You step up to the sporting clays station for what appears to be an easy pair. The first bird is a climbing target toward you that reaches its apex about 25 yards away; the perfect break point. You go through your pre-shot routine, mount your gun and call for the targets. As the bird reaches its peak you pull the trigger. The unbroken target falls to the ground. You felt good about the shot. Everything in your swing and movement seemed good. You had good target focus.
As the photo of this target shows, maybe you did hit the target. You just didn’t break it. This target was found on my home range thrown from a station with the scenario described.
It has 2-3 pellet holes in it yet it was found intact on the ground. As much as we pay attention to the fundamentals of body position, gun mount, and target focus, how much attention do we give to the shotshells we shoot?
Probably less than we should.
And not giving it the attention it deserves can make the difference between Xs and Os on the score sheet. So let’s make the case for shooting quality shotgun shells, if not all the time at least during registered shoots, competition, and preparation for them.
All shotshells are not equal
The National Sporting Clays Association just completed its National Championship Shoot in San Antonio, Texas.
Shooters from Master Class to E from around the country converged on the National Shooting Sports complex to test their skills. You may have been one of them. A lot of attention that goes to the Pro or Master shooters is about their shotgun of choice, pre-shot routine or form during shooting.
One critical factor many spectators may miss, and the pro will tell you this, is the importance of the ammunition they shoot.
When you hold two 2 ¾ inch shotshells side by side they may outwardly appear the same, but outward appearances can be deceiving. The case of discount target shells you pick up at the large outdoor retailer don’t cost as much.
As the old saying goes, you get what you pay for. What you save in your wallet may cost you at the sporting clays range.
To understand the difference between shotgun shells we have to get inside the casing. Now we’re not going to do a deep dive into engineering or ballistics.
Most clay target shooters aren’t concerned with that level of detail. We will share some engineering information and field research to prove the point: your investment in quality shotshells will help improve your score.
There’s a reason those promotional target loads are cheap: the components inside are low quality to meet cost requirements. We’ll look at the importance of those components in putting your shot on target.
Get the lead out
There is some non-toxic shotshell target ammunition out there. But by and large the majority of target loads contain lead shot. That word “lead” can be deceiving.
Like shotshells, all lead is not equal. Several factors go into lead shot production that can affect your shotshell performance.
There are only a couple of methods for actually making lead shot. But what goes into lead shot is what affects performance. By industry standards, “hard lead” must contain at least 5-6% antimony, a chemical added during the production process to harden the lead. Antimony adds to production cost.
Higher quality target loads will meet that 5-6% standard whereas the lower cost loads will only contain 2-3% antimony, often referred to as soft lead.
So how does this affect shotshell performance? The answer may surprise you. Low antimony lead shot tends to deform as it moves through the barrel and all those little pellets bump up against each other. So some of those lead pellets flatten and become “flyers”, pellets that don’t stay within the pattern. It also causes holes in the pattern that a clay target can get through.
Conversely, hardened or magnum shot that contains 6% antimony will better maintain its shape as it travels down the barrel providing a denser shot pattern the further it goes down range. Right now you might be thinking there’s not much difference. Oh yes there is.
Randy Wakeman in a report he wrote and researched, The Good Shotgun Shell, provides this as evidence on the importance of antimony percentage:
Modified choke, 2% antimony, 1-1/8 ounce payload of #7-1/2 shot = 236 pellets average in a 30 inch circle at 40 yards.
Modified choke, 6% antimony, 1-1/8 ounce payload of #7-1/2 shot = 302 pellets average in a 30 inch circle at 40 yards.
That’s a 20% reduction in the number of pellets in the pattern using soft lead shot. How many target shooters are ready to accept that reduction in performance? If a sales person told you upfront to expect 20% less performance on the range would you buy the inexpensive target loads? Most importantly, and where it counts the most, how many targets are dropping to the ground not because you missed, but because your pattern had a hole in it due to soft lead shot?
That factor alone can make the case for quality shotshells. Oh, but there is more.
The wad is not just a plastic cup
Hardened shot is important, but if it is not delivered down range effectively then we negate its purpose.
That is the purpose of that little plastic cup, the wad. Since we don’t see the wad inside the shell, most shooters simply know it as that: a plastic cup that holds the shot. Wads come in various designs and styles but they provide two functions, both equally important. Again, the quality of the wad will determine how well it performs both of those functions.
Unless you reload, most clay target shooters simply view the purpose of the wad is to hold the shot together until it exits the barrel. But it has an initial job to do before that happens. Much more important than we often consider.
According to the Baschieri & Pellagri website, “The functional importance of the wad is often neglected, forgetting that it is this very component that performs the ‘connecting’ function between the energy produced by the combustion of the gunpowder and the load of shot that receives this energy.”
That first function of the wad is to contain the gas (energy) produced by burning powder to propel it down and out of the barrel. In other words, if the wad does not fit tightly against the wall of the case some of the powder escapes pass the wad as does some of the gas.
This does two things:
- If all the powder doesn’t burn and gas escapes past the wad, shot velocity will be inconsistent. It usually translates into lost velocity. That may sound insignificant, and might be at close ranges for a rabbit target at 20 yards. But what about that long crossing target at 40 yards? A loss of 200 feet per second, if you’re “on target”, can put the pattern or most of it behind the target.
- That powder escaping past the wad translates into a dirty barrel and with a semi-auto dirty action.
After the wad carrying the shot is pushed out of the case and down the barrel it performs its next important function. That is to separate as designed at a given distance from the barrel to allow the shot to open into the pattern. Again, not something we consciously think about but if it opens too soon or too late we do not get consistent pattern performance despite our choke selection.
As example, with a low cost shotshell where the wad may expand and fall off at differing distances an improved cylinder choke may pattern between a skeet and modified choke with the same ammunition from the same box.
Remember that difference in pattern density we quoted earlier? Think what happens when you add inconsistent wad performance to low grade shot. There’s another O on the score sheet.
A well designed wad will provide consistent performance both within the case and as it exits the barrel. Well constructed wads are designed for specific shooting conditions, always made from the best quality plastic (and sometimes paper) to exacting standards to fit to a specific case or situations. If you both hunt and shoot clay targets cut open a target shell and a waterfowl or turkey load. Look at the difference in the wads.
No matter the manufacturer, the wads will be different. Waterfowl and turkey load are designed to pattern more tightly. Their wads are designed to open at greater distances from the barrel whereas target wads are designed to open at standard distances.
What makes it go bang?
We need something to push that shot column in the wad out the barrel and that’s where the powder comes in. To the uninitiated, gun powder explodes. But we know different.
It burns, causing a chemical combustion. That combustion, gas, increases pressure which pushes the wad out of the case. It happens very fast; which is why the right powder in the right amount is critical for consistent performance.
Have you ever shot the low-cost promotional target loads? If you shoot enough of them occasionally you’ll hear one that doesn’t sound just right when it is fired. If shooting a semi-auto the shell may not eject. This is most often caused by low quality powder and sometimes the incorrect amount in the shell.
It just doesn’t burn at the same rate every time, producing the correct amount of pressure on a consistent basis. Manufacturers of promotional shotgun shells have to keep costs down and one way to do that is with the least expensive powder they can buy.
So we’ve already establish they use soft lead shot and wads made of low cost plastic to inexact standards. Why should we expect them to use the best, most expensive powder they can? We shouldn’t.
Quality ammunition is different. Powder is designed and used based on expected performance and often by gauge. Baschieri & Pellagri has nine different types of shotgun powders for different shooting situations. Powders are designed considering burn rate (fast, medium or slow) and whether it is a light, heavy, or medium load; key factors in consistent velocity. The ideal powder for a competition target load of 1 1/8 ounce shot may not be so for a heavy magnum turkey load of 1 3/4 ounces of shot. They both require powders of different burn rates to move varying shot weights at specific velocities.
Holding it all together
Now we get to the thing that holds all of that together, the case.
Again, a cursory examination of two different shotshells held side by side may indicate very little different. Just like other components, that look can be deceiving.
Low cost cases (hulls) usually have thinner plastic case walls which may permit gaps between it and the wad, allowing gas to escape.
Despite our historical reference to the base as “brass”, modern bases are usually made of steel. And you guessed it, low cost shells use lower grade steel. That is why shooters who reload their shotgun shells prefer higher grade shells; the stronger steel base and thicker walls of plastic both provide consistent performance and longer live for more reloads.
One of the factors all shooters consider is how felt recoil can affect their shooting, particularly on true and report pairs. All of these things we have looked at impact felt recoil: shot volume, powder load, wad tightness combined determined how much gas leaves the barrel. That is felt recoil.
There is one other innovation we can insert in that formula; something unique to B&P shells. It is the Gordon Case System. Whereas most standard shotgun shells have a base made of one piece of steel, the B&P shells offers a specially designed base with the Gordon Case inserted in the middle with the primer in the Gordon Case.
As explained in this B&P Blog, B&P Gordon Shell Casing: How Does It Absorb Recoil, the Gordon system allows both more consistent powder burn but also reduces felt recoil as the wad and shot exit the case. It basically reduces the gas pressure pushing against the base of the shell.
That means most of the gas produced by burning powder is used to propel the wad and shot out of the barrel. Again, leading to efficiency and consistency of performance.
Quality = improved performance?
Putting all these components together improves our performance where it counts the most, when the shot arrives on target. As shotgun shooters we learn that consistency of our personal performance is our friend. Our pre-shot routine, gun mount, target acquisition and break point always need to be the same.
We need to do this because there are factors we can’t control like weather and terrain. But we can add to our consistency by choosing the type of ammunition we shoot. So why do we accept inconsistent performance from our ammunition? We shouldn’t.
That is why if you ask competitive shotgun shooters what shotgun shell they chose you will get a quality name brand. In this video professional shooter Gebben Miles explains why he shoots B&P F2 Mach. Notice he uses the word “consistency” in his description of the load. He also likes the Gordon case system for reduced recoil.
If we want to improve our game, we can add to our consistency of performance by using quality ammunition. It is truly the final link between our body, the shotgun, and the target.
Like many recreational clay target shooters I’ve never given much thought to shotshell performance. Picking up that unbroken target on the range is what got me thinking. How many targets did I “miss” that should have broken based on my choice of shotgun shells? Over my years of shooting there are probably a lot.
We may be OK with low cost ammo when having fun with friends at the range on the weekends. But when it comes to competition and preparation for it, quality ammo can mean the difference between Xs and Os on the score sheet. When competitions are decided by one or two targets, or advancement in class is two targets away, is it worth the savings?