Non-toxic shot is required throughout the U.S. for waterfowl hunting. Studies showed that many waterfowl died each year because of lead poisoning. Lead pellets from traditional shotshells were picked up and digested by waterfowl. The toxic effect spread to other birds, such as the bald eagle, who consumed the poisoned waterfowl. To reduce this problem, conservationists worked with shotshell manufacturers to produce effective alternatives to lead shot—steel, tungsten, alloy, or bismuth shot.
Steel shot is slightly lighter than lead shot of the same size—reducing its velocity and distance (range). Also, steel shot is harder than lead, so the individual pellets stay round, keeping the pattern tighter.
Some hunters use steel shot one or two sizes larger to make up for the difference in weight from lead shot. Others use the same size steel shot or even smaller steel shot to get more shot into their patterns. You should pattern your shotgun with various loads of steel shot before hunting waterfowl with it.
Effective pattern density is the key. Maximum pellet counts spread evenly across a 30-inch circle are best. Full chokes generally produce poor patterns with steel shot.