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.