Modest Outcomes

Forty-one thousandths of an inch is a lot of choke for a 12 gauge and represents really quite a lot of “squeeze” on an already over-sized fibre wad and shot column – especially when it’s a reduction from a bore diameter of .721″ rather than the more traditional .729″, as is the case on my Baikal.

Of course, there are a small number of wildfowlers who believe that steel shot, already generally superior to lead in pattern performance terms because of its hardness, requires chokings of 0.060″ or even 0.070″ to function at its best. The fad for “terror” chokes (and bloody hell the idea scares me) giving constrictions that would make American turkey shooters’ eyes water now seem to be dying out thankfully and not before time. It is quite ridiculous to think that such constrictions could be anything other than damaging, especially when one considers that it is quite straightforward to “blow” a pattern with what many folk consider to be the standard full-choke constriction (c. 0.040″).

Pattern testing today filled out some more numbers for the Fiocchi Flobert #7½ round but, as lots of people seem to say to me at the moment, that’s much of a muchness. I’m not going to hunt with that gun, so whilst it’s theoretically interesting, knowing their performance doesn’t achieve much practical.

On the other hand, supplementary patterning for my 34g/#5 load has prompted a change of course.

Now, to be fair, today’s patterns weren’t as bad as I thought they might have been and – given the difficulty in picking out some of the pellet holes, might represent a slight under-estimate of performance. 159 and 143 in the circle at 40 yards are usable, if not spectacular patterns from the full choke barrel. However, when the half-choked barrel is producing patterns of 191 at the same distance, one has to begin to suspect a blown pattern due to excessive choke and this may be what we saw today.

40-yard pattern shot through the full choke of the Baikal 12 gauge using a 34g / #5 reload.

The trouble with the cartridge, as it’s currently constituted, is that although it does provide fairly smooth recoil and a comfortable shooting experience, performance is mediocre and inconsistent and it does use a lot of powder, a good proportion of which is left un-burnt in the barrel after firing. A0 is really a “magnum” powder and using it on really rather a light load is wasteful.

Since I’ve been investigating loading some “traditional pigeon” shells using A1 – which ought to be a much better powder for 34g – I’m going to abandon the A0 cartridge as unsuitable for the Baikal – at least for now – and see if I get any better results with a different powder. #7 shot is proving hard to get, so 36g/#6 might do for that experiment and – if they turn out to be any good – perhaps I’ll actually end up using them in the field.

Unfortunately, I’m sceptical. Using a faster powder will increase pressures and increasing pressures is likely to damage performance. It may simply be that a tight bore with a very tight choke at the end of it is just too much for any ordinary cartridge and that I’ll have to get the full choke barrel bored out somewhat – perhaps to somewhere between the .041″ constriction it has now and the .017″ constriction that seems to perform so well with the originally-intended cartridge.

We shall see, but given my luck in finding good, performant cartridges for all of my other guns, it seems only fair that I have to do a little work to get one of them printing patterns the way I want them. Apart from anything else, it will get hugely confusing if, all of a sudden, I’m pulling the back trigger for nearby birds and the front trigger for the screamers. That just wouldn’t feel right after several years of using a near-identical 16 gauge that works the other way round…

A Grand Day Out

Looking back on recent posts on this blog, it’s clear that, only a couple of weeks ago, I wasn’t having the best time of it. Happily, regression to the mean is one of the few “rules” in life that one can rely on and I’m pleased to report another good outing today, to go with the positive trip I had last weekend.

I traveled today to see an old friend and was pleased to find him looking well (particularly given a recent illness). We instigated another meeting of the Cardboard Perforation Society (CPS) on some of his ground and pattern tested the Fiocchi #7½ 9mm Flobert cartridge which has been sitting on the shelf for some time. This was a rather amusing exercise which saw us shooting patterns at 5, 10, 15 and 20 yards and in the foremost case prompted many amusing jibes on the subject of accuracy: the muzzle of the gun was practically touching the pattern plate.

To give a conclusion in a sentence: whilst concerns about the penetrative ability of small shot at low velocity remain, the Fiocchi shells do appear to offer some utility in short-range vermin control. In fact, the #7½ cartridge may be the best of the 9mm shells we’ve tested – proper results will follow later.

We performed these tests using some packing boxes I found at work, left over from a recent office move. These were stacked, awaiting disposal, so my employer was only too happy to let me cut them up and take them away. They produced fifteen or so plates of various sizes which will keep me going whilst I await the delivery – tomorrow apparently – of the next roll of patterning paper, with which I’ll do the pattern testing for the increasingly large pile of .410 cartridges sitting on my “man shelf”.

In fact managed to return home with another box to add to the .410 mountain, in the form of the Gamebore “Traditional Game” 9g / #7 (2″)  cartridge (the link displays the re-branded version) of which I have until now – in spite of having visited the Gamebore website reasonably regularly for some years – been entirely unaware.

A Wander

It was probably selfish of me to observe to my friend after we’d finished patterning, that taking leave from work and not going shooting (as opposed to patterning) always feels a bit of a waste of a day off. Selfish, in the sense that one shouldn’t invite oneself to others’ domains and simply expect to be allowed to shoot – one must be invited to do so, of course.

Nonetheless, I think my friend understood the point I was trying to make (i.e. that free time should be used for the things that give most enjoyment) and kindly agreed that we should go for a wander around the woods not far from where we’d done the patterning. The sun blazed and the sky was clear in a manner entirely uncharacteristic of any 27th October I can remember and we both enjoyed the walk very much.

In the end, one juvenile wood pigeon fell to a 15-20 yard shot from my Baikal 12-gauge, with another easy attempt prevented by the safety catch earlier on. (I forget, every time I take that gun out, that it has an automatic safety – I may have to “fix” that at some point.) The stock extension appeared to improve the fit of the gun and if anything, I felt as if I’d shot marginally over the top of the bird, rather than underneath, which suggests a slight over-correction. I’ll take it out again a few more times in the next few weeks to be sure.

The only other shot I took was at a bird further out, which I think I hit, albeit perhaps only with a single stray pellet. It continued on for at least another 200-300 yards before dropping to the ground, but whether it was landing normally or falling because it had expired, I couldn’t tell. The foxes will have had it by now if it was the latter.

Nonetheless: one in the bag – in spite of my confidence in the 34g/#5 reload being somewhat dented by some rather poor patterns shot only minutes earlier. I’m going to have to rethink that cartridge – it’s not consistent, or obviously performant enough for me to be happy with it, or have confidence in it, whether or not it’s printing 140 at 40 yards. (Again, results to follow.)

After we’d packed the guns away, we drove out towards one of the local RFD’s and stopped at the pub, where I was grateful to be treated to a very nice lunch.

What do you mean, #7?

I promise readers that I’m not going to be any less cynical on the subject of shot sizes in the small bores and when we visited the local firearms dealer just after lunch, it was certainly the case that, for .410, all the cartridges on the shelf, except for the aforementioned Gamebore loading, contained #6 shot or larger.

I was tempted to buy more of the Hull “High Pheasant” 19g/#6 loading and a box of the RWS 9mm shells containing 7g/#10, but I can obtain the former locally and the latter were phenomenally expensive for a cartridge for which I have no use and which I’ve previously tested – no matter how appropriate the tiny shot size might be to the tiny Flobert case. I was also tempted to buy a box of the Gamebore buckshot load (which I’ve known about for as long as I can remember, but never seen for sale), simply for interest, but decided against it, not only because I’d have no use for them, but also because they would probably blow to bits the pattern plate and render rolls of expensive paper useless should stray pellet travel through the box.

In the end, however, I was pleased to come away with something new to test and, although the Gamebore shell is probably a 20-yard cartridge at best, it might yet turn out to be a good 20-yard cartridge, with all of the usual accommodations one has to make for a 2″ cartridge assumed. I suspect that my inherent curiosity regarding such extreme loadings may see it jump a few places up the queue and feature in my next set of testing.

The Gamebore “Traditional Hunting” 9g / #7 cartridge.

After that and another pleasant drive through the country, I dropped my friend back at his house and we parted ways. A slow journey back and the responsibilities of fatherhood kept me busy for a few hours after I got back, but I’m now “in the zone” and will get on with counting some patterns as soon as I’ve hit the button to publish this post.

More to follow.

Super Steel – Sometimes

It’s been a while since I’ve managed to get out to the fields, but a snatched couple of hours, first thing this morning, paid dividends. The weather was windy, but bright and I managed a mixed bag of three for five shots, which I thought was quite respectable.

Stock Extensions

I’ve been making inquiries this week about stock extension pads. The pad my wife kindly ordered for me, for my Birthday, was returned to the supplier as unsuitable. It was simply too large and fell off every time the gun was pointed skyward, for every gun with which its use was intended. That pad was exchanged for an alternative model, which proved equally over-sized and therefore likewise unsuitable.

After this, I decided to take advice. Having constructed – I flatter myself – what may have been the post with the highest density of euphemisms per paragraph in the history of one of the major shooting fora (and got it past the moderators) to request opinions on a next step, I received some suggestions on alternative products and approaches. A friend has offered to assist with the “Russian Purdeys” (as he refers to my Baikals) but I may have managed to come up with an answer in the meantime: “home economics”.

Crises of masculinity aside (I’m yet to have one), I rather like the fact that I can sew. In fact, I can sew rather well, when I put my mind to it. This afternoon, after lunch, whilst supervising the small people in the house, I dug out my wife’s sewing box and tightened the elasticated part of the stock extension, such that it now doesn’t fall off the back of either of the Baikals, rendering it useful. Result!

Superb Steel (Sometimes)

The reason for interrupting an account of this morning’s wanderings with comments on the subject of stock extensions was simply to point out that the requisite progress on making several of my guns fit had not been achieved by the time I left the house at 8am.

Since the conditions precluded the possibility of doing any patterning and I wasn’t feeling optimistic enough to take an unfamiliar, single-barreled 20 gauge to the fields, I retrieved my Browning Maxus from the cabinet and a box of the Gamebore “Super Steel” 32g/#4 cartridges from the cupboard.

Now usually, I’m a sceptic about all things steel, because I’m far too aware of its limitations in comparison to lead and other more ballistically-efficient metals. As a hunter, I think we should be using the most effective ammunition we can, within reason. Lead is readily and cheaply available and I have long suspected the claims for lead poisoning in wildfowl to have been somewhat selective and over-blown. Either way, the law says we can’t use it over wetlands, so I don’t – but that doesn’t mean I can’t be suspicious of it either. Usually, it’s of no concern -it’s not as if I do much ‘fowling anyway.

However: even accounting for all of the above, I have always trusted the Gamebore load and have taken some of my longest, best birds with it. Although that does include a handful of stratospheric ducks – the quarry for which it was intended – it’s actually rather a good wood pigeon cartridge and proved its worth again this morning with a clean kill of a passing bird around 45 yards from the hedgerow where I was walking.

When I left, I had wanted to change the choke in the Maxus to the ½ choke, which has tended to perform well with the steel cartridge, but I had unable to find the choke key and in the end, had to make do with ¾. I needn’t have worried. I don’t usually “see” the shot cloud, but the low sun this morning made it quite apparent, as did the damage to the bird, that this was a good, tight (as opposed to blown) pattern. I may even shoot a couple of plates for the sake of interest at some point.

A Little Decoying

One problem which occurs when one spends the majority of the time shooting small-gauge guns, is that when one does finally take a 12-gauge for a walk, it’s all to easy to feel “unrestricted” and take on distant birds which are significantly further out than the 10-15 yards of extra usable range of a 12 gauge over (for example) a .410 will allow for. That said, I don’t feel, other than having more confidence to take on the opportunities presented than I might have had whilst carrying a .410, that I suffered from this misguided instinct as I perhaps have in the past.

The dead crow I picked up this morning was, to be fair, over 90 paces from the natural hide I’d been using, with a handful of decoys, to try and encourage a large number of crows that were milling around on the second farm into a “shootable” location.

Before anyone jumps to any conclusions however, readers will be reassured that, when I shot the crow the first time, it was no further out than the wood pigeon I had taken earlier (probably closer, in fact) and that, when it started to fold, clearly hit, I fully expected it to come down there and then.

In the high wind, however, the bird appeared to recover and glide a little, which prompted me to take a second shot at it to try and prevent it  escaping and suffering significantly before it finally expired. The second shot also connected and killed the bird outright – I was greatly relieved – but the wind carried it still further before it came down and necessitated a long walk to retrieve it.

It is plainly unethical to shoot at birds 75 yards away, so at this point, it seems worth reassuring readers that, in any situation other than trying to dispatch wounded, escaping quarry, I wouldn’t have raised my gun to a bird that far out – even knowing and freely admitting my habit of taking on “reasonable” long-range birds (e.g. 40-55 yards) perhaps slightly too often.

Ignoring that fact, it does highlight an important feature of steel shot, which was particularly apparent today. Although, out to a certain range, steel shot of the right size and velocity will kill just as well as lead, the distance over which its effectiveness “tails off” seems to be much shorter than that of lead.

What I mean is that, if one’s cartridge containing lead shot will kill well enough at 40 yards all day long, then taking a few 50- or even 55-yard shots isn’t going to result in lots of wounded birds. Yes, you’re playing the odds unless performance is very good, but you’ll probably still wound few enough (good shooting assumed) that no-one watching you will feel you’re pushing any ethical boundaries.

On the other hand, with steel, a 40-yard cartridge which kills reliably can easily become a 45-yard cartridge that wounds 50% of all the birds it connects with. Assuming that we use larger shot sizes for steel, as is common practice, then the larger, harder pellets (which make bigger holes) may even kill more effectively than equally-energetic lead pellets – but the greater drag and lower momentum eventually catches up and they become ineffective more quickly: playing the odds at the border of a steel cartridge’s range isn’t likely to go well on the basis of my limited experience.

I’ll try to look into the mathematics of this in the next few weeks and see if I can work up some numbers which support this hypothesis.

An Unexpected Visitor

Whilst hiding in the hedge, keeping watch over the decoys, I had an unusual visitor. A female Goshawk (I’m about 95% certain of my identification), floated gently into the middle of my crow decoys, seemed to inspect them for a few minutes and then remained, not 25 yards away from me, accepting my admiration disdainfully, until a pair of crows (neither hollow nor plastic), appeared and chased her off again.

I had been under the impression that the Goshawks in this country were generally kept by falconers and that they didn’t appear in the wild, but I look forward to being corrected and having my identification of the bird supported by new information. Whatever it was, it was a magnificent bird and a pleasure to see it.

The third item in my mixed bag, as yet unmentioned, was a large, male rabbit, which appeared out of the hedgerow just as I was walking back from picking up the crow. Usually I wouldn’t shoot them as I haven’t enjoyed eating them in the past, but this was an instinctive shot – not perfectly executed, I have to admit – and taken on the grounds that, since the hare proved so pleasant the other week, I thought I’d give rabbit a try again. I don’t suppose the farmer will mind. After that, I field dressed it and took it home, feeling that I’d had, all in all, a rather good morning.

Clumsy Oaf

I went out this afternoon for an amble around the countryside, though my heart wasn’t in it, if the truth be told.

There were very few birds around today – one of the nearby farms, to which I don’t have access, has recently been drilled and I occasionally saw in the distance a large flock of perhaps 300 birds ascend and descend in response to some perceived hazard. Nonetheless, I had a few chances on my own patch.

The first and best chance was at a bird passing overhead. I saw it a long way off and, knowing that the appearance of a bird where I spotted it usually means that it’ll follow a line over roughly the position I was in, I watched and waited. Sure enough, it flew to within 20-25 yards as I hid behind a hawthorn tree, waiting to take a shot.

I remember, every time I go out, the words of one of the early “influences” on my shooting career, who told me sagely: “whenever you think a bird comes into range, look at the floor, count to three and look up again – then it’ll be in range”. He knew my bad habits better than I did at that point!

So there I was, waiting. In all honesty, I could (and should) have taken it earlier and in a more relaxed fashion. 40 yards, as regular readers may be aware, tends, to me, to look closer than it really is, but I do make a good proportion of those shots. In this case, however, I waited too long and emerged too hurriedly from the hedgerow.

As I raised the gun, turned with the bird and stepped forward to shoot, I managed to gouge myself in the leg with an old piece of steel fence post, hidden in the long grass, which somehow slipped through the gap between the top of my boots and my shorts, leaving me with a small, but nasty gash from which an improbable quantity of the red stuff started to appear.

Needless to say, it put me off the shot enough that I didn’t even manage to pull the trigger and instead of retrieving my first bird of the day, I spent the next ten minutes trying to stop the bleeding with a combination of my T-shirt and a packet of wet wipes I keep in my shooting bag.

For the rest of the days shooting – perhaps another six shots in total – I can only say that, if I had any enthusiasm for shooting before I cut my leg, it had evaporated by the time I fired the next few shots at a small group of birds passing high overhead and missed them all. Although I completed my usual walk, I felt more as if I was going through the motions than that I wanted to be there.

Sometimes I think I shoot because I have the opportunity (rare enough with the constraints of family life), rather than because I want to.

Having paused on my way back to the car to stare for a while at a large expanse of open sky and yet somehow failed to see an approaching bird before it had flown within 10 yards of me (which I also missed), I unloaded the gun and went home, too despondent to carry on. Tiredness may have played a part, but in the end, it just wasn’t my day.

Holiday Reading

I took a few days off this week to rest and recuperate from a long period of high-intensity work (in employment terms) and a good deal of work on this and other websites which has occupied me for the last month or two.

In my free time (i.e. that not occupied by helping out with the necessities of daily living) I’ve been reading Gough Thomas’s Shotguns & Cartridges for Game and Clays which, although it was not revelatory did confirm some of my long-held thinking about historical practice and the reasons for it.

I’ve talked in the past about traditional black powder loads and it was interesting to finally find documented confirmation of the traditional black powder loads in tabular form. For example, the traditional 12 gauge load of 3¼ drams of powder and 1¼oz of shot giving 1050fps at the muzzle and the possibility of reducing both for lighter loads confirmed my suspicions that, in the time of Edward VII, 900fps was a perfectly ordinary velocity for cartridges. Not for the Edwardians, this 1500fps nonsense.

More interestingly (and further from my own experience) was the record of what was, until relatively recently, considered the “standard” wood pigeon load: 36g of #7 shot. This was given in comparison to the “standard” pheasant load of 30g of #6, which emphasised the degree to which our forebears considered pattern density essential for the poor man’s grouse. I intend to load some cartridges of exactly that specification in the near future and pattern them as an historical experiment.

Apart from the above, most of Gough Thomas’ conclusions were as expected. It was a rare treat to get the chance to read a book from cover to cover, however, and even better in view of the subject matter.