Over-Tried, Over-Thought

It sometimes feels like I’m an AA-class shooter, but only 15% of the time.

I managed to get out for a wander on Sunday evening, a little later than usual. I stumbled upon what looked like a fairly solid flight line, but it dried up as soon as I could get the decoys out.

I still haven’t solved the problem of how one carries poles, netting, magnet and kit bag all at once without it a) being painfully uncomfortable to carry and b) taking forever to load and unload. Vehicular access isn’t great on some of the land I shoot which usually means a long walk to the place I want to set up. By the time I’ve got there, I’ve drawn so much attention to myself that every bird within 100 miles has disappeared in the opposite direction and invariably, little to nothing turns up in the decoys.

Then again, I’ve never been good at decoying and don’t really have the lifestyle to allow for it, so what do I expect? (Or that’s my excuse, anyway.)

After a few attempts in a few different spots, I decided to pack it in and just go for a walk. Since the plotter paper for my next set of pattern testing remains on order but hasn’t arrived as yet, I took the Baikal 12-gauge out again (with the new home loads) in the hope of getting to know it a bit better. I had a few shots, did a lot of thinking, working out and theorizing and missed everything.

Everything, that is, until I was surprised by a juvenile wood pigeon escaping from the hedgerow in front of me which I promptly blew to bits with the full choke barrel at about 20 yards distance.

In a sense, that bird – unfortunately rendered inedible – was a corollary to the 60-yarder of a fortnight earlier: a surprise opportunity where taking the shot involved nothing more than what was essentially a reflex, absent of conscious thought. At 20 yards, the lead coming out of that barrel isn’t so much a pattern as a lump and if I hadn’t have been bang on target, I’d have missed it altogether.

It’s frustrating to realize once again that, if I could only stop analyzing, stop trying to “measure” the right amount of lead and instead just focus on the bird and let my instincts control the act of firing the gun, I’d bring home a lot more birds. (I might have to buy an open-choked 20-gauge for my next gun and then I’d actually be able to eat them too!)

Indeed, this “over-thinking” is the cause of a number of my acquaintance from the shooting association thinking I am much, much better at shooting than I really am, because they happen to have seen me shoot one or two “spectaculars” but not to miss the five or ten easy 25-yard birds in between. Although I do try to correct them, circumstances have conspired to give me an undeserved reputation. (It seems that having absolutely no idea where to shoot usually gives the same result as not having time to think about where to shoot: the bird on the floor and no-one, myself included, having the foggiest idea of how I brought it down.)

I’m my own worst enemy sometimes.

Due to other forthcoming commitments, pattern testing with the .410 will begin again in a couple of weeks.

Old Habits Die Hard

I responded to a “my first gun” post on one of the UK shooting fora this week. A chap had bought a Baikal – new – and was looking for some basic advice on maintenance, how to set the gun up for clays, how to make it easier to break open, etc. Perhaps also a little reassurance that he’d bought the right thing. I started my reply to him by stating something which is increasingly true: I like Baikals. Of course, the reasons I like them are probably the same reasons everyone likes them: they’re cheap, reliable, essentially indestructible. They also tend to fit me pretty well, which is a distinct advantage.

I took a walk with my new (to me) Baikal this afternoon. The question of which cartridge to use with the gun was almost settled in one shot by the crow I downed as I wandered about.

Choosing A Cartridge

I have two general rules as far as choosing cartridges goes. Firstly, I don’t change cartridge once I’ve found one that patterns well and performs in the field. This is an issue of confidence: in some senses, I’m too aware of all the variables involved in cartridge design not to worry that this or that cartridge will be suitable or unsuitable for whatever it is I’m doing at the time. It’s this thinking that is fatal to good shooting – at least for me. Testing cartridges and exploring their performance is an anorak’s sport and one I’m proud to call mine – but it doesn’t put birds in the bag. There’s a time and a place for thinking about cartridge design and the moment of trying to make a shot connect isn’t it.

The second rule I have for choosing cartridges is that loadings have to be generally appropriate to the size of tube for which they’re intended. This is as much a product of extensive reading and experience as it is a reaction to the pervasive and entirely incorrect idea that “speed” is everything in cartridge design.

It’s also a refusal to jump on the “recoil” bandwagon, where new shooters are first warned that – for example – a 32-gram load in a 12-gauge side-by-side is somehow painful to use and are then encouraged to boast that they have managed to “survive” using a handful of them in the field.

I realize that genuine infirmity might mean that some shooters can’t comfortably shoot an-ounce-and-an-eighth, but in the absence of that, it’s the traditional 12-gauge load and most adults who have done a bit of shooting should be able to manage it well enough, without making it a game of one-upmanship.

I haven’t yet settled on a cartridge to use with the Baikal but aside from the aforementioned considerations, the question I usually ask is, what haven’t I got? In choice of cartridge, as in life, I try to answer the question “what fills the biggest gap?” (or variations upon the same) before laying out money or making a choice about which direction to go.

Research & Development

I’m lucky that I have a choice of guns, all with cartridges tuned to their particular characteristics. The two worth mentioning are a 16 gauge in which I use an ounce of #6 and a 12-gauge semi-automatic through which I shoot either commercially loaded steel cartridges or a 39g/#5 home load. This is also the biggest gap in the list of gun-cartridge combinations I use, so starting with a load slap-bang in the middle of it seemed like a reasonable choice.

34g of #5 would be considered by most a heavy load – particularly through a side-by-side – but having done some research earlier in the year, I had a plan for a load which is essentially a duplication of the Gamebore “Pigeon Extreme” cartridge, except that my version would have a fiber wad rather than plastic.

The interesting characteristics of this load (if it has any) are really the things that it is not. It is not a light 12 gauge load (i.e. 26g, 28g). I already have a perfectly good 28g load and a gun to shoot it with – I don’t need another.

It is also not a #6 load. I can’t deny that 28g of #6 gets me some good birds but in a tube as large as .729″, one can take advantage of the larger shot sizes. #5 is a good choice, providing around 260-270 for 34 grams of shot, which for medium and tight chokes is a good number. The same load of #6 gives around 330 pellets, which would be appropriate in a lightly-choked gun, but which somewhat over-caters for pattern density when one expects 55-80% of the shot to end up in the standard circle.

#5 is rather large for pigeons but some crows are big buggers and it doesn’t hurt to use bigger shot provided there are enough pellets in the pattern. It is convenient then, that I have more #5 in stock than anything else. I put ten of these cartridges together yesterday afternoon, using some old Gamebore “Black Gold” cases I’d been saving for a rainy day.

Performance Testing

The thing about “slow” powders – particularly A0 – is that you need enough pressure to get them to burn properly. Too little powder, or too little lead in front of the wad and the shot barely reaches any velocity at all. More “phut”; less “bang”. Although patterns tend to be amazing for the first 10-20 yards, the 30-yard pattern can be found to be “missing” because all of the shot has hit the floor. This is clearly undesirable.

34 grams of shot is a very light load for A0 (it’s more suited to c. 40-42g loads), meaning that one needs around 30 grains of powder behind the shot charge just to get the cartridge to fire properly. That’s a lot of powder per cartridge, which is itself undesirable.

Sometimes, however, it’s worth accepting a small cost for the chance of a large gain and in this case, that turned out to be a wise choice.

As I wrote on this blog, earlier in the year, I’d tried the Eley Grand Prix 30g/#6 loading in the Baikal and found them to be quite punchy. Likewise, some (but not all) of the other commercial loadings I had in stock. By contrast, today’s loads were smooooooth as silk. Just to emphasise: really, really smooth – the kind of smooth you do not expect to enjoy when you take any box of cartridges labelled “34g” out to the field. Happily, I doubt they’re as “fast” as they could be, but they don’t half kill birds.

Aside: This is what the commercial manufacturers are aiming at when they refer to a cartridge as having “progressive” powder. They know as well as I do that if one uses larger quantities of slower powder, one gets a much more pleasant experience of recoil than with what might be called the “bare minimum” of something else to get the shot column up to speed. There are just two problems:

  1. Slow powder puts manufacturers’ costs up because they buy powder by the ton irrespective of type, so a 50% increase in charge weight means a 33% reduction in the number of shells a given quantity of powder will produce.
  2. They’re all so busy chasing what the market thinks it wants – 1500fps – that there’s no way they can make any load that doesn’t feel at least a little bit “thumpy”.

Regardless, I had a bit of a zen moment just after 2pm this afternoon. I wasn’t really thinking about taking the shot, worrying about lead, or anything. I just raised the gun and shot the crow as it came over the hedge. It wasn’t high – 10 yards up at most – but it was a reasonable distance out. Full choke barrel; bang; thud. It was what you might call “definitive”. I ambled over to pick it up and stopped counting at 53 paces. In my-sized shoes, that’s not much short of 60 yards.

The reason that I haven’t gone wholesale into production mode just yet is that I don’t know how these cartridges pattern. Today’s bird left me in no doubt as to their potency and knowing various things about the gun (bore diameter and choke constrictions†) and how the shells were put together, I expect to find that they are producing excellent patterns from both ½- and full-choked barrels of the Baikal. However, I still want to see them print an 80% pattern at 40 yards before I sign them off, so to speak, and for that, I need to order some more paper.

As I said in a post last week, funds are currently tight and I also need to do some hunting once in a while, rather than shooting at paper all the time. It might be next month before I end up actually testing them. I’ll add these to the long list of pattern testing that already needs to be done and promise my readers that I’ll pick the up .410 before I fly off on another 12-gauge-sized tangent.

Apart from anything else, it’ll do me good to forget about shooting (at) 60-yard birds and continue trying to break that old habit…

† = The Baikal has bore diameters of and 0.717″ and 0.721″ with choke constrictions in those barrels of of 0.017″ and 0.041″ respectively. This is particularly helpful for a fibre-wadded cartridge as the obturation between nitro card, wad and barrel wall will be improved due to the tighter bore. This probably helps to avoid combustion gas passing the wad and affecting the shot, although it may be a handicap to performance in the sense that more scrubbing of pellets will occur. In shot sizes as large as #5 however, this is less significant than with, say, #7½ in a .410″ tube, as dealt with elsewhere on this site. 

Number 9 Week – Part II

Observing that today’s experiences in the field somewhat undermine the post I had planned to write this evening is unavoidable, so I do so first, before entering into any theoretical discussion.

It was not an unpleasant afternoon. Warm, bright for the most part and somehow quiet, it was valuable to escape the noise and excitement of the small people in the house and enjoy some solitude. I went out with gun (the Yildiz), bag and cartridges and set off to do the rounds of my usual trio of farms.

By the end of the afternoon, I’d managed to down two birds at a ratio of 1-for-4, do a bit of pattern testing and reconcile some theoretical knowledge with practical field experience, so it could be described as a productive trip, even if the shooting could have been better.

The Endless Argument

I suspect that many of my readers have probably visited a shooting-related internet forum at some point. Almost anyone who has will know that every few days or weeks, someone raises the question of using clay cartridges for shooting wood pigeons (or other quarry). As much as they might pretend otherwise, the reason they ask is because clay cartridges are cheap.

These inquiries usually prompt the latest round of the of the unending furious argument discussion as to what is the smallest shot size appropriate for shooting wood pigeons. “Debates” flare up between those who argue that #7½ is perfectly fine and that we should all stop fussing and “learn to shoot” and those who think that larger shot – #6, #5, etc. – is more appropriate.

It sounds daft to say it, but after shooting for some years, I think I finally have a handle on both sides of that argument and can at last point to a real reason for the difference of opinion.

In spite of having worked out the numbers as far as pattern density, pellet energy and penetration go a long time ago and concluded that #7 is probably the smallest general purpose shot size appropriate to pigeon and other medium game birds, I’ve never really been able to adequately explain why many hunters claim (and demonstrate) success with smaller shot sizes (and not just #7½).

Consideration this week of how #9 shot might be made to be useful in the .410 has finally “cracked the nut” of the “smallest shot size for wood pigeons” problem also and the difference, I believe, is the direction in which the bird is flying.

Yes – it still sounds daft. Let me explain.

Hedge-walkers & Decoyers

The two sides of the argument are reasonably well demarcated – “clay cartridges, yes or no?” The division of folks’ hunting practice between those choices almost certainly isn’t, but I think the groups broadly align with two camps: hedge-walkers, who refuse to use the smallest shot sizes, and decoyers, who don’t.

Some folk – myself included – just aren’t that good (or that lucky) at pigeon decoying. Either they lack experience / expertise, or their permissions aren’t of the kind which attracts wood pigeons or allows them to be easily shot if they do. One way or the other, they get to the point where their usual means of bagging birds is to walk the hedgerows and woodlands, disturb some birds and pick them off a few at a time.

The so-called hedge-walker’s usual shot is at a going-away bird, 30-40 yards out by the time they’ve raised the gun, accelerating away from them. For perhaps obvious reasons, these are the folk who like tight chokes and heavy loads of large shot: they need all the range they can get to kill the bird and doing that usually means driving big pellets up the backside of a pigeon, through the middle and into the vital organs.

Now consider the decoyers. These are the folk who have the right working pattern to chase pigeons around their permissions for a few days to find where they’re feeding and the experience to know how and where to set a hide to make sure that they shoot 100 of them when they do finally bother to get out of the car.

The decoyer’s usual shot is at an incoming bird, 15-30 yards away, which they’ve had a few seconds to see approaching and onto which they can accurately place their shotgun’s pattern. Choke is probably less important here, as is shot size: pigeons are not armored and their heads and necks are generally very exposed as they glide into a decoy pattern. All it needs is a pellet or two to impact with those areas and the bird will fall, dead, to the floor.

Given the ranges under consideration, with the bird approaching, there doesn’t seem to be much of an argument against using #7½ (or smaller) shot, since the amount of penetration required to destroy the brain or the arteries in the neck is in the order of millimeters rather than centimeters. Even breaching the chest cavity via the breast will only require a centimeter or two of penetration (as opposed to perhaps 10cm for a departing bird shot through the rear end), which ought to be in reach of even the smallest shot sizes at decoying range.

If you aren’t yet persuaded of the merits of this argument, consider the cock pheasant. These are big birds, some of them substantially larger than a wood pigeon and yet most of us would be reasonably happy shooting them with #7 shot, when we’d feel that #6 was as small as we’d use for wood pigeon. Why, exactly?

Consider that a driven pheasant is similar in presentation to a wood pigeon landing in decoys: they’ll usually arrive from in front of the Gun, target bird identified in advance and they will – being overhead – present their head, neck and chest to the shooter. Again, little penetration is required to get through to the vitals. Change the presentation to “going away” and an experienced Gun will think twice about trying to knock down a long cock pheasant with the shotgun equivalent of a Texas heart shot and a load of #7.

The Defeat of Hope by Experience

One of the birds I bagged today and another that I didn’t bag were going-away shots. Having seen the 14g version of the Eley “Trap” cartridge print a good (68%) 30-yard pattern during my testing, I decided to try them on the birds if an opportunity presented itself. I put the “Trap” cartridges in the ½-choked barrel and some of the “Extralong” #7’s in the other, in case the former proved inadequate.

Let’s just say that my personal view of the use of #7½ shot on live game was not improved by today’s experience, whether or not I’ve now understood the reason for peoples’ differing experiences using it.

Usually, when a bird drops a big cloud of feathers and flies on, it means that the shooter missed behind. Certainly that’s usually the case when it happens to me. Today, though, I took a shot at a departing bird, perhaps 30-32 yards away, partly denuded it and caused it to barrel into the floor before recovering and flying off. The bird in question was flying directly away from me, level, at head height – there was no lead to miscalculate and no way to miss behind.

In fact, I hit the bird reasonably well, I believe. I saw the shot ruffle through its feathers and the reaction certainly suggested a hit. Its subsequent recovery and departure suggested the shot hadn’t hit (or reached) anywhere vital. My gut feeling was that it was too far out for the #7½ shot to penetrate through from back to front. Of course – I’ll never know, but it doesn’t fill me with confidence.

The other going-away bird I shot today was quartering slightly and went down flapping with the shot. I used the other barrel just as it hit the floor to kill it. I can’t draw any firm conclusions from this experience either, except to say that it adds to the general impression I’m getting of #7½ shot being adequate only for certain presentations and certain ranges. The .410 is the first gun in which I’ve allowed myself to use #7½ and I’m probably hitting about the same number of birds as I do with any other, but wounding significantly more than I do when I use #7, #6 or #5 (in the .410 or otherwise).

On the other hand, the incoming bird, which I took at 20-25 yards with the “Trap” cartridge, came down cleanly. It was these two shots, taken together, which led me to the realization I described above.

The Usefulness of #9

It now seems a little rash to argue that #9 shot could be used in any game shooting situation, when clearly the efficacy of larger shot is already in question. However, if we have identified incoming, decoying birds as being particularly vulnerable and the penetration required to kill as being much less than would be expected of a “general purpose” cartridge, then we might allow that birds within – say – 20 yards, could be shot effectively. Certainly the increased pellet count and short range ought to make the likelihood of a pellet penetrating one of these particularly vulnerable areas more likely. Here’s an example pattern:

A computer-generated image displaying the kind of pattern which might be thrown at 20 yards if 14g of #9 shot were fired through a gun giving a nominal “Modified” performance at 40 yards.

This is a dense pattern, through which little could escape. Furthermore, the pellet marks displayed are red which, in the software that generated the image, indicates that their kinetic energy will still exceed 1 foot-pound. This should be sufficient for standard through-the-breast penetration to the vital organs of, say, a wood pigeon, without having to rely on lucky CNS strikes.

I am in no hurry to conduct a live test, so to speak, but we may ask, theoretically: how do we make the most of this somewhat limited load?

Widening the Net

I’ve said previously that measuring 20-yard patterns with the “mainstream” cartridges is something of a waste of time in the context of finding a 40-yard cartridge. Even the poorly-performing throw basically all of their shot into the circle when using the chokes which have typically given best performance (0.015″ / 0.020″) in the Yildiz. The better-performing cartridges do not fill that circle, but leave a border of empty space around the edge.

Let’s replace the #7 / #6 in those cartridges with #9. Even allowing for greater shot spread, via proportionally greater deformation of smaller pellets, the pattern at 10 yards would still be the size of a dinner plate. This would be extremely difficult to work with.

Furthermore, if #9 runs out of energy at 20 yards, then even if a cartridge printed 120 in the circle at 40 yards, there is no point in keeping the pattern together out to this distance. Although we’d have pattern sufficiency, we’d likely pepper the quarry with shot without killing it. (We prefer peppering it after it’s dead, then eating it – Ed.) Again, shooting at 20 yards with “40-yard” chokes requires extreme accuracy.

It therefore makes more sense to optimize the pattern for 20 yards rather than 40 yards. It would be logical to use lighter chokes and ensure an excellent short-range pattern, filling more of the circle in the 10-20 yard range which is the only distance available to us where the gun might prove effective.

The response of the SmallBoreShotguns team to that conclusion is that pattern-testing the #9 cartridges at 10, 15, 20 and possibly 25 yards, beginning with the test gun’s lighter chokes, is the right approach.

The Reverse Case

It’s fortuitous that I’ve also bought the Lyalvale 9g / #6 cartridge this week. I hadn’t expected to, but it provides a nice contrast with the approach outlined above.

If 9-14g / #9 is unbalanced by having excess pattern density then 9g / #6 is unbalanced having excess pellet energy. To get the best of the former, we should loosen the chokes and increase the size of the effective pattern, knowing that we cannot shoot beyond 20 yards; we must do the opposite with the latter cartridge.

It is the admittedly very old, traditional loads like the Lyalvale cartridge which have led to the “fashion” (if you can call it that) for most fixed-choke .410’s (and particularly singles) being over-choked. Even a 100% pattern with this loading, containing 102 pellets, cannot meet at any range the minimum required pattern density in the standard circle – there simply are not enough pellets.

However, pattern density equivalent to 120+ in the standard circle is achievable if the size of the circle is reduced. Throwing all the of the pellets in the Lyalvale cartridge into – for example – a 20″ circle (44% area of 30″) will offer both density and energy sufficient to kill small-to-medium game at whatever range it can be achieved – provided the user is accurate enough to employ an effective pattern less than half the usual size. This leads to guns cut with as much choke as possible, whilst still leaving an aperture for the shot column to exit the barrel.

Very often this “super-choke” doesn’t work – over-choking the gun blows patterns and fails to achieve the required pellet count. Even if it does work, the ranges at which such a tight pattern is achievable are limited.

A near-100% standard pattern is achievable at 20 yards by most cartridges through most chokes, but much of this will be outside an inner 20″ circle centered on the same point. Even with a genuine nominal “Full” choke, only c. 90% of the pellets will remain inside the standard circle at 30 yards.

Given that pellets tend to be approximately Normally-distributed in a shotgun pattern, this would be borderline-sufficient for a 20″-diameter effective “pattern-inside-a-pattern” with the Lyalvale cartridge, but the author has not yet heard of any .410 gun, choke and cartridge combination which achieves this level of performance. With lesser performance, the area in which the pattern density meets the minimum standard becomes smaller and smaller, until it disappears entirely.

It is for this reason that the .410 carries a reputation for being a “shot rifle” rather than a wing-shooting gun.

So Which Approach Is Best?

In the hands of an expert shot, forced to choose between shot that is too small or shot that is too large, there is probably no difference. Such a person will be used to restraining themselves in other gauges and will quickly and instinctively work out the maximum capable range of the choke / cartridge.

For a person shooting exclusively at static targets, the 9g / #6 cartridge is probably best if the gun will be treated like a rifle – provided one knows where the pattern is printed relative to the bead, that is. Because of the Normal distribution of shot around the point of aim, it is most likely that some pellets will always strike in the center of the pattern, out to significant range, guaranteeing a hit if the gun is properly aimed. Effectively, one ignores the existence of a pattern altogether.

For most of us, and for any instances of non-static targets, lighter loads of smaller shot and self-restraint where ranges are concerned are probably easiest to manage. 20 yards is not far, but it’s enough to reach an bird directly overhead at the height of most large trees or birds decoying well. This is usable, if we’re careful. (#8 and #7½ should reach, broadly speaking, to 25-30 and 30-35 yards respectively.)

My current preference is still for the 3″ cartridge giving the best performance with #7 shot available. As time goes on, I find it less and less acceptable to fire #7½ at living creatures – but then I do not decoy birds well.

A Final Thought

Although there is enough wiggle-room in everything that has been said above to make an argument for these cartridges having extremes of shot size and load weight to be employed in the field, I strongly urge readers not to attempt to do so.

Given that it is usually much harder to find 2″ shells and 2″-chambered .410s than all other kinds in the modern market, one would have to purposefully avoid the use of a more appropriate tool in favour of a less appropriate one, by choosing to hunt using such tiny loads or cartridges. They are, undoubtedly, historically significant and theoretically interesting, but their employment for taking game – at least of the common kinds in the UK -is almost always unethical and should be avoided.

To emphasize: this is not the same as swapping a 12 gauge for a 20 gauge shooting a lighter load because it is a “challenge” or somehow fashionable. Neither gun, loaded with a middle-of-the-road shell will be remotely marginal on any common game at all reasonable ranges.

A 2″ .410 is marginal however and – to my mind – incapable of the performance required to humanely take wingéd quarry. Even some more heavily-loaded 2½” shells seem likewise incapable.

With my scepticism concerning the use of #7½ shot growing stronger with experience, I suspect that the 3″ version of the Eley “Trap” cartridge will may not remain my preferred cartridge for use in the Yildiz much longer.

Number 9 Week – Part Ia

This post was originally intended to be the one which will now follow it in the next day or two.

I had been planning to write about the use of very small shot and looser chokes in the .410 and explore the utility – if any – of such combinations, but I now want to to note some new acquisitions made this morning and talk about those a little. Doing so will still segue nicely into the originally-planned post, I believe.

2″ Cartridges

Subsequent to mentioning my discovery of the 2″ Lyalvale 9g /#9 cartridge and description of it here as an historical curiosity, I contacted the Lyalvale marketing department to discover whether the loading is indeed available.

Lyalvale’s marketing manager responded very quickly to say that it was and, after a few exchanges, suggested that there was an RFD reasonably close-by from whom I might be able to obtain a box.

I drove over to the dealer this morning. In the event, they didn’t have the #9 version of the cartridge, but I did spot a box of the 9g / #6 loading, about which I trust, dear reader, I have never been complimentary.

So why did I leave the shop having paid for a box of what I know to be useless cartridges?

Simple. I intend to prove, via pattern testing, that my extreme prejudice against such an unbalanced load is justified and that nobody in possession of a .410 with 2½” or 3″ chamber(s) should consider using these shells where any alternative is available.

Oh – and if you hadn’t guessed, I’m a bit of a cartridge anorak and I’ve never actually owned any 2″ shells before, so of course I had to buy some.

Here they are:

We acquired three new brands of cartridges for pattern testing this week: Eley “Trap” 14g in #7½ and #9 shot sizes and the dimunitive Lyalvale “Supreme Game” cartridge (interestingly, packaged in an old-style box) containing 9g of #6 shot in a 2″ case.

Readers will note that there are two boxes of the Eley “Trap” cartridges displayed in that picture. The reason for this is that I was also able to acquire, unexpectedly, a box of the 14g / #7½ loading that I’d been unable to buy locally on Thursday: an excellent result for a round trip of not much more than 1½ hours.

I look forward to pattern testing all of them and will continue to search for the 9g / #9 load as described previously.

Number 9 Week – Part I

It seems to be “focus on #9 shot” week this week.

Two days ago I found the Lyalvale 9g / #9 cartridge I blogged about in my previous post. Yesterday, I was heartened to hear when I called in, that my local RFD had (finally) taken delivery of a pallet of Eley “Trap” cartridges about which I’ve been asking for some months.

Unfortunately, after he collected a slab from the store, it transpired that these were the 2½” version of the cartridge, loaded with 14 grams of #9 shot, rather than the 3″ version loaded with #7½ which I’d been hoping for. I did ask whether any of the alternative loadings were in stock, but alas. That means I still don’t have a ready supply of the cartridges my gun likes best for hunting, but I couldn’t miss the opportunity to buy a box and put them on the shelf for testing when the opportunity arises.

The contents of the Eley “Trap” 14g / #9 cartridge.
Small Shot: Small Beans

I’ve been thinking for some time about what utility, if any, the very tiny shot sizes might have in a hunting context. Clearly, they are extensively used for clay shooting. From what I have been able to discern from searching hunting websites and fora, there are a small minority who employ the very small shot sizes, not generally, but for particular purposes.

BASC, for example, suggest that #8 shot is appropriate for snipe – a tiny bird – though one could hardly call this a commonly-encountered quarry species. There are also accounts from – mostly American – hunters who talk about using quite large loads of #9 shot through open (cylinder) chokes for flushing dove and other small birds in dense woodland: shots are taken at 15-20 yards distance and a 40-yard bird is out of range because of the tree cover.

What is also clear is that the vast majority of hunters do not consider the general use of #9 shot on live quarry ethical. Although I continue to investigate its use for the purposes of understanding the practical limits of small-bore shotgunning, I remain one of that majority. My instincts, knowledge of shotgun behaviour and field experience all point to the use of much larger shot. In a world where only 12-gauge guns existed, I’d probably rely exclusively on #5 shot (or larger for steel) and at least 32g of it at that.

The Crux of the Issue

In the smaller gauges, one must naturally compromise on shot size to achieve a suitably dense pattern. It is no more ethical to employ a cartridge containing too few shot of a large size than it is to shoot at birds with shot that is insufficiently small to kill them cleanly. The question – in any gauge – is where the best balance between those two competing requirements lies and it is determined by the capacity of the cartridge and the ranges at which one is seeking to shoot.

Exactly where the balance lies is open to debate and personal preference. I am dubious, for instance, as to the merits of #7½ shot in live game shooting, but doubtless many folk employ it for shooting wood pigeons more or less successfully. In the .410, it does appear to produce a better balance of pattern density and energy better than loads containing #7 (or larger) shot which, thus far, have patterned only moderately well or disappointingly in the Yildiz .410 which is the inspiration for this blog. Future experience will demonstrate this to be true, or not. Hand me a clay-type cartridge for any other gauge of gun, however, and it’s most likely to come back un-fired.

Of course, what is ethical is not necessarily entirely the same as what is scientifically true. If we consider a #7½ pellet, traveling at 600fps – a typical 30-35 yard velocity – to be sufficiently energetic to penetrate the vital organs of a wood pigeon and kill it, then we must allow that, within reasonable boundaries, another similarly-energetic pellet will do the same, irrespective of its exact size.

In fact, to address the question implied above, a #9 pellet of identical energy should – initially – penetrate more effectively than the larger #7½ pellet because it will deliver its energy to a smaller surface area, increasing the force exerted. (Of course, its lower momentum will produce less depth of penetration overall – it will slow down much faster than an equivalently energetic #7½ pellet.)

Lucky Strikes

There are two other relevant points to examine here. The first is that the extremely high pattern densities offered by the smallest shot sizes significantly increase the likelihood of the “lucky strike”. The skull casing of the average bird is not particularly thick and can be penetrated much more easily by flying shot than, for example, the chest cavity (which sits under a great thickness of tissue including the breast when the bird is shot from underneath).

Although the target area is extremely small in most cases, a pellet strike to the significant centers of the central nervous system (CNS) of a bird (the brain and brain stem) is very likely to be immediately lethal and it is quite possible therefore, that the apparent effective range of the smallest shot sizes is exaggerated by this effect.

Hunters may claim (truthfully) to have taken birds at much longer ranges than the kinetic energy of such tiny shot should support and it is very likely that CNS strikes are the cause.

The hunter who kills a bird cleanly with #9 shot at 40+ yards may, seeing that it is possible to bring birds down with such a cartridge, be immediately taken in by the illusion his success has created. He may imagine that if it were not for his lack of shooting skill or some other defect, that his #9 cartridge will always prove efficacious and come to believe in it – as many of us do, when we find something that “works”.

Until that hunter goes on to hit and wound his next five birds at similar distance using the same cartridge, he may be tempted to reject the long-held consensus that wounding birds with very small shot is not the exception but the expectation.

It is the author’s suspicion that many of the accounts he has examined over the last few days which support the use of very small shot in hunting situations have, to greater or lesser degree, been subject to this “lucky strike” effect.

There are enough claims of success for the author to accept that the issue is not clear cut. Some detailed accounts have specified very short-range (< 20yd) shooting and are reasonably convincing. Others have described post-mortem examination of the quarry and discovery of CNS strikes to which death has been attributed. Other, more dubious claims regarding the general use of very small shot have seemed sparse on detail and some hunters do seem to be particularly “lucky” if their ratio of clean kills to wounded birds when using such shot sizes is taken at face value.

Ultimately we cannot rely on luck or marginally sufficient ammunition and it is not ethical to do so. However, we also cannot rule out the experience of a minority who do seem to demonstrate success with shot sizes the majority considers – lazily or otherwise – to be inhumane, without at least examining it first.


The second of the “relevant points” spoken of is that there is an historical argument which supports the  use of very small shot sizes for hunting purposes: the pursuit of taxidermy.

Whether one approves of stuffing creatures to appreciate them in death or not, the average taxidermist will not waste his time on a creature which has been blown to bits with #4 shot at short range, since the damage to the structure of the animal will make it impossible to achieve a high-quality result.

It may be that the image of the taxidermist, with his small gauge shotgun loaded with “poppy seeds” is not a well-known one, but it has been established in shooting since Victorian times when practitioners would shoot all manner of creatures with #9 shot (and smaller), in the hope of obtaining a specimen to which the damage caused in the killing would be unnoticeable.

That quite inappropriately large birds and animals were shot, wounded and then clubbed to death for taxidermic purposes is not in doubt – but by and large, it appears to have been possible for the practice to be carried out without having to bludgeon every specimen, which suggests that clean kills were reasonably regularly achieved. This therefore is perhaps the largest body of evidence available which describes the use of (excessively?) small shot on living creatures and cannot be entirely ignored, even if our modern sensitivities are so strongly set against wounding and causing unnecessary suffering and rightly so.

An Interim Conclusion

Although it is clear that one cannot ethically employ #9 shot as a general purpose size for hunting, all of these factors taken together make a case for the propriety of small shot at extremely short ranges against which it is difficult to argue.

One would doubtless have to be extremely restrained (and lucky to have the opportunity) to shoot birds at 15-20 yards distance repeatedly and successfully, but it ought not to be impossible to achieve.

Provided we do not rely on lucky strikes to the CNS, but rather on proper penetration through to the vital organs, combined with pattern density sufficient to make them likely, it ought to be possible to hunt the smallest of game and vermin with some very light loads of rather small shot.

I do not, however, intend to try.

Rather, I will describe the more ethical experiments, which do not concern the shooting of game, which I intend to perform with the #9 cartridges I have recently obtained, in my next post.