The bottom line is that the advantages of overloaded rounds are largely illusory. In practical fact, the bloody things aren’t worth either the expense or the discomfort. And they are discomfortable in the extreme.
So what good are 30 percent more pellets if they’re giving you less effective patterns, less efficient shooting, and beating the hell out of you to boot?
– Michael McIntosh,
“Cartridges: When Less is More,”
from his book “Shotguns and Shooting”
The Charge of the Light Brigade
I call it “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” this shotshell load I take into battle against the troops of the “Heavy Field Artillery Regiment.”
16 gauge Fiocchi hull
Fiocchi 616 primer
18.2 grains of Hodgdon’s Universal powder
Ballistics Products 16 gauge sporting/field wad
1 ounce No. 7½ shot
First order of business: I do not assume any responsibility for your results if you choose to follow this shotshell recipe for target or light field loads for your shotgun. It performs wonderfully in my Lefever Nitro Special.
Muzzle velocity averages about 1,110 feet per second, according to tests with my shooting chrony. From both barrels, one choked improved-cylinder and the other light-modified, the patterns at thirty yards are uniform, even, and consistent.
Light loads. A loyal member of the Light Brigade, I am an advocate of light loads. As a result, I am constantly at war with Heavy Artillery boys.
In these shotgun ballistics battles, both sides are armed with a few facts and a huge arsenal of opinions. Neither side has gained a foot of ground in the thirty-plus years I have been engaged in the wars, and I doubt there will be much change in the next thirty.
So, let me stake out my position here and now: Heavy Artillery advocates, you are wrong.
Yes, I know you have all the ammunition manufacturers on your side, but this backing is financially driven. Heavy loads are expensive and manufacturers make a lot of money selling them; light loads are relatively inexpensive and not nearly so profitable, so manufacturers produce almost no good-quality light loads.
Consequently, if you are going to shoot light loads, you must take up handloading. This works well for me, because reloading is enjoyable and it produces shotshells tailored specifically for my guns. A less important benefit is that the cost of a box of reloaded shotshells is about two-thirds the price of even the cheapest (and worst quality) factory ammunition. This does not mean that you will save money, however. If you have $1,000 in the annual household budget for shooting, you are still going to spend the full $1,000, factory loads or reloads, but you are going to shoot a lot more rounds if you reload.
Cost aside, there is a fundamental reason I shoot light loads: I shoot light guns. Shooting a round of skeet with light loads in a 6 ½ pound double gun is a pleasant experience. Shooting skeet with heavy loads in that light gun is punishment. Venturing afield with a heavy gun and heavy loads, unless you are six-foot-six and 250 pounds and in excellent physical condition, is also a good way to turn an enjoyable day of recreation into a miserable endurance test.
What’s my definition of “light load”? It is really the standard load that was determined more than a century ago to be the best charge for each shotgun gauge: 28 gauge, ¾ ounce; 20 gauge, 7/8 ounce; 16 gauge, 1 ounce; 12 gauge, 1 1/8 ounce. If you push 12 gauge to 1 ¼ ounce of shot, you will still be within the range of its “best” load; because of its bigger bore, it has a bit more flexibility.
But the Heavy Artillery boys love firepower and believe they can extend the killing range of their guns by shooting shotshells that exceed these “best” loads by 10, 20 or even 30 percent. Waterfowl hunters may have a valid argument for increased loads, especially in steel shot, but they are shooting 12 gauge guns with oversize bores and lengthened chambers that are really 10 gauge guns. And a gun that weighs 8 ½ or 9 pounds is not a burden in a duck blind where you are sitting all morning, not walking.
Using those heavy artillery loads in a field gun to hunt upland birds is ludicrous. Everyone is free to choose their own poison, I suppose, but what is the point of shooting 1 ounce loads in a 28 gauge gun or 1 ¼ ounce loads in a 20 gauge? The birds are frail creatures, and almost all are shot at distances less than twenty-five yards. Ah, but heavy loads throw more lethal patterns, right? No, the Heavy Artillery Regiment is wrong about that, too.
If they would do some patterning, they would see their folly. Shotguns pattern wonderfully with the shot charges that are best for them, especially if the load is low velocity. If a heavier and higher velocity load is used, patterns become ragged and full of gaps. But few Heavy Artillery disciples shoot their heavy loads at patterning sheets, and with good reason.
To produce accurate results, a pattern test requires at least five shots on the patterning papers, and ten is even better. To assure consistent point of impact on the target, these shots must be fired from the bench, off sandbags. Even with light loads this is akin to being hit in the face by five to ten left jabs thrown by a pretty good welterweight boxer (something I remember with displeasure from my college boxing days). Pattern heavy loads and you have chosen to take several straight rights from Evander Holyfield.
Years ago, I foolishly tried to pattern some factory-loaded 12 gauge 1 ½ ounce, 3-inch magnum, steel shot, waterfowl loads. After three shots I had entered an ethereal plane where colors were vivid, corporeal objects became viscous, and I imagined I was having a metaphysical discussion with the Bodhisattva about spiritual peace and harmony.
That was the day I permanently enlisted in The Light Brigade.
If you want to ride with the Brigade this fall but are ambivalent about entering the world of handloading, I make this recommendation. Do your upland hunting this year with trap loads, Winchester AA or Federal Gold Medal or Remington STS. Do not buy cheap target loads; they are almost certainly loaded with soft lead shot and low quality wads, a recipe for poor patterns.
Buy standard velocity loads, not the high velocity stuff named handicap, nitro, international, or sporting clays. Choose No. 7 ½ shot size, the largest size available in trap loads. I do not recommend No. 7 ½ shot for pheasants, except the first weekend of the season when the birds are young and ignorant and most shots will be close. But I have used No. 7 ½ trap loads season-long for prairie grouse, Hungarian partridge, ruffed grouse, quail, and woodcock, and if I shot well, the load performed well.
I predict you will be pleased with the results of this experiment and may want to go to the next step – handloading shotshells and experimenting with various loads to find those best suited to your gun.
Another benefit of light loads: the birds you shoot will not be mangled beyond recognition. Although, thinking about it, maybe that is what the Heavy Artillery boys want – birds that are, like the Wicked Witch of the East, “not just merely dead but really most sincerely dead,” and easily found amid a pile of blood and feathers.
Those of us in The Light Brigade don’t need to do that. We invariably have bird dogs that are good retrievers. Touché, Artillerists.
If you enjoy reading about bird guns and shooting sports, you may like my book Hunting Birds – The Lives and Legends of the Pine County Rod, Gun, Dog, and Social Club.