Around 1990 Federal regulations were enacted outlawing the use of lead shotgun ammunition for hunting waterfowl. Steel shot became the only option for hunting waterfowl and it drove hunters mad with frustration. Lead shot was much easier to manufacture, and it was denser and softer. These advantages meant that lead shot had always been the only option for shotgun shells. Lead shot had been developed over a course of a century and was as close to perfect as possible. Unfortunately, lead shot was also toxic to the environment and was being ingested by waterfowl and the predators that ate wounded fowl.
Steel shot was a new animal altogether. It was untested and the tolerances needed to successfully manufacture steel shot were far from perfected. Early steel shot didn’t pattern well, especially through lead based shotgun chokes. There was also quite a bit of talk about the impact of steel shot and higher pressures on older shotgun barrels. More than a few duck hunters across the country decided to hang it up with low bird limits and steel shot restrictions. It just wasn’t worth it.
Bismuth shot came out a couple years later and created another option for hunters. This denser, softer metal came much closer to the performance of lead shot. The cost for bismuth was high at $25-30 bucks a box. Hunters with deep pockets and high end shotguns started to trickle back into the field. Ammunition makers were in on the search, and soon several non toxic alloys such as Hevi-Shot were developed. Once again the alloys were better and once again they came at a price.
Meanwhile production methods for steel shot improved by leaps and bounds. Rounder shot and improved wad design has allowed steel shot to improve and become very competent. The emphasis on 3” magnum and 3.5” magnum shells likely allows steel to outperform most 2 ¾” lead shot shells from days gone by. Better understanding of steel shot performance and the “speed kills” theory has brought steel shot where it is today as the market leader in deadly waterfowl loads. There is still a healthy market for Hevi-Shot and some other alloy products, but modern steel shot has improved to allow hunters many viable options for price and performance.