Shotgun Shell Ballistics & Penetration

December 17, 2008 by  

By Marvin McDonald ( J J Mac )

Once you have patterned your shotgun and understand the shotgun shell ballistics, you'll have fewer cripples and more confidence in your shooting

Once you have patterned your shotgun and understand the shotgun shell ballistics, you'll have fewer cripples and more confidence in your shooting

I have investigated the effect of shot size and velocity on penetration in waterfowl. I decided to publish the results because others might be interested as well.
The recommendation most commonly encountered in the DHC Forums for adequate penetration for clean kills with steel shot is a velocity of 575 fps or 600 fps for all shot sizes. The implication is that all shot sizes penetrate to the same depth if the velocity is the same for all sizes. Then “maximum kill distances” are obtained from ballistics data corresponding to either 575 or 600 fps. A constant-velocity rule-of-thumb for equivalent penetration by all shot sizes is very simple and therefore desirable but it is well known that all shot sizes do not penetrate the same at a given velocity and thus this rule can’t be technically correct.

For example, people use large shot for Giant Canadas because the large shot penetrates more than small shot at the same velocity. This results in cleaner kills whereas smaller shot works great for smaller waterfowl because of better pattern density and a lesser amount of penetration. Also, hunters use buckshot to kill deer and other large game and police and military personnel use buckshot to stop bad guys. This is due to the penetration of the buckshot which will stop and/or kill the larger targets. Smaller shot size will not penetrate on a consistent basis, at least at normal ranges.

I will show later in this article that the velocity – diameter relationship for equivalent penetration is D2 V2 = D1 V1 for two different pellet sizes of the same density.

Penetration through vital organs is necessary and anything more than that is not needed. However, many hunters think it is desirable for shot to have adequate penetration to exit waterfowl so that one does not chomp down on steel shot at the dinner table.

In what follows, the shot is assumed to be spherical and non-deformable.

More on the 600 fps Rule

The Shotshell Ballistics (SSB) software by Ed Lowry and Keith Garner can be used to obtain the penetration of different shot sizes at any velocity. Pellet Penetration output is the number of inches that the pellet penetrates into ballistic gelatin and is based on experimental data. Unlike the heterogeneous nature of waterfowl (feathers, skin, bone, organs, muscle, etc), ballistic gelatin is a homogeneous material that is made up and calibrated before each use and is used under specified conditions so that reproducible results are obtained. The following table shows the penetration of steel pellets of various sizes at 600 fps from the SSB software.

shotgun shell ballistics

As expected, the penetration at 600 fps varies significantly for different shot sizes. For example, T pellets penetrate 2.6 times as much as #7 pellets, 1.6 times as much as #3 pellets, and 24% more than B pellets.

Ducks – SSB Software for Constant Penetration by Different Shot Sizes

Now, let’s see what the SSB program gives for the velocities and distances for equivalent penetration when shooting shot sizes appropriate for ducks. For this purpose, I will assume that #3 steel shot at 600 fps has an appropriate penetration for the type shooting that will be done. This is a completely arbitrary selection at this point just to illustrate the method and the deviation from the 600 fps rule-of-thumb. From Table 1, the penetration in ballistic gelatin for #3 shot at 600 fps is 1.28 inches so that will be the penetration used for all the different shot sizes. Since all the shot sizes will have the same penetration in ballistic gelatin they will also have the same average penetration performance in waterfowl even though it will be different than the ballistic gelatin penetration of 1.28 inches. Of course, the heterogeneous nature of a duck will dictate that the penetration will not always be exactly the same for any two pellets that penetrate in different locations so we are talking average values here. I cover the large range from #7 shot up to B shot just to see the effect even though the most commonly used steel shot sizes for ducks are #4 – #2.

shotgun shell ballistics

The 600 fps rule-of-thumb gives distances for that are too far for pellet sizes smaller than #3 and too close for the pellets larger than #3. Note also that the velocity required for 1.28 inches penetration in ballistic gelatin varies greatly for the different diameter shot from 847 fps at the smallest size shown to 501 fps for B shot.

Geese – SSB Software for Constant Penetration by Different Shot Sizes

Here is a look at loads commonly used for geese. Steel BBs at 600 fps (ballistic gelatin penetration = 1.80 inches) are used as the base case for demonstration purposes.

shotgun shell ballistics

Again, the 600 fps rule-of-thumb gives distances that are too large for the smaller pellet sizes (< BB) and too small for the larger pellet sizes (>BB). Also, the velocities vary significantly from 713 fps for #2 shot to 547 fps for T shot.

The Momentum Density Penetration (MDP) Equation

I also took a look at momentum density to see if it could be used to correlate penetration. Momentum density is defined as the pellet momentum (mass x velocity) divided by its cross-sectional area. There is a correlation. If the momentum density is the same for two different size pellets of the same density, the penetration is the same. Simplification results in:

D V = constant for a given amount of ballistic gelatin penetration where D is the diameter of the shot and V is its velocity. Thus, when comparing two different pellet sizes of the same density material, we get

D2 V2 = D1 V1 or V2 = (D1/ D2) V1 “MDP Equation”

In other words, if subscript 1 is for the smaller pellet and subscript 2 is for the larger pellet, for the same penetration the velocity of the larger pellet is reduced from the velocity of the smaller pellet by the ratio D1/ D2. This equation was checked for steel shot and gives the same velocities as obtained from the SSB software using constant ballistic gelatin penetration numbers. It clearly shows the effect that pellet size has on velocity for equal penetration. The MDP equation can be used for shot of different densities too but both pellets 1 and 2 must have the same density.

Shotgun Shell Ballistics & Penetration Summary

This study confirms that the 600 fps rule-of-thumb for steel shot does not give constant penetration for all shot sizes and thus gives erroneous results for maximum killing distances. Of course, we knew this from the start. Certainly you can find a shot size where the “rule” is pretty close, e.g., #3 shot at 600 fps (1.28 in. ballistic gelatin penetration) looks pretty good for ducks and BB shot at 600 fps (1.80 in. ballistic gelatin penetration) looks pretty good for large geese but it would be erroneous to say that two different pellet sizes of the same density have the same penetration when the two velocities are the same.

The SSB software can be used to calculate the velocity and distance for equivalent penetration by shot of different sizes. This calculation can be made for two shot sizes of the same density or the two can be of different density. This is the procedure to follow. For load 1, using the Pellet Penetration page, determine the penetration in ballistic gelatin corresponding to the velocity (or distance) that the load gives the type of performance you prefer. This field performance data can be from your own experience or from the CONSEP Chart or from other sources. Knowing this penetration, open another Pellet Penetration page and find the velocity and distance corresponding to this same penetration using the inputs for the second load. Altitude and temperature adjustments can be made by the software.

The MDP equation can be used for calculating the velocity of one pellet size with the same penetration as another pellet size at a given velocity also if the densities of the two are the same. Then the SSB software can be used to calculate the distance corresponding to that velocity.

One could argue that even though penetration is the same for two pellet sizes, some performance difference may be seen because the wound channel is bigger for the larger pellets and more damage will result. I don’t know how much of an effect this is but suspect it is pretty small if the difference in shot sizes is not large and is bigger when the two pellet sizes differ a lot.

Even though this has been about penetration, pattern density is very important also. For a centered pattern, you must have both adequate penetration and enough pattern density to hit vital organs in order to make clean, consistent kills on waterfowl.

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23 Comments on "Shotgun Shell Ballistics & Penetration"

  1. SOCD on Thu, 29th Jan 2009 2:19 pm 

    how does the penetration of steel shot compare to that of lead shot?

    i probably already know the answer since i am old enough to have hunted ducks & geese with lead shot but i was curious if you were ready to take on that battle?

  2. L.P.Brezny on Sun, 22nd Mar 2009 4:53 pm 

    I developed the 600 ft per sec rule. It did not assume anything about same penetration depth re varied shot sizes. It did assume a hunter would change up shot sizes as applied to target size. ( Teal #3 or 4’s and geese BB’s BBB ) Given that the 600 rule still works as a good general guide. Interesting, the rule was developed with #3 ducks and BB’s geese. When in range what more do you need?

    Have a nice day.

    L.P.Brezny Ballisaitcs Research & Development

  3. Marv McDonald on Tue, 28th Apr 2009 8:59 pm 

    Re: L.P Brezny Comments
    Your use of a 600 fps rule for ducks with #3 shot (1.28″ penetration in ballistic gelatin) and for geese with BBs (1.8″ penetration) is reasonable for ideal conditions (e.g., shooting waterfowl overhead) although I like a little more penetration so as to be able to handle the less than ideal situations such as birds going away, etc.

    The reason I wrote the article was that there were posts on DHC which listed shot sizes from #6 to BBB and their associated distances at 600 fps. These distances were called “max kill distances” without reference to waterfowl size, the implication being that all these shot sizes had the same penetration at 600 fps which is obviously not true! I found these statements incorrect at worst and misleading at best so I tried to correct that impression and give people another more realistic and technically sound way to look at what is required to kill various waterfowl.

  4. David D. on Sat, 9th May 2009 8:42 pm 

    This article is in my favorites box. I consider it a critically important update to the 600 fps rule. It is one of two or three that I always link people to on shotgun forums whenever a nube shows up asking questions about what steel shot to use.

  5. K Snead on Sun, 16th Aug 2009 10:29 am 

    Extremely interesting and useful article. I have seen mention of the SSB software in several places around the Internet but I have not been able to find where it can be purchased. Anyone know where it can be found?

    As to comparison between lead and steel, the equivalency equation only has to be modified to include the material density of lead and steel. Hence pdv is equal for two different pellets where p=material density, d=pellet diameter, v=pellet velocity.

  6. L D Azevedo on Wed, 19th Aug 2009 8:00 am 

    Speaking of steelshot , you use a velocity of 1550 in your
    article .I’m curious as to what differance 100 ft/sec makes
    in the larger sizes ( 1’s , BB ,T’s ) in penetration at the
    yardages you have listed ? Is 1400 ft/sec adequate for large
    waterfowl at 60yds or is 1600 ft/sec that much better ? I’ve
    read that shot travels at the same speed after a certain
    distance ? I can’t read enough of your and Tom Rosters articles
    Thank you

  7. K Snead on Fri, 28th Aug 2009 3:38 pm 

    This is a good question. I have yet to find shotgun ballistic software that can give you velocity at distance given the muzzle velocity, pellet size, and pellet material density. That capability would allow you to approximate penetration at any distance given the pellet specs and the initial velocity. That is why I am interested in finding the SSB software which I presume has this capability. Is there any other software out there that will do this?

  8. K Snead on Thu, 3rd Sep 2009 9:46 pm 

    To second Mr. L D Azevedo regarding data for other velocities. Could we see the same data tables for 1450fps and 1650fps as shown for 1550fps? That would go a long way in helping us decide if the higher velocities (with associated reduced payloads) is worth the trade-off.

  9. C Dieker on Fri, 18th Sep 2009 8:05 am 

    Great article…

    Similar to K Snead and LD Azevedo, for those of us who use steel shot for everything from small game to geese, is it possible to supply similar tables for 1300-1450 FPS steel loads?

    Whatever revised table information you can provide is greatly appreciated.

  10. ydog on Mon, 26th Oct 2009 9:50 am 

    for pellet ballistics you can use chairgun.. its a freeware program for rifle and airgun folks. however you would assume a single round steel (or lead) bb instead at ranges of at most 70 yards.

    all you would need is the ballistic coefficient of your respective bb which can be found anywhere or experimentally obtained (this factors size shape and density off of experimental values) and muzzle velocity. the outputs useful for this application would be velocity and possibly point of impact wrt distance.

  11. SoughSlayer on Mon, 21st Dec 2009 4:21 pm 

    I’ve found in the type of hunting I do (mostly small sloughs) I have a much greater kill ratio with 1300 fps shot, reguardless of size. Perhaps it is the closer ranges I’m shooting at. Also, I recently watched a History Channel series on Special Forces Snipers who agreed that a slower bullet does more damage than a fast one, thus they try to match the range with the proper muzzle velocity of their rounds. If this phenom translates over to shell shot, it would reinforce my experience. Just the same, I have made very clean kills @ 70 yards using #4 – 1300 fps on teal. Enjoyed your article.

  12. Roger Pyle on Sat, 13th Mar 2010 10:03 pm 

    I have a Question. shooting a double barrelled 12ga what is the distance from the end of the barrell untill the bullets come together or (crisscross)

  13. Glenn Davis on Sat, 2nd Oct 2010 1:47 pm 

    I find your article very infromative and the conclusions track with my un-scientific observations over 55 years of waterfowl hunting. The information that I would like to find is a ballistic chart that shows the velocity decay rate over distance. From experience I have observed a siginificant performance improvement with the 1500fps loads over the earlier 1200fps loads. After hunting Argentina again this year with lead 5’s i find I still know that lead. With steel I do not have it figured out as precisely. I tend to figure lead in duck or goose lengths and shot velocoity will vary the lead enough to miss. Would the 600fps rule work well for this calculation or should it be faster? – Glenn

  14. Marv McDonald on Sat, 13th Nov 2010 9:23 pm 

    The 600 fps rule has no use here just like it is invalid for calculating effective kill distances across a range of shot sizes as I explained above.

    The actual forward allowance or lead in feet is calculated by multiplying the bird speed in fps times the time in sec it takes the shot to reach the bird from the end of the muzzle. This actual forward allowance is the same for all angles relative to the shot path that the bird is flying, but the perceived forward allowance varies with that angle. The perceived lead also varies with the way you achieve it, e.g., sustained lead, swing through, etc. How much lead (in ft) you have to see to kill the bird boils down primarily to these variables – bird speed, time for the shot to reach the bird, how fast you are moving the gun relative to the bird, and tha angle the bird is flying relative to the shot flight path. While I won’t attempt to explain it here, if you use the number of perceived bird lengths as your lead, the angle no longer affects the lead (in perceived bird lengths).

    Shotshell Ballistics software by Lowry and Garner may be used to calculate the time for the shot to reach the bird and many other things also – penetration in ballistic gelatin, velocity vs distance and time, ++. Unfortunately, it is no longer available.

  15. bill wieser on Mon, 13th Dec 2010 9:56 am 

    I would like to see pictures of shot coming out of the barrel and see the string of the shot and how it flies through the air. Thanks Bill

  16. Ian on Sat, 14th May 2011 2:09 am 

    Great article. Would love to see similar tables for lower velocity shell.

  17. Anthony Melton on Sat, 3rd Sep 2011 8:44 pm 

    I like your article and would also like to know if the tradeoff in payload for velocity is worth it. I think you did fail to argue the fact that while a BB at 600 fps does have more force (Mass x acceleration) than a #6, it also takes more force for a BB to penetrate than it does a #6. Due to surface area and friction. So friction in a duck and ballastic gellatin even if it is different by a small factor could have a major impact on your assumption.

  18. jake on Mon, 19th Sep 2011 1:04 pm 

    thanks for sharing your finding! this is great. for my own practice — and for what i’ll continue to recommend — careful field testing of patterns and kill effectiveness, lots of shooting practice, and holding off ‘cocky’ long shots, makes a good hunter and wounds less birds. this is great additional research for advanced waterfowlers.

  19. Jerry Couvillion on Sun, 18th Mar 2012 10:55 pm 

    I have been searching for this information for some time and has answered a lot of questions for me concerning small steel shot effectiveness when higher velocities are applied. I live in south Louisiana where we have an early teal season in September. Probably 90 percent of our shots are inside 25 yards. Last season my hand loads consisted of one ounce of # 7 steel shot at a published velocity of 1646 fps. We did not lose a single bird. The high count of # 7s usually put multiple hits in the head and neck area leaving them completely incapacitated. Hunters using a load like this really should do some pattern board work to know exactly how it performs in their shotgun in order to know exactly which choke tube will be the most effective on their perspective targets. This article is extremely informative. Thank you!

  20. scott on Thu, 9th Aug 2012 4:56 am 

    Love the article great stuff I recently shot some round through my overunder 12 and my mossberg. The mossberg has a better choke and therefor put more bbs in the kill zone but at fifty yards i think i am pushing the limits of my patern. So yea T shot may have the velocities you need at 70 yrds but dose your gun hold a sufficient patern at that range also i noticed some of the bbs didnt make it through my cardbord box at fifty yards sosome of them must be losing speed quicker than others

  21. Larry Jantz on Sat, 8th Sep 2012 4:54 pm 

    Well done. As man of over a thousand shotgun tests I appreciate what has been done. Long ago I learned accoustic board was pretty close to 10% ballistic gelitan. Sheet rock tests. Then there were real meat tests.
    Recently I went out to 50 yds. and shot a 1400fps steel load of 3’s. Guess what? They penitrated 2 layers 1.25″ total and some denting and some a hair more into the third board. Then with the half inch sheet rock the pellets went through one layer just denting or sticking into the second . One thing I know is for 3 bucks each I bought damaged boards. While not accepted for protocal it does the job. Close to 1.28″ penitration equivelent Tom came up with.
    The second thing I do is actual dropping of a duck or goose target I made off of a real duck and a 8lb. goose 10 times. Sometimes up to 30. By studing the hits location and number of hits I get a good idea of kills, downed birds?,wounded. and complete misses. Never have I read where anyone did this type of analasis. Just did it on my own. Guess how square shot rates with me at 50Y.

  22. Tom Lowe on Wed, 30th Jan 2013 4:30 pm 

    Useng 12 ga. hevi-shot goose loads,what is the approximate velocity reduction for a 28 in. to a 26 in. barrel?

  23. Ned Swygard on Tue, 19th Jan 2016 11:52 am 

    I have found the 600 fps rule of thumb works very works very well in killing waterfowl. Ned S the young 87 yr old.

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