Is bigger, better?
Marcus Janssen looks at modern trends in cartridge manufacturing for game shooting in the UK, and wonders whether bigger is always better.
Admittedly, nostalgia often smooths the sharper edges of one's fondest childhood memories, leaving you with a somewhat rose-tinted version of events. But even so, I have no doubt that my grandfather really was a hell of a Shot. He certainly did enough – I don't think any of us realised quite how often he shot until we came across his game books a few Christmases ago. I clearly recall him pulling down his fair share of testing birds on our family shoot in Perthshire over the years, and the few members of his syndicate who are still alive today assure me that he did indeed put his Charles Hellis side-by-sides to very good use. On one particular occasion, I remember standing at his side on a drive known as Laggan – where he had positioned himself as a back Gun behind his guests – when he killed six truly tall birds in as many shots as they headed for the far bank of the River Earn.
But do you know, I can not recall him or any of his contemporaries – which included the Hay brothers, Chuck and Tom, both incredible Shots – ever discussing or debating the merits of different cartridges. And the reason for this is, almost certainly, because they all used the same loads: either 28g of No. 6s or 7s. Now, don't get me wrong, Lochlane pheasants were never in the West Country or North Yorkshire league, but with side-by-sides sporting 28 or 30" barrels, and moderate loads of small shot by today's standards, very few birds were out of their reach. But nowadays, according to a number of the UK's biggest cartridge manufacturers, the most popular load for pheasants by a long way is a 32g No. 5.
So, what has changed?
Eley Hawk's marketing and sales manager, David Thompson, says that it is down to two key factors: “This increase in load size has come from advances in gun technology and the popularisation of over-unders in the game shooting field – modern over-under guns can handle heavier loads – and the recent trend towards high or extreme pheasant shooting.”
Indeed, with birds apparently being pushed higher and higher, there is now a demand for specialist loads that can produce the striking energy required to kill a pheasant (minimum of 1ft/lb) at extreme ranges (in excess of 50 yards).
But, as David explains, cartridge manufacturing for game shooting has always been – and still is – all about balance: “What we are all striving for is the perfect balance between velocity (which in turn affects penetration and recoil), shot pattern, and shot string which needs to hold together as long as possible to maintain pattern density down-range.
“It is important to avoid overpowering the cartridge because, although speed gives you a little bit of advantage on your lead (forward allowance), it can result in a less cohesive pattern. If you overpower the load, the energy imparted will cause the shot string to spread out down-range, resulting in a blown pattern which is counterproductive.” So to overcome this, some manufacturers have increased the pellet size and load, which of course, increases recoil.
Indeed, recoil is an inescapable feature of all shooting, as the powder gases drive the gun back with the same momentum as they propel the shot charge forward. So, more velocity equals more recoil, and vice versa. The heavier the payload, too, the greater the recoil. But these pressures must be kept within safe limits as prescribed by the Proof House.
According to literature on the subject including an article by David Garrard in Mike Barnes' The Game Shooting Handbook, the great majority of shotgun cartridges develop an observed velocity (of approximately 1,100fps) over the first 20 yards (18m) of flight, and there is nothing to be gained generally, from ramping up the muzzle velocity excessively. Pellet striking energy at long range is only marginally increased, but the increased recoil may rise to an unacceptable level.
Laurie Hart of B E Chaplin (Gunmakers) elaborates: “At the end of the day, the physics haven't changed, and as far as I can tell, we aren't any closer to producing a really effective pattern at 60 or 70 yards now than we were 20 or 30 years ago. The age-old adage that pattern fails before penetration still applies – so what is the point in increasing penetration by upping pellet size and velocity? Instead of being so preoccupied with shot size and payload, Guns would be better off, in my opinion, concentrating on achieving good pattern densities at more moderate ranges, like the Guns of old did.”
Pattern versus penetration
“I am sure that the reason exceptional Shots like Simon Ward or Dave Carrie are so effective with big loads at extreme ranges,” continues Laurie, “is because they are so much more precise than your average Shot. The majority of the time, the very centre of their pattern will be connecting with the bird and the pattern is likely to be denser in the very centre. But as for the rest of the pattern at extreme range, it will have completely failed, with gaps big enough for a large, cock pheasant to fly through. So your average Shot will not derive any real benefit from shooting bigger loads at extreme range pheasants. The truth is, getting a good, sufficiently tight and consistent pattern beyond 55 yards is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
“Indeed, the most consistent and densest patterns are achieved using hard shot at moderate velocities,” continues Laurie. “With harder shot you get less pellet deformation which in turn means the pellet is far more likely to arrive at the target relatively intact. This, in terms of pattern, translates to an overwhelming advantage over much cheaper soft shot. Plus, in terms of velocity, the faster a pellet comes out the end of the barrel, the faster it sheds that velocity. In practice, this means that there is hardly any difference in down-range velocity but a great improvement in pattern density with more moderate speeds – and they will produce a lot less recoil.”
But, as Eley's David Thompson asserts, the down side to using hard shot is that it doesn't kill as effectively as soft shot. “The biggest difference between cartridges for clays and cartridges for game is the lead type,” he explains. “For clay cartridges we use a higher percentage of antimony, which makes the shot harder and hence breaks the clay cleanly. It is basically a tougher lead shot. With game cartridges we use less antimony so that more energy is imparted into the bird and makes it a more efficient killer.” But this, of course, affects shot pattern as you will invariably get a greater degree of pellet deformation with softer shot.
Indeed, the truth is that all cartridge manufacturers and ballistics experts recognise that in tackling higher and higher pheasants, there has to be an element of compromise between long-range pattern density and penetration. David Scott of Gamebore – whose Black Gold and Dark Storm ranges are designed with the high bird Shot in mind – elaborates. “With the move to presenting higher birds, the cartridge has to be effective at longer ranges which presents a number of challenges. Higher velocity at the muzzle has to translate to higher velocity down-range where it matters.
“We have tested several cartridges with high muzzle velocities which are somewhat pedestrian down-range. So we have developed a range of slower burning powders which enable us to achieve higher down-range velocities whilst reducing recoil, which is key for two reasons. Firstly, recoil is not only uncomfortable and tiring, but it can prevent quick acquisition of the target for the second shot. Secondly, high recoil can damage the pellets on detonation which can result in poor patterns, especially at longer ranges which, in turn, results in missed or pricked birds which no one wants to see.” As a result, Gamebore have developed their proprietary Gordon Recoil System which is built into the base of the cartridge case and purportedly reduces recoil by a very significant 15 per cent.
What about wads?
Some experts still maintain that, in terms of extreme range performance (50 yards plus), plastic wads are superior to fibre in a number of ways. They provide a better gas seal between the powder charge and the shot, the built-in shot cup protects the barrels from barrel scrub (leading/pellet deformation) and it is also widely recognised that they produce tighter down-range patterns. Moreover, the flexibility of plastic wads acts as a shock absorber and not only protects the pellets at the bottom of the shot cup – and thus reduces pellet deformation – but also absorbs some of the recoil.
But, as it is now widely felt that littering the countryside with non-biodegradable plastic wads is irresponsible, most game Shots now opt for fibre wad loads. Indeed, many shoots no longer allow the use of plaswads, so, to overcome the disadvantages associated with fibre – barrel scrub, pellet deformation, increased recoil and less cohesive down-range patterns – cartridge manufacturers have started to focus on producing less abrasive shot and more effective non-plastic wads which, out to about 40 yards, apparently produce patterns similar to those achieved with plaswads.
Gamebore, for instance, launched a range of wool wad cartridges two seasons ago as wool wadding has some advantages over normal fibre (compressed wood pulp) wads. David Scott explains: “Firstly, wool wads are much softer than standard fibre wads and absorb some of the recoil, resulting in greater comfort and less pellet damage, giving better patterns. Secondly, wool wads deliver a much better gas seal on back-bored guns which have been developed to reduce recoil by removing the forcing cones of old.”
In addition, they have also developed their proprietary Diamond Shot, used in their premium game and clay loads, which has a special coating which allows the shot to flow more freely down the barrel than standard lead shot. This, in turn, reduces barrel scrub in fibre wad loads, reduces compression damage/deformation when the cartridge is fired, and ultimately results in better down-range patterns.
Hull Cartridge Company, too, use hardened shot in their popular High Pheasant and High Pheasant Extreme ranges of cartridges, and Eley Hawk are working on using copper-coated shot in their game cartridges for exactly the same reason. “We have found that copper holds more consistent patterns at range,” explains David. “We think this is because the copper coating smooths the exit of the pellet out the barrel. We recognise that pattern is crucial, but so is killing power, so, again, there is always a compromise.”
“In terms of cartridge quality, consistency has never been better,” says Laurie Hart. “With high-tech computerised loading machines, manufacturers are unquestionably now achieving more consistent loads in terms of powder, shot and wads. But the most important thing of all is confidence. Whatever you have confidence in will invariably work well for you.”
Ultimately, you may have to pay a little more for top quality cartridges – Lyalvale Express Supreme Game, Hull High Pheasant and High Pheasant Extreme, Gamebore Black Gold and Dark Storm, Eley VIP and Caledonian XL, all very good loads that will all do the business – but as long as you have tested your favourite loads on a pattern plate, and have confidence in them, it will be money well spent.
Food for thought
At the end of the day, the vast majority of the pheasants in the UK will never experience what it's like to fly at an altitude of 50 yards or higher (Mark Crudgington of George Gibbs asserts that the majority of us wildly over estimate range, anyway). Indeed, most won't get close to that height. And when you consider that No. 6 shot retains enough striking energy (1ft/lb) to kill a pheasant out to about 50 yards, you have to ask yourself why more and more game Shots in the UK are choosing to shoot with bigger, heavier loads. After all, they cost more and deliver a heavier recoil, and, perhaps most significantly, they don't pattern nearly as well as moderate loads of No. 6s or 7s.
The fact of the matter is only a tiny proportion of us will regularly shoot (at) 50-80 yard pheasants. And the truth is, even if we were presented with the opportunity to do so, such birds would be well beyond the reach of most of us, irrespective of what loads are in our guns. Extreme range loads are just that – the realm of a very small band of highly experienced game Shots in the UK. So no, it seems bigger isn't necessarily always better.