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Daily Archives: October 8, 2015

The Truth About Shotgun Ammo

Article by Phil Bourjaily

Our tests at a high-tech ballistic research laboratory may change the way you buy loads and guns…and even how you hunt.

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Shotgun columnist Bob Brister spent six months shooting at 16-foot-long homemade targets mounted on a trailer hitched to a station wagon that his wife drove past. Brister conducted this novel experiment to understand the effect of shot stringing at crossing game birds.

While it had long been known that a swarm of shot lengthened as it flew downrange, no one agreed on what it meant. Brister’s patterns, which sometimes splattered the length of his 16-foot-long targets, indicated that if you shot at a bluebill streaking past your decoys, up to 30 percent of the pattern might arrive too late to hit the bird.

A lot has changed since 1976. There are new questions about shot gunning to answer and, fortunately, new ways to answer them.

testrange
I don’t own an $80,000 high-speed camera, but Federal Cartridge Co. has one in its underground test range (above). They also have a computerized shotgun pattern analyzer, a walk-in cooler full of ballistic gelatin, and a factory full of shotshells to test. Federal granted my request to spend a couple of days there in April to test shotgun loads. I had countless questions, but was able to answer these six.

Some things I thought I knew turned out to be wrong. Others were right. And several changed the way I think about shotshells.

1. Is a 3 1/2-Inch 12-Gauge More Effective Than a 3-Inch 12-Gauge?

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I’ve always believed the brutal recoil of a 31⁄2-inch 12-gauge magnum negates any ballistic advantage over the standard 3-inch magnum. I have always suspected, too, that cramming what amounts to a 10-gauge load into a 12-gauge barrel produced poor, ragged patterns and longer shot strings that made the extra pain even less worthwhile.

Test Loads:
– 12-gauge, 3-inch, 11⁄4-ounce loads of Black Cloud steel BB shot at 1450 fps (Modified choke)
– 12-gauge, 31⁄2-inch, 11⁄2-ounce loads of Black Cloud steel BB shot at 1500 fps (Modified choke)
Results: Both loads patterned almost identically on a 30-inch circle at 40 yards: The 31⁄2-inch load put 72.6 percent of its shot in the circle, with 77 pellet hits. The 3-inch placed 71.8 percent of its shot in the circle, with 63 hits.

There was no significant difference between the lengths of the shot strings, which averaged 42 inches for the 3-inch and 49 inches for the 31⁄2-inch midway between muzzle and target. Both loads exhibited equal penetration in ballistic gelatin at 30 yards—5 inches—despite the 31⁄2-inch shell’s 50 fps head start in muzzle velocity.

The Takeaway: I expected the 31⁄2 to string out longer and pattern worse than the 3-inch load, but it patterned just as well. The higher pellet count of the 31⁄2-inch resulted in significantly more hits in the circle, but both loads put enough hits on target to kill geese.

However, the improvement in performance comes at a cost of a whopping 50 percent increase in recoil. Even with a gun seated in a massive rest, I could feel the difference, and the muzzle blast was noticeably louder in the test tunnel, too. I shot some of those same 31⁄2-inch shells while trying to shoot a triple on a five-stand range. I could hit the first target always, but recovering from the shot to make the next two was almost impossible.

Is the 31⁄2-inch more effective than the 3-inch? Yes—if you can withstand the recoil. “More” is only better if you can put it on target.

2. Is the .410 a Suitable Gauge for Young, Beginning Hunters?

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The .410 is a ballistic disgrace, and a crippler of game birds. Just ask me and all the other gun writers who have repeated that “fact” over the years. I believe beginning hunters should shoot a 20-gauge, not a .410, despite the higher recoil and extra weight of the 20. A comparison between the two, I was sure, would dramatically show the 20’s superiority.

Test Loads:
– .410 11⁄16-ounce loads of Game-Shok Upland No. 6 shot at 1135 fps (Full choke)
– 20-gauge 7⁄8-ounce loads of Game-Shok Upland No. 6 shot at 1210 fps (Modified choke)
Results: Unlike other gauges, which are patterned at 40 yards, .410s are typically patterned at 25 yards. We picked 30 yards as a compromise distance and to reflect the shorter ranges at which beginners shoot. The Full choke .410 shot 87.8 percent patterns at 30 yards, while the Modified 20 shot 84.6 percent. The higher pellet count and higher velocity of the 20 combined to put more pellets in the 30-inch circle (173) than the .410 (139). Penetration was better, too—3.3 inches vs. 3 inches. The 46-inch-long shot string of the 20-gauge, which was measured at 20 yards, was a full 20 inches shorter than the .410’s shot string.

The Takeaway: The .410 surprised us with great patterns. However, the .410’s shot string, which was 50 percent longer than that of the 20-gauge, revealed a shortcoming: The longer the string, the slower the trailing pellets are traveling, and therefore the less energy they retain. The .410 not only puts fewer pellets on target than the 20-gauge, but the .410’s tail-end pellets won’t hit as hard. Even so, I will give the .410 more respect in the future. I waited until my kids were 11 and 12 and big enough to shoot 20-gauges, but if a child is too small to handle a 20, a .410 can work.

3. Is a 20-gauge as Effective as a 12-Gauge for Doves?

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There’s a faction of smallbore shooters—including some people I hunt with—who condemn the 12-gauge as “unsporting.” As a 12-gauge shooter, I see it as being versatile and ballistically efficient. This test was my chance to crush my detractors with science. One area where 12s and 20s can be compared in an apples-to-apples format is the dove field, where many hunters shoot 1-ounce loads with either gauge, so that became the basis for the test.

Test Loads
:
– 20-gauge 1-ounce loads of Game-Shok Upland No. 71⁄2 shot at 1165 fps (Modified choke)
– 12-gauge 1-ounce loads of Game-Shok Upland No. 71⁄2 shot at 1235 fps (Modified choke)
Results: The 12-gauge delivered a 50.7 percent pattern with 202 pellets in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. The 20 did just 39.6 percent with 149 pellets inside the circle. The 12 achieved slightly deeper penetration (2.875 inches vs. 2.5625) in gelatin at 30 yards, likely due to the higher muzzle velocity. The high-speed camera showed no statistical difference between the lengths of the shot strings, which averaged 55 inches for the 12-gauge and 57 for the 20 at 20 yards.

The Takeaway: I thought the 12 would win, but I hadn’t expected it to beat the 20 so badly. Out of curiosity we tested the 20-gauge with one size larger shot to see if we could improve its performance. With No. 6 shot the 20 delivered a huge 15 percent increase in pattern density. That gave us a bonus takeaway: If you want to tighten patterns (sometimes by a lot), shoot larger shot.

A 20-gauge is fun to handle and shoot, but when it comes to putting pellets on target efficiently, it loses out to the 12.

4. Is Steel Shot Suitable for Pheasants?

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A growing number of pheasant hunters have to shoot nontoxic ammunition. Pheasants are tough birds and elusive cripples, so choosing the right shell matters, especially when you go from dense lead to lighter steel. In the field I have had no trouble killing wild birds with steel shot, but while dead is dead, I wanted to quantify the differences between steel and lead loads.

Test Loads:
– 12-gauge 11⁄8-ounce loads of Federal Prairie Storm No. 3 steel at 1600 fps (Modified choke)
– 12-gauge 11⁄8-ounce loads of Wing-Shok High Velocity No. 6 lead at 1500 fps (Modified choke)
Results: As expected, the hard steel pellets patterned tighter than lead (62.5 percent vs. 52.6 percent) inside a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. Nevertheless, the higher pellet count of the lead load meant more pellets in the circle: 128 hits, compared to 102 hits for the steel load. The lead pellets also penetrated 4.12 inches into the 30-yard gelatin, compared to steel’s 3.43 inches. The lead load had a shorter shot string (55 inches) at 20 yards than the steel load (61 inches).

The Takeaway: Even with advances in steel ammunition, lead is still superior. Usually hunters switching from lead to steel compensate for steel’s light weight by following the “rule of two” and going up two sizes in shot. Yet despite my choosing three sizes larger in steel and driving it 100 fps faster than the lead load, it didn’t perform as well as lead in the test. The “rule of two” should be the “rule of three or maybe four.” Steel 3s and 2s make the best pellet choice. Steel pellets, which remain round and fly true, patterned more efficiently than lead, resulting in tighter patterns. Given the lower pellet count and retained energy of steel, though, I would not go to a more open choke if switching from lead to steel. Still, modern steel loads are effective for pheasants.

5. Are Premium Buckshot Loads Worth the High Cost?

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One important lesson Brister learned was that hard shot loaded with ground plastic buffer protected the pellets from deforming in the barrel. Premium buffered magnum waterfowl loads clearly outperformed nonbuffered loads. But would this be true for the biggest pellets of all? Premium buck costs nearly $2 per shell, twice the cost of standard loads, so I wanted to see if it was worth the price.

Test Loads :
– 12-gauge, 3-inch, 15-pellet loads of Federal Vital-Shok buffered, copper-plated 00 buckshot at 1100 fps (Modified choke)
– 12-gauge, 3-inch, 15-pellet handloads of unbuffered, unplated 00 buck at 1210 fps (Modified choke)
Results: Premium buckshot averaged 12.4 pellets in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards, whereas unbuffered buck averaged 11 hits. The pattern diameter of the buffered load at 40 yards was 31.65 inches; the unbuffered load spread out to 36.89 inches. The unbuffered buck penetrated deeper (16.84 inches vs. 14.62 inches) than the premium, probably due to its higher muzzle velocity.

The Takeaway: There was a dramatic difference in the shape of recovered buffered and unbuffered pellets. I had thought the deformed, unbuffered pellets would string out farther due to increased air resistance and pattern much worse. That didn’t happen. Unbuffered buckshot tore uneven holes in paper, yet it penetrated deeply into the gelatin.

We did notice an odd phenomenon during this test. Occasionally two pellets would fly through the same hole in the paper or into the gel. With only 15 pellets in the pattern, the odds against that happening are very high—unless there is a drafting effect where a trailing pellet falls in behind a pellet in front of it, the same way race cars draft one another. You can’t rely on that happening, but when it does, the second pellet into the hole will penetrate almost twice as deeply as the rest.

Premium buckshot put roughly 13 percent more pellets on target. Whether that’s worth double the cost is a personal decision.

6. Which is Better for Turkeys: Lighter, Faster Loads or Heavier, Slower Loads?

shotshells6_cThe trend to lighter, faster turkey loads made me wonder if heavy and slow loads would perform better. Theoretically, a lower-velocity load will pattern tighter than a faster load because the lower launch speed deforms fewer pellets, leaving more of them round to fly true. But at the same time, a lighter load should pattern tighter than a heavier load for the same reason: the more lead pellets on top of one another in a shell, the more pellets deform when that shell is fired.

Test Loads:
– 12-gauge, 3-inch, 13⁄4-ounce loads of Mag-Shok Lead High Velocity No. 5 shot at 1300 fps (Modified choke)
– 12-gauge, 3-inch, 2-ounce loads of Mag-Shok Lead No. 5 shot at 1150 fps (Modified choke)
Results: The 13⁄4-ounce load patterned more efficiently, putting 70.2 percent of its charge in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards, compared to 61.4 percent for the 2-ounce load. It also outpenetrated the 2-ounce load in gelatin at 30 yards, 4 inches to 3.65 (though the latter is certainly adequate to kill a turkey). In number of hits, however, the 2-ounce load narrowly won, 216 pellets to 209. Recoil is about the same.

The Takeaway: Essentially the test resulted in a tie, although the heavier load snuck a few extra pellets into the target area. Recoil from both shells was almost identical. I would favor the lighter load because more penetration, while it may not help, can’t hurt, either.

Looking at these results, however, I can’t help but wonder if a slower 13⁄4-ounce load wouldn’t pattern better than either of these. Unfortunately, “slow” is a tough sell to the American public, so unless you handload your own turkey ammo, you may never find out. It’s a tie, so choose the one that patterns best in your gun.

BONUS: Does Shot String Length Matter?

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It matters some, but not for the reasons we think. During these tests, Federal engineers Erik Carlson and Adam Moser measured shot strings at 20 yards and extrapolated lengths for 40 yards. The longest shot string in our tests, the 66-inch .410 string, would be about 10 feet long at 40 yards. Match that against a bird flying 40 mph at 40 yards, as Brister simulated in his tests, and you will lose only a small percentage of pattern density, perhaps about 5 percent, not the 30 percent loss Brister saw with some 1976-era lead waterfowl magnums.

Brister believed long shot strings were more forgiving of error than short strings. If you were to overlead a target, he thought, the trailing pellets might still break it, so the longer the string, the greater the margin for error. In theory that is true, but practically speaking, the chance is very slim of a trailing pellet breaking a target. The disadvantage is that the longer the string, the slower the trailing pellets, and the less energy they’ll have on target.

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Develop Proper Archery Form

 

SONY DSCPictured here is perhaps the most popular position of the feet when it comes to shooting; the “Open Stance”. It is easy to perform and opens up the shooter to the target resulting in less interference with clothing from the bowstring.

Despite the fact that you may be shooting the most highly tuned bow, adorned with top of the line accessories, if your shooting form is bad your accuracy will likely be worse. Shooting with good form requires mastering a number of processes. However, once these processes are understood and learned, shooting with proper form will be as easy as walking across the floor; it will become second nature.

Before incorporating the following steps into your shot routine, be sure that you are shooting a well tuned bow set at the appropriate draw length.SONY DSC

Proper Shooting Stance
Where you place your feet during the shot process can have a great bearing on where your arrow strikes. By nature, your body has a natural centering point. If your feet are not positioned properly you might find yourself being pulled away from this centering point. As a result, the body will fight to return to this location. Unfortunately, this can occur during the shot which will impede accuracy.

Resist the urge to grip your bow. Instead, let your fingers naturally drop around the handle and riser. This will eliminate unwanted tension and bow torque making your shots more accurate.

There are 3 basic stance positions to consider. They are as follows.
  • Squared Stance:  Feet are in-line with one another, drawing a line perpendicular to the target.
  • Closed Stance:  Front foot is forward from the front of the body
  • Open Stance:  Front foot is slightly pointing toward the target.The best stance, regardless of which you choose, should be comfortable and solid. This starts by placing your feet about shoulders-width apart with your body weight distributed between the midsection and rear of your feet.

Most bow hunting experts will suggest an open stance which starts by positioning your toes 90 degrees to the target, and then taking a half-step backward with the foot that is closest to the target. This stance will essentially place the chest more toward the target and allow for greater bowstring clearance along the bow arm and chest.

However, this stance may not be for everyone. In order to find your perfect stance, enlist the help of a friend and simply close your eyes and draw your bow while facing a archery target with a wide back 1wall, anchoring as you normally would. With your eyes still closed, move your body and feet around until you find the most comfortable position. Then, open your eyes and note the direction of your aim.

When it comes to hauling back the bowstring, don’t rely on the small bicep muscles of the arm. Instead, use the larger, more stable muscles of the upper back and shoulder. Not only can these muscles pull more weight, they are also steadier and fatigue less quickly.

Let down the bow and reference the position of your feet by pointing an arrow straight at the aiming spot. You have just found your stance.

SONY DSCCorrect Bow Grip
When it comes to gripping the bow you want to do so in such a way that hand torque is not promoted. In other words, you want your grip to be as torque-free as possible. To do this, you first need to find the best location for the grip to contact your hand. This can easily be accomplished with a simple test.

First, take your bow hand and hold it out as if you were going to grip the bow; keeping it slightly open and rigid to imitate pressure being applied to it. Next, take your thumb from your other hand and push it into your bow hand at different locations. You will notice that every location you push with your thumb causes your bow hand to move or collapse—-except one. That one spot is where you want to place the pressure of the bows grip while at full draw.

Your bow arm shoulder should be down and in a “locked” position while at full draw. This makes it more difficult to flex the bow arm causing shot-ruining muscle tension.

This location is typically where the bones in the forearm butt up against the base of the palm. It is a bone-to-bone contact point and is the most reliable, torque-resistant location in which to place the bow grip.

When grabbing the bow, place a small amount of tension on the string, just enough to feel it in your bow hand. Then position the grip into the area you discovered by pressing your thumb into your palm. Now you are ready to draw the bow. Just remember, upon reaching full draw, your bow hand should remain relaxed with your fingers falling down or dangling around the front of the riser.

Drawing the Bow
This may seem like a trivial facet to good shooting, but drawing the bow properly incorporates all of the essential muscles needed in order to shoot with good form; mainly, the back muscles. One of the easiest ways to do this is to think of your drawing arm elbow as having a hook in it. When drawing the bow, start with your elbow about as high as your jaw line. Then, imagine someone has a string attached to the hook that is in your elbow. Now, think about them pulling your elbow straight back as you draw your bow. Instead of puling with your biceps, you will notice that you are actually drawing the bow by using the larger muscles of the upper back; specifically, the rhomboid muscles. This will allow you to relax the rest of your body and pull through the shot using only your back.

SONY DSCBow-Arm Position
A steady aim equals comfortable shooting and tighter arrow groups. A relaxed bow hand is the key to this. To acquire this it is imperative that your drawing side shoulder be down and in a locked position during the shot. Positioning the shoulder in such a manner will greatly reduce muscle tension which is the root of poor aiming. Before drawing the bow, lean slightly toward the target, then start the drawing process. This will place the shoulder in a low, locked, “bone to bone” position.

When it comes to where you place your release-hand, choose and area along the face/jaw-line that is easily repeatable and consistent; your shooting will likewise follow. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Anchor Position
Consistency is the cornerstone to good shooting. The best location to anchor your bowhand is somewhere along the jawbone that provides the most stable platform. In other words, choose a spot that allows your hand, knuckles, etc. to rest solidly as you release the trigger of your release or let go of the bowstring.

A good tip is to locate this spot with your eyes closed, without looking through the peep sight. Then, once your anchor point has been established, with your head in a natural, upright position, you can open your eyes and adjust the peep sight to your eye, instead of adjusting your eye to the peep sight.

The bottom line is to find an easy-to-repeat anchor point; one that will be consistent and second nature when shooting under pressure or any other time.

TIf good shooting form and posture are present, your body should resemble the letter “T” when viewed from behind. Hunter shown wearing Lost Camo.

Establishing T-Form
The easiest way to confirm that proper draw length and comfortable shooting posture are being used is to look for the “T-Form” as the archer is at full draw. This is easily recognized while looking at the shooter from behind. When doing so, his/her body will represent the shape of a “T”.

The torso should be vertically straight, with a direct line running up and down through the spinal column. The horizontal line in the “T” should run from the bow-side elbow, through the shoulders, and across to the drawing elbow. The trick to establishing this “T” form is to make sure that your drawing elbow isn’t too high or too low. Ideally, it should be about the same height as your ears while at full draw. This will promote the use of back muscles to draw and execute the shot.

Include these simple steps into your shouting routine and watch as your accuracy improves and your confidence soars not only on the 3D archery range, but in the field as well.

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