Far away pheasants

high bird mainHow many of us can really tell whether a bird overhead is 50 yards, 80 yards, or somewhere in between. Or if it is travelling at 40mph, 35mph or 45mph. When shooting a gun with 30" barrels, your eyes are approximately one yard from the muzzles; therefore, at the end of the barrels the bird will appear to be one times smaller for each yard it is away from you. A hen pheasant with a 650mm wingspan is going to look 50 times smaller at the muzzles when 50 yards away, i.e. 13mm from wingtip to wingtip. At 80 yards it is going to look 80 times smaller.

I was picking-up on a high bird shoot last season when over 1,000 shots were fired for 70 odd birds picked by lunchtime. This was by an experienced team of Guns. That's approximately one in 14, but looking from behind, there were another possibly two in 14 that flicked their tails and flew on, indicating that a stray pellet had caught them in a non-vital spot. Most of these pricked birds are never picked – no satisfaction to the Gun, can't be added to the bag and most will never fly again, creating a financial loss to the shoot owner, throwing up animal welfare issues and giving understandable ammunition to the anti-shooting brigade.

These out of range birds should be left, just as we are expected to leave the low ones. Should we shoot a low bird we are frowned upon, but when someone brings down one in ten at extreme birds they are looked upon as if some sort of shooting God. I personally would rather see a low bird shot, killed cleanly and picked, than an out of range bird pricked and never picked.

If these high bird specialists with their 32" and 34" fully choked guns, firing 36g of No. 4 shot, with an average pellet count of 214, would pattern test this combination, they would find at 70-80 yards distance, they would be hard-pressed to find a spot anywhere within the pattern to place a 30" circle with more than 20 pellets in it. The total spread of the pattern at 70-80 yards, including damaged flyers, could be in excess of 10ft, with gaps in the pattern big enough to get a large dog through unscathed. 
We are all aware that a bird needs a minimum strike of three pellets for a clean kill, or between 95 and 145 pellets in a 30" circle, depending on the quarry, together with the energy for the necessary penetration for a clean kill at these long ranges.

Firing heavy loads through full-choke restriction causes many pellets to become deformed and fly slower and wide, making the shot column longer and the pattern wider. At 70-80 yards range the shot column could be 20ft long, the last pellet in the column reaching the target 0.03 of a second behind the front pellet. In that time a bird flying at 40mph would have travelled approximately 20" across the pattern, so the last pellets would only arrive after the bird has gone, making a multiple strike even less likely. We then have to shoot in the right place and contend with drop and drift of the shot. No. 4 shot would drop approximately 18" at 80 yards distance if shooting horizontally.

How much lead?

With a muzzle velocity of 1,400fps it would take approximately 1/3 of a second to reach 80 yards. In 1/3 of a second a bird travelling at 40mph would have travelled 19ft 6" and this is precisely how far in front you have to place the centre of your pattern. Is it really travelling at 40mph or 35mph, or 45mph? Is it at 90˚ to you, or quartering? If the bird is drifting, or you move the muzzles 2" to one side, like the reduction in size of the bird by one times smaller per yard in distance, the 2" to one side becomes 4" at one yard from the muzzles and a whopping 160" (more than 13ft!) to one side at 80 yards.

In theory, lead or forward allowance is always the same, whether the range is 20 yards or 80 yards, so long as the muzzles are kept moving in front of the bird, matching its speed, line and direction and kept moving until after the shot is taken. This is due to the fact that again the movement of the muzzles will multiply once for each yard the target is away, i.e. a bird flying at 40mph at 40 yards, with the muzzles 2½" in front of the bird, would make the forward gap at 40 yards 40 times 2½", which is 100" – just over 8ft.

If you check your swing for a hardly-noticeable 1/10 of a second on a 40-yard distance bird travelling at 40mph, you will miss by approximately two yards behind. This is because in that 1/10 of a second you have stopped your swing, the bird travelling at 40mph (702" per second) has travelled just under two yards. The bird at 60, 70 or 80 yards distance does need a conscious effort to swing faster because the further away the bird, the slower it appears to be flying.

At long ranges the shot will also have slowed considerably and takes longer to reach the target in question, so again, extra swing and keeping the muzzles moving is imperative.

It is little wonder that even top Shots only bring down one bird in ten at these extreme ranges. If you want your pheasants to be cleanly killed and picked, 50 yards is surely still the limit of sporting guns – after all, a true 50-yard bird, cleanly killed, is a pretty special shot.

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