High-ve­loc­ity shells drop more ducks and geese, right? Not so fast…

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By Phil Bour­jaily

Think high-ve­loc­ity shot­shells drop more ducks and geese? Not so fast. The au­thor lays out the case for choos­ing less speed and big­ger shot.

By Phil Bour­jaily

WHILE I’D NEVER DRUNK deeply of the high-ve­loc­ity shot­shell Kool-Aid, I had sipped enough over the years to be con­cerned when I saw the ammo selec­tion for our three-day Saskatchewan wa­ter­fowl hunt. We could shoot any­thing we wanted, so long as it was 13⁄8-ounce Rio steel loads at 1,300 fps. How would we kill any­thing with pel­lets so slow? We might as well throw marsh­mal­lows.

Those shells dropped ev­ery­thing. Big ducks, lit­tle ducks, geese, and cranes fell to our dawdling pel­lets. I kept on shoot­ing slow steel through­out sea­sons at home and had no prob­lems at all, even with fat, 12-pound gi­ant Canadas in the bit­ter cold.

We’ve all been told that speed kills when it comes to shot­gun loads. The idea has been sold to us for decades that ve­loc­ity is the best way to make steel shot more ef­fec­tive on ducks and geese. I al­ways thought “fast enough” meant north of 1,450 fps. Now I won­der. In an ef­fort to come up with some con­crete an­swers about shot ve­loc­ity, I joined Fed­eral’s en­gi­neers in shoot­ing var­i­ous steel loads at gelatin blocks last spring, and I pored over data gen­er­ated by the late Ed Lowry’s shot­gun bal­lis­tics pro­gram. Spoiler alert: Speed does kill. But slower, big­ger pel­lets are just as ef­fec­tive, and in bal­lis­tics, there is no such thing as a free lunch. When you blast pel­lets down­range faster, there are trade-offs you have to con­sider.

Here are my top four lessons learned, some of which may seem con­tra­dic­tory, but that’s be­cause there’s more than one way to skin a goose.


In the Fed­eral test, size 2 shot driven at 1,635 fps pen­e­trated 4 inches into bal­lis­tic gelatin at 40 yards. Size 1 shot driven at 1,450 fps pen­e­trated 33⁄4 inches. How­ever, BBs at the slower 1,450 fps out­did both, pen­e­trat­ing 41⁄4 inches. (See side­bar for more re­sults.)

The Take­away: Yes, speed kills. All else be­ing equal, an in­crease in ve­loc­ity of about 200 fps is roughly the equiv­a­lent of shoot­ing one shot size larger. On the other hand, if you forgo the ex­tra speed and use shot that is two sizes larger (ac­tu­ally three, as the rarely seen B shot lies be­tween BBs and No. 1s), the big, slow shot hits the hard­est.


The faster you drive a round pel­let, the faster it slows down, so the most dra­matic ad­van­tages of high ve­loc­ity oc­cur at shorter ranges. Study­ing the Lowry data, I found that at ranges up to 20 yards, a 1,700 fps load of No. 1 shot out-pen­e­trates 1,400 fps BBs. But be­yond 20 yards, the ta­bles be­gin to turn, and at 40 yards and far­ther, the heav­ier BBs re­tain enough en­ergy to sig­nif­i­cantly out-pen­e­trate the 1s. Also, as a gen­eral rule, the faster the pel­lets are trav­el­ing, the more open the pat­tern, of­ten by 5 to 10 per­cent, though big­ger shot usu­ally pat­terns tighter than smaller shot.

The Take­away: If you feel the need to hit birds harder over de­coys, smaller shot driven at higher ve­loc­ity is the ticket. But for long-range shoot­ing, your best bet is to go big­ger, not nec­es­sar­ily faster.


Part of the price you pay with in­creased ve­loc­ity is heav­ier re­coil— and it’s a dif­fer­ence you will no­tice. Boost the ve­loc­ity of a pay­load by 250 fps, and you in­crease re­coil up to 33 per­cent. With the re­ally heavy high-ve­loc­ity loads, the kick reaches into dan­ger­ous-game-ri­fle ter­ri­tory of 50 to 60 foot-pounds of en­ergy.

Ducks and geese aren’t that dan­ger­ous. They can be hard to hit, how­ever, and added re­coil makes them harder yet.

The Take­away: Fast loads aren’t dead­lier than slow ones if they make you flinch or pull your head off the stock and miss the tar­get.


Man­u­fac­tur­ers tout shorter leads as a ben­e­fit to high-ve­loc­ity shells. And it’s true. On a 90-de­gree cross­ing shot at 40 yards, No. 2 shot at 1,700 fps re­quires about 10 inches less lead than the same shot size at 1,450 fps. But most hard crossers are missed by feet, not inches. At closer ranges and gen­tler an­gles—the shots most hunters can hit—the dif­fer­ence be­tween stan­dard- and high-ve­loc­ity leads is min­i­mal. Plus, larger shot also re­duces the time of flight to the tar­get and the nec­es­sary for­ward al­lowance—not by as much, but enough to fur­ther lessen an al­ready small ad­van­tage. The Take­away: If you’re passshoot­ing and you’re good at it, ex­tra ve­loc­ity may help you hit more birds. Other­wise, it prob­a­bly won’t make a dif­fer­ence.


do hit a lit­tle harder in­side 20 yards, but they’re not the clear-cut so­lu­tion they’ve been made out to be. Achiev­ing more clean kills with steel is all about un­der­stand­ing the ben­e­fits and trade-offs of dif­fer­ent loads and choos­ing what works for you in spe­cific sit­u­a­tions.

Go faster and smaller for birds over de­coys if you have trou­ble mak­ing clean kills. You’ll hit them harder with more pel­lets, and as a bonus, your pat­terns will be slightly more open and eas­ier to hit with. If you pass-shoot, you might go both big and fast to max­i­mize en­ergy and shorten leads, as long as the added re­coil doesn’t make you whiff shots you’d other­wise make.

That said, I have been sur­prised by the ef­fec­tive­ness of slower steel since I started shoot­ing it again. For me, in most sit­u­a­tions, choos­ing big­ger pel­lets at slower speeds is the way to go, be­cause it in­creases en­ergy with­out boost­ing re­coil. So, slow down, take it easy. Pick shells in the 1,400 fps range, give or take, and you’ll find that most of the time with steel shot, big, slow, and steady win the race.

Take Him! For shots be­yond 20 yards, big­ger— not faster—pel­lets hit hard­est.

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