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.