Light Weight Steel Shot Loads

Ducks shot light weight steel loads

Opening day dawned fine and clear as it usually does for us on Lake Ellesmere and my shooting mate and I were enjoying the day. It was the season directly before the introduction of mandatory steel shot and we had a box of “steel” each to evaluate. Mid morning we both decided to try this “steel” and loaded our guns and waited for the next target. A lone paradise duck pulled in to the decoys over the 30m sticks and received a shot at around 20m. Several things happened all at once. Firstly the duck lost lots of feathers! Then it squawked, then it got another round, and another until both mags were pretty much empty then it started a long shallow dive and hit the water around 200 m away.

The bird was dispatched and recovered and we loaded our guns up with steel again and received quite similar results until we went back to using lead in disgust.

The following season I invested in a 20 gauge to avoid using steel shot and shot with that gun quite happily and with good success. To be honest I was picking the shots very carefully as I was a bit mistrustful of anything that was smaller in the bore than I was used to.

Unfortunately I am not the kind of person who can leave something alone so I started doing some reading on steel shot and its effectiveness on waterfowl. One thing which became apparent is that it is an over simplification to say go down 2 shot sizes and use no tighter choke than half. Articles were written by people full of half truths or info that simply did not apply to where I choose to gather my ducks from.

I started by buying a box of every brand of steel I could get my hands on and patterning it in the guns I had at the time. I then cut one shell open from each box and looked at the shot quality and had some of it hardness tested and chronographed every load. A couple of brands I had pressure tested too. I ended up with a lot of info and no real answers but I knew which brand of shell was the fastest which brand had round shot and how much shot was in each shell and which shells patterned the best.

The Book of Revelations

I purchased a book called "The Status of Steel" by Ballistic Products Incorporated - BPI. I sat down and read this book from cover to cover twice before I slept. It seemed obvious to me that these guys knew quite a lot about this subject and the biggest thing they were preaching was SPEED KILLS. I was on a mission! The book had lots of loading data in it and I wanted to try some now!

Calls to the retailers in Christchurch for components were not particularly encouraging at all until I called Richard at Wilhelm Arms and Optics. He found and sourced some propellant called Alliant steel. This was exactly the stuff I wanted and after some soul searching I bought most of his stocks. Then I started trying for the other components I needed. The wads proved to be a problem as were the 3 inch cases and the shot – at least the primers were available! Not to be discouraged I opened an account at BPI and imported all of my own stuff.

I loaded only 32 gram shells that were above the 1520fps mark and used #2 shot exclusively. Testing indicated that these were superior to anything available off the shelf at the time. They patterned and shot well even if the recoil was vigorous.

The following season saw us huddled in the maimai again, this time with my mag full of the reloaded shells. To say I had a good day is an understatement as I doubt I have shot that well since. My only complaint was the fierce recoil and the poor results with cripple stopping when the birds were paddling. There was also an unexpected bonus as all of the shops ran out of ammo after opening day (most still run out of the good stuff!) and you could not get ammo for love or money. I had a seemingly inexhaustible supply as long as my component stocks held out.

Following more research I came across a company called Reloading Specialists Incorporated or RSI for short.

Unlike BPI their data used spent cases that had been picked up and only marketed two 12 gauge wad designs so I ordered a bag of each. The wads turned up mid duck shooting season and were the start of another turning point for my reloading of steel shot.

Amongst all of the data in their handbook was a high velocity load (above 1650fps) and I wondered if this might be the answer to my cripple stopping loads. I followed the recipe in the book and noted with some interest that the charge weight was for 7/8 oz of shot. I loaded 10 rounds with steel #4 shot and tested then, the results on the pattern board were ok but not startling. I had a few left so took them down to the lake and used them up .They certainly worked a treat and my mate observed that they beat the water to steam all around the crippled bird!

I loaded some of these same recipe in #3 shot and was surprised at how effective they were on ducks and at how little recoil they generated. I spent more time picking through the loading data pages of my original BPI manual and found a 2¾ inch load that was running at 1600 fps! I had the wads on hand so I ordered some of the powder and loaded shells as soon as the powder arrived.

Time for pressure testing. The results came back and it seems that some of the books claims were wrong! The load was actually doing more like 1700fps but the pressure was far too high! I loaded some more and sent them back for testing this time the pressure was in the acceptable levels and the velocity was a bit more sedate (not by much).

I loaded enough of these shells to do the whole of last season. I gave some to each of my mates on opening day and asked them for their thoughts on how well they went- I didn’t mention what weight of shot was in them or the speed or the shot size (#3). The results came back fairly favorably as most of the boys said they killed well but doubted the speed was high enough as the recoil was too low!. Nobody believed they had shot 7/8 oz loads when I told them and all wanted more. I have spent the last season trying these loads in various waterfowling situations, and they perform well. They will not replace the big boomer loads for the ultimate long range pass shooting only because of the smaller shot sizes used in the light loads that are required to keep the pattern effective. (Remember to keep the pellet energy up you either use big shot or high velocity.) But these loads are reliable performers on ducks and geese over decoys and for shots inside 45m.

So Why Are These Loads So Effective?

Most of us have been conditioned to use the 1 1/8 steel shot loads at a minimum of 1500 fps and now believe they are sufficient for most of our waterfowling situations. For a lot of situations a lot of shooters are using a load that is far more powerful than is required for the job at hand. Some shooters are suffering from the effects of the recoil these shells generate and the life span of their shotgun will be suffering too.

If you use this load with 1 1/8oz #2 shot and are happy with it then you can get the same pattern density and pellet strike energy by dropping down to a 7/8 oz shot charge of #3 shot and increasing the velocity. If you shoot 32g of #3 shot at 1500fps try 7/8 of #4 shot at higher velocity. The results will be very similar. It is very easy to think these loads will not work but if you load them and shoot them with an open mind then you may be quite surprised with the results you obtain.

How To Load Your Own Steel Shells

Printable Simplified Instructions.

There is no real danger loading steel shot but you must be prepared to follow instructions and use what is listed in the load data to the letter. Any deviation has the potential to generate either dangerously high pressure or an unsatisfactory load.

I will go through loading a cartridge step by step so you can see what it is all about and how to go about it. And explain some of the pit falls.

Source Your Components

Obtaining all of the bits and pieces is the hardest part. The powders are readily available in the case of the load I will be assembling in this article. DuPont 800X, Target Products SP36 cases, BPI CSD078 wads, #3 steel shot and Fiocchi 616 primers.

Make Your Pellet Counter and Wad Pusher

A homemade wad pusher and pellet counter with some shot and a loading block.

Gear for steel shot reloading

The pellet counter is made from an old primer tray that any rifle reloader will happily donate. The small rifle size primer tray works best and you can close off the unwanted holes with any sealer –RTV is sometimes a bit sticky and will attract extra pellets which can cause problems. You could also drill holes in a piece of wood too if you wish or just weigh each charge on scales. How you do the counting or weighing is up to you as long as the shot weight is consistent and accurate.

Each batch of pellets has a slightly different weight per pellet so you may have to change your pellet counter for each new batch of shot you buy. In any case you should at least check the charge weight. You will also need a separate pellet counter for each shot size and charge weight The shot count is likely to be over 100 pellets so be prepared to do 2 scoops with half of the shot in each scoop. Don’t be tempted to try and set up a charge bar in a reloading press to do the shot drop as the bridging of pellets and the inexact nature of the bushing will lead you into trouble.

A wad pusher can be used to compress the wad onto the powder, or you can use the one on the loading machine but be careful here. Steel wads are very thick and will often stick on the outside of the drop tube when you are trying to apply wad pressure. This will pull the wad back off the powder. If you push the wad into the case with the factory wad guide and drop tube then remove the case from the press you can apply wad pressure with a hand held rammer before you drop in the shot. A piece of 16mm doweling about 200 mm long with a ball handle is perfect. You can modify the factory installed drop tube so it does not lift the wad by reducing its diameter or swaging it to a different shape. I have fitted a 20 gauge rammer tube to my press and it works well, but you still have to remove the shell from the press to put in the shot.

Find a Reloading Press

Just about any machine will do and chances are that you will have one in the back shed. I am using a MEC in the pictures for this article because it gives nice crimps but any press will do. The charge bar system for dropping powder will be able to be used to drop the powder for this load but if you start using fluffy powders like Alliant Steel then you will have to weigh out each charge individually. Set up the charge bar to drop the recommended weight of powder.

The machine will also be used to de-prime and re-size the shells. A word here on straight tube cases. They are the ones with a separate base wad in them - they are the best for steel loading as they have the larger internal volume. The old Winchester AA cases are useless as they are physically too small. Only reload each case once. If you use your cases too often then crimp opening pressure will lower, the shell will open too easily causing a blooper. There is also a risk of the tube section pulling out of the base cup on firing. Don’t use cases with corroded cups or cases with any damage whatsoever as they will result in inferior or dangerous reloads.


Steel wads. Note the slitting in the right hand wad.

Steel shot wads

This is a huge part of the patterning ability of your reloads. The wads you need to use for steel are nothing like the old lead wads. The plastics used in their manufacture are much tougher as they will protect your barrel from the steel shot (that is not much softer than the barrel). You cannot substitute old lead style wads in these loads and you can also not re-use second hand wads like we used to in the old days for our lead loads. Most of the steel wads you buy are not slit.

Slit your steel wads.

Slitting steel shot wads

This is an important job. If you forget to slit a wad the wad will cling to the shot and fly like a slug for very long distances and the shell will be worthless and dangerous to others in the general vicinity. You can use any number from 2 to 6 slits and it is advisable to slit the wad no further down than 2/3 of the cup depth. I slit all of my wads with 3 cuts to around 2/3 of the cup depth using a pair of strong scissors (buy your own scissors for this job as when you wreck the ones out of the kitchen drawers nothing will save you from the other half!). If you wish you can make a jig and use a craft knife - how you cut them does not matter as long as they are cut.

When you fill the wads with shot you must ensure that the wad is not over filled- remember the wad will protect your barrel from the steel shot. If the shot touches the barrel without the wads protection then it will score or scratch the bore. So visually check each shell to make sure the wad is not overfilled or that the wad petals are twisted allowing shot to escape the protection of the wad. The load shown in the accompanying photos is easy to assemble as the wad has a compressible section. This is uncommon with steel shot wads. Most of the steel wads are of fixed length so you have to use filler wads inside the base of the shot cup to bring the shot column up to the correct height.


As in any process organization brings success. Organise the bench only with the components you are using for that load at that time. The loading of steel loads is not as fast as the loading of old lead loads but when you get going it is really not that bad. I have chosen to use pictures to get through this part as they tell a thousand words.I am starting with cases that I have re-sized and re-primed.

Drop powder into cases.

Adding Shot Powder

Use the wad guide on the press to put in the wads.

Insert wads

Put pressure on the wad column.

Put pressure on the wad column

Drop shot into the cases using your home made pellet counter.

Adding shot to the case

Close the crimps.

Close the crimps on the cases

Your ammo is almost ready to go - note the height of the shot in the wad in the open cartridge, well below the top of the wad.

Finished cartridges

How do I get my hands on some components and have a go.

Richard at Wilhelm Arms and Optics is still able to supply some componentry for steel loading. However, since the response was far less than expected, he will not be maintaining stocks of components for steel shot loading. He still has powders suitable for steel loads and also Fiocchi 616 primers. Other items could be obtained from Ballistic Products in America. Richard can be reached by phoning 03 338 7880, Tues-Fri 10.00am until 6.30pm, or e-mail at any time (click Email Us in the footer of this page).

Both Richard and I accept no liability for damage either personal or to equipment from the making and/or firing of loaded ammunition using techniques or data contained within this article.


Printable Simplified Instructions.