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All Shot is Not Round: Pellet Shapes Shake Up Industry

All Shot is Not Round: Pellet Shapes Shake Up Industry
Federal's new steel Black Cloud and lead Prairie Storm loads have a combination of round pellets with and without the Saturn ring; round pellets are positioned up front during the loading process.

The traditional way of making shotshell pellets has long been to melt lead and pour it into a large pan, the bottom of which is full of tiny holes. Some companies locate the pan high in the air on the upper floor of a structure called a shot tower. Vibrating the pan causes the molten metal to emerge from the holes in the form of tiny droplets, and as they freefall through the air, surface tension causes each one to take on a spherical shape. A pool of water at the bottom of the shot tower serves to further cool the pellets and cushion their landing.

When fired from a shotgun a perfectly round pellet flies through the air in a relatively straight path, while a misshapen pellet is liable to randomly veer further off course during flight. For this reason, shotshell manufacturers have long sought to produce uniformly round pellets.

While round has proved to be the optimum shape for a shotshell pellet during its flight to the target, it leaves a bit to be desired once it arrives at its destination. Back when bullets loaded in centerfire rifle cartridges were made of solid lead, it was discovered that one with a flat nose blasted a larger wound channel through a deer than one with a rounded-nose profile.

A large wound channel kills more quickly than a smaller one simply because it disrupts more tissue. The same applies to a shotshell pellet, except it took awhile before someone came up with a way to increase lethality without greatly sacrificing pattern quality and ballistic efficiency.

A recent sign of new things to come was introduced by Federal Premium Ammunition in its family of Black Cloud waterfowl ammo loaded with steel shot. Sixty percent of the pellets are round in shape, while those remaining wear a narrow, sharpened belt around the midsection. Visualize the planet Saturn with its ring of ice particles and you get the appearance of the odd-shaped shot inside a Black Cloud shell.

During the loading process the banded pellets are dropped into the hull first, followed by their round littermates. They are positioned in that order because adding the ring lowers the ballistic coefficient of the pellets enough to cause them to shed velocity a bit more rapidly than those without a belt. If the belted pellets were loaded in front they would interfere with the flight of the round pellets enough to cause them to veer off course.

Black Cloud ammo is available with shot charge weights of 1µ„‚ˆ ounces in the 10 gauge, 1½ ounces in the 3½-inch 12 gauge and an ounce in the 20 gauge. Available shot sizes range from No. 4 to BBB.

The belted pellet idea has shown itself to be quite popular among waterfowlers, so it comes as no surprise to see an upland load with lead shot introduced by Federal. Called Prairie Storm, the shot charge is made up of 30 percent belted pellets, rather than 40 percent as in the steel shot loads. The belted pellet is plated with nickel while the round pellet is copper-plated.

Shot sizes are Nos. 4, 5 and 6 in charge weights of 1µ„‚ˆ ounces for the 3½-inch 12 gauge and 1¼ ounces for the 2¾-inch 12 gauge and the 3-inch 20 gauge. Respective muzzle velocities are 1,500 fps for the shorter 12 and 1,350 fps for the 3½-inch 12 and the 20 gauge. Like the earlier Black Cloud ammo, Prairie Storm is loaded with Federal's excellent FliteControl wad.

Not to be outdone, Winchester Ammunition recently announced Blind Side ammunition loaded with what the company describes as HEX steel shot. Think of the dice used by people in Las Vegas to voluntarily hand over their money to the casinos and you get the shape. Rather than going with a combination of pellet shapes as Federal has done, the entire charge is made up of the new pellets. In addition to punching larger wound cavities through ducks and geese than round pellets, their shape allows them to be vibration-stacked to greater compactness inside the hull during loading.

This decreases the amount of unused space between the pellets, thus allowing more to be squeezed into the available space. That along with a new and more capacious Drylok plastic wad allows a shot charge weight in the 12-gauge, 3-inch loading of 1³„‚ˆ ounces versus the standard of 1¼ ounces for round shot. Velocity of that particular Blind Side load is 1,400 fps.

In October 2010 I was invited to Nilo Farms in Alton, Illinois, to observe pattern and penetration testing of Winchester's new waterfowl load. One of the more useful tools on hand was a stop-action video camera capable of shooting more than 50,000 frames per second. During one test session, loads containing the two types of shot were fired into ballistic gelatin out to 40 yards, and the camera revealed that wound channels punched by the new HEX shot were at least twice the diameter of those made by round shot.

That did not surprise me, but since the less streamlined shape of the new shot lowers its ballistic coefficient (and downrange velocity), I was amazed to see total penetration of the two types of shot into the gel about the same. When shooting patterns on paper, the video camera also revealed an extremely short shotstring.

I had assumed that in order to duplicate the pattern density of round shot at various distances a tighter choke would be required, but that turned out to be incorrect. I shot the two on paper out to 40 yards and observed very little difference in patterns delivered by them in the same amount of choke constriction.

Since this was a test and not a hunt we next shot mallards that, when released several hundred yards away atop a hill, came sailing over blinds at ranges of 25 to 45 yards. All told, the other shooters and I must have killed around 100 ducks, and it was obvious to me that the HEX shot racked up fewer cripples and far more stone-dead kills midair than round shot.

Solid hits with the new shot also chopped more feathers from a bird, indicating more of a cutting action than commonly seen from the strikes of round shot. Winchester's new Blind Side ammunition should be available by the time you read this.

Deep South inventor Jay Menefee recently created another unusual pellet, and he is also credited with development of the Tru-Ball rifled slug, an idea he sold to Federal. Shaped a bit like a miniature Foster-type rifled slug, the steel pellet is neither square nor round, so Menefee calls it a Squound.

This brings up an interesting question that Jay was unable to answer — if a hunter decides to use his new type of shot to shoot ducks, will he be labeled by society as a Squoundrel?

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