Lead Shot 101...


Dave McCracken
April 19, 2003, 06:41 AM
Lead has been used for projectiles since the time of the Iliad, when molded lead pellets served as ammo for soldiers using slings as distance weapons.

Since the advent of firearms, it's been the main material for shot and bullets.

These days, pure lead is seldom seen in shotgun pellets. That's a good thing. Pure lead is so soft it deforms if looked at hard. Shot is often "Hardened" by alloying with Antimony, Premium shot is often as much as 6% Antimony, and the stuff found in promo loads about 1 or 2%. Some skeet loads and much buckshot are pure lead.

Some premium shot is plated for the tougher clay games and live pigeon shooting. This seems to aid staying round and improves lubricity moving through the forcing cone and choke, but it works best with hard, round shot that patterns tightly to begin with.

The modern plastic wad and hard, rounder shot have produced the potential for extra tight groups to the point where a given choke may go 20% tighter than when using ammo made to 1960s specs. This means some older guns may be hideously overchoked, and others are now adequately choked for ranges once thought outside their optimum. A good trap load makes most Cylinder Bore guns effective to 25 yards, and Modified to 35.

Any discussion of choke or load HAS to take the other into consideration. They are inseparable.

Back when I could do more quail, pheasant and woodcock hunting than nowadays, I oft used shot quality to tailor a pattern to a mission. Busting through alder swamps and heavy brush for woodcock and quail oft saw me load up a cheap promo load of 8s in an open choke for an effective 20 yard pattern. When shifting to more open cover and the possibility of longer shots and birds, a trap grade load of 8s in the same choke would tighten the pattern, and I could go to 7 1/2s in a trap load if I wanted even less spread. Before choke tubes were as common as criminals in Congress, this was common practice.

Reloaders have the ability to tailor a load to a mission. While it takes real testing to get the absolute best load for a mission, here's a few guidelines for reloaders and non reloaders alike.

For a tighter pattern w/o changing chokes, use harder, larger shot and move it slower. These deform less and stay in the pattern. To open a pattern up for close range, use softer,smaller shot and move it faster.

For long range stuff like turkey, waterfowl and buck loads,having the forcing cone lengthened to say, 1 1/2",will help. Less deformation.

For a given bird or ground game, use the middle recommended size for starters and adjust up or down if needed. For instance, a 1 1/8oz trap load of 7 1/2s from a skeet choke is more than needed for preserve pheasants,but wild ringnecks flushing a bit wild would need more load and choke for best results. Something like Light Modified and 1 1/4 oz of 5s might be close to ideal for me, but YMMV.

Shot choices for clays are not simple nor easy, though some of us make too much of it and choke.. Good choices run from 7 1/2s through 8s and 8 1/2s to 9s. Close shots take the smaller sizes, Skeet goes best for most folks
with 9s. I use 8 1/2s for most stuff in warmer times, and go to 7 1/2s in winter to bust those harder targets. As a rule of thumb, one can figure on 9s or 8 1/2s for stuff up to 25 to 30 yards, 8s out to 35 and 7 1/2s for the longer stuff. Rabbit targets in SC have more rugged construction and 7 1/2s are a good choice for these at any range. When in doubt, go to a larger pellet.

Remember that size and the numbers run backwards. 8s are bigger than 9s, etc. Buck runs the same. 1s are bigger than 2s.

Most defensive uses see buck shot as the load of choice. The most popular is 00 buck. It has a proven track record. The .33" caliber pellets in the better loads with plated or hard shot and buffering to keep things round work well out to whatever distance they stay together in a 15" pattern.

I've a hunch that 1 buck, slightly smaller than 00 or 0, is the best all around buck for "Serious" work. BUT only testing will establish what will do the job best in your shotgun and in your use environment.

In most HD scenarios, smaller shot will hit as a semi solid mass and even 9s at 10 feet can be effective. Whether or not using say, trap loads to protect one's family is the best approach cannot be answered with a one size fits all response.

For beginners getting into shotguns and the clay games, get the lightest, cheapest promo loads with appropriate size shot and use them until say, 60-75% of your targets are busting nicely. Then move to a light trap load and see the difference. Work up by degrees, and leave the barnburners for when your fit, technique and form are very good.

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Dave McCracken
April 20, 2005, 10:06 AM
Up for LB and whoever else needs some guidance....

Bwana John
April 20, 2005, 11:00 AM
Great post!
Would you care discuss steel, bismuth, tungsten, depleated uranium, or any of the other subsitutes for lead that are being used?

Dave McCracken
April 20, 2005, 11:35 AM
OK, but in a new thread. Stay tuned....

April 20, 2005, 03:42 PM

Great Post!

Stacking shells...*grin*
Oh don't forget popcorn loads in the new thread. *smirk*

April 20, 2005, 09:26 PM
I concur on the suggestion of #5 lead shot for wild pheasants. I hammered several with my 1100 - 410 last season.

Out of a modified choked barrel 30 - 35 yards was no problem.

I still wish lead was allowed for waterfowl, #5 lead shot out of a 3 inch mag 12 guage was deadly on mallards or other large ducks out to 55 yards. I still believe that as many ducks have been and are crippled by steel shot as those that were dying from ingestion of lead shot.

The current trends of differing shot alloys needs to be tempered with the average Joe's pocket book. at nearly 10.00$ for tungsten and other shot types are expensive. After much experimenting i went with #2 steel shot for pass shooting at ducks as long as i keep ranges below 40 yards. I found that i would rather have more pellets in the air rather than larger pellet sizes.

I also agree on the choice of #1 buckshot for best defense load.

Your mileage may vary.


Dave McCracken
April 21, 2005, 10:43 AM
Sm, feel free to post the recipe. I do recall some cream of wheat loads. Not recommended, BTW. That stuff is pure heck to clean out of the bore.

12-34, that debate about whether the early steel loads hurt more than helped will never quite go away completely. Early steel goose loads I found aggravating as beach sand in my trunks. About 1985 or so enough R&D happened that the newer stuff, while not as effective as good old galena, was effective enough to give humane and certain death to waterfowl.

April 21, 2005, 11:13 AM
Have used for buffering in loads.

I am in the #5 hard shot camp - big time. This shot size , for me, has been almost ...I cannot explain it - kinda like why the payload and bore relationship for the 28 ga " works better that it is supposed to". It just does AEB ( as evidenced by) the pattern board and critters that have fallen. Have used in the 28, 20 and 12 ga loadings.

Steel shot...err...I read the NILO reports...let me just say I don't always agree with the folks that hug trees, don't like leather...and some of the powers that be that "recommend" or "suggest" what is best for critters and habitat.

NILO is "Olin" backwards for you new folks. Olin like in Winchester ammo. :)

I have 2 3/4" shells for everything. Take the old AA "Pigeon Load" and duplicate with #5 hard shot, felled many waterfowl.

Again in 2 3/4" - I had a 1 3/8 oz loading using # 5 hard shot....yeah buddy it felled them.

The AA Magnum loads ( with grex buffering) is a great loading, with 1 1/2 ozs of Copperplated shot.

When I get back to having more time and all - I want to play with the Bismuth more...still think #5 Bismuth would give some great loadings...as would #8.5 for non toxic ranges...

April 21, 2005, 11:18 AM
I remember the first year I used steel shot for ducks...I thought the Mallards had sprouted Kevlar feathers . . .

My favorite Duck load [Lead] was a 2-3/4" of #4. I could swear I saw the steel #4's bounce off "Ole Greeny"

April 21, 2005, 11:28 AM
I thought the Mallards had sprouted Kevlar feathers . . . :D :D

January 1, 2010, 08:26 PM
OH boy, how I remember shooting ducks with lead.
We mainly used #6 cause the pattern was full(ghost rider) and if you were on the bird dropped period.
We used #4 magnum for high flyers and geese and again they dropped like a rock.
Then the steel rule came, I tryied #6 steel......might as well shot rice at them. Moved to #4 steel and had some success but we wounded more than we killed. Heck, the proof was in trying to finish one off in the pond. With #6 lead one shot and it was done. Steel #4 would hit dead center of the bird and his tail would wiggle as he swam off. We learned to put 2 or 3 guns on the bird (If it was a good bird) count to 3 and all fired just to fill the pattern and it worked but this is rediculous to have to do.
Steel has made duck hunting all twisted. Yea , no lead poisening but the wounded birds that died later makes me wonder weather it was really a good idea. I have hunted ducks in lousiana for 43 years and I have seen just about everything involed with shot types ,chokes, barrels, pumps, autos, double barrels......oh and have used an oar too!

January 10, 2010, 03:51 PM
+1 for lead #5

January 10, 2010, 04:08 PM
1 1/4 oz #5 lead is just about the ideal field load for Pheasant, etc.

#5 shot runs out of pattern density and remaining energy at just about the same yardage.

#6 lacks penetration before the pattern gets too thin.
#4 runs out of pattern density before it runs out of penetration.


January 10, 2010, 09:16 PM
#1, #3, and #5 nickel plated lead shot was all great for waterfowl in my opinion. I believe the Kent tungsten matrix is close performance wise, and it is available in the same sizes, but they have gone nuts with pricing. The halcyon days of grex buffered nickel plated shot, shot cups rolled in mica and powdered graphite, loads packed with nasty burning Blue Dot, overbored barrels, lengthened forcing cones, and custom choke tubes are as gone now as Nash and Bo Whoop.

January 11, 2010, 09:39 PM
We all know about shot size and patterns , chokes,etc.
If you are shooting a type of game and the shots are at a typical distance than you learn what works best.
As I stated, with lead in the marsh lands #6 lead FILLED the pattern and had effetive punch on killing ducks.
After steel came in we used 4, 3, 2, 1 etc. The sucsess or failure had to do with how close or far the shot was along with a little luck. The birds we picked up had few hits weather it was a close shot with 4 or a going away shot with 2 or 1. yea you can get them with 2 or 1 if you had a lucky pellet.
In short ........I hate steel shot. its a bird wounder , not a killer. IMO.

January 12, 2010, 10:49 AM
how about the bismuth/steel/tungsten w/e guide now? since we're ressurrecting 5 year old posts :neener:

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