LEAD SHOT 101, by Dave McCracken
Lead has been used for projectiles since the time of the Iliad, when molded lead pellets served as ammo for soldiers using slings as distance weapons.
Since the advent of firearms, it's been the main material for shot and bullets.
These days, pure lead is seldom seen in shotgun pellets. That's a good thing. Pure lead is so soft it deforms if looked at hard. Shot is often "hardened" by alloying with Antimony. Premium shot is often as much as 6% Antimony, and the stuff found in promo loads about 1 or 2%. Some skeet loads and much buckshot are pure lead.
Some premium shot is plated for the tougher clay games and live pigeon shooting. This seems to aid staying round and improves lubricity moving through the forcing cone and choke, but it works best with hard, round shot that patterns tightly to begin with.
The modern plastic wad and hard, rounder shot have produced the potential for extra tight groups to the point where a given choke may go 20% tighter than when using ammo made to 1960's specs. This means some older guns may be hideously overchoked, and others are now adequately choked for ranges once thought outside their optimum. A good trap load makes most Cylinder Bore guns effective to 25 yards, and Modified to 35.
Any discussion of choke or load HAS to take the other into consideration. They are inseparable.
Back when I could do more quail, pheasant and woodcock hunting than nowadays, I often used shot quality to tailor a pattern to a mission. Busting through alder swamps and heavy brush for woodcock and quail often saw me load up a cheap promo load of 8's in an open choke for an effective 20 yard pattern. When shifting to more open cover and the possibility of longer shots and birds, a trap grade load of 8's in the same choke would tighten the pattern, and I could go to 7 1/2's in a trap load if I wanted even less spread. Before choke tubes were as common as criminals in Congress, this was common practice.
Reloaders have the ability to tailor a load to a mission. While it takes real testing to get the absolute best load for a mission, here's a few guidelines for reloaders and non reloaders alike.
For a tighter pattern without changing chokes, use harder, larger shot and move it slower. These deform less and stay in the pattern. To open a pattern up for close range, use softer, smaller shot and move it faster.
For long range stuff like turkey, waterfowl and buck loads, having the forcing cone lengthened to say, 1 1/2", will help. Less deformation.
For a given bird or ground game, use the middle recommended size for starters and adjust up or down if needed. For instance, a 1 1/8 oz trap load of 7 1/2's from a skeet choke is more than needed for preserve pheasants, but wild ringnecks flushing a bit wild would need more load and choke for best results. Something like Light Modified and 1 1/4 oz of 5's might be close to ideal for me, but Your Mileage May Vary.
Shot choices for clays are not simple nor easy, though some of us make too much of it and choke.. Good choices run from 7 1/2's through 8's and 8 1/2's to 9's. Close shots take the smaller sizes, Skeet goes best for most folks with 9's. I use 8 1/2's for most stuff in warmer times, and go to 7 1/2's in winter to bust those harder targets. As a rule of thumb, one can figure on 9's or 8 1/2's for stuff up to 25 to 30 yards, 8's out to 35 and 7 1/2's for the longer stuff. Rabbit targets in SC have more rugged construction and 7 1/2's are a good choice for these at any range. When in doubt, go to a larger pellet.
Remember that size and the numbers run backwards. 8's are bigger than 9's, etc. Buck runs the same. 1's are bigger than 2's.
Most defensive uses see buck shot as the load of choice. The most popular is 00 buck. It has a proven track record. The .33" caliber pellets in the better loads with plated or hard shot and buffering to keep things round work well out to whatever distance they stay together in a 15" pattern.
I've a hunch that 1 buck, slightly smaller than 00 or 0, is the best all around buck for "Serious" work. BUT only testing will establish what will do the job best in your shotgun and in your use environment.
In most home defense scenarios, smaller shot will hit as a semi solid mass and even 9's at 10 feet can be effective. Whether or not using, say, trap loads to protect one's family is the best approach cannot be answered with a one size fits all response.
For beginners getting into shotguns and the clay games, get the lightest, cheapest promo loads with appropriate size shot and use them until say, 60-75% of your targets are busting nicely. Then move to a light trap load and see the difference. Work up by degrees, and leave the barnburners for when your fit, technique and form are very good.
Dave McCracken has been shotgunning longer than many shooters have been alive. He regularly posts on TheHighRoad.org and TheFiringLine.com. This article is reprinted here with his permission; reprinting or redistributing this article without his permission is expressly prohibited.