Steel and lead are the most common and most affordable shotgun pellet materials. Steel is mandated for all waterfowl hunting and for some other types of hunting and shooting in some places because it’s non-toxic and won’t harm animals that ingest it. Lead is ballistically superior and still allowed for most upland hunting and target shooting. To switch back and forth successfully between the two, you need understand the differences between them. Here are ten things to know about the differences between lead and steel: Shot Size Lead is much denser than steel, at an average of 11.1 grams per cubic centimeter versus 7.86 g/cc for steel. Because steel is so much lighter than lead, you have to choose two or three pellet sizes larger to achieve similar results downrange in terms of energy delivered to the target. Steel 2 or even 1 shot is the equivalent of lead 4s, for example.
Currently, steel loads cost slightly more than lead, although the rising price of raw materials means lead shot prices are closing the gap. Shop around and you can find some very good deals on steel.
Steel is much harder than lead. Steel pellets don’t deform upon firing as soft lead pellets do. Round pellets fly truer, while deformed pellets encounter greater air resistance and slow down and flare off quickly. As a result, steel shot patterns very efficiently.
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As a rule of thumb, steel shot often patterns more tightly than lead. Use one degree more open choke for steel than you would for lead. However, this is just a guideline, and tends to be much truer of larger pellets (2 and larger) rather than smaller ones. The only way to know for sure is to pattern your gun.
Many very tight chokes such as turkey chokes, are marked “not for use with steel shot.” There’s good reason for that. Lead shot compresses and flows through choke, while steel does not. You stand a chance of damaging your gun and possibly yourself shooting steel through a turkey choke
For safety reasons, gun clubs have long prohibited clay target shooting with any shot larger than lead 7 ½. Because of the lower density of steel, slightly larger steel shot is permitted. ATA (Amatuer Trapshooting Association) rules allow steel 7 shot, NSCA (National Sporting Clays Association) allows 6 shot, which is roughly the equivalent of lead 7 ½. If in doubt, ask at your club what shot sizes and materials are allowed.
Steel shot loads are typically driven at higher velocities than lead. That’s because lighter steel pellets need to go faster to carry more energy downrange that penetrates birds and smashes targets. Lead, which is denser, doesn’t have to go so fast to be effective.
When you choose lead and steel loads, remember that increasing velocity increases recoil. Personally, I don’t see much reason to shoot steel faster than 1400-1500 fps, nor lead at speeds of greater than 1300 for hunting, or 1200 for clay shooting. Often I’ll go slower to save my shoulder.
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Many older guns may be damaged by steel shot. Because steel doesn’t compress or flow well, it can harm barrels made of softer steel, especially if they have chokes tighter than Modified. The problem is worse with size 2 or larger pellets. Some people gamble and shoot old guns with steel successfully, and I’m not afraid to shoot target sizes (6 and 7) out of my guns, although maybe I should be. The best course is to contact the manufacturer or ask a gunsmith.
Both lead and steel shot can be reloaded, but you can’t substitute one material for the other because they don’t weigh the same; an ounce of steel has much greater volume than an ounce of lead. You’ll need separate charge bars for steel and lead to properly meter the shot, and you’ll want to weigh all shot and powder charges frequently. “Steel” the most common steel shot powder, should be weighed for every shell because it drops very inconsistently.
Steel shot is hard and can bounce back or ricochet. Therefore, never shoot it at a target like a falling plate or at a steel pattern board or you might be hit with one of your own pellets. Lead shot is safe to shoot at such targets.