A Pleasant Walk

Yesterday’s trip turned out much as expected. In the event, I nearly missed nine in a row, a fate happily prevented by my bagging one bird for the eight cartridges fired! Not a brilliant result by any estimation and my dissatisfaction with it has not yet departed. That said, the trip had its positive moments, in spite of the lessons which remain un-learnt.

Love Don’t Inconvenience Thy Neighbour

I may have mentioned in previous posts that there is an organized game shoot on one of the opposite some of the land over which I have permission to shoot. I arrived just as the beaters’ cart had dropped off the beaters for the drive situated across the road, so I unpacked quietly, not wishing to disturb them or the impending drive.

In fact, I ignored one straightforward bird which passed close to where my car was parked because, as you will have guessed, my plan was to await the birds displaced by the guns across the road. In return for not ruining their drive with an early shot or two, I hoped that the pigeons which would almost certainly be in the wood about to be driven, would loop back into the trees on my side of the road to take refuge, giving me the opportunity to bag two or three of them.

Alas, it was not to be. The drive went ahead, but the pigeons refused to take the “easy” option even though I was well-concealed in the trees, away from the road. The majority disappeared off into the distance, at a right-angle to the direction I imagined they would take; a handful of the remainder passed by at some distance, allowing me to take two speculative shots, but with hindsight, I shouldn’t have bothered: neither shot connected and they were probably too far out to come down cleanly even if I had been on target. You win some, you lose some.

Seeking Solitude

In the event, I skirted round the boundary of the wood to the bottom end and then walked back to the car through the trees, looking for movement. It’s not my usual practice to go into the wood, because of the difficulty in getting a clear shot on even nearby birds, unless of course it’s late in the day and the possibility of roost shooting obtains.

Yesterday, however, I was a little “peopled-out” for one reason or another and appreciated the solitude. I may never have been further than 30 yards from open fields and the boundary about which I’d usually walk, but ambling slowly amongst the trees, having always to watch my step for fear of turning an knee in a fox hole and all the while watching for birds felt genuinely like “hunting” in its purest sense. I had literally no idea what would happen and although the quietness and loneliness of the place was necessary and refreshing, I felt as aware and as “alive” as I have in a long while. I may repeat the exercise.

As I returned through the wood, a few birds scarpered in various directions, but only one was not so obscured by the dense cover that it presented a genuine opportunity. I took it and bagged the bird. By the time I reached my car, the drive on the other side of the road had long finished and I just caught a glance of the beaters’ wagon disappearing over the hill as I came out from the trees. I trust they weren’t too disturbed by my presence.

Subsonic? Sub-Par?

Feeling that I’d exhausted all useful possibilities on that farm, I moved on to my next “usual” stop about a mile down the road. Here, I unpacked quietly and – expecting that there might be some wood pigeons in the tree line very close to where it’s possible to park the car – put into my pocket a handful of the Eley “Extra Long” Subsonic cartridges that I have awaiting pattern testing.

The reason for abandoning the Eley “Trap” cartridges I’ve had good success with so far is simple – I’ve got almost none of them left and it’s a 70-mile round trip to the only shop I know of that can supply more of them. Until I finish testing all the cartridges I’ve identified as “possibilities”, I don’t want to invest time and money in driving to buy slabs of cartridges for which there might be a superior alternative.

Theoretically speaking, whilst the subsonic cartridges, with their 18g of #6 would need to be achieving a pattern density that I haven’t seen this gun approach, let alone achieve, to be on a par the the “Trap” load, I thought that they ought to pattern well enough for a couple of 20 yard snap shots at any birds that might emerge from the hedgerow I planned to walk. Wanting to save the cartridges I knew would be effective at what I consider to be maximum range for this gun, I took a chance that they’d work, if I did my bit.

As it happens, there were no birds at which to shoot, but it only now occurs to me, as I write this post, that I forgot to change back to the “Trap” load after I’d gone past the hedge, which makes me feel slightly better about missing two shots at a pair of reasonably “tall” birds a little further on, making the tally 1-for-5.

I certainly missed the birds, but if I’d known I’d had the subsonics in the gun, I probably wouldn’t have had the confidence to take them on. Until I’ve seen whether a cartridge patterns well on paper – these should and I don’t doubt they’ll kill pigeons if I do my bit – I never feel I can have complete confidence in it. In fact, I tend always to imagine the wilder possibilities of performance, not least because I’m all too aware of the breadth of variation in shotgun behaviour with what most folk would call identical or near-identical loadings. Evidence, for me, is key.

For what it’s worth, I’ve also often wondered what kind of difference in muzzle velocity a human can detect as “different”. Is it 200 feet per second? 300? 500? As someone who more often over-leads birds than misses behind (I told you I was weird, right?), I’d have thought a slower cartridge might even bag me one or two birds I’d otherwise have fractionally missed, but perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.

Characterizing My Shooting

Moving on from my double miss (or trying to), I walked for about 1½ miles around the boundaries of the farm before I raised the gun to anything else. Subsequently failing to spot the slow-moving, crossing bird which emerged from the tree line at a little above head height, fifteen yards in front of me, and then – having done so – completely failing to respond to it by shooting it (or even attempting to do so) my confidence took another hit and I decided to turn back towards the car and head home. Sometimes it is better to just not to carry on rather than use up 20 cartridges in frustration, trying to hit anything and everything.

As readers will be becoming aware from these accounts, I’m an instinctive shooter who does best when I’m sure that I’m in good form and my gun and cartridge are well-matched and suitable for the job at hand. I am capable of shooting at a very good average, provided I don’t think too much about what I’m doing.

Unfortunately, I rather like thinking about shooting as it’s a colossally interesting and broad subject, worthy of much thought, which means that whilst I’ll sometimes be in very good form, I’m not capable of “forgetting” enough to ever be truly good at it. This is why I tend to go through cycles of shooting 1-for-2, then falling to bits with a couple of 1-for-9 days and then returning to 1-for-2 again. It’s a practical response to the amount of confidence I have in my shooting ability: I shoot well so I take on harder birds. I then miss the harder birds, drop my average and lose confidence. Then I shoot well again, because I don’t expect to hit anything and – without putting myself under pressure – everything falls into place again. It’s been like that for some years now.

Trigger Happy

Astute readers will recall that I mentioned firing eight shots yesterday and that, so far, the running count is five. The penultimate two blasts from the .410 were in the direction of an pigeon passing overhead, way out of range – at least for my shooting ability and certainly for the .410 – but to which I raised the gun anyway, in another example of my on-going battle with myself over shooting at distant, unmanageable birds. I’ve covered this bad habit several times in my previous posts and except to say that I often display it more when I’m tired and despairing of my shooting ability, I don’t intend to rehash the reasons for it here.

The final shot of the day was at a bolting rabbit. Unusually for me, I put the pattern well behind the bunny. I don’t often take a shot at rabbits, unless I’ve been specifically asked to try to control them as they aren’t my favourite quarry to eat. Other members of the association like to shoot them with air rifles and the farmer doesn’t mind us leaving them as it helps the foxes (which deal with most of them) survive, so overall the numbers tend to stay very low.

This time though, in my despondent, but apparently slightly trigger-happy mood, I thought it might be a nice change to bag one for the pot and had a go. Unfortunately, I suspect I only managed to put a pellet into one of its back legs or tail, as it squealed momentarily at me and continued to sprint towards its burrow, apparently unhurt. That made the bag one wood pigeon for eight shots.

All in all, it probably should have been 1-for-5 or 1-for-3 if I’d restricted myself to the straightforward opportunities and I’d like to think it could have been 2-for-4 at best, if I’d taken the easy crossing bird but, as usual, my keenness and over-confidence are my biggest handicap. Once again, I think it might be good to try to get to a clay ground, both for some practice and for the sake of simply letting off 100 cartridges at targets, to make pulling the trigger that little bit more boring – I’d probably waste fewer cartridges if it was.

As a final aside, I’ve recently discovered that Falco make a 24-gauge side-by-side and that Fiocchi still load ammunition for that gauge commercially. Brass cases are also available. I think it may turn out to be my next gun. You see them every now and again on the continent, but in England? A 24-gauge? Now that would be something special and quite an asset to a website like this one, I suspect…

On peut rêver.


Chuck Norris Has Left The Building

I have a trip out to the fields planned for tomorrow afternoon and after last week’s difficulties with my 16 gauge – which may, it turns out, need a stock extension – the little Yildiz .410 will be in my gun slip, ready to bring down a pigeon or two if the opportunity presents itself.

Although that observation could have been made tomorrow, in retrospect, with a report on my success or failure, I’m afraid that circumstance has prompted me to write a few words prior to going out hunting.

Of course, “hunting” has a slightly different meaning to people in this country, compared to most of the rest of the (Western) world, but when I say hunting, I mean it in it’s oldest sense – to hunt and to kill animals and birds for the purposes of eating them – and not in the – nonetheless admirable and only-a-little-insane sport of chasing a barely edible mammal on horseback over twenty miles of countryside before letting a pack of dogs fail to eat it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’ll defend to the death the red coats’ right to “hunt” in their way – not least as 40 baying hounds probably causes the thing to lose consciousness faster than, say, a misplaced rifle shot or a chunk of steak laced with potassium cyanide – but it isn’t my cup of tea.

Either way, however, people seem to forget that hunting of any kind involves effort and often a great deal of it. Follow me through a few apparently unrelated leaps of context, if you will…

Joining the dots

Readers may by now suspect that although I’m an enthusiastic shooter, shooting does not have any part in my day job, though I try to fill the rest of life with as much shooting-related stuff as I can! In fact, between 8am and 4pm, I’m a software engineer, which is the first “dot” in the picture I’m trying to draw.

The second dot is the “Chuck Norris facts” meme implied in the title, which is one of the oldest on the internet. In case you remain unaware of the nature of the aforementioned meme, in spite of its age, it is basically a collection of anecdotes predicated on the idea that Chuck Norris is invincible / infinitely talented / un-killable / possibly God himself.

Joining those two dots: the meme quite often pops up in programming as a means of generating textual data. There probably aren’t many web engineers who haven’t considered searching Google for Chuck Norris “facts” when they need to quickly create a list of short, pseudo-random bits of text to test this or that piece of computer code – and it’s always amusing to find a one-liner you haven’t heard before. Well – it is if you’re me, anyway.

One of my favorite “facts” goes like this:

Chuck Norris does not hunt, for “hunting” implies the possibility of failure. Chuck Norris goes killing.

Hold that thought.

The third dot and one of other the shooting-related things I do, other than authoring this blog, is to help my local field sports association manage their website and their land. Lately, I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about the kinds of opportunities the association offers. It’s the end of the game season and people are starting to look for pigeon shooting to get them through the spring and summer, which happens at the end of January most years and isn’t unexpected.

Expectation Management

What I’ve noticed in this year’s inquiries however, is that people seem to want some kind of guarantee that there will be birds to shoot, on demand. To give them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps their minds are clouded by the recent memory of having laid out hundreds or thousands of pounds on a peg on a driven day (or ten), at which a team of obliging beaters drove 200 head of pheasant over them, for them to shoot at?

I’m all for driven shooting. Again, not my cup of tea and it still probably wouldn’t be if I could afford it, but someone should do it. It keeps friends of mine in a job and gives others of them their reason to keep getting up in the morning after 30 years in jobs they hate. It’s also the reason I get to eat pheasant during the season, which is infinitely preferably to what may be God’s most mundane invention, the chicken.

However. There is a reason that you pay hundreds of pounds for a driven day, but – after the cost of the obligatory BASC membership is deducted and reclaimed – about £40 for membership of the local field sports association. Unlike the driven shoot, we don’t guarantee you’ll see any birds.

What’s worrying, is that folk seem surprised by this. Imagine: you’re given permission to wander around thousands of acres of countryside (with what some people still rather unreasonably insist is a “weapon” and not simply a “tool” for obtaining food), with minimal inconvenience or interference from landowner or club officials, for the grand total of £40 per year and you still expect a virtual guarantee that you’ll shoot 100 wood pigeons on every outing!?

If I hadn’t three almost identical inquiries of this sort in the space of a week, I wouldn’t have bothered writing any of this, but apparently, it isn’t obvious.

Possibility of Failure Implied

When I go out tomorrow, the likelihood is that I’ll shoot between 1 and 2 birds, based on where I’m going and my current running averages with the .410. I won’t be very disappointed if I fail to shoot anything at all, unless I use another 9 cartridges doing it – and if that happens, it’ll be because I’ve shot incompetently rather than because there weren’t any birds I could have bagged.

However, it appears to be the case that some people in the shooting fraternity aren’t terribly interested in hunting, but do rather like the idea of shooting and killing. Each to their own – I’m not saying they shouldn’t do what they feel comfortable with or what entertains them – but I despair that they can’t tell or accept the difference between guided or driven shooting, where a minimum number of opportunities might reasonably be guaranteed and “access to land”, where it certainly can’t.

I also find it hard to understand people’s indignance when I say that I won’t supply them with association bag returns for the previous 12 months so that they can “decide whether it’s worth joining”. I’m reminded of those warnings one sees on financial products that say “previous performance does not guarantee future returns”. Apart from the faff of producing the data, what would it tell them? Nothing. That someone shot X number of birds on that farm one week doesn’t mean that anyone else will do so this week. Or next week. Or the week after that. Pigeons are wild birds and go where they please, for goodness sake!

It’s not that I’d really mind sharing the data per se, but what happens in 12 months when they come back and complain that they haven’t shot enough birds. Are they going to sue the club for damages? Demand their £40 refunded? I’m not opening that door, I’m afraid.

The short of it is that hunting takes work and successful pigeon hunting takes a lot of work, a lot of skill, a lot of time and a lot of patience. Lacking time and skill and having fixed work hours, I will never be able to do enough reconnaissance to shoot those 100-bird “red letter” days – that’s just the way life is right now.  The guys who do shoot 3-figure bags regularly are the ones who don’t work much, can spend all week driving around to find where the birds are feeding and who have been pulling the trigger for long enough that they don’t miss many of the opportunities presented when they bother to set up at all. Even then, they have no guarantees that putting the decoys out will be worth their while.

I still, frankly, think it’s amazing that you can get shooting as cheaply as my local association offers it, but it’s not worth anything if people won’t make the effort. This modern generation does seem to expect everything handed to it on a plate. Millennials! Bah!

Regression to the Mean

Although saying so isn’t strictly relevant to the story of my learning to shoot a .410, it’s not particularly surprising that a trip out yesterday, for which I took my 16 gauge – fancying a change – turned out to be remarkably unsuccessful.

Of course, the man with one gun does shoot best, but he may not have the most interesting experiences as he downs every bird he sees with one “old faithful” shotgun. For some of us then, a little variety in our shooting is as important as the number of birds we bring home, if not more so.

It’s not that I have bored of the .410 – far from it. I’m actually keen to get on with the job of testing the remaining candidate cartridges and get some proper data collated on this site to determine for myself (and assist others in determining) what might be the best cartridge for this particular gun. However, that process requires the stock of cardboard / paper to be built up again and anyway, it is sometimes nice just to go out for a walk and a shot or two, without having to turn every trip into a scientific experiment.

The 16 gauge, therefore, should have been easy. Good patterns; 50% more shot in the cartridge; heavier gun and less erratic swing; much longer ranges a possibility. Of course, that’s not the way it works out when you’ve spent three months getting used to a gun that’s a slightly different shape and which fires to a slightly different point of aim than what you’ve been used to.

In the end, I missed nine in a row. None were easy shots and if I’d had the .410 with me, I’d probably have only attempted three of them at most, but it’s especially easy to fall into the trap of “having a go” when after a handful of tries, you still have no idea where the gun is shooting and it still feels completely unfamiliar.

I suppose I’ll put it back in the cabinet for another three months and carry on with the little one, though the “interruption” won’t have helped with that either.

It’s rather confusing really. Both guns (supposedly) fit me and I’ve had excellent success with the 16 gauge in the past, shooting 1-for-2 with it a good proportion of the time. I’m not surprised at my poor shooting, but I am disappointed. I know I miss more when I’ve just changed guns, but they ought to be near enough to each other that if I’m shooting 1-for-2 with one of them, I ought to manage to hit at least one or two birds in nine attempts with the other. The fact that I didn’t has dented my confidence a bit.

I suppose that’s the price you pay for the spice of life.

Blowing Away the Cobwebs

Today was the first time since I acquired the little Yildiz that I’ve wished for my usual cartridge containing 28 grams of number 6 shot. I’ve mentioned my tightly-choked 16 gauge gun in previous posts and today’s pass-shooting at small groups of jittery wood pigeons would have suited that gun and cartridge very well.

This morning, however, in the interests of continuing to learn to shoot the new gun (and in the absence of a supply of perforable material for further patterning work), I persisted with the .410 and can report some success, finishing with three birds for six shots from my hour-long walk around one of the quieter bits of the Cambridgeshire countryside.

It was a qualified success, however.

Settling Down

I’ve been unwell this week and have felt rather unsettled with it. Medications for the colds / influenza have come on remarkably in the last twenty years and one can now acquire formulations that knock viruses for six and make all of the symptoms disappear. This is wonderful, in so far as one can maintain one’s usual routine, go to work, live life and so on, but the anti-histamines they include tend to make me drowsy whilst they’re working and leave me feeling somewhat disjointed afterwards until I’ve had a good night’s sleep.

This morning was the first morning this week that I’ve felt well enough to get up and not immediately take the medication for relief from those symptoms. On that basis, I decided to push myself to go out for a wander in the cold, to blow away the cobwebs, so to speak. It was the right decision – glorious, blazing winter sunshine, beautiful clear skies and some good opportunities were my reward.

I arrived at the farm just as the driven shoot next door had started their first drive. I wasn’t in a hurry to get out of the car, since I wasn’t there to act as impromptu “back gun” – until I saw a low-flying flock of 100 wood pigeons displaced from the wood through which the beaters were presumably making their way, at which point I got out, fumbled two cartridges into the gun and – flustered – missed two attempts before I’d gone 20 yards from the car. This was not the beginning to the morning for which I’d been hoping.

Once again, my excitement – the same excitement that makes me shoot that aforementioned 16 gauge at 60-yard birds I haven’t a hope of hitting – got the better of me and two wasted cartridges were the result. Now – one could argue that unless I’d fired those two shots, the opportunities that followed, of which I “converted” three of four, wouldn’t have happened, but I’d still rather have come home with four empty cases than six.

I tried to compose myself and carried on.

Driven Wood Pigeon!

I hadn’t walked much more 20 yards further before I had my first real chance. Having discharged both barrels in the manner described above, I moved into the treeline along which I was walking to await any birds which circled round to return to their original roost. I moved up slowly through the wood, thinking that it was worth staying concealed for a while and kept an eye on the field. My instincts were rewarded when a pair of birds circled back a few minutes later and I was able to take a bird perhaps 20-22 yards up, flying into the wood, just higher than the top of the tree line.

Unfortunately, in spite of having the luxury of a second or two to line up the shot and take it (and in spite of the pigeon bouncing hard off a tree trunk on the way down) when I retrieved the bird, it needed a blow from a priest to complete the job.

I suppose it makes sense that, as someone who does not usually shoot driven birds, that one of the presentations I find most troublesome is the “straight towards you, constant height” bird, not least because, face on, one has to block out the bird with the muzzles of the gun and trust one’s instincts about where and when to pull the trigger. Ordinarily, I’d try to turn sideways and take it as a high crosser, but in this case there wasn’t time and I ended up putting the shot up the right side of the bird and winging it.

Although my shooting was, in this case, less than perfect, I believe that this was the only one of the three birds I bagged today that I missed, in the traditional shooter-points-gun-in-wrong-direction sense. Unfortunately, it transpired that I also had a hard lesson to learn about exactly what this little .410 is and isn’t capable of.

Pulling the Envelope

I don’t want anyone to think that I’m mistaking a clear failure to point the gun in the right direction with cartridge inadequacy, which – apart from generally wanting this blog to be a true record of my experiences with the .410 – is why I’ve been honest about wounding the bird in the way I described above. I fired a bad shot and wounded a bird. It’s not great and I don’t feel good about it, but it happens to everyone who hunts, from time to time (and no doubt a lot more than people will admit !- Ed.). That said, the fact that it’s unavoidable doesn’t (and shouldn’t) make any of us feel comfortable about failing to cleanly kill our quarry.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, I’m not more triumphant about achieving a 1-for-2 ratio with a .410 I’ve only owned for a month or two. Don’t get me wrong – I’m pleased – to a degree. The gun appears to fit and when I shoot it, I am actually hitting and bagging some birds with it. I am starting to learn the lessons of appropriate (.410) range and – doubtless – if I’d been shooting a 16 gauge today, I’d have still wounded that first bird by taking a bad shot.

Unfortunately, if I had had my 16 gauge with me, I suspect I wouldn’t have wounded the second and third birds also.

I said earlier that I find the “driven” presentation difficult and that’s true. One that I don’t tend to struggle with however, is the crossing bird, so when I later saw a small group of wood pigeons flying above the wood, 30-40 yards in, only a few feet above the tops of the trees, it seemed entirely natural to raise the gun to them and take a shot.

The shot connected, as expected, and the bird barreled down into the wood. When I got to it to pick it up, I learnt my first hard lesson about the limitations of using #7½ shot on live quarry. The pigeon had both wings broken and wounds in its neck (crop) and side where pellets had entered but failed to penetrate through to the vitals. When I later breasted it, I counted six obvious pellet strikes, but none of them had been immediately lethal. I could, of course, have “missed”, but the evidence suggests otherwise. Although testing has shown that the Eley “Trap” cartridges will produce an adequate pattern at 40 yards, I suspect that when folk say that #7½ runs out of steam at around 35 yards – at least in small loads like these – they may be right.

If one “pushes” the envelope to work outside the normal boundaries and limitations of a situation, then I very much need to “pull the envelope” and bring the ranges I’m shooting at down even further than I have already.

Curbing One’s Instincts

I hope that whoever it is out there that is tasked with “keeping score” is at least chalking up a mark in my column for being frank about my failings, even as they delete them for my sins.

After bird number two had been dispatched and put into the bag, I switched over to the Eley “Extra Long” Subsonic cartridge to see what their performance would be like in the field. Although they’re 400fps slower than the “Trap” cartridges I’d been using, I’m afraid I can report no significant differences with any other cartridge in terms of muzzle blast or noise levels (though I always wear ear defenders to shoot, so perhaps two versions of really, really loud are hard to tell apart).

When I heard a bird departing the tree line behind me, whirled round to see it and instinctively took a shot at it, I’m afraid that it did not occur to me that this gun, loaded with #6 shot would have no pattern to speak of at 45 yards range and what, once again, would have been a cleanly killed bird, had there been 280 pellets in the pattern, came down flapping because, in the event, there were only 170.

The shot was, basically, good. It was an easy-ish quartering bird by the time I was on it, felt good as I pulled the trigger and followed through and – even by my mediocre standards, was a pretty straightforward shot.

Unfortunately, despite the best piece of advice for good shooting basically being “don’t think about it”, hunting with this gun does require thought: one must curb one’s instincts and remember that the quantity of lead thrown into the air by a .410 is extremely limited and that this alone – without considering all of the other complications of small bore shotgun internal ballistics – brings its maximum range down into the ranges attempted regularly by the “ordinary” (or mediocre) shooter.

A Stand Against Prejudice

I’m sure that the events I have just described will serve only to cement in the minds of some readers the idea that the .410 is a wounder of game. The way I used it today – instinctively and to take the some of the same shots as I would have a 16-, 12- or 10-gauge – certainly goes a long way to making that belief true. I am not proud of this.

However, it is my belief (and my wish to prove to myself) that, used within it’s limitations, the .410 is still a perfectly adequate small-to-medium game gun. I know from others’ experience that it is possible to tune a .410 to give 40 yards of usable range and that, with appropriate self-restraint, one can use it as well as any other shotgun out to that kind of distance.

I have learnt already with this gun, to ignore the 50-yard-plus birds and to some degree, even birds which are much closer but which have presentations too difficult for a shooter of my standard. The very fact that I can record three birds bagged for six shots fired (and not, for example, 30) is testament to that improvement. It will serve me well if and when I return to shooting my larger-gauge guns.

That said, I must train myself better to ignore not just the out-of-range birds, but the borderline ones too. The challenge with this gun (which I am finding remarkably easy to get on with), is now not what I can hit, but what I can leave.

“Another Two Grams, Sir?”

It is undeniably true, that a single pellet of non-uniform shape and substantial proportions, conveniently loaded into a cartridge labelled “.460 Weatherby” with appropriate charge of powder will – if aimed accurately – kill basically any creature on earth. In retrospect, we might refine that to “land-walking creature”: whether even Weatherby’s elephant-killing cartridge would put a hole through – for example – a blue whale, remains unclear, but I’ve no doubt it would have a pretty good go.

Nonetheless, if we forgo the single-projectile approach of rifled barrel and jacketed bullet (and before them, the smooth bore musket and lead ball), we must rely on a charge of many shot propelled at sufficient velocity, to impact and kill our quarry.

This approach too, can be taken to absurd extremes: why not simply buy a tube big enough to pack in a hundredweight of .57 calibre lead balls and the powder required to propel them and project them towards our quarry, big or small? One of them will surely impact it – whatever “it” is – and knock it flat!?

No – amusing as the idea may be in its preposterousness, this article has been written to consider the dull, reasonable case and answer head-on the fallacy oft-repeated by experienced but ignorant game shooters and gunwriters who, frankly, should know better. It goes something like this:

“At the start of the season, I’ll use a cartridge with 28g or 30g of #6 or #5 shot, but for January cock pheasants, I like a little extra in the cartridge and change up to 32g.”

Sound familiar? Have you too been using a heavier cartridge for your January birds?

Dealing With Doubt

I’ll put my cards on the table straight away. I am not an experienced driven game shot, so my credentials in that respect are not particularly good. However, I have shot a good number of other birds in the course of my shotgunning “career” and I do know a thing or two about the behavior of ammunition – particularly where shotgun cartridges are concerned. I also know a thing or two about not having confidence when shooting. I will always be the first to say that, if you are not absolutely certain in your mind that your cartridge will do its job if you do yours, you cannot and will not shoot to the best of your ability. That nagging voice that asks “is the kit I’m using really up to it?” at the back of your mind has already done the damage by the time you hear it.

Generally, human beings have three ways of dealing with problems. They either try to understand and solve them, ignore them, or run away from them. All of us use all three options interchangeably, dependent on our situation and character.

Although it does happen that, where a genuine lack of ability or overwhelming frustration confounds them, a shooter will simply give up shooting, sell their kit and walk away from the sport, it is uncommon. The investment required to shoot any kind of game in this country is high, and shooters – particularly shotgun shooters – therefore tend to take one of the former two options when addressing the question of what will improve their standard of shooting. This is never more true than in choice of cartridge.

In response to the question “what shells are you using?” you’ll often hear the answer “ones that go bang”. On one level, this is admirable. It’s true that, in most shooting situations, most commercially-produced shotgun shells will “out-shoot” 99% of the people who use them. Where the small bores are concerned, this is perhaps marginally less true: the very small gauges introduce or amplify certain characteristics of shotgun behavior which even the most talented manufacturers of ammunition cannot fully overcome, but the value of simply not caring what kind of ammunition one is using to calm, controlled shooting should not be underestimated.

Regardless, anything that interferes with the instinct, honed through practice, that makes us simply “know” that holding and swinging the gun in a particular way will allow us to successfully shoot a bird of a particular presentation is likely to be detrimental to the act of doing so. Thinking is – in short – fatal.

The Scientific Approach

There are some of us however, for whom a simple, unthinking approach will not suffice. We are too enthusiastic about our sport to allow our minds to be closed to the technical details of shooting – there is too much to experiment with and understand.

Many folk would respond that we simply want to have our cake and eat it. We (unreasonably) expect to be able to know everything about how a cartridge can work (or fail) and still hold our nerve to break the deciding clay in the Skeet World Championships. Perhaps, though, we never expect to find ourselves in that situation and therefore the intellectual challenge, followed by understanding, gives greater satisfaction?

Each to their own, but the intellectual approach does bring with it one advantage: the ability to spot and refute ridiculous, patronizing “advice” (most people call it something rather ruder – Ed.), often given with the best intentions (or repeated unthinkingly), but which ultimately serves only to confuse the majority and enrich the few well-positioned to take advantage of their ignorance.

Read again the advice quoted in the first section of this article and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why, at the time of writing, does a major UK supplier of shotgun cartridges list a “pigeon”-type cartridge, containing 30g of #6 shot for a little over £6 per box, whereas the cheapest 32g/#6 cartridge from the same manufacturer costs just shy of £9 / box?
  • Does the extra 2 grams of lead shot in the £9 cartridge really justify the £2.60 price increase?
  • Is a performance benefit of – we assume – around 7% more shot really great enough to justify a 41% increase in cost?

Let’s find out.

Some Numbers

Let’s use the examples above and some reasonable approximations to calculate the theoretical usefulness of those extra 2g worth of pellets. We’ll start with that 30g load of #6 that our imaginary gunwriter suggests for early-season pheasant and calculate from the widely accepted figure of 270 pellets per ounce, that there should be somewhere in the region of

[pel./g #6] = 270 [pel./oz] / 28.35 [g/oz] = 9.524 pellets per gram
[pel. 30g of #6] = 9.524 [pel./g] * 30 [g] = 285.72 [pel.]285 pellets

in the cartridge. Let’s compare that to the number of pellets in the 32g cartridge:

[pel. 32g of #6] = 9.524 [pel./g] * 30 = 304.77 [pel.]304 pellets

So, the extra two grams of shot give us approximately 19 extra pellets in the shell.

Now let’s think about the situation our gunwriter is describing. He’s comparing the cartridge requirement for early-season and late-season pheasants. Obviously, it’s hard to predict the precise effects of a cloud of pellets impacting a moving bird except by testing empirically, but happily, our forebears, using the combined experience of over 100 years of shooting shotgun shells loaded with smokeless powder, have come up with some reasonable approximations.

The first approximation is the good old “standard circle” of 30 inches diameter. The theory goes that if your cartridge puts enough pellets into a 30″ circle drawn on a piece of cardboard when shot at the range you intend to shoot, it should also kill your intended quarry. Of course, the number of pellets required depends on the size of the quarry, but here it doesn’t actually matter – what we’re interested in here isn’t the number of pellets, but a sensible approximation of the size of the effective part of a pattern. The 30″ circle is widely used, so we’ll use it too.

The second approximation is the 5-inch circle, used to represent a game bird. The origin of this approximation isn’t clear to me, but the theory is that the vitals of a medium-to-large game bird will present a target approximately 5″ in diameter. Therefore, to have an effective overall pattern, one ought to have in it as few areas as possible where a 5″ circle can be drawn that does not contain a single pellet impact. A pattern with none of these areas is a pattern through with a bird cannot escape if the shot is broadly on-target.

So, how do those numbers help us?

Allowing for the several approximations we have clearly made, we can calculate a value for pattern density‡ for each of the cartridges described above and compare the number of pellets we expect to be in each “bird-sized” area (i.e. 5″ circle) to see what difference those extra 19 pellets might make to our cartridge’s effectiveness.

Let’s say that our imaginary test gun achieves a standard “Modified” performance, representing 60% of the available pellets falling within the standard circle at a distance of 40 yards, with both cartridges. Therefore:

[30g cartridge pel. within 30″ circle] = 304 [pel.] * 60% = 171.0 pellets
[32g cartridge pel. within 30″ circle] = 304 [pel.] * 60% = 182.4 pellets

Now we divide the area of the standard circle by the area of the 5″ circle to discover the ratio between the two areas.

[Area of a 5″ circle] = π * (2.5 [in])² = 19.635 in²
[Area of a 30″ circle] = π * (15 [in])² = 706.858 in²
[5″ circle areas in 30″ circle area] = 706.858 [in²] / 19.635 [in²] = 36.000

Finally, we divide the number of extra pellets which fall in the circle from the 32g cartridge by the number of 5″ circles. This represents the average number of pellets which will impact each 5″ circle, over and above the equivalent value for the 30g cartridge.

[Increase in avg. impacts per 5″ circle] = 11.4 [pel.] / 36.000 = 0.31666 extra impacts


So what does all this mean?

Remembering that this simply an example based on reasonable but necessarily simple approximations, a useful way of expressing our “headline figure” above is as a probability.

If each 5″ circle has, on average, 0.31666 extra pellet impacts when an extra 2g of #6 shot is added to the cartridge, then we can equally say that, with a 2g increase in shot charge, we expect to achieve 1 extra pellet impact in any randomly-chosen 5″ circle, 31.7% of the time.

Another way of expressing that is to say that the extra weight of shot will have no effect whatsoever on whether or not the bird is hit and killed, for two out of every three cartridges fired.

Yet another way to look at this is to ask “how much extra shot do I need to guarantee that the bird will be hit by at least one more pellet, anywhere in the pattern?” The answer to that question can be calculated straightforwardly, by multiplying the reciprocal of our increase in average number of pellet impacts by the weight of shot which achieved it:

[Extra Shot Required] = (1 / 0.316666) * 2 [g] = 6.316 grams

Not until we load the cartridge with over 36 grams of (#6) shot do we make it a statistical certainty that we will achieve one more hit on the bird than with the 30g cartridge! Many people’s shoulders would feel sore just at the thought of banging away with 36g cartridges all day long, though I won’t argue against the practice if you can stand it – it’s the traditional 12 gauge game load.

Returning to some earlier figures, we can also calculate the relative increase in pattern density as a percentage improvement in performance. We can ask “what improvement in performance is required to make the 30g load give equivalent performance to the 32g load displaying 60% performance?” This is a simple calculation:

[Percentage Improvement Required] = (182.4 [pel.] – 171.0 [pel.]) / 171.0 [pel.] = 6.6667%

Compare that with the 10%+ improvement in performance which can often be achieved quite straightforwardly with an one-step increase in choke constriction and we can legitimately ask whether adding extra shot should be first port of call when an improvement in pattern density is required. In the age of the ubiquitous multi-choke, I suspect perhaps not.


So there you have it. Our imaginary gun writer is clearly off his rocker if he believes that 32g of #6 shot will noticeably improve the results of his shooting over 30g of #6. It may make a tiny difference, but it is unlikely to be detectable, in the field, to the average Gun.

Admittedly, the manufacturers are not always guilty of profiteering with the sale of game cartridges at – in places – twice (or thrice) the price of near-identical “clay” or “pigeon” shells, though there are some particularly egregious examples of inflated RRPs at the time of writing.

To give them the benefit of the doubt, loading machines, usually configured to produce batches of tens or hundreds of millions of clay cartridges are expensive to re-tool to produce smaller batches of game cartridges numbering only a million or two. Human intervention in any process carries the cost of wages, which makes any product requiring more frequent intervention more expensive. In a highly competitive market, the manufacturers will not survive unless they cover their costs and, historically, game shooters have had – on average – bigger pockets than most.

The quality of components may indeed be better in more expensive cartridges and they may tend to improve performance. However, there are myriad variables that the manufacturers cannot control, not least gun and choke, and the idea that the average shooter can – without determined effort – tell the difference between plain and copper-plated shot, or one kind of wad or another, for example, defies belief.

Ultimately, the market stays afloat on the willingness of consumers to pay for a brand that they trust and which gives them confidence, whether or not the performance of the cartridge justifies its extra cost over often equally-performant alternatives.

Of course, an increase in shot size may justify a small increase in payload if one simply cannot stand the higher recoil associated with maintaining pattern density in that larger size. All other things being equal, one needs – for example – about 39g of #5 shot to give the same pattern density as 28g of #6. This represents quite an increase in the thump to the shoulder, even with the smoothest cartridges available and one that most shooters would not tolerate.

In most cases, however, any sensible “pigeon” or “game” cartridge will do everything an ordinary Gun asks of it. Even the lowly ounce of #6 will bring down most birds as far as 50 yards away if the gun has a bit of choke and patterns well. Most game cartridges in 12, 16 and 20 gauges exceed by a large margin the bare minimum requirements for the killing of game at all reasonable ranges and it is usually reasonable to assume that a miss with these cartridges is the fault of the shooter and not of the cartridge.

Exactly what constitutes the minimum loading for shooting game is a question dependent on maximum intended range, type of quarry and to a limited extent, the gauge of gun used, but for general purpose use, is likely to be somewhere between 14-21g of #7½ or #7 shot. A future article exploring this question is currently in the planning stages.

† = I remind readers that 32g, better known then as 1 1/8oz, used to be the bog-standard, “low brass” load for the 12 gauge, before we all swallowed the lie that “speed is king” – but that’s another story.

‡ = The value for pattern density calculated here is a linear pattern density. As readers may be aware, pellets are more often approximately Normally distributed in shotgun patterns, which makes this model somewhat basic. However, although that is the case, I encourage the thoughtful reader to consider whether the extra pattern density afforded by the extra 2g of shot in the imaginary cartridge will make any difference even if a Normally distributed pattern is modeled. I propose that, in the center of the pattern, it is extremely unlikely that an extra pellet in any given 5″ circle will produce a noticeable effect given the already higher-than-average pattern density. On the outside of the pattern, an occasional lucky strike may account for an extra bird in the bag, but I defy anyone who cannot identify the cartridge being used to tell the difference.