, a form of tungsten, is hanging in there, but has added steel shot to some of their waterfowl ammo to try and keep the cost down.
So, unless you are very rich, it’s steel or stay home.
I just got back from hunting on the South Texas coast at Bay Flats Lodge with Benelli and Federal ammo. I shot ducks with a Benelli Vinci for two days and a Super Black Eagle on the third. Not much to say about perfection in a shotgun, both worked flawlessly, but I have come to expect that from Benelli shotguns. I also shot quail one afternoon with a prototype of a soon to be introduced Franchi 28 gauge over/under shotgun. Franchi is a sister company of Benelli and the shotguns reflect that. It tore a hole in my heart to hand that gun back to Franchi’s Jens Krogh after the hunt. I’ll have one of my own as soon as possible.
The ammo was Federal and for ducks I used the new Close Range BlackCloud exclusively.
In 2007, Federal changed the rules with steel shot when they introduced BlackCloud ammo. The concept was to fix the pattern problems that are associated with steel shot. Steel tends to clump in the middle and leave the outer fringes of the pattern skimpy. So the Federal engineers designed a new pellet with a belt around the middle that they call FLITESTOPPER (FS). Most people describe the pellet as looking like the planet Saturn. The different aerodynamics of this pellet design cause it to fly differently than normal steel pellets and to migrate out in the pattern to fill the holes in the edges.
An unexpected side effect was the increased killing power of these new pellets. It became apparent to hunters, including myself, that BlackCloud killed waterfowl much better and faster than conventional steel. Sure, some of that was due to better patterns, but most of it was because of the far superior terminal performance of the new belted pellets.
They put these in the tried and true, rear-braking FLITECONTROL wad that was developed for turkey hunting, but has migrated to waterfowl and now upland ammo as well. This solid wad does not have slits in the cup and it is not designed to open up like a conventional wad. Instead it has “wings” that pop out in the rear once the wad is free from the shotgun barrel. These wings create drag and pull the wad back away from the shot column. The result is much tighter and more consistent down range patterns.
The newest waterfowl ammo is called BlackCloud Close Range and rather than combine conventional steel pellets with the Flightstopper pellets, these shells contain only Flightstopper pellets.
I have not been able to formally test it at the range yet, but I did see some surprising things on this hunt. While I expected wider patterns, when shooting cripples on the water (where you can see your pattern hit the water) I was amazed at the tight patterns, even at extended ranges. The ducks that I hit fell like we were shooting lead again, as these pellets do a lot of damage. Even at ranges that were not in the realm of “close range” this ammo worked great. Some of the ducks we shot were well into “long range” territory and the ammo performed beyond its name. I think that the effective range of this ammo is at least ten yards further than conventional steel shot and that perhaps Federal was hasty in naming it “Close Range.” This new generation of steel shot ammo is impressive. Like they say, it drops ducks like rain!.