I hear talk about the hottest new thing in shotgun shells, the saying, "I'm from Missouri — show me" tends to drive my behavior.
Waterfowl hunters make considerable investments in gear, trips, dogs and more. They want to stuff their shotguns with loads they know will smack birds from the sky with authority.
So it was that I visited Maryland's Eastern Shore with Army Maj. Ross Poppenberger to hunt snow geese with Tuscarora Outfitters. A key part of the mission was to try out Winchester's new Blind Side waterfowl ammunition, expected to hit the market this summer.
The shells contain 100 percent, six-sided, cube-shaped steel shot that Winchester calls "Hex." It packs better into the shot cup because of its shape, enabling about 15 percent more pellets to be packed into a shell.
The shells deliver 1,400-feet-per-second performance. Velocity has been a double-edged sword with steel waterfowl loads; lighter steel shot always suffers in comparison to denser lead shot. Greater velocity was the ticket to helping steel retain kinetic energy downrange, but greater velocity often caused poor shot patterns.
"Nontoxic" tungsten and other alloy shot as dense as or denser than lead helped solve the knockdown problem, but at a huge cost — often around $2 to $3 per shell.
In a major development, Federal Premium introduced its Black Cloud waterfowl ammunition a couple of years ago, modifying rounded steel shot by adding a raised cutting ring that encircled some 40 percent of the pellets at the leading edge of the load. These pellets proved devastating on ducks and geese and drew a huge following.
Federal also revolutionized the ability to hold a tighter pattern downrange with Black Cloud's Flitecontrol wad. Instead of a shot cup opening up from the front and releasing the pellets, this wad's rear section opened like a speed brake on a fighter jet to slow the plastic wad down while the steel shot screamed forward.
If one cutting ring was good, it appears Winchester figured that six-sided, multiple-edged shot would be better.
"The shot is designed to hit waterfowl like high-velocity tumbling bricks — preventing overpenetration and maximizing energy deposit and knockdown shock within the bird," Winchester says.
The company also needed to redesign the shotcup to hold this less-aerodynamic shot together longer before spreading into a pattern downrange. The Blind Side Diamond Cut Wad has petals that open as it leaves the muzzle, slowing the plastic as the shot flies ahead.
Field test: snow geese
We staged out of Chestertown, Md., for our snow goose hunt on the Delmarva Peninsula — awaiting the outfitter's call to let us know if we needed Maryland or Delaware licenses.
The hunting guides scout the marauding geese, tracking which fields they visit, knowing that as long as food remains and the birds haven't been shot at in that field, they'll usually return at daybreak.
Poppenberger and I linked up with the rest of the hunting party, slipped into white Tyvek suits, grabbed guns and ammo and headed to the field. Tuscarora Outfitters' Lee Buckel and his crew had been placing nearly 1,200 shell decoys since 4 a.m. It takes a big spread to impress a huge flock of snow geese.
Hunters lie among the decoys, and when the snow geese are flying, an electronic call simulates the sounds of a thousand geese happily dining in a green field.
The geese that arrive close to daybreak typically decoy well. We were advised to make our first volleys count.
We loaded the guns and lay on the ground, resting our heads on a decoy shell.
The sun climbed just above the horizon, seemingly lifted by a couple of thousand snow geese rising above it. Between the cacophony of goose sounds from the call and the voices of the real deals — more than 1,000 — anxiously circling overhead, anticipation among the neatly lined up shooters was palpable.
A group of about 100 birds descended, feet out and wings backpedaling to ease their touchdown. As several landed, Buckel roared, "Take 'em — now!" Shotguns spit fire, and a dozen or more birds dropped to the extreme delight of Buckel's enthusiastic Labrador retriever.
With so many guns firing and hundreds of birds in our faces, the moment got a little intense, but Poppenberger and I were confident we had each picked out a goose and cleanly killed it. So far, so good.
Mature snow geese are notoriously wary. The older birds have seen it all when it comes to decoy spreads and calls. As that white tornado funnels over you, it's obvious that the birds most eager to get into the field to eat are the younger geese.
"In the big flocks, you'll see those old, pure white birds staying high and waiting. They're educated. They're hunted every day," Buckel said.
True to form, most of the thousands of geese in the area circled by for a look but didn't come low enough for a shot.
Field test: ducks
Another opportunity to try out the Blind Side shot came on flighted mallards at Schrader's Bridgetown Manor in Henderson, Md.
I screwed an improved cylinder choke into the shotgun and loaded the 3-inch, No. 2 shells. The strong-flying ducks ranged from 25 to 45 yards distant at the shot.
Schrader's general manager Wes Russum and I both noticed that the birds seemed to stop flying immediately when hit. Even with the most distant shots, where only a couple of pellets had hit the duck's body, the birds dropped like rocks. Their heads were down as soon as they splashed into the water.
We machine-plucked the ducks and examined the wounds. Most shots did not result in complete pass-through of the pellet, and the wound channels seemed more pronounced than seen with regular round shot.
We only had No. 2 shot to try with the snow geese, but the couple of geese that I know I focused on dropped with a thud, as did the ducks. I don't know how to measure "250 percent more trauma," but in terms of killing power, this was clearly performance as advertised.
I'm eager to try this new ammo next year with BB loads on snow geese and Canada geese.
The Blind Side ammunition is expected to sell for about $18-$22 for a box of 25 shells, very similar in price to the Black Cloud. Blind Side should be available by midsummer in 3- and 3.5-inch shell lengths.