Understanding The Need For Speed

By Brian Lovett

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Black Cloud shells being taken out of the box

During the past three decades, waterfowlers turned into speed freaks. You can’t blame them. When nontoxic shot became mandatory for duck and goose hunting in the early 1990s, initial steel offerings fell far short of the performance hunters had become accustomed to with lead, which is substantially denser than steel. As technology improved, astute engineers pushed steel loads at higher muzzle velocities, which improved downrange energy and overall lethality.

Hunters took note and began scooping up those increasingly swifter loads. But at some point, velocities hit unheard-of levels, prompting many to wonder if the speed kick had gone too far and how much muzzle velocity they really needed to cleanly kill ducks and geese at reasonable ranges.

The bottom line? Speed is important with steel shot, but it’s only part of the overall equation.

The Truth

“We consider velocity, payload weight and shot size when developing effective loads for waterfowl hunters—loads that will create a balance of deadly pattern density with sufficient downrange energy,” says Adam Moser, director of product engineering for Federal. “Generally speaking, with steel payloads for waterfowl, you won’t find many offerings slower than 1,300 to 1,350 fps, as the terminal performance begins to drop off below that. It’s all about downrange energy. Steel doesn’t maintain the velocity lead does. You have a much larger sphere of lower density to penetrate your target.”

Black Cloud High Velocity

Shorten leads and hit birds even harder. Equipped with the FLITECONTROL FLEX wad, Black Cloud FS Steel High Velocity delivers improved pattern density and consistency through both ported and standard waterfowl chokes.

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Black Cloud High Velocity packaging and shotshells

Generally, 3-inch 12-gauge loads with 1 1/8 to 1 1/4 ounce of BBB, BB, 1, 2, 3 or 4 steel perform best at about 1,350 to 1,500 fps, Moser says. “These payloads allow velocities with effective terminal performance across the shot size spectrum, assuming you pick the appropriate size for the game you are hunting,” he says. “It’s a good balance of getting enough pellets in there and getting good velocity. Payloads obviously vary for other gauges or shell lengths.”

The Downside Of Speed

Still, some shooters might suspect that if 1,500 is good, 1,600 or 1,700 might be better. Not necessarily, Moser says. There’s a point of diminishing returns. “Steel is very hard and non-forgiving. It doesn’t deform, and it’s spherical. So you have all of those round spheres pushing on each other, and they’re not necessarily maintaining a force vector in the direction your barrel is pointing. And the harder you push it, the worse that gets.”

Speed-Shok shells being gripped in a hand

Moser likens the phenomenon to a break in billiards, when a swiftly moving cue ball strikes a tightly grouped rack of other balls. “They’re all contained, and you hit them really hard from the back with that blast, or pressure, and they release and kind of set off on their divergent paths from one another,” he says. “Then you get pellets that get on the outside that drift because of air flow. With any material—steel, lead, bismuth or tungsten—the faster you push it, the more pattern density you’re going to lose at distance.”

Further, Moser says, the muzzle velocity engineers can build into a load is defined by the maximum chamber pressure specifications set by the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute.

Upland Steel

Federal Upland Steel serves up the patterns and power hunters need for hard-to-hit birds at a price that keeps them shooting all day. The loads’ high velocities make the most of the steel payload.

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Upland Steel packaging and shotshells

“Because lighter loads will naturally build less pressure, you can up the velocity and still stay within the specifications for chamber pressure,” he says. “Also, different gauges and shell lengths can have different pressure specifications. 3 1/2-inch 12-gauge has a higher pressure limit, which allows us to get more velocity out of an equivalent payload weight in a 3-inch shell.”

The Choice Is Yours

Ultimately, some shooters might favor slightly lighter—1 ounce, for example—loads that travel a bit faster or heavier payloads with slower velocities.

“To some degree, it becomes user preference,” Moser says. “Do you like lighter, faster loads for shorter leads, or slightly heavier and slower loads for more pellets on target?”