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The Original Silver Bullet
Rifle Magazine
April - May 1999
Volume 34, Number 2
ISSN: 0017-7393
Number 198
On the cover...
Hornady celebrates 50 years. The .240 Weatherby Li
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Alliant Steel ®

New River Energetics is the Alliant Techsystems company that produces the smokeless powders for-merly known as Hercules. Now firmly entrenched in its new facilities on the grounds of Radford Arsenal in western Virginia, which the company also operates for Uncle Sam, an expanding array of powders is beginning to emerge.

New in 1998 was a canister grade powder designed specifically for steel shot in shotshells. Aptly named STEEL, the powder has been available for several years, in four different grades, but sold only to manufacturers of shotshells.

The powder itself is a double-based, flake type, meaning its composition consists of nitroglycerin (about 20 percent) and nitrocellulose. As with all Alliant's domestically manufactured powders, it is initially extruded and then cut into very short lengths. When the length is shorter than the extruded diameter, a powder is generally referred to as a flake type. The average flake size of STEEL appears to be about .078 inch diameter and .010 to .012 inch thick. Flake shape is quite round and consistent. Color is a medium to dark gray, and the coating appears to be quite modestly applied. The burning rate is described as being slower than Alliant's popular shotshell powder Blue Dot and faster than its famous handgun/small rifle powder 2400. This makes it slower burning than the other powders that heretofore have been recommended for use with steel shot. The result is lower pressure but an expanded gas volume, due to generally heavier powder charges being used. This also makes it suitable for certain handgun applications, but as no metallic reloading data has been released by Alliant at the time this is being written, we'll confine our remarks to its shotshell reloading capabilities.

Because the loading of steel shot requires the use of plastic wads that were specifically designed for the task, and because the powder is new, there is relatively little published data available. Alliant, of course, has some data for the asking, in 10 gauge, 3½-inch and 12 gauge, 2¾-, 3- and 3½-inch shells.

Data is also available from Ballistic Products, Inc., Precision Reloading and Reloading Specialties, all limited to 10 and 12 gauge. As all of the reloading data currently available call for wads from these three companies, it is strongly recommended they be contacted, not only for their wads but for their data as well. On hand for these tests were the Alliant data, the Steel Shotshell Reloading Handbook, Vol. V, No. 1 from Reloading Specialties and the Status of Steel, Revision 8.2 from Ballistic Products. Each is highly recommended, and one should read the text as well as the load data.

One of the more interesting aspects of STEEL powder is that it comes with caveats not normally associated with powders released for handloading. In addition to the widely expressed admonition against substituting components, Alliant data uses the Federal 209A primer, exclusively. The company also strongly recommends from 30 to 50 pounds of pressure be applied as the wad is seated. Pressure is relaxed as the ram is withdrawn, of course, but it is important that the wad initially be firmly seated over the powder. Depending on the wad used and the ram diameter, this might be best accomplished off the press, by hand, with a wooden dowel of appropriate diameter. Alliant also recommends powder and shot charges be weighed. The former is because STEEL is very fluffy and does not meter well. For this reason Alliant has not released STEEL's bulk density nor has it released any bushing chart information.

As I take some small satisfaction from my ability to operate a powder measure in a consistent fashion, this was annoying. I realize the slam-bang nature of shotshell reloading typically produces a wider range of powder charges than does a separate powder metering operation. Therefore, I set up a separate powder measure for the dropping of charges. I tried two measures and three drums. It just didn't matter. The best I could do for 10 thrown charges was an extreme spread of .7 grain. It wouldn't get any better as part of the normal shotshell reloading process. Therefore I bow to Alliant's recommendation and will weigh charges when I load with STEEL. (If that thought pushes you one step closer to getting one of those electronic scales/powder dispensers that delivers a weighed charge at the press of a button – well, you're welcome.) For users of Lee reloaders and measures, STEEL's VMD (volume measuring density) is .1063. This is not the same as bulk density.

The weighing of shot charges is another matter but one that is becoming more prevalent as generally steel shot wads do not have a collapsible section built in to absorb pressure or compensate for variations in shot sizes, and therefore volume, when the crimp is applied. Larger sizes of shot are often counted by experienced handloaders, rather than weighed. An empty primer container with unneeded holes taped over makes an excellent counter.

Reloading Specialties, makers of the excellent SAM 1 wads for steel shot, goes a step farther and gives shot charge weights in grains rather than ounces. They also sometimes recommend charge weights that break the traditional 1/8-ounce incremental barrier, depending on shot size, and often call for the use of felt wads or spacers when the shot size gets smaller. Their loads frequently employ Winchester 209 primers.

Ballistic Products offers a wider variety of STEEL loads than the others in terms of hulls, wads and primers. They heavily discourage the use of shot weights lower than 7/8 ounce in the 12-gauge, 2¾-inch shell or one ounce in the 3-inch shell. They also discourage the use of gas-operated, autoloading shotguns with the really high-speed loads. This latter caveat appears in their latest catalog, No. 87.

All this was quite daunting, so I spent some time over several phone calls, between loading and testing sessions, with Dick Quisenberry, Alliant's manager of canister sales. He was quick to reiterate his company's caveats mentioned above. When asked about minimum shot charge weights with STEEL, he concurred with a one-ounce minimum generally but said Alliant's 7/8-ounce loads in the 2¾-inch, 12-gauge hulls were perfectly satisfactory. He also recommended the use of straight-walled hulls only, as tapered hulls generally lacked the internal capacity to match well with large powder charges, incompressible wads and large shot sizes. When asked about possible wear on autoloading shotguns, he agreed that some loads, from other sources, could operate with such speed that the breech bolt in the gun could be released before pressure had subsided, applying excess force to the bolt and causing undue wear. He was quick to assure me, however, that all Alliant's load data is guaranteed safe for use in all shotguns regardless of action type – assuming, of course, the guns were warranted by their manufacturers for use with steel to begin with.

I began my own testing with the 2¾-inch 12 gauge using Federal's Gold Medal hulls. Wanting a 11/8-ounce load of No. 2s for ducks over decoys, I found almost identical loads in each of the data sources. All were quite similar in performance, but the one my gun liked best was presented by Ballistic Products. It looked like this:

Hull: Federal Gold Medal
Primer: Federal 209A
Wad: CSD 118
Powder: 31.0 grains STEEL
Shot: 11/8 ounces (492 grains) steel 2s
Velocity: 1,410 fps
Pressure: 9,800 psi

I particularly like this load because the CSD (cushioned steel driver) series of wads has a small collapsible section similar to lead wads. Through a Remington 11-87 with a 28-inch barrel with a modified choke, I chronographed 1,390 fps and got an 86.1 percent pattern at 40 yards for five shots. There was some central thickening. With the improved cylinder choke installed the pattern widened with more shot in the annular ring. The percentage dropped to 80.3. For my purpose, this would do admirably.

In the 3-inch shell, things got more difficult. Again each source offered similar data. Out of a series of loads shot using Federal and Remington 3-inch shells and SAM 1 wads, I was quite happy with this one:

Hull: Remington 3 inch (yellow basewad)
Primer: Federal 209A
Wad: SAM 1 (3 inch)
Powder: 33.0 grains STEEL
Shot: 1¼ ounces (547 grains) BBs
Velocity: 1,475 fps
Pressure: 12,100 psi

In the same gun with the modified choke, I recorded 1,418 fps and a pattern percentage of 85.8. The extreme spread of pellet count over five shots was nine. The patterns exhibited some central thickening at 40 yards but still should be fine for its intended purpose, geese over decoys.

The problem with many of the 3-inch loads, however, was crimps were often not as neat as could be because the loads did not fill the shell completely. Crimp die adjustment would solve the problem, but often a paper wad over the shot did the trick without die adjustment. Different shot, of course, in the same weight, would mitigate things, calling for more or less adjustment.

In the final analysis, I must agree with all three of the data sources: despite its caveats, STEEL powder is simply the best powder for loading steel shot on the market. It is cleaner burning, produces higher velocities and lower pressures and is generally better suited to its task than the other powders that have been pressed into service for the loading of steel shot. Alliant might not have made any friends among manufacturers by releasing this powder to the canister trade, but careful handloaders are going to love it. It is available in one- and four-pound containers.

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