The Federal Tactical line has set the standard for 12-gauge buckshot performance. This really cannot be emphasized strongly enough: Their 00 load has produced the tightest patterns in every shotgun I have ever tested it in. Many, many others report the same level of results.
For years after it came out, I was able to get cases (250rds) for under $100 out the door -- roughly forty cents per round. Unfortunately, glowing magazine articles and heavy law enforcement purchasing have driven its price up to $150. That's sixty cents per, and qualifies as an "OUCH!"
So I've been auditioning alternatives.
A few weeks ago I bought a box of Fiocchi nickel-plated buckshot that patterned pretty well, and wanted to dig up some more. A quick Google search located four or five places that claimed to carry it . . . but the two which still had it in stock were charging top dollar.
A wider search on "buckshot 00 12 ga" produced a large number of hits, but most were for product from the Big Three (Rem/Fed/Win), and the hottest deals were at best 15% off chain store pricing. Unfortunately shotgun ammo is so darned heavy that tacking on shipping would've jacked the totals to just a tad under Wal-Mart levels.
The Sportsman's Guide folks had Estate Cartridge Company #4 buckshot for thirty cents a round, and they were running a 20% off special for NRA members, which would've brought it down to 24 cents a bang plus shipping. I'd had poor luck with Estate shotgun ammo in the past, with major extraction problems and crummy patterning, but figured that enough time had gone by that the company SHOULD have been able to do at least some tweaking. And for that kind of money even if it still sucked I could at least use it for heavy-duty plinking and practicing malfunction-clearance drills.
I picked up the phone, but had missed SG's regular operating hours. Did another search on "estate buckshot" and found that my old pals at Natchez Shooters Supply had the Estate 00 "reduced recoil" (a slightly lessened powder charge means the payload steps out at a less-thumping velocity, which is the same thing designated by the neater-sounding term "tactical"). The bigger pellets were a plus, and their regular price was only $2.98 for a ten-round box. So I got a case.
[BTW, their order line is 1-800-251-7839, and the ammo I'm talking about is item #ETRR12BK00. Be sure to ask for a free catalog while you're at it.]
Hit the range on a beautiful day, and set up a couple NRA B-8(P) pistol targets at 25 yards. The 5.5" 5-ring and a 11" 7-ring helped in estimating pattern density until I could slap the used targets under my "official" template -- concentric 12" and 6" circles on a sheet of clear plastic. This methodology was recommended by Wiley Clapp in a great American Rifleman article from a while back ('Tactical' Buckshot & Chokes, June 1998), and should be considered superior to simply measuring overall pattern size for at least two reasons. First, tallying the hits on the smaller internal circle identifies load/choke combinations which throw "doughnut"-shaped patterns. Second, it does not overly punish combinations which may yield one or more erratic fliers but are otherwise solid performers.
Things were looking too good, so I put up another pair of targets and really locked myself down into the bench:
If you're not up to speed on riot guns, that is ASTOUNDING PERFORMANCE. Luckily I had a box of Federal Tactical in the trunk, and double-checked:
Better performance -- with that particular barrel, and please always remember that shotguns are notoriously picky -- at almost half the price. Definitely worthy of further investigation.
Wasn't until I got home and popped apart some competing buckshot loads for comparison that the picture became a bit clearer. The Federal Tactical uses a two-piece wad/cup setup which, when combined, is just slightly taller than the Estate's one-piece unit. An old red-hulled S&B had just a cardboard wad and no shot cup. Others had the standard "shock-absorber"-type wad/cup unit designed to cushion the shot by compressing slightly on firing.
As far as I can tell, the magic lies in the depth of the Estate shot cup (1.75"). Seriously, the thing is really long. Looks like it was originally designed for a 3.5" Magnum.
Peering at a cup cut-out whole with its cargo intact, none of the pellets are touching, as they are held apart by the buffering material. The Federal Tactical is similar, but the "pusher" element which bears against the powder charge necessitates a shorter shot cup (roughly 1.125"), with less space available for separating its pellets.
It appears that the longer cup prevents the softer lead Estate pellets from suffering more deformation in the barrel than the harder copper-plated Federals. That's my best guess. It may not be a major breakthrough technology-wise, but certainly seems like a killer cheapo solution.
Of course, it could be another simple thing. I don't have a chronograph, and don't really notice recoil all that much, so as far as I know the pellets are coming out slower than other brands of low-recoil buck, which again would reduce deformation. Or the pellets are of some extremely hard blend of lead and other metals. Or maybe something about the load is reacting perfectly with my particular shotgun, and would shoot poorly in another.
[Disclaimer #1: It was not until the last group for this gun was fired that I remembered that it was not sighted-in after a SureFire flashlight rig was reattached, and did not have enough slugs on hand (or time) to resight. So I selected the nominal "center" of the patterns based on where the hits were thickest, which worked out to roughly 3" to the right and 5" lower than the point of aim.]
Let me end with a piece of advice: Buy this stuff at the current price while you can!
[Disclaimer #2: All testing was performed with ammo from the same case lot. If you want to get a pile, give me a week or so until my next batch comes in. I asked the Natchez folks to grab me two cases from opposite ends of the warehouse. If the rest of it works out just as well, then my early stellar results are definitely more than just a fluke.]