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Black Powder,

Steel Shot &

Canada Geese

by: Tal Parmenter 09/19/99 (taparme@ilstu.edu)


It was the long anticipated opening morning of Illinois' September Canada Goose season. The morning had begun well before dawn with the hurried packing and unpacking of guns and gear, the careful arrangement of decoys and the excited speculation of what thrill the day would bring. It had evolved into sitting in the blind, gazing out at the decoys floating on the water beneath a clear, empty sky.  The day was certainly not living up to expectations. The excited conversation of the early morning had long since faded away, replaced by quiet reflection and the occasional snore. I was especially disappointed at the lack of action as I sat there with both barrels of my 12 gauge percussion shotgun heavily charged. For my companions, Tom Doran and Carl Kinser, this strange weapon that had displaced my 3-1/2" 10 gauge was the source of some amusement. For me this was an exciting challenge. It was my first attempt at Canada Geese with a muzzleloader.

Suddenly, the boredom was shattered by the unmistakable sound of approaching geese. And, they were close! The small group of Canadas had come from the West, flying low and silent until they cleared a high bank that hid them from our view. They honked once, and came straight into the spread. There was no time for preparation, it was all reflex. The geese were on us in an instant, crossing left to right in front of the blind at about 20 yards. It was a golden opportunity, except for one thing. From my position at the opposite end of the blind, I could not see the low flying geese as they approached. From their brief honk, I had mistakenly judged the geese to be approaching off the back corner of the blind. When things started happening real fast, I was looking for them where they weren't. By the time I got turned around the right way, it was all over and I'd missed it. Two geese were floating in the decoys and the rest were departing at a speed of about mach 1, well out of the range of my unchoked muzzleloader. Tom and Carl had each taken a nice big Canada Goose. They were thrilled at their good fortune. Words cannot describe my disappointment. I would have to wait until the next week-end to try again.

I noticed on that first day when I cleared my loads that the recoil was not the heavy thump I expected, and the report of the shots had a "whooshy" quality that sounded like very poor gas seal. I had been warned that this would be a problem with the special wads required for steel shot. So, while I awaited my next opportunity, I would do some research and refine my load and loading technique.

I am using zinc plated steel shot and "steel-tuff" wads for 3-1/2" 12 ga casings from Precision Reloading. Special steel shot wads must be used to prevent barrel damage. These plastic wads hold 1-1/2 oz of steel shot. Since these wads are designed for modern casings, the diameter is smaller than bore size. This works out great for loading, but even with their integral over powder cup, they don't give a good gas seal on firing in a muzzleloader. It was suggested that an over-powder card wad could be put under this cup, but I fear the card wad could wedge inside the cup on firing, and produce dangerous pressures. My solution is to cut the over-powder cup off, make a shot package with the shot cup and load it over a .135 card and .500 fiber wad. This gives a good gas seal without the wedging problem.

Here's how I do it.
(Click the thumbnail image for full-size view.)

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1 - Cut the over-powder cup off the plastic wads  with a cigar cutter. Be sure your cut is square. 2 -  Insert a cut wad about 2/3 of the way into an empty 12 ga casing to hold it in the proper shape,and fill with shot. Don't pack it in, just fill nearly to the top and check a few with a scale for proper charge weight. 3 - Put a piece of masking tape over the open end to close the end and hold the "petals" of the shot cup in a cylinder. Leave the tape so it can be removed later.
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4 - The completed shot packages  can be carried in your hunting pouch and loaded over standard wads in the field. 5 - In the field, load powder, over-powder card wad and fiber wad. Then load the shot package by inserting it partially in the muzzle, removing the tape and running the shot charge down. Top the load with an over-shot wad. 6 - Wads that have been recovered after firing indicate that they effectively contained the steel shot charge, and protected the bore.

Note: When loading, be sure all the shot stays inside the plastic wad. Shot outside the wad cup could score the barrel.

The next week-end I was back in the blind. This time I was armed, not only with my percussion shotgun, but also with a magnum load of confidence. I was certain that my refined loads would be effective. All I needed was an opportunity. It came at about 8:00 a.m.

The pair of Canadas came from the South, directly behind the blind. This pair was talkative. We heard them from a distance, and Tom, Carl and I began talking back to them. They responded to the call enthusiastically, and kept coming, riding a southerly breeze.  As they slid past the end of the blind, they turned back towards us, into the wind, and set their wings. I dropped my call, grabbed my gun and yanked back the hammers. This time  I was in the right spot at the right time. As the two geese coasted towards the decoys, I swung on the closest bird and touched off one of my refined loads of steel BBs at about 20 yards. The recoil was solid, the report authoritative and the results everything I could have hoped for. The big Canada folded, and dropped still in the decoys. Later examination showed that the load had performed well, striking with enough energy to give lethal penetration on body hits, and break large bones on wing and neck hits.

My load was 4 drams of FFg** Elephant black powder and 1-1/2 oz of steel BBs to get maximum pattern density from my cyl/cyl gun. I have no way of pressure testing this load. This load could be excessive in many guns. Also, the velocity of this load barely reaches 1100 fps. I figure the maximum effective range of steel shot at that velocity is about 35 yards. Modern steel shot ammo averages around 1300 fps. In the future I plan to experiment with a load of 1-1/4 oz. of shot, which is the standard payload of steel in a 3" 12 ga. cartridge. I'd like to see a velocity of 1200+ fps. It might very well be a case of "less is more".

As the years go by it seems I'm less interested in the quantity of game killed, and more interested in the quality of the hunting experience. The satisfaction I've gotten from developing an effective steel shot load for my muzzleloader, and taking a fine Canada Goose with it makes for a very high quality experience. I hope to repeat it regularly.

**Important Notice - Do not assume that this load information is safe in any firearm. I have no way of pressure testing my loads, and therefore no indication that they are safe. Steel shot has very different properties than lead shot. Powder and shot charge weights that are safe with lead shot may not be safe with steel shot.

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