Is It Time To Discontinue the 3-1/2 inch 12 Gauge Shotgun Shell?

By Randy Wakeman

The question as to the value of the 3-1/2 inch 12 gauge shell crosses my desk with increasing regularity. For a little background on the shell itself, let's go back to 1988, the year when it started. 1988 was the year that Mossberg introduced the 3-1/2 inch 12 gauge and Federal Ammunition introduced 3-1/2 inch unfolded length shotshells to go along with it.

Though the nationwide ban on lead shot for waterfowl hunting didn't happen until 1991, the path to that ban was well underway in the 1970s. The first steel shot loads were considered lousy. Though some industry officials claimed otherwise, suggesting that hunters just increase shot size two or three notches and let it go, the initial results were poor. Just increasing shot size didn't work well and the pellet counts were reduced so much due to case capacity that thin, ineffective patterns were the result. Neither wad design nor propellants were well-developed for steel. The old 2-3/4 inch magnum gave us 130 pellets of #2 lead (1-1/2 oz.), a fine goose load back in the day. Steel didn't measure up, with BBB size steel shot used for geese allowing 61 pellets per ounce, or 76 pellets being the maximum that could be stuffed into a 3 inch 12 gauge 1-1/4 oz. shell. Thin patterns due to poor pellet count were unavoidable.

Never the world's most popular gauge, the 10 gauge, offered the hull capacity that the 12 did not. So, back came the 10 gauge for a time with the logic that if you have to shoot large, light balls at geese the more, the merrier. The 3-1/2 inch 12 gauge, rather than just offering a longer shell, was able to bump velocities as well as the 3-1/2 inch 12 operating pressures were raised from the old 2-3/4 – 3 inch SAAMI voluntary standards. That put a halt to the 10 gauge's resurgence, as though the added hull capacity of the 10 gauge was appreciated, the capacity of humans to lug around their 10 gauges was not as universally enjoyed. Though development of the 10 gauge has by and large ceased (along with the 16 gauge), the 3-1/2 inch 12 gauge did more than any other offering to put the lid on future 10 gauge products.

Though “modified” means no specific dimension or constriction, perhaps because gunmakers themselves had little idea what the long-term effects of steel would do to their shotguns, the sloppy “modified lead equals full steel” haphazard recommendation was employed. Steel loads were still horrible cripplers of waterfowl due to poor penetration, but things have improved. Higher velocity was the key to making steel work, even though the penetration improved the patterns went the other way. The chaotic mashing of steel balls into steel balls played havoc with lead-based forcing cone and choke designs. It also destroyed ribs, gouged forcing cones, scratched barrels, and separated soft-soldered barrels on double-guns.

The higher velocities of 3-1/2 inch loads made the situation worse, particularly when combined with large diameter iron shot. Help was on the way, though, and some current no-tox loads equal lead while some surpass it handily. We often say we want the best, but the “best” and the cheapest don't usually come in the same box. Marketing departments have worked long and hard to avoid any accurate representation of current no-tox shotshells, preferring to use old-fashioned baseless bluster about what drops ducks like rain. It is either sad or silly, contingent on your point of view, but perhaps even more puzzling is that smarmy ad-brags seem to work, though they are often based on a version of physics that has yet to be invented.

That brings us to today, where two loads in particular have changed the playing field for those who pattern and understand the exterior and terminal ballistics of the round ball. Kent Tungsten-Matrix loads, billed as the “One True Alternative for Lead” essentially are just that. Available in 3 inch loads with 1/3/4 oz. of #1 shot, they exceed the effectiveness of the lead goose loads of a couple of decades back, with no barrel damage issues. More to the point, they exceed the performance of 3-1/2 inch 12 gauge steel loads.

The other shells that have proven to be breathtakingly good are the Winchester HD loads, putting even the very best lead loads to shame. Not only is a 3-1/2 inch shell completely unnecessary, even 3 inch 12 gauge loads are not needed for most applications. Of course, we “say” we want the best patterning, most effective loads-- but as often as we claim it, we ignore what we say we want and go for the cheapest thing that goes bang. Though the claim of frugality rings hollow and tinny when engaging in a sport that is hardly subsistence hunting, we spend our funds on all kinds of things to do it that have no particular lasting value, the fascination with the cost of the shell drones on, even though the only direct interaction we have between our game birds and ourselves is the patterns we can properly place. As bad as “reading breaks” is a horrid way to assess pattern quality, “reading kills” is far worse. As far as what may kill a decoying duck at twenty yards, most anything can. As impressed as we are with a head-shot goose, the one critical pellet that did the trick for us in that case as nothing to do with overall pattern quality or effectiveness. Regardless of shell length, if we don't pattern our shotguns at the ranges we intend to shoot at we are left clueless as to point of impact and pattern quality. Throwing more pellets in the wrong place helps nothing.

There is no free lunch when it comes to shot size and materials. Shot that loses velocity rapidly and fails to penetrate is a game crippler, a shell that forces a second shot (or two) when a one shot drop should have done the job. By going through more shells that are less effective than what is available, the momentary contentment of penny-pinching shotshell purchases sours quickly. Though we know there are better, too often we settle for less under the guise of false economy.

There is also no free lunch when it comes to shotgun design. Physics being what it is, there is a limit as to how much recoil can be absorbed by action and stock. The Catch-22 of this is that the responsiveness of a shotgun can be compromised by excess weight and lighter shotguns can wear us out. The trick to making light, less dense shot materials work effectively is high velocity. That high muzzle velocity necessarily means more recoil compared to using lead-like and denser materials that carry better, and do not shed their initial velocity so dramatically.

The more we shoot, the more we learn to regret high muzzle velocity. The more we pattern, it becomes clear that higher velocity tends to degrade shot patterns of both lead and steel, improving neither one. The more we carry and lift a gun, the more we tend to lose appreciation for its longer chamber. If we don't use the longer chamber, then we may have compromised shell-handling ability and paid more for our shotgun at the same time for a “feature” both unnecessary in some aspects and unwanted in others. Magnumitis has afflicted both rifles and pistols, with scant little tangible advantage in the field. Magnumitis has also abused both firearm and shooter with shock and vibration that tends to hinder precise shot placement, never helping it. Too soon we grow old, too late we get smart.

Experienced hunters and shooters have long ago buried super-magnum, super-short magnum, and ultra magnum rifles and pistols from their working arsenals, understanding that there is no substitute for good shot or pattern placement with proper bullets or projectiles. Deer don't care how fast you miss them. Ducks and geese don't seem to care, either. In both cases, unnecessary wounding losses are something that the conscientious hunter works very hard to avoid.

Mags, both sort and long and ultra, have failed for some-- perhaps we expected far too much to begin with. The 3-1/2 inch shell also fails in several respects. While it was a stopgap compromise that helped out bloated, light shot materials (steel), it could not and did not address the fundamental mechanism of wounding ballistics that shows us light, low-density shot cannot possibly function as well as shot that has the density of lead, or has even more density than lead. Also fundamental to the poor flying sphere is that any deviation from a truly round sphere is a clear ballistic negative, regardless of any hyperbole that attempts to dissuade us from the acceptance of basic physics.

In an example of how over the top things can get, I was informed a couple of years ago by a shotgun aficionado that patterning, retained velocity, and penetration didn't matter much. What really “mattered” was how a shell killed things. To “prove the point” of how good a recently introduced shotshell was, the tale was related how it killed a grounded, wounded goose stone dead at seventy yards. The shell was “that good.” It is good unless you happen to realize that it was this same wondershell, fired three times at the same goose at far closer ranges, that had failed to drop the goose cleanly and crippled the poor thing in the first place. Whatever this is, it wouldn't be my idea of any reasonable testing of a shell. Yet, the great achievement of this “70 yard instant goose-whacker” shell was told to anyone who wanted to hear it, and several that did not. Four shells to take a goose, eventually, is not exactly what most folks think of as exemplary.

The 3-1/2 inch steel tossing 12 gauge shotshell never was the fabulous panacea it was touted to be. Again, perhaps we expected too much? There are all kinds of odd reasons out there why a 3-1/2 inch chambered shotgun is supposed to be desirable, including the notion that waterfowlers habitually forget to bring ammo, so need to be able to shoot what their buddies brought at a moment's notice. Obviously, if we are just going to just hunt with random, borrowed ammunition, we have no clue as to how it will pattern in our gun, with our our choke. It is shooting blind, not exactly the approach you'd want to use to be as efficient and effective as possible in the field.

Why the focus on improved shot materials? According to most experts, 25 – 30% of waterfowl shot at each year are lost birds. The waste is stunning: approximately 3.4 to 3.7 million ducks and geese are crippled and lost each year in the U.S. and Canada combined. The effectiveness of steel still has serious problems, yet unresolved. The Lacassine study in Louisiana purported to show 41% higher cripples with steel loads than with lead. Winchester previously found in Milo Farms testing that steel was a crippler compared to lead.

Though the matter is far from clear, what is clear is that we lose more than a quarter of all the waterfowl we shoot at. The numbers are staggeringly high, handily exceeding the worst-case scenario numbers for the lead toxicity.

There are several considerations of value in choosing a 12 gauge shotgun. Feel, fit, balance, how it comes to the shoulder, shell handling capability, aesthetics, durability, reliability, and several other facets. On the priority list, the choice between a 3-1/2 inch chamber and a 3 inch chamber falls very near the bottom. Just as the 3-1/2 inch 12 gauge helped thwart the resurgence of the 10 gauge, improved no-tox shot materials have pushed the 3-1/2 inch chamber back to the point of trivia. No one looking for the most effective load out of a 12 gauge would bother with 3-1/2 inch steel loads these days. There are far, far better options.

The problem simplified is that #2 lead equates to 87 pellets per ounce, while BBB steel equates to 61 pellets per ounce. Reducing the number of pellets in a pattern (same payload weight) by roughly 30% is a huge handicap, one that a 3-1/2 inch shell cannot and does not address. At 50 yards, a 1330 fps load of #2 lead has a strike velocity of about 740 fps at 50 yards. Do the same load with BBB steel, the strike velocity is 694 fps. Steel fails in pellet count and strike velocity compared to lead. The strike velocity is problematic, as we have already gone four full notches larger in shot size to attempt to compensate, but it still does not work well.

If we do the same payload, same muzzle velocity, but use Kent Tungsten Matrix #1 shot as replacement for #2 lead, now we do have virtually identical strike velocity of 741 fps. That is a 115 pellet 1-1/2 oz. payload, compared to a 91 pellet steel load. A better than 26% increase in pellet count is no trivial matter, nor is the higher impact velocity. That's how bad steel really is, or how good Kent TM is contingent on how you want to look at it.

The lead scare has been overblown. If we care about conservation of waterfowl populations, we will do our fair share to reduce the wanton waste of 3-1/2 million waterbirds a year. The 3-1/2 shell alone is of little value in increasing performance, the only worthwhile way is denser shot materials: Kent TM, Winchester HD, and other. The big problem is not that lead kills, it is that steel does not.

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Copyright 2009 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.