Steel, Lead, and the Rule of Three for Shotshells

Over the years, it is has been often mentioned that a “rule of two” applies when using steel shot instead of lead. That little bit of misinformation has crippled countless birds. Tom Roster, in his two study, was able to show that #2 steel was more effective at all ranges on pheasants than smaller steel shot sizes. Rather than just two sizes larger than lead, it is a minimum of three sizes larger if you feel (as I do) that lead #5 is the best compromise for pheasants, four sizes larger if you think #6 shot is good pheasant medicine. It is easy to show what the hoary “rule of two” was always wrong headed.

Dr. Martin Fackler proved the value of ballistic gelatin as a tool for comparing the relative effectiveness of projectiles against soft tissues. While certainly ballistic gelatin does not have an airway, breathing, or circulation, it is tissue disruption that makes for clean kills. While hitting tail feathers isn't likely to produce good results regardless of load, penetration is the key barometer in wounding ballistics. Assuming we want a minimum of 1.5 inches of penetration to cleanly drop a pheasant or a large duck, here's how steel compares to #5 lead in terms of range. Using the KPY shotshell program from you can plug in any parameters you wish.

The above chart assumes 1-1/8 oz. payloads for all shells. Steel fails horribly compared to lead in the penetration department, despite going two sizes larger in shot diameter and being launched at a faster, 1500 fps three foot muzzle velocity.

Using our 1.50 inch penetration guideline for pheasants and large ducks, #5 lead launched at 1330 fps three foot muzzle velocity maintains this minimum performance level to 67.8 yards. Faster loads of larger steel fail by comparison. 1500 fps steel #3 maintains the 1.5 inch threshold to 46 yards, #2 steel to 55.3 yards. This is done with the assumption of 1500 fps MV steel loads, to make steel look as good as possible, though 1400 fps loads or so may be what you are considering. Using the old "rule of two," lead has over 47% more lethal range than faster steel.

For geese, #2 lead is used as the standard along with a 2.25 inch minimum penetration standard. At 1330 fps, the #2 lead maintains this to 75.4 yards. Steel "B" at a faster 1500 fps can only manage 45.5 yards. The "rule of two" fails again, this time by an even greater margin. Lead #2 has a 2.25 in. penetration range more than 65% greater than the faster, 1500 fps steel B.

Dentists might prefer that you shoot steel. There is of course both the associated ricochet and gun barrel forcing cone and choke wear issues on top of that to be aware of. Nevertheless, steel is here to stay not on the basis of performance, but on the basis of cost. In terms of wounding ballistics, the "rule of two" has always been wrong-headed, with the "Rule of Three" far more appropriate yet still second-rate compared to lead. Aside from the poor penetration, there is another issue with steel that rears its ugly head when using more effective, larger shot sizes. The reduced pellet count comes into play, where there may no longer be sufficient pellets to populate a pattern as shooting ranges increase.

This all may sound like gloom and doom, but it really isn't that bad. To get the most out of steel, using three shot sizes larger than you would with lead and restricting shots to ranges that have adequate patterns as shown by your patterning board is a reasonable path. Though you'll not get close to Kent Tungsten-Matrix or Nice Shot performance with steel, "within range" is what is important.


Above are a couple of Kent Fasteel 1-1/4 oz. three inch, 12 gauge steel loads at 1425 fps three foot muzzle velocity. Though the pellet counts don't compare well to lead, Kent Tungsten-Matrix, Nice Shot, or similar density loads, as long as your shotgun and choke combination produces patterns that satisfy you, we can still do better than minimum gel penetration parameters at the most common hunting ranges.


Copyright 2011 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.

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