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.