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Steel Shot for Pheasants

Roosters, roosters, and more roosters...Pheasant hunting tips, tactics, and reports.

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Steel Shot for Pheasants

by Dick Monson » Tue Mar 24, 2009 7:34 pm

Would one of the Mods consider this study furnished by JBB for a sticky, since there are always questions about SS for pheasants? Thanks in advance!
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Courtesy JBB:

http://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fwt/back_iss ... icle5.html

After bagging 300 birds, researchers declare that No. 2 is best steel shot size for roosters.


By Craig Bihrle, communications supervisor for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department. (This article originally appeared in North Dakota Outdoors, September 1999. Reprinted with permission.)


As pheasant hunters increasingly use steel shot, the new study helps shed light on killing effectiveness among those nontoxic loads.
If a day of pheasant hunting is ever unpleasant, Jerry Feist experienced one.

A participant in the first-ever scientific test of shotshell efficiency on ring-necked pheasants, Feist's task on that day was to bag six roosters at long range. The day had advanced from mid-morning to almost supper time, and Feist was the only one of six hunters who had not completed his mission. While most of the others also struggled to collect their long-distance birds, Feist had a particularly challenging outing.

An experienced pheasant hunter, the normally jovial Jerry would just as soon have cased his 12 gauge on this hot early October afternoon, but since this was an important test of ammunition that required a certain number of birds shot at several distance increments, he persevered.

Finally, a burly rooster evaded the nose of a curious dog and burst from drying cattails. Instinctively, Feist quickly shouldered his shotgun, and then waited...and waited...as the bird stretched the distance between them, effortlessly gliding toward a grassy island in the middle of a wetland. When the pheasant passed the range at which most hunters wouldn't think of trying a shot, Feist pulled the trigger and tumbled the rooster onto the island.

The shot distance, subsequently verified by his hunting partner Mike Johnson with a laser range finder, was close to 50 yards. The ammunition, at that time known only as "code black," was effective when properly placed by the hunter.

And that, in effect, was the essence of this fact-finding test. Which, if any, of three steel shot loads might prove better or worse for taking ring-necked pheasants, when the hunter can hit the bird. While most hunters have their own preferences and ideas about lead and steel loads (or other nontoxic shot) for pheasant hunting, no scientific research has ever closely examined the issue with any shot type.

Discoveries from this test may surprise some and contradict long-held assumptions by others, but when it comes to ring-necked pheasant hunting, the code black load (which, unknown to Feist or any other hunter in the test, contained large steel pellets) was found to be more efficient for cleanly bagging pheasants than code green or code red loads, which contained smaller steel pellets. Not just at longer distances, either. At all distances.

That was the major finding among many derived from this two-year study of steel shot performance on pheasants. The test, conducted in fall 1997 and 1998 by the Cooperative North American Shotgunning Education Program (CONSEP), and designed and administered by independent shotshell ballistics expert Tom Roster, compared the capabilities of three different steel shot loads for taking ring-necked pheasants. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, North Dakota Game and Fish Department, and South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks funded the test.

CONSEP is an international organization composed of 24 U.S. states (including the North Dakota Game and Fish Department), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Canadian Wildlife Service, and three foreign countries, as well as Remington Arms Company, Winchester Group/Olin Corporation, and many others industry groups. CONSEP exists to generate and provide scientifically valid, useful shotgunning and shotshell information to hunters, wildlife agencies, and the arms and ammunition industry.

Testing steel shot on pheasants is a direct response to expanding requirements for nontoxic shot use for upland game hunting on national wildlife refuges and waterfowl production areas (WPAs) managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Nontoxic shot is also required for upland game hunting on state-managed areas in some U.S. states, but not in North Dakota.

In North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, and Montana, where most WPAs exist, hunters frequently seek pheasants on these areas where lead shot is no longer allowed. While steel shot effectiveness for taking ducks and geese has been well documented by CONSEP, hunters who choose to--or must--use nontoxic shot for pheasants have little more than educated guesses to guide them.

Steel shot is one of several nontoxic shot types approved for use in areas where lead shot is not allowed. Others include bismuth, bismuth-tin, tungsten-iron and tungsten-polymer. For this test, only steel shot was selected, Roster said, because it commands the vast majority of nontoxic shot sales, is readily available in a variety of shot sizes and load configurations, and is by far the least expensive of nontoxic shot types. "The average hunter," Roster said, "...at the turn of the century, is still concerned about economical ammunition that is legal to use."

The most economical steel shotshells in 12 gauge are those that come in one-ounce payloads, and that is what the CONSEP pheasant test investigated. The 1-ounce load, Roster noted, contained plenty of shot for taking ducks in various waterfowl tests, and therefore seemed theoretically likely to be adequate for pheasant, since they are roughly the same size as a mallard. Shotshells were 1,375-feet-per-second, 2 3/4-inch factory Remington 12-gauge loads (no specially made loads), and shot sizes included No. 6 (.110-inch), No. 4 (.130-inch) and No. 2 (.150-inch), though shooters did not know the shot size they used each day. One-ounce loads of each shot size are also available in 3-inch 20-gauge shells.

"The purpose of the steel shot pheasant test," Roster explained, "...was to try to find the most efficient of the three steel shot sizes for taking ring-necked pheasants."

After more than 300 pheasants, bagged over typical pheasant habitat, at measured distances of less than 20 to more than 60 yards, and after analyzing those birds for post-shot behavior, and after taking X-rays and performing necropsies to determine pellet damage and penetration (terminal ballistics), one load distinguished itself.

"If you have a choice between steel No. 2s, No. 4s, and No. 6s," Roster recommended, "the No. 2 steel would be your best choice. An interpolation of the data clearly indicates that No. 3 steel would be a close second."

While pheasant hunters sometimes look to larger shot sizes--No. 2 steel or perhaps No. 4 lead--for late-season hunting where shot distance might be longer than earlier in the season, this test clearly demonstrated that No. 2 steel is more efficient than 6s or 4s for harvesting pheasants at all ranges. At the same time, shooters were able to hit pheasants with steel 2s (111 pellets per ounce) at the same rate they did with steel 6s (326 pellets per ounce) and 4s (177 pellets per ounce). "We did not find a difference in the hunters' ability to hit the target," Roster noted, "regardless of the number of pellets in the shell."

While this test did not investigate lead shotshells typically used for pheasant hunting, hunters might make some assumptions, Roster said. Considering that a steel shot pellet, because of its lower density, is lighter than a lead pellet of the same size, it takes a steel shot pellet two sizes larger than a corresponding lead pellet to achieve roughly similar momentum. Given that steel No. 2s were the best of three steel loads tested, one might conclude that No. 4 lead would perform better than No. 6 lead, but that's not statistically proven, Roster cautioned.

On the way to statistically finding that No. 2 steel is better than steel 4s or 6s for taking pheasants, the CONSEP pheasant test produced other findings that will interest not only pheasant hunters, but all hunters who journey to fields and marshes with shotgun in hand.

Setting up the Test

To gain objective evaluation of ammunition performance, shooters in the CONSEP pheasant test did not know the contents of their shells, nor did the researchers who later analyzed the results. Shells were coded either red, black, or green, and only after researchers completed all analysis did they crack the code and learn that black was No. 2, green was No. 4, and red was No. 6 steel.

To achieve statistically reliable results, volunteer hunters participating in the test were directed to take 108 birds with each shot type. To compare ammunition performance at various distances, participants had to bag a certain number of birds within established distance increments of 20-29 yards, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, and 60 yards or more. However, hitting pheasants at more than 50 yards was so difficult for most of the participants that not enough birds were collected to provide statistically sound data at that specific distance increment.

Each day, three teams of two hunters each, armed with their own shotguns, were assigned by a random distribution table to shoot one of the three color-coded loads. The load each team shot changed daily to ensure that over the test each load was used an equal number of times.

The same table rotated the three teams among three different habitat types pheasant hunters might encounter. These included dense cattails around wetlands, low, even grasslands like native prairie, and brushy creek drainages with heavy upland cover. Altering habitat types, Roster explained, subjects the ammunition to a variety of environmental problems that might affect the average distance of shots taken and aid or inhibit retrieval of downed birds. For instance, if all birds taken with one load were flushed from a rock pile surrounded by a plowed field, retrievability would be much higher than for birds shot with another load over a dense cattail stand. Rotating habitat types subjects all three loads equally to the same environmental variables.

The test was conducted at Dakota Hunting Club and Kennels, Grand Forks, North Dakota, owned by George Newton and managed by Mike Elgin. Each day, healthy, lively birds (averaging nearly 3 pounds in weight) were released into the three habitat types. Hunters did not know the birds' locations, and other variables were also designed to simulate actual pheasant hunting.

After a hunter downed a flushed bird, he and his partner concentrated on the spot at which the bird was struck in the air, then the partner was guided to the corresponding location on the ground after the bird was retrieved. Using an electronic laser range finder, teams accurately measured shot distance in this manner.

Once a bird was recovered, the teams recorded the distance, angle of shot (going away, right-to-left, left-to-right, etc), load code, and bird behavior on a tag. Then they attached the tag to the bird's leg. Behavior of retrieved birds was classified as either B-1 (dead or immobile within 30 seconds) or B-2 (mobile but retrieved). Hunters also recorded shot distance, angle, and load information for birds that were wounded (classified as visibly hit but not retrieved) such as those downed but not found, or those visibly hit that continued to fly and landed elsewhere.

Behavior of birds after they are hit is what determines the bagging efficiency of a particular load. In the pheasant test, No. 2 steel produced a statistically significant higher rate of B-1 birds than the other two loads, and a lower wounding rate.

At the end of each day, collected, tagged birds were frozen and shipped to Roster's laboratory in Oregon, or to a cooperating lab in Idaho. Each of the 324 birds taken in the test was later x-rayed to determine broken wing and leg bones, and certain terminal ballistic pellet performance characteristics, such as depth of penetration after striking the bird. Roster and his assistants, Mark Grovijahn and Josh Zellmann, then necropsied (examined the dead body of) each bird.

Each necropsy was designed to:

Record the number and location of all pellets that strike a bird.
Measure how deeply each pellet penetrated the bird.
Look at whether leg bones were broken.
Look at whether wing bones were broken.
Remove and examine embedded pellets.
Record any other significant terminal projectile behavior (of which one unique and important characteristic was found for pheasants).
Analyzing this information, Roster said, provided a picture of what goes into cleanly bagging a bird (B-1) vs. not cleanly bagging a bird (B-2).

In addition to field and lab work, Roster's assistants also pattern-tested each load used in the test at distances of 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 yards, through three different chokes.

Bagging vs. wounding

Of the three loads tested, No. 2 steel exhibited the highest B-1 bagging rate over all distances, at 76.9 percent. No. 4 steel was second at 65.7 percent, and No. 6 steel came in at 62 percent.

At distances of less than 40 yards, where the hunters in this test, when not constrained to fire at certain distance increments, took most of their shots, 86.5 percent of birds bagged with No. 2 steel were B-1, dead or immobile within 30 seconds. At less than 40 yards, No. 4 produced a 73 percent B-1 rate, and No. 6 produced a 75 percent B-1 rate.

What that means to hunters who need to make a choice between steel shot loads is that of all birds bagged, No. 2 steel produced a higher percentage of clean kills than the other two steel shot sizes tested.

The other side of the equation is wounding loss, or birds visibly struck by pellets but not retrieved. All pheasant hunters have lost roosters that "hit the ground running" because the bird was not centered in the pattern (a nice way of describing shooter error), or perhaps because pellets did not penetrate to vital organs. All pheasant hunters who use steel shot and want to reduce the potential for crippling loss can tilt one factor in their favor by choosing No. 2 steel whenever possible.

Of all birds struck with the No. 2 steel load, 108 were retrieved and 10 were lost, an 8.5 percent wounding loss rate. No. 6 steel produced a 13.6 percent wounding loss, and No. 4 steel came in with a 14.3 percent wounding rate. Interestingly, hunters lost only two of 68 birds hit at distances of less than 30 yards with all three loads combined, a wounding rate of 2.9 percent. All test loads together produced 15.1 percent wounding loss at shot distances of 40 yards or greater.

For the entire test, wounding loss was 12.2 percent. "That's a pretty low wounding rate," Roster noted, especially when compared to findings of 15 shotshell lethality tests on waterfowl, some of which examined both lead and steel. Trained observers in those tests detected 30 percent or more of birds hit by hunters with either shot type were not retrieved.

Pheasants vs. ducks

Before pheasant hunters get all smug over apparent superior shooting prowess, Roster suggests there's at least a couple of reasons why participants in this test were successful in retrieving nearly 90 percent of the birds they hit. First, an effective retrieving dog accompanied each team to track birds downed in heavy cover or pursue birds able to run after they hit the ground. Most hunters in the waterfowl tests did not have dogs to retrieve birds because, according to Roster, "from the shooting tests we learned that most waterfowl hunters do not own or use dogs."

Second, the average distance of a shot taken by participants in the pheasant test was substantially closer than the average distance of a shot taken by participants in duck and goose tests.

On the first day of each half of the pheasant test, Roster gave hunters freedom to fire at birds without distance requirements, just as they would on a typical pheasant hunt. When roosters flushed, participants could shoot whenever they felt comfortable. "The majority of shots fired, when [hunters were left to their own means...were fired at the 20 to 29 yard distance increment," Roster said.


A somewhat lower number came in the 30-39 yard zone, with few shots beyond 40 yards. Of 72 pheasants taken when hunters could select their own shots, 57 were killed at between 20 and 39 yards.

That distance is significantly shorter than the 39-yard average shooting distance found in duck hunting tests, and the 50.5- and 68-yard average distances recorded in over-decoy and pass shooting goose hunting tests, respectively. "And you have hardly any wounding," Roster added, "which tells you that the pheasant hunter participants were really able to hit the birds at that distance, and the loads were really able to kill them."

Roster speculates that the angle of shots in the pheasant test may also contribute to increased hitting ability. About 75 percent of birds killed in the test were at angles going away from the hunter. The other 25 percent were side shots. None of the birds were taken on overhead or incoming shots, though these types of angles are often presented to blockers in field or driven pheasant hunts. Waterfowl hunters typically encounter mostly side and overhead shots, and few going-away shots.


Though left-to-right or right-to-left shots accounted for only 25 percent of shots fired in the test, they produced nearly 50 percent of the wounded and lost birds. Given similar shooting distances, "they evidently have a lot more trouble hitting on the side shot," Roster said.

Anatomical Challenges

Necropsies of pheasants taken in the test discovered that the back end of a pheasant presents two obstacles a charge of shot must overcome to produce a clean kill. Inside the body cavity is the gizzard, a large dense muscle filled with "sand" that Roster says "is a great stopper of shot."

On a typical going-away pheasant shot, a pellet must penetrate the massive gizzard to reach the heart and lung area. As shooting distance increases, the gizzard is more likely to stop pellets. A gizzard presents the same obstacle for duck and goose hunters, but few of their shots are at birds going straight away.

Add to the gizzard the fine, hairlike underfeathers of a rooster's tail end. "One of the great lessons we learned from doing this test," Roster commented, "is that there's a much higher rate of feathers that get balled up around pellets trying to penetrate a pheasant, than we were ever able to notice with waterfowl."

Known scientifically as the abdominal and dorsopelvic feather tracts, these feathers at the extreme rear of a pheasant were frequently found to ball up or wrap around pellets as they punctured the skin and to significantly impede a pellet's ability to penetrate. The feather-balling problem was most prevalent in No. 6 steel shot, affecting well over 50 percent of pellets in bagged birds. No. 4 steel had slightly less feather-balling than 6s, while No. 2 steel was found to have significantly lower occurrence.

Overall, when all pellets that struck pheasants were measured, No. 2 steel "had a significantly higher mean depth of penetration and percentage of pellets that penetrated all the way through and exited the bird, than did the other two loads," Roster noted.

No. 2s also had a significantly higher incidence of breaking wing and leg bones they struck. For pheasants prone to run when wounded, a broken leg can mean the difference between a bagged or lost bird.

Final factors

Every hunter's objective is to cleanly bag every bird at which he or she fires. Achieving that objective involves a combination of shooting skill and selecting a shotshell load that will deliver multiple hits that penetrate to vital areas at the distance from which the hunter is shooting. While shooting skills vary, ammunition lethality tests such as that completed by CONSEP provide hunters with information that is easily put into use.

The 1-ounce No. 2 steel load is superior for taking pheasants, when compared to 1-ounce 4s and 6s. Fours and 6s both performed adequately at shorter distances, but did not provide any advantage over No. 2 steel.

While the test did not look at 1 1/8- or 1 1/4-ounce steel loads, Roster recommended those heavier loads for hunters who want to further improve their ammunition's ability to cleanly bag birds, especially at longer ranges. No. 3 steel (.140-inch), in 1-, 1 1/8-, or 1 1/4-ounce charge, would also be an effective shotshell choice, Roster noted.

Hunters should not, however, assume that No. 2 steel is the best choice for other upland birds like sharp-tailed grouse or partridge. These birds are smaller than pheasants, and while 2s would certainly provide adequate penetration, the lower pellet count when compared to 4s and 6s might not produce adequate pattern density to ensure multiple hits.

Until CONSEP conducts lethality tests on other upland birds and with other shot types in the future, pheasant hunters should welcome the insights they can now apply to steel shot buying decisions.
Last edited by Dick Monson on Wed Nov 23, 2011 7:26 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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by r u dun » Tue Mar 24, 2009 9:36 pm

that is too much for me to read Dick, but when using steel on public property, I have deuces in my vest.
"If you ever see me getting beaten up by the police, put the video camera down and help me. ..."

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by Drakekiller » Wed Jul 29, 2009 1:18 pm

For the last five years, when I do not use my .410 I have be shooting #2 steel 2 3/4 1 1/8 oz. loads. Guess what choke? Works great. Same load for decoying ducks.
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by tsodak » Fri Aug 07, 2009 7:44 am

THat is a great read!!! Thanks Dick...
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Re: Hey Mods/Steel Shot

by ksfowler166 » Tue Oct 11, 2011 7:20 pm

One problem with it, like the late Bob Brister said most hunters over estimate the range they shot the bird.After being shot the bird is still traveling foward under its own momentum there by making range estimation inaccurate.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by BirdJ » Thu Apr 26, 2012 10:34 am

I use steel across the board. You can use lead on private ground but have to use steel on public. Don't want to get caught with a lead shell in my pocket by mistake! Plus, if you happen to come up to a stock dam and there are ducks or geese on it? your good to go!!
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by Bobm » Sun May 13, 2012 10:04 am

the real lesson is keep your shots to under 30 yards and have a good dog and you wont lose many pheasants

I am going to try to use steel for the first time this year. I would of liked to see them make a choke recomendation for twelve ga
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by Dick Monson » Sun May 13, 2012 8:15 pm

Amen on that, Bob. I shoot Imp and Mod in both the 12 and 20.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by beaniej266 » Tue May 15, 2012 12:41 pm

I prefer 2 & 3/4' blackcloud # 3's. It crushes them, and like someone said it works great for those times when ducks are also present.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by jkolson » Tue May 15, 2012 9:42 pm

I'm with beaniej266, Black Cloud Snow Goose 2 3/4" #3 hammers em
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by BirdJ » Tue May 15, 2012 11:41 pm

jkolson wrote:I'm with beaniej266, Black Cloud Snow Goose 2 3/4" #3 hammers em
Any meat left to eat? I heard that black cloud really tears the birds apart!
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by jkolson » Fri May 18, 2012 8:32 pm

Yup, it's maybe a little harder on them than lead, but not bad. Maybe it's just me but I wounded more with regular steel than I liked, don't have that problem with Black Cloud.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by Dick Monson » Tue Jan 08, 2013 12:01 pm

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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by KEN W » Wed Jan 09, 2013 7:26 am

I also use 3" magnum Steel number 3's for pheasants.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by zogman » Wed Jan 09, 2013 7:46 pm

What choke Ken???
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by indsport » Thu Jan 10, 2013 7:51 am

We shoot steel 3's (mostly because we got a deal on a case) so 2's or 3's are good. As to chokes, steel shot shell design has changed slightly since its inception but the basic rule of thumb was If you shoot lead through a full choke and steel through a modified choke made for lead, you get about the same pattern. The same is true for the more open chokes so the pattern for lead through a modified choke is similar to steel through an improved cylinder choke. Guns and loads may vary. There are also steel choke tubes for the screw in chokes. My suggestion is take your gun out and pattern it and find out. I just put in imp cylinder and modified in my double before I bought steel chokes.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by KEN W » Fri Jan 11, 2013 10:21 am

zogman wrote:What choke Ken???



Modified choke.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by drane » Thu Mar 07, 2013 12:45 am

I have been using steel shot exclusively in ND for the last two years for all shotgunning (except skeet, trap). #1 or #2 has been my shot of preference, Pattern your shotgun and know its and your capabilities and you will have success.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by fieldgeneral » Sat Mar 09, 2013 8:44 pm

drane wrote:I have been using steel shot exclusively in ND for the last two years for all shotgunning (except skeet, trap). #1 or #2 has been my shot of preference, Pattern your shotgun and know its and your capabilities and you will have success.

...........................................................................................
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You hit the nail on the head there. Most people who hunt waterfowl and pheasants don't want to take the chance with mixing up lead with steel on any type of various hunt. Be quick to the draw, as you should be while pheasant hunting and steel will do the job no problem.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by Habitat Hugger » Tue Oct 10, 2017 7:32 am

I use mainly steel number 2 or 3. sometimes 1 in late season. The choke (I use IC and MOD in my O/U) is more open with steel, and leads migh be a bit different, but otherwise it works equally well with steel. Ive tried h vi shot too, with great results! My problem is that I miss too much no matter what I use! LOL my dog gives me frequent disgusted looks, but I tell her that as a conservationist I have to leave breeding stock for next year!
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by the_alpha_dog58 » Mon Jan 15, 2018 5:43 pm

Awesome read, always nice using steel shot in the event we spot some ducks while pheasant hunting.
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Re: Steel Shot for Pheasants

by Outdoor RN » Wed Aug 07, 2019 11:56 am

3" 2s ….modified choke......with IMP choke I found there are too many holes in the pattern. I noticed that shooting at ducks over water under 30 yards with my SBE 2...change to modified made all the difference in the world. I thought to myself when missing pheasant using the IMP choke that I could not be as bad of a shot as was happening with the IMP choke in. LOL :D
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