Landers: Pheasant hunters must adjust to steel shot


This year’s ban on using lead shot at Eastern Washington pheasant-release sites has snapped a few upland-bird hunters to attention.

Waterfowl hunters have been required to use nontoxic shot for a quarter century, but the age of steel or other nontoxics is a new era for pheasant hunters.

Will steel bring down a rocketing rooster pheasant?

Will steel ruin the barrels on the family heirloom Browning Superposed?

Yes and yes.

As the state gets the lead out, it’s time for upland-bird hunters to get up to speed on steel, which is harder than the metal in many older shotguns. The impact of steel shot on a barrel’s choke can be significant on some guns, especially good over-unders or side-by-sides that use thin-wall barrels to save weight.

I’ve received several calls and emails from readers after my Sept. 22 column on the latest Washington rule phasing out the use of lead. Most of them want to know if steel shot will harm their specific shotgun.

The general answer: Check with your manufacturer.

Even gunsmiths are chary to give a firm rule of thumb, although they say nearly all shotguns built in the past two decades would be geared up for the hard properties of steel.

On the other hand, steel shot should be avoided in nearly any older gun with a full choke.

Admittedly, getting specifics even from gun manufacturers can be a little tough. The spokesman for Sturm, Ruger & Co. on Wednesday said she’d have to refer any calls from a newspaper regarding the effects of steel shot on Ruger shotgun barrels to the company’s legal department.

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But other shotgun experts and manufacturer websites leave us with reasonably solid advice.

• Steel shot shells are much cheaper than bismuth and other nontoxic alternatives, making them more appealing to hunters with firearms compatible for steel.

• If a shotgun barrel has not been tested or designed to be compatible with steel shot, you would be putting your barrel at risk to shoot steel.

• Bismuth and some other nontoxic shots have qualities similar to lead and should not harm most barrels, says Cabela’s and some other retailers.

However, Winchester says shooters should consider HEVI-SHOT, Winchester Extended Range and other high-density nontoxic loads to be the same as shooting steel when selecting a choke tube. The WinChoke tubes and nearly all other modern tubes are nontoxic shot compatible.

• All current Browning shotguns with the Invector or Invector-Plus choke tube system are steel-shot compatible with current factory loads. However, the company does not recommend using steel shot with Invector full or extra-full chokes because they pattern too tightly, sometimes resulting in a “blown” pattern.

• Older shotguns with conventionally choked barrels have limited compatibility with steel shot. In certain models, shooting steel shot may cause a slight “ring bulge” just inches behind the muzzle or irreversible damage or harm to the shooter depending on the firearm, Browning says.

• Winchester recommends avoiding use of steel shot through any firearms with a full choke. The company specifically warns against using steel in the Winchester Model 59 with a fiberglass barrel.

• Benelli experts give this succinct advice on chokes: “Nothing is gained by trying to shoot steel through a choke tighter than modified and we do not recommend doing so.”

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If you’ve never hunted with steel shot, here are some things to keep in mind:

• Unlike lead, steel rusts. Even barrels compatible with steel can show wear and tear from too many shots with a ball of shot welded together with rust.

• Biting on a steel pellet undetected in a pheasant breast can break a tooth much easier than chomping on shot made from softer metals.

• Start with a steel shot load two sizes larger than your favorite lead load. If you hunt pheasants with No. 6 lead shot, go to No. 4 in steel to get similar performance.

While I dealt with the performance of steel shot in my last column, here’s a bit of reassurance for the doubters:

• Since the steel shot is much harder, it stays round, and flies truer to the target. At 40 yards, a higher percentage of steel pellets will be on target (within a 30-inch circle) than lead loads, according to Remington’s website.

• Lead shot, which is easily deformed upon firing, develops a relatively long, large-diameter shot string. Steel shot, because it is three times harder than lead, stays round, and develops a shot string that is at least 50 percent shorter and 60 percent narrower than lead.

Thus, Remington says, steel provides a much more precise “hitting zone” than lead shot.

Steel shot’s main weakness is the energy its lighter weight loses at longer distances. This, of course, is easy to overcome.

Get a good dog, develop patience and don’t take long shots.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email

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Ethan Smith is a seasoned marine veteran, professional blogger, witty and edgy writer, and an avid hunter. He spent a great deal of his childhood years around the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona. Watching active hunters practise their craft initiated him into the world of hunting and rubrics of outdoor life. He also honed his writing skills by sharing his outdoor experiences with fellow schoolmates through their high school’s magazine. Further along the way, the US Marine Corps got wind of his excellent combination of skills and sought to put them into good use by employing him as a combat correspondent. He now shares his income from this prestigious job with his wife and one kid. Read more >>