Personal Best

I hope readers might forgive a modicum of arrogance if I begin by saying that I made some cracking shots today. Although my first “proper” day’s shooting in a long time was by no means perfect, there were two periods of the day where everything clicked and I brought down some stonking birds.

I set out early as planned and got to the farm just after 7am, having disturbed several hundred rabbits and one muntjac doe from their early morning grazing on the verges of the back roads.

Having parked, it took me a while to unload and decide exactly where to build the hide, but my task was to try to rid the cattle yard of the corvids milling around the barns which limited the possibilities to only two or three locations. Eventually, I set up under a line of trees at the end of the yard looking over a field of green barley, with decoys in the bare patches. Although I was never going to shoot every crow in the place, I made a good start, with a crow on my first shot and ten down before 8am.

As you can imagine, I was, by then, in something of a buoyant mood and when I saw one of the many tens of swallows darting over the crops try to eat, thrice, one of the down feathers of the 11th bird (as it gently descended from the point of the shot to the ground) – presumably believing it to be insect life of some kind – I actually laughed out loud. At the same time, I tried very hard not to allow myself to become over-confident and carried on picking my shots but as the morning wore on, the tiredness of the early start began to catch up with me.


As always seems to be the way, the avian traffic slowed down considerably by 10:30am and the steady stream of birds which had been “keeping my eye in” had all but disappeared. Fatigue set in and in spite of plenty of coffee and a snack, my concentration broke. By this point, I’d shot 19 for 30 cartridges and thus it stayed for much of the next hour.

The intervening time gave me an opportunity to reflect on the day so far.

I’d started the day with a quarter-choked 12 gauge and after birds #6, #7, #8 and #9 came down for four cartridges fired, I had wondered whether I should carry on or try the Baikal 16 gauge or the .410 which I’d also brought with me. I retrieved the Baikal.

Bird number 10 was a bit of a spectacular: a jackdaw falling to an ounce of #6 from the full-choked barrel at well over 40 yards (probably nearer 50), at a 90° angle from the orientation of the hide, just as it was about to disappear over the tree line. (I retrieved it, quite dead, for the pattern.) If I needed any reminders about just how capable the queen of the medium gauges is with it’s traditional loading, I wasn’t short of them today.

Capability requires operator competence, however, and my success was short-lived. After missing the next three in a row, I picked up the 12-gauge once again to finish the first session and “discovered”, in the process of working through my 12-gauge “odds and ends” that an ounce of #7½ will indeed bring down a 50-yard bird, as some like to claim, but only sometimes.

I believe I’ve made it fairly clear on this blog that, given the choice, I prefer larger shot (and that remains the case). That lucky, 50-yard jackdaw was quickly followed by a second, wounded at shorter range, and a crow that – although well-hit at around 40 yards – destabilized for a second or two and then flew on, exemplifying in three shots the reason why we don’t use clay loads on game. Needless to say, the handful of “clay” cartridges remaining in the bag were quickly discarded.

Number 20

Readers can imagine, I’m sure, the irritation brought about by shooting 19 birds at a decent cartridge ratio, with the promise of a 20th delayed not only by an hour’s lack of opportunity, but then by a further hour or so of fannying around having apparently forgotten how to shoot.

By midday, I was counting the intervals between seeing birds (as opposed to firing at them) and was within a few minutes of my self-imposed time limit for packing up and going home. Since one can hardly continue doing the same thing and expecting different results, I decided to get the 16 gauge out for what I expected to be the last few minutes, just to see if shaking things up a bit would make a difference.

As with the 12 gauge, I’d bought along my bag of 16-gauge odds and ends. Apart from a quantity of my own 28g/#6 reload, I had about 50 cartridges obtained a long time ago from the local shop at a heavy discount, apparently from the collection of one of their now-deceased former customers. I hadn’t really looked at them before this morning, except to note that they were good enough value to purchase without further consideration: I believe I paid £5 at the time.

Two old brands of 16 gauge cartridge: SMI “Standard” and Sellier & Bellot “Black Star”.

In fact, the bag contained examples of SMI’s “Standard” cartridge, containing 28g / #6 and a similar number of Sellier & Bellot’s paper-cased “Blck Star” cartridge which I believe were (are) loaded with 26g / #7. I would be surprised, given the primers and the degree of corrosion, if any of them were less than 40 years old. There was also a single, likewise agéd example of Eley’s “Grand Prix”, so I put that in the full-choke barrel and one of the green SMI cartridges in the half-choke.

Five seconds later, a crow appeared over the hedge row to the left, as far away as I think I’d ever reasonably expect to shoot anything and was promptly killed by a snap shot, courtesy of the Eley cartridge. Finally, for the first time in nearly three years, I’d reached 20 birds in a day. (That’s what having kids will do to you… – Ed.) I might buy a box of the modern Eleys and compare them to the new-ish Gamebore “Regal Game” when I get a chance.

The Exodus

A flurry of birds quickly followed, with a double for #22 and #23 another highlight, taking me to 24 for I’ve stopped counting cartridges by 12:30pm. After another 30 minutes of total inactivity during which I ate my lunch, I packed up, although I wasn’t giving up when I had a whole-day pass of which to take advantage.

Instead, I drove to the other end of the farm to set up a hide in a maize field which I’ve known both crows and wood pigeons to attack in the past.

None of my shooting this afternoon approached the consistency of what I’d managed in the first two hours of the day (and the S&B cartridges loaded with #7 were not entirely convincing at longer ranges) but I did manage to bring down another seven birds in an hour or so after lunch, most of them higher and faster than the morning’s birds.

By the time I’d built the hide, the wind had picked up somewhat and the birds’ flight lines brought most of them over the wood to which I had my back, which made for exciting, instinctive shooting. One was a particularly good bird, which although not far from the hide, was high and fast enough that it fell, dead, over the far hedge and into the next field, over 100 yards away.

Unfortunately, although the feeling of tiredness had receded, I was never really able to settle this afternoon, mostly thanks to the 48,000,000 local mosquitoes apparently determined to infest the hide. If I shot 30 birds today, I probably killed ten times that number of mozzies, though in spite of my efforts, my arms and legs are still covered in bites. I gave up both pursuits at around 3:30pm, having accounted for 17 crows and 14 jackdaws, which is a personal best, I’m afraid to say. Cartridge count was around 85, give or take.

In case anyone was wondering, the .410 did come out for a few minutes, but ultimately, I didn’t “click” with it as I did the other two guns. Certainly this afternoon, the ranges were too long for it to have been any use and this morning, it didn’t come out early enough for it to benefit from an operator on form. Perhaps another day.

An Afterthought

With all the other things going on in life recently, I haven’t really had any time for any reloading. Interestingly – for me, anyway – I came home today, feeling that sometimes, it’s quite nice just to pop some factory shells in the gun and focus on the shooting and the enjoyment of the day, rather than worrying about whether the patterns for this or that reload will be good.

Second-Time Lucky

I snatched an hour in the field this morning to test the new reloads, which generated some pleasing results. There were a handful of birds around too, all very high and although I took a two or three shots at the ones that came within range, I didn’t bag anything.

The most satisfying moment (or several minutes) of the morning came from watching a trio of hares playing, wrestling and boxing on the edge of the wood – they appeared to be having a whale of a time. Indeed, at first glance, the three of them looked rather like a small deer and it took me a moment or two to work out that the large ball of fur bouncing along the track some distance away was actually comprised of three individual animals!

A Classic Cartridge: Part II

It’s always nice to discover that a cartridge one has loaded is better than it first appears. In absolute terms, the 36g / #6 reload performed well with the Baikal side-by-side, placing an average of 205 pellets into the standard circle with the half-choke barrel and 215 pellets with the full-choke tube at 40 yards. This is a very usable pattern and – unusually for that gun – shows an improvement in performance with the full-choke barrel (which in many cases are inferior).

40-yard pattern shot through the full choke of the Baikal 12 gauge using a 36g / #5½ reload.

Percentage-wise, the patterns initially seemed disappointing. I’d been working off a figure of approximately 340 pellets in the un-fired cartridge as I mentioned in a previous post, but hadn’t actually got round to counting the shot drops to obtain an average. When I did so this morning, I obtained a final result of 302, which suggests that the “#6″ shot I acquired recently is actually 2.7mm in diameter, or size #5½ in real money.

Since I’m generally inclined to prefer larger sizes, the slightly-larger-than-expected shot suits me just fine and, mathematically, makes what had appeared to be a rather average cartridge adequately good. The pellet counts above translate to percentage patterns of 68% with the half-choke barrel and 71% with the full, which is a good result with the Baikal. Again, my experience has usually been that the full-choke barrel (0.041” constriction) is a little too tight to give best performance.

Recoil from the new reload was surprisingly mild. The muzzle velocity was never intended to be high, of course, and it’s probably still a little on the fast side to be considered truly “traditional”, but it certainly gave less of a thump compared with 36g commercial loadings (and, for that matter, most of the clay cartridges I’ve ever used). I have no chronograph, but I’d guess from the report, from the data and the feel of it that I’m not far off my 1175-1200fps target.

Perhaps the one disappointment from this morning’s testing was discovering some un-burned powder in the barrels after each firing. I suspect pressure is high-ish, but not high enough to give a complete powder burn. The recipe does allow for another grain of powder to be added (although the proof house data I have puts that quantity a smidgen over the 740 bar limit and into High Performance territory) but I suspect it wouldn’t help down range. A few flakes wasted for the sake of good patterns is just something I’ll have to live with, I guess.

It would be dangerous to make too many predictions on the basis of a small number of cartridges fired. This was an initial test, rather than a full series of patterns and I’ve seen promising results turn into disappointment in the past, not least with my first attempt to find something to feed the Baikal last year. If this level of performance holds up, however, I’d expect to see around 150 pellets in the circle at 50 yards – which should still be usable – with both pattern density and energy finally running out at around 55 yards.

At this point, I am curious to discover what performance might be like through the Browning semi-automatic I own. I wonder whether back-bored barrels, longer chamber and a range of chokes would show any interesting differences and whether this cartridge might be a better choice than the 39g / #5 reload I originally designed for that gun. The latter cartridge has to be loaded almost entirely by hand, since there is no 1 3/8oz shot bushing available for my press, which makes production a lot slower, compared to today’s cartridge. I could definitely be persuaded, put it that way.

The limiting factor today and, indeed, in the continuation of .410 testing is a lack of patterning paper. Hopefully, by the end of next month, I should have some more in stock and another few boxes of cartridges to test.

Something Sensible

Did anybody realize that the Gamebore “Clear Pigeon” cartridge has been redesigned (again) and comes in a 30g/#6 flavour? I certainly didn’t.

For years and years now, my local shop has stocked the 32g/#6 version of the old cartridge. I’ve used them in the past, though not recently. On the odd occasions I’ve wanted a “pigeon” cartridge the routine has been the same. They offer the Hull “Superfast” 29g/#6 cartridge (for which I suspect their margin is better) and I, always refusing on principle to fanny around with under-loaded cartridges, buy the Clear Pigeon loading instead. Of course, there’s no practical difference between the two (except perhaps that the Hull cartridge has always seemed to produce heavier recoil), but I have other guns better suited to lighter charges.

I felt somewhat short-changed on Monday then, when I left the shop with a box of the Gamebore cartridge and discovered that the contents were 2 grams lighter on lead than I’d expected. Needless to say, they weren’t any cheaper than usual.

Reloading 2018

For one reason and another, mostly related to the huge amounts of time, money and energy required to rectify the damage caused by a flood which occurred in the upstairs of my house just before Christmas, I haven’t had a lot of time or motivation for reloading lately.

I don’t usually keep a lot of 12 gauge cartridges in stock as I haven’t much used either of the two 12-gauge guns I own recently and when I do want a cartridge or twenty, I load them to order.

Since I’ve determined at the start of this year to work on my shooting confidence and to make things as easy for myself as I can, there is now a greater requirement for 12 gauge cartridges than there has been in the past. I had always planned too, to find a suitable reload for my Baikal, but last year’s experiments with a 34g/#5 loading proved unsatisfactory as I documented on this website.

The aforementioned Gamebore cartridges were bought as a stopgap, but it appears that my disappointment in finding I’d bought something other than what I intended has prompted some movement on one of last year’s outstanding projects: the classic pigeon cartridge.

A Classic Cartridge

Gough Thomas, in his book Shotguns and Cartridges states that the traditional pigeon cartridge was always heavier than the traditional game load, comprising 1¼ ounces of #6 or #7 lead shot, compared with 1 ounce (give or take 1/16 of an ounce either way) of #6 for pheasant or partridge. Considered for a moment or two, this makes perfect sense.

Of course, muzzle velocities were much lower and cartridges more expensive way back when, so firing hundreds of 36g cartridges in a morning either didn’t happen, or was a lot less uncomfortable than it sounds.

Last year, I decided I wanted to try making some of these low-velocity, high-pattern-density shells, but never got round to it. Yesterday, I finally did and there are now 6 test cartridges sitting on the shelf containing 36g/#6 and enough A1 to push it along at around 1175-1200fps – a slight under-charge compared to the published 1243fps loading and an identical reload for which I have proof house data.

In theory, the shells should produce the same pattern density as a 24g/#7½ clay load (340 pellets), with the energy to kill birds at 45-50 yards. Of course – they may not perform that well.

I’d have liked to try loading some #7 shot (giving c. 430 pellets in the cartridge) but I don’t have enough in stock to make a decent number of shells. I suspect also that – like the #6 version, to a degree – the extra pellets would be redundant. Effective range would be curtailed by the smaller shot size which would make increasing effective pattern area with lots of pellets and loose chokes the only justifiable motivation for this approach. Of course, in the past, when cylinder-choked guns were ubiquitous, this would have been perfectly sensible.

Of course, I did ask at the shop whether  they had any similar loading, but it was hardly surprising to be told that they didn’t stock anything containing 1¼oz. with a shot size smaller than #4.

Patterns to follow.

The Lee Load-All II: A Tip

I encountered as usual last night the issue of replacing the excess powder and shot into their respective containers from the hoppers in the Lee press. I had never come up with a good strategy for avoiding the inadvertent release of shot into the powder and vice versa – until yesterday.

It happens that I actually have a few spare parts for my press, acquired from a generous soul who no longer needed them and donated them to my experiments. One of the spare parts is a lid for the hoppers.

Why it had never previously occurred to me to drill a small hole in the corner of the spare lid, I don’t know, but last night, I did. By removing the hoppers and attaching the perforated lid, I was able to pour out the powder, directly into the container, through the hole in the corner. Turning the lid round allowed me to do the same with the shot.

The whole process took 2 minutes without incident, rather than 20 minutes of discharging powder and shot into different containers, one bushing-volume at a time.

A Moment Of Madness

Today was a slow-but-steady start to shooting in 2018.

I’d been lacking the motivation to do much in the way of anything this year, with tiredness and a light malaise from 2017 hanging over well into the new year. All that changed yesterday, when – for reasons that continue to elude me – I woke up, if not refreshed, then generally willing to conquer the ever-growing mountain of outstanding “jobs”.

Largely, my activities have been confined to the house, where tidying up loose ends and fixing – well – it feels like everything, have kept me busy for most of the weekend. I’ve discovered talents as a builder and plumber that I didn’t know I had, put it that way.

I managed, this afternoon, to get out to the fields for the first of my Sunday afternoon walks for the year. The first of the two farms I visited was devoid of avian life, probably not helped by a dog walker with Alsatian who seemed to have been using the track ways to exercise her mutt just before I arrived. It is, I suppose, nominally, a free country.

At the second farm, there seemed to be some movement, so I went for a longer walk but didn’t take my usual route. A few crows passed some distance away and likewise a few wood pigeons, but there wasn’t a lot going on.

That changed, very briefly, for about 30 seconds, just as I reached the halfway point of my walk. A large mixed flock, including wood pigeons, gulls and crows seemed to explode into being overhead and I managed to wound a crow (subsequently dispatched) and blow to bits a wood pigeon with the Browning 12 gauge I was carrying. Between jams (the semi-automatic does not like my reloads) and madly searching for some other cartridges, I managed to down a couple of birds, though there were probably opportunities and time for three or four if I’d had a pocket full of factory shells or a different gun.

Back to Basics

I’ve decided, since I get so little practice at shooting, to go back to basics in 2018. When I’m hunting, rather than patterning, I’ll make life as easy as I can to start with, using open chokes and small shot / close-range cartridges, then work back up to longer-range combinations when I’ve built up some (much-needed) confidence. That’s not to say I’m going to stop shooting the small bores or researching them, of course, but when I go out for the sake of hunting, I probably won’t be carrying the .410 – at least until later in the year.

I’m yet to get to the shop to buy a couple of boxes of something sensible (Goodness! Really!? – Ed.) so I used up some more odds and ends today, all shot through a ¼ choke. None of them were really “pigeon” cartridges, but the pigeon I took was a high-speed, 20-25 yard crosser and I was pleased with the shot – even if it felt a bit easy.

Then again, that was the point.


The crow, on the other hand, was probably a bit far out for a quarter choke and an under-performing cartridge (one of my “failed” 34g/#5 reloads initially intended for the Baikal), but I really can’t escape the feeling that all crows, whether 10, 30 or 50 yards away, are all just “a bit far out” and too much like hard work to shoot.

It’s not that I doubt my kit, but the number of times I hit but fail to cleanly kill crows is a lot greater than all of the other kinds of birds I shoot combined. I’ve never understood why this is.

Wood pigeons, I most often hit or miss. Yes, I’ve recorded some explosions of feathers, misses behind and other variations on the theme of wounding a bird on this blog over the last year or so, but the number of birds is never so high in the overall scheme of things that I’m concerned about it.

Jackdaws, to take another example, seem to be my “success” bird. My biggest bags have always included large numbers of jackdaws and I’ve always seemed to have a knack for decoying and shooting them – even when I haven’t been able to hit anything else. My first ever left-and-right was a pair of jackdaws and there have been times when I’ve had them raining out of the sky fast enough that you’d have to look twice to be sure that some kind of biblical plague wasn’t occurring.

Crows on the other hand. Irrespective of gun, cartridge or current form, I always seem to struggle with crows, to a degree which I can’t at this point explain.

I’ll keep working on it.


Well it always is, isn’t it? Christmas comes and goes and one spends weeks looking forward to it (or at least being vaguely aware of its impending arrival) and then it happens and one wonders after – or even during the event – “was that it?”.

Of course, the children enjoyed it, but with the multi-day festival of food and (alcoholic) drink of my younger days now very much left behind, it’s difficult to find much enthusiasm for it if I’m honest. By the evening of the 24th, a celebratory tot of whiskey and an early night seemed infinitely preferable to a noisy party. It was much the same for New Year’s Eve, I’m afraid.

Holding the Fort

It was my turn to work the three days between Christmas and the new year this year, so I didn’t really achieve “holiday mode” until the afternoon of the 29th December.

Although I did manage – briefly – to pick up a gun on the 26th, it wasn’t for any kind of glamorous Boxing Day event, but rather a (successful) pot shot at the pigeons that continue to plague my relatives’ winter crops. That day, it was the .410; when I returned last weekend to have another go, I ended up taking a lightly-choked 12 gauge which afforded similar success.

Apparently, neither my relatives, nor their neighbours could tell the difference between the subsonic cartridges I employed on both recent occasions and the previous use of the garden gun. I suspect that this response was more to do with their wish that I continue to deal with the local “flying boobies” (as one of them rather quaintly put it) than because there is no appreciable difference, but provided I’m within the conditions of the General Licence and not offending anybody, I’m happy to continue.

Either way, that and the efforts of an aquaintance to turn three single-barrel guns he owns into a battery of moderated shotguns inspires a new reloading project (a subsonic cartridge or two) and suggests a use for the 20-gauge I have sitting in the cupboard. We will have to see what 2018 brings.

Turning the Handle

I managed to have about four weeks off working on my various projects over Christmas. I didn’t finish the computer game I’d had planned for my “holiday”, but I did buy and complete another, so I feel I’ve had a rest.

This post, of course, is a means of gently getting things going for 2018. There will be cartridges to test and analysis to be written for this website, as well as plenty of software development, music making and chilli growing / gardening to pursue.

Quite where the balance between all of those things will end up, I’m not sure yet, but I’ll continue my search for .410 cartridges and – in the continuing absence of anyone else to test them – might make a start on some of the 28 gauge cartridges available in the UK too.

I’ll try to make some time for some actual shooting between that lot, but if I have a resolution for 2018, it’s to take it a bit easier and spend more time thinking about what I’d like to do in my limited spare time, rather than persuading myself always that I ought to be “working”.

“Sow Thinly”

One of the first things I learnt about gardening, having decided to take it up relatively seriously, is that the interpretation of garden “jargon” is something of an art form.

One of the most impenetrable areas of what must be the quintessential English sport (other than a) being miserable and b) discussing the prevailing conditions) is seed sowing.

I find that interpreting the directions on a packet of seeds is fraught with difficulty. For example, the differences between “sow”, “sow thinly”, “sow sparingly” and “place seeds…” are not only quite opaque in themselves, but seem to bear some kind of variable relationship to the number of seeds in a given packet.

The theory is quite clear to me: if the seeds only have a 50% germination rate, then the supplier should supply more of them than if, for example, they have a 95% germination rate. One then sows (“sow”) approximately twice as many of the former than the latter (which have been “sow[n] thinly”) and eventually ends up with roughly the same number of plants.

At least once per year however, this interpretive art eludes me. Last year, I followed instructions to “sow thinly” a quantity of very tiny, apparently unreliable Coleus seeds and ended up with 36 plants when I had expected about four.

This year’s failure – expected, but still irritating – has exceeded all previous failures. I’m currently typing this post, sitting next to a propagator containing approximately 200 Rudbeckia seedlings, having sown “sparingly” the contents of a packet apparently containing half that number of seeds! 

I suspect most of them will have to go. At a 12″-18″ spacing, I could fill my garden and most of the rest of the street too…