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.