Understanding Lead Shot Quality: Part 2

Last month in Part 1 of this two-part series on shot quality, I discussed parameters and standards for shot size designations and pellet sphericity. I spent extra language discussing lead shot because it is still by far the most common shot type used worldwide.

 Shot Hardness

We come now to the hallowed ground of shot hardness. The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers Institute (SAAMI) tells us that “lead shot pellet hardness is established by the amount of antimony alloyed with the lead in the pellets and is varied by the manufacturer depending on the purpose for which the shotshell is designed.”

Hardness increases as the antimonial content increases. Shot containing up to 0.5% antimony is generally called “soft shot.” Shot containing more than 0.5% is known as “hard shot.” In other words, the only standard existing in the U.S. for shot hardness is the voluntary performance standards of SAAMI to which many U.S. lead shot makers do not belong and to which no foreign lead shotshell or shot manufacturers support. There you have it: as far as U.S. standards are concerned for shot hardness, any lead shotshell pellet containing a mere half percent of antimony or more can honorably be called “hard.”

Advice: let the buyer beware. If the shotgunner trusts that the word “hard” in an advertising claim truly means what the shotgunner might assume “hard” means, one can be sadly mistaken.

It is a fact that the larger the lead pellet being employed, the lower the antimonial content needs to be for that pellet to have the same degree of resistance to deformation as a lead pellet of a smaller diameter. Thus it is a common practice among American shotshell manufacturers to generally adhere to the following table for antimonial content in lead shot they call “hard”:  

Shot Size

Antimonial Level


½ to 1%

No. BB to 2

1 to 2½%

No. 4 to 6

3 to 4%

No. 7 to 8

5 to 6%

No. 8½ to 9 for
  skeet shooting




Therefore, for example, it takes about a 6% antimonial level to make a size No. 8 lead pellet as resistant to deformation as larger buckshot-sized lead pellets containing only ½% antimony.  Regarding the above table, just where the shot size break occurs and just what the actual amount of antimony added per pellet size and load type may be, can vary from U.S. manufacturer to manufacturer.

Now, many shotshell industry representatives and reloading shot manufacturers loosely use terms like “6% antimony,” “6% shot,” “magnum shot,” or “extra hard shot” to designate what they call hard shot. One foreign shotshell manufacturer calls its lead shot “Diamond Shot” to convey the same impression. But these terms are meaningless insofar as the actual antimonial level per pellet from that manufacturer unless the manufacturer is willing to state the actual antimonial level claimed per-pellet size.   

Shot Plating
A plating of nickel or copper on a lead pellet is theoretically of advantage because that plate, if truly a jacket, is harder than the lead core.

However, in practice the plating can become just so much cosmetics. To obtain jacket quality, plating must be added via electrolysis. All lead shot currently made, sold and loaded (even into factory shotshells) in the U.S. at this time containing a copper coating are not truly electrolysis plated. Rather they are copper-washed like so much paint. The wash is not as thick as an electrolysis plating. Consequently, copper-washed lead pellets in this day and age tend to be cosmetic creatures only.

RosterScan-130710-0039-SLNoWhether plated (left) or unplated, the hardness and roundness of a lead pellet are the two most significant factors in how it will pattern and penetrate.

There has been imported into this country for years electrolysis process, nickel-plated lead shot from Italy for reloading and in certain Italian-origin factory lead loads. The plating is excellent as is the sphericity of the lead core. Unfortunately, these pellets have universally measured quite low in antimony in my tests. The end result to any lead pellet with a low antimonial content, whether plated or not, is to suffer a high degree of setback deformation during combustion. 

In the final analysis the most excellent lead pellets would first and foremost be true to size designation with low pellet diameter variation plus would possess a high antimonial content and be highly spherical. If the pellets were also truly electrolysis plated, that would be a big plus. Of the two, nickel is a harder plate than copper and generally produces patterns of higher density.
I am happy to report that Precision Reloading in Mitchell, South Dakota, has recently started manufacturing just such a product. The company takes Lawrence Magnum Brand lead shot and then applies via electrolysis a significantly thick nickel jacket. From my tests Lawrence Magnum Brand truly tests out as having a 6% value antimony content and the Precision Reloading nickel plate is a true significant jacket. Precision Reloading Nickel-Plated Lead Shot has tested out for me as currently the world’s finest lead shot. The company’s web site address is www.precisionreloading.com or you can call them at 800-223-0900.

(Read Part 1 of “Understanding Lead Shot Quality” here.)

Tom Roster is an independent ballistics consultant and author specializing in the design and testing of shotshell loads for U.S. shotshell and reloading components manufacturers. He is a court-recognized shotshell/shotgun expert witness. Tom was formerly the Ballistics Research Director at Oregon Institute of Technology and then served as a Ballistics Specialist for the Dept. of the Interior. In these capacities he designed and administered the world’s six most extensive lead versus nontoxic shot duck, goose, pheasant and dove shooting tests ever conducted. He then co-authored their peer-reviewed scientific reports. Roster spends about 100 days afield each year testing  lead and nontoxic hunting and target shotshell loads, then traveling worldwide reporting on his findings to industry and wildlife professionals, hunters and shooters, and in his writings for various shotgunning magazines. Contact him in Oregon at (541) 884-2974, tomroster@charter.net.

Copyright 2013 by Tom Roster. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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