One Year On: What have we learned?

Hindsight is always clearer than current experience and mine suggests that I have suffered a period of malaise regarding shooting of late. The failing weather hasn’t helped – who would want to be out in thunder and driving rain, given the choice? – but I have had opportunities to shoot that I haven’t taken. This is unusual for me. It’s perhaps a product of having so many projects on the go at the moment that a degree of exhaustion took hold – the effort of going out was too much when the alternative was to try to clear some of the things in my in-tray.

Last Sunday’s trip however, even though – on paper – I shot appallingly badly, seems to have rekindled my enthusiasm. Sometimes all it takes is a small achievement (like a left and right with a difficult-to-shoot gun) to remind me that I’m not a completely incompetent shot, that I have learnt a huge amount over the last few years and that, having stuck with it through the long purgatory of “zero” bags at the start, I do now more often bring something home than not (excepting the days I’m out patterning, obviously). I remember, very clearly, saying to a friend some time ago, that if I could turn the “zero bags” into “one bags”, I’d be happy with that: it’s happened and I am.

I noted last month that it is now a year since the SmallBoreShotguns team got this website up and running. In that time we’ve done a lot of experiments, discovered some interesting things and confirmed – at least in part – a lot of suspicions / theories. One of the things I thought I had done when marking that anniversary was to lay out a list of general conclusions as to the first year’s testing of .410 ammunition and suggest what kind of cartridge would maximise the potential of the Yildiz – but I haven’t been able to discover in the history of what I’ve written that that got any further than being an idea, so here, for the record, is where I think things stand.

Commercial Cartridges

Of the commercial cartridges we’ve tested so far, Eley have proved to be the best manufacturer, their range being consistently better than the competition for any given general specification (e.g. 2½”, 3″, etc.). Their 19g/#7½ “Trap” load continues to provide the best performance on paper and it is frustrating that a local supplier of those cartridges has proved so elusive: I want to to buy a slab to keep me going in the field whilst I continue testing the other possibilities available in the UK market, but I’ve no idea where to do so. Even JustCartridges do not appear to stock them.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Italian manufacturers have fared badly. Bornaghi and Fiocchi both have reputations for producing high performance cartridges, but the results of the SmallBoreShotguns team’s pattern testing have not shown those brands in a good light. Many UK manufacturers outsource their .410 cartridge production to larger European makers. This author believes – but is not certain – that Lyalvale cartridges are produced under such an arrangement, which may explain their relatively poor performance. The Hull offerings are middle-of-the-road, producing (on the basis of limited evidence) mediocre performance in percentage and absolute terms, but outdoing some of the competition.

.410 Homeloads?

I don’t have a .410 reloading press and at this point, it would be an unaffordable luxury. However, that doesn’t prevent me from formulating a hypothesis for what would produce the best performance from a .410 cartridge on the basis of a year’s experience.

I’d start with 17-18 grams of very hard #7½, #7 or #6½ polished shot loaded into a 3″ case. The shot wouldn’t need to be copper-plated or have any of those “gimmicks” attached, but it would need to be hard: .410’s are high-pressure guns and – probably because users’ expectations are so low to start with – many manufacturers use cheap lead which will melt, deform or weld under the conditions of firing, seriously damaging patterns. The actual shot size would depend on how many pellets ended up in the circle at 40 yards – I’d choose the largest posssible size, without dipping below 120.

Those case would be primed with a “cool” primer and a powder as slow as it was possible to use safely, aiming for a consistent muzzle velocity between 1150-1175fps. The shot doesn’t need to travel faster than that to be effective – anything marginally supersonic will do. The case should be 6-point fold crimped; rolled turnovers should be banished in any gun smaller than an 8-bore as an unnecessary indulgence, highly damaging to cartridge performance, which really betray poor cartridge design. If there isn’t enough space for the shot and a fold crimp, it’s either the wrong wad, the wrong (or too much) powder, or too much shot for the cartridge.

As for the wad, we’ve seen repeatedly that fibre and short plastic wads give superior performance to full-length plastic wads, in spite of the opposite generally being true in the larger bores. I would follow Eley in using a short-petalled plastic wad, longer than the “diabolo” type but not as long as the Fiocchi type, aiming for the best compromise between scrubbing and crushing.

Unfortunately, at present, this kind of cartridge remains imaginary. I know of no maker, other than Eley, who use anything other than cheap, bog-standard lead in their small bore loads. All use the cheapest powder available as a matter of course and either tiny fibre wads of varying degrees of strength, or long-petalled plastic wads. Even Gamebore, of whose cartridges I had high hopes, reserve their patented “Diamond Shot” for any shotgun gauge except the .410, which hints again at outsourced production.

Eley, frustratingly, only fold-crimp their “Trap” loadings and – lately – their 14g/#7 “Fourlong” loading. Given the state of the cases for their 3″ load after firing, I suspect that these (cheap?) shells would not stand up to fold crimping at the time of loading any more than they stand up to anything else afterwards. I’d like to test the 18g/#7 “Extralong” loading with a fold crimp – I suspect that, if such a cartridge were produced, it would probably displace the “Trap” cartridge as my preferred commercial loading on the basis of shot size.

Will such a cartridge evert exist? Would it perform? Well – perhaps. Aside from completing pattern testing for the rest of the cartridges in the UK market in our second year, the SmallBoreShotguns team intend to beg or borrow the use of a .410 reloading press, to try and create that “perfect” cartridge. Of course, it won’t be – but, unhindered by cost, we might just come up with something better suited to hunting than anything we’ve yet tested.

We shall see.