Is smaller better?

EleyLast month we considered what the smaller gauge guns have to offer the clay shooter, and what areas need particular attention to ensure the experience with using a gun smaller than a 12-gauge is both satisfying and successful. We touched upon how it was a combination of the gun and cartridges we choose that would have the most effect on the degree of success and enjoyment to be achieved with smaller gauges (just as it is with 12-bore guns really) in obtaining the correct balance between various factors to ensure best results.

The primary reason we go clay shooting is, after all, for enjoyment, relaxation and some satisfying sport among friends. Most of us don’t take our final score too seriously for a good deal of our shooting; we also realise that if you are not competing regularly then you are not particularly likely to win any major competitions.

So, if enjoying the sport is our main goal, just as many like a casual round of golf when nothing is at stake, then it really does not matter which calibre of gun we use so long as we enjoy using it. In that respect alone, smaller gauges do have something special to offer. Neither clay nor game shooters choose a smaller calibre shotgun because they think it offers a particular advantage, save for some particular situations in game shooting, where the speed of handling of a lightweight gun can be of considerable help at closer range quarry – but that does not occur much in clay shooting. However, there are those who find a full weight competition gun rather a lot to handle, whether through slight build, advancing years, illness or infirmity and those who just prefer not to wield a heavy gun around. For these and others who just enjoy a challenge, the real value of smaller gauge guns starts to become more evident; satisfaction is what really matters.

Accepting that satisfaction is the ‘name of the game’ is a major step in also realising that there can be additional enjoyment to be had by using a smaller gauge gun. Choosing the gun, trying different cartridges and learning to use it well, so that the scores achieved are satisfying, may well be all the reward we need, for most of the time the person we are really competing against is ourselves, and that is something we should perhaps bear in mind a little more often.


Weight distribution 

It can be that the distribution of weight of a smaller gauge model is such as to make it feel considerably lighter than it actually is, itself a bonus and potentially a big one. We should be aware that the recoil we actually feel (felt recoil) can be different to actual recoil and comprises of several factors, the most significant of which are gun fit, stock shape and how well-balanced the gun is. These are quite separate to the shot weight and velocity of the ammunition used, as ammunition testers have found many times over the years; give some ammunition of one type to several shooters at a club to try out and ask what they think about recoil and you will get several different answers, ranging from “really smooth to shoot, I really liked them” to “they kicked me like a mule and I would not use them again”.

This sort of variance can prove confusing and makes such ‘testing’ pointless. In this case, gun fit, balance and gun type are largely responsible for the discrepancy.You will sometimes hear that it is higher pressures developed within the cartridge that makes one kick more than another but, where shot loads and velocity are equal, this just is not so.

If it were pressure, then the smaller gauges would be at a disadvantage, as they must produce higher pressures due to the increased sectional density of their shot load. A 19-gram .410 load can produce around 900-bar breech pressure while a 21-gram 12-bore would be around 450-bar; if pressure was able to be felt by the shooter then the .410 would kick more but it does not, as well we know. Where things are affected is in patterning ability and the same factor, where shots loads become increasingly over-square – then ammunition construction becomes increasingly important to produce good results. This is more complex and must await another article but it is fascinating and helps to explain what is going on within regular 12-bore loads too.

It is certainly the view of most established clay shooters that using a smaller gauge gun would be a disadvantage, for understandable reasons. When the ISU (now ISSF) first started talking about introducing reduced shot loads in international clay competitions in the early 1990s, the same fears were aroused. Disciplines like the edge-on and rapidly departing ABT targets were sufficient to cause concern at losing four grams of shot from 32-grams to 28; how the OT boys and girls would cope when 24-grams was made mandatory was thought to be mission impossible. What actually happened of course was that cartridge makers worked hard to make their 28- and 24-gram cartridges perform even better, and the scores of the best international competitors very soon actually went up.

No doubt this was due to a combination of factors, and not least the concentration of the mind brought on at the perceived need for even greater precision and consistency in one’s shooting: no bad thing in itself. But as I have now seen over a great many years of testing shotgun cartridges, the performance of shotgun ammunition has never been better than it is today. If you hear some club room expert extolling how cartridges “are not what they once were”, happily reply that “no, indeed they are not; very fortunately the vast majority are better than they have ever been.”


Shot load 

One major threshold to cross is that of shot load. As mentioned last month, if you choose to use the same shot load in a 20-bore gun that you used in a 12-bore then, if significantly lighter in weight, the recoil will increase proportionally to that difference in weight. And if you choose a gun that is the same weight as the 12, then there is little to be gained beyond the sheer satisfaction of breaking targets with the sleeker-looking, and very pointable smaller gauge gun.

The shot load plays a vital role in the success of any gun we use; after all, it is the pellets striking the clay that break it, not a new powder or wad, expensive choke tubes or new shooting glasses. These may all help the shooter break more clay but in the end it is only the shot hitting the target that scores a kill, and then only when sufficient pellets with adequate retained energy strike home.

Another fact to bear in mind is that there are only so many pellets within a shot load. Changing shot sizes also alters pellet count, hence pattern density, but that also affects downrange energy. So, we come back to that vital word – balance. We must make good choices regarding shot load, choke used, pellet size and the range we take our targets at: fascinating stuff that we will look into more closely later.

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