The fellows at Bob's Coin and Guns were as puzzled as I, with good reason. There's been so much speculation about the merits and perils of steel shot, it's hard to know what to think let alone recommend.

When I asked about shells for the start of Maryland goose season Friday, they said my guess was as good as anyone's.

"Mostly," said the clerk, "people are going up a size. If you used to shoot No. 4 lead shot, you'll probably want No. 2 steel," the next-largest pellet size.

The advice seemed right and I bought a box of three-inch steel No. 2s. "But you'll have to find out for yourself," he said, dubiously.

It was not a reassuring encounter, and I'd be heading afield with great trepidation if I didn't have first-hand experience with steel shot to fall back on.

Gun lobbyists, notably the ever-vigilant National Rifle Association, have fought steel like businessmen fight a new tax. They claim because it's lighter than lead, it lacks the killing power to bring down birds and will result in extensive crippling and loss, a hunter's nightmare.

So firm was the opposition to steel initially that its implementation has been a roller-coaster ride. In Maryland, first it was in, then it was out, and now it's back in for the big goose-hunting counties, with the rest of the state to follow in coming years.

Environmentalists say lead shot imperils waterfowl, which ingest hunters' spent pellets from the bottom of wetlands while picking up sand and gravel to use in their digestive systems.

Lead gets in the bloodstream and poisons the birds. According to studies, 2 million to 3 million ducks a year may die from lead poisoning. These are hard times for ducks, with nesting and wintering habitat falling to development, and extra unnecessary loss doesn't make sense.

I, for one, favor steel shot, but again, I have some experience with it.

Several years ago, when steel shot regulations came in the first time, the shift was so fast steel was available only in 12-gauge shells. Manufacturers lacked time to gear up to provide less common 10- and 20-gauge shells, and hunters using these gauges were exempt.

It created a run on big, 10-gauge guns, which became the weapons of choice among Eastern Shore guides who opposed steel.

I was new to hunting and had a 12-gauge, lightweight pump. Everyone said I'd regret using it for geese because, with steel shot, it wouldn't have the power to bring down birds.

After a while, I agreed. I hunted a few times and had some shots but didn't bring home any geese. To tell the truth, I don't believe I injured any, either. I was a pretty bad shot, and I suspect I was filling empty air with steel.

But the arguments of the antisteel people proved increasingly attractive, and before long I was cursing the government and its silly rules.

Late in the season, I was invited to hunt on the Choptank River at Trappe, Md. A friend had hired a guide, who brought his cumbersome 10-gauge and a box of lethal-looking, 3 1/2-inch magnum lead shells.

The geese flew warily, out of range, and the guide wisely discouraged long shots, particularly with our steel shells.

Morning stretched into afternoon and we had no geese. Gradually, as hunters will, we extended our mental picture of a reasonable shot. By late afternoon, when a flock sped past, made a quick circle and buzzed overhead for a second look about 50 yards high, we beseeched the guide, who finally said okay.

I shot three times at the small flock and never lifted a feather. The guide waited, then reached out with his long gun, fired once and brought down the last goose.

"Dammit," I said, fuming, "this steel shot stinks."

The guide agreed. "Why don't you try my gun and I'll use yours?" he said. "Maybe we'll get another flock in."

The birds were into the evening flight by then, coursing along the Choptank under a gray, winter sky. The guide honked away on his call but none responded.

Finally, in the last minutes of legal shooting time, he hailed a solo, which headed our way.

The goose locked its wings for a landing but flared at the last minute, took a long, circling glide and came back a second time from behind. The guide reckoned this was our chance. "He's not coming in," he said. "When he gets overhead, you shoot."

I readied the weighty blunderbuss and when the goose came overhead, jumped up and fired three times with no visible effect.

Again, the guide waited dutifully till I was done, then shouldered my flimsy pump with its load of steel. The goose was fleeing, barely in range for the truest of shots.

He shot once. The bird fell like a stone.

It is not easy admitting one's deficiencies, but there were no two ways to read this experience. I went home and practiced shooting and keeping my mouth shut.

In the intervening years, I have watched a lot of gunners and come to the conclusion that few understand shotgun range.

Shotgun range, very simply, is 40 yards, at which distance one can plainly see distinctive features of birds, such as eyes, feet and plumage.

You can stretch it to 50 if you are a very good shot, but it's risky business, with the danger of crippling and losing birds increasing with each yard.

As far as steel shot is concerned, it seems a perfectly efficient load for a bird within true shotgun range.

This I believe, having seen it with my own, horrified eyes.