The Good Shotgun Shell

Industry sources agree: 12 gauge shotgun shells account for over 82% of the market, 20 gauge shotshells approximately 7% of the market, and the remaining approximately 9% of what is left is split across the .410 bore, 10 gauge, 16 gauge, and 28 gauge.

Good shotshells are important to the major brands in the marketplace, but their sales are quite small apparently because the notion that if it goes bang it is good enough, and pattern quality does not matter to many shooters as they refuse to be bothered with patterning their guns.

Brass is rarely used in shotshells, with stamped steel bases being the norm. Many people can't tell the difference. Only three basic, major domestic lines of shotshells use brass in their hulls: Remington STS, Winchester AA, and Federal Gold Medal. Brass bases cost more, though they are easier on autoloaders not creating the port erosion that is associated with alloy receivers and steel-based hulls. As brass contracts slightly after firing, it is a better functioning shell in some cases and easier to re-size as well for reloaders.

The late Bob Brister is attributed as saying, “The only thing more expensive than the antimony is the alimony.” It is still true that antimony drives up the cost of shot. The best lead shot high in antimony (6% by weight in smaller shot sizes) as found in Remington STS and Nitro 27 loads. Winchester, of course actually Olin Chemical, used to claim 6% as well for AA target loads. and Federal doesn't like to talk about it that much as the antimony level has fluctuated a bit over the years, but they seem to be at or near the 6% level currently. As a generality, the 6% antimony level is only found in #7-1/2 and #8 shot.

Fiocchi says, “All Exacta line shells are loaded with 5% antimony lead, as opposed to the 3.2% antimony content used in Fiocchi’s more economical Shooting Dynamics line of competition shells.” As Neil Winston has long held, “you would be nuts to use anything but the hardest shot you can get your hands on for long-yardage handicap.” Being nuts naturally is an advantage according to some shooters: it often is more entertaining if you are a little bit crazy.

We all get to decide what performance deficiency we care to tolerate in our shotshells. It does take much observation walking a skeet, sporting clay, or trap field to find a pile of clays with one, two, or even three pellet holes in them that did not break. One example: “Mod” choke, soft (2% antimony), 1-1/8 oz. payload of #7-1/2 shot: 236 pellets average in a 30 inch circle at 40 yards. With 6% antimony shot: 302 pellets, average, in the same 30 inch circle. Not too many people, considering pattern boards at 40 yards, can come up with over 20% of the pellets they would just rather do without. The 6% antimony by weight figure was hardly arrived at by fortuitous happenstance. It is well-known and well-proven that the 6% antimony percentage, on average, yields the most effective patterns with #7-1/2 and #8 shot. Those familiar with Warren Johnson's “Choke Chooser” were invariably astonished at the very short ranges where you need a “Full” choke pattern percentage or better for an edge-on clay.

Aside from antimony content, the good shotshell has pellets that are consistent in size (which means the additional cost of careful screening) and consistent in sphericity, being as close to perfectly round as possible. If it looks like a chef's mix of gravel, it is invariably going to fly like gravel as well.

The best available version of the truth is that antimony content matters, yet the 4% level is much, much better than the chilled or soft shot area of 2% antimony. There is no choke tube made that can take a weak shell and turn it in to a good, much less great consistently high pattern percentage shell. No shotshell or choke tube turns anyone into a better shot. It does yield a larger effective pattern diameter, however, and that is of benefit to all shooters regardless of their theoretical skill level.

When Dr. A. C. Jones (“Sporting Shotgun Performance”) was able to prove that those who talk of “holes” in patterns and gush that something “patterns good” or “patterns great” are generally clueless, he ruffled a few feathers. But, he was right. Neil Winston was also right when he showed that “reading breaks” was an empty-headed waste of time, as is shooting at water, cat-tails, snow, and painted metal gongs.

What is far more easily measurable by the individual shooter (as opposed to patterns) is the price of making your gun go bang. For that reason, the better shotshells remain an important, but comparatively small portion of the market.

It is a pity, for the shotgun community wastes a staggering amount of money on so-called “back-boring,” forcing cones, and other various and sundry items that do nothing that has ever been shown for pattern performance, yet ignores what does give results: a quality shell in concert with a quality choke. It makes no sense to bleed money for a cryogenically treated, back-bored, steelium wonder and then blow cheap, soft, gravelly shaped objects out of it. It must be more fun that way?

Copyright 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.



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