Balanced Shotgun Loads:
The Most Effective Shotgun Hunting Ammunition

Why Remington, Winchester, Federal, Kent, and Fiocchi need to change their recipe on their shotgun hunting ammunition

By Gary Hubbell

 

In some American sporting circles, bigger is always better. and that’s why shotgun ammunition made for the American market always features words like “heavy field loads” and “magnum hunting loads”. The belief among some bird hunters is that the more powder and pellets, the better the shotgun ammunition load, right?

"Wrong," says Jon Hollinger, owner of Aspen Outfitting Company, a professional shooting instructor, shotgun designer, and gunfitter with 40 years of professional experience in the world of shotgunning. I recently interviewed Mr. Hollinger about his perspective of the most efficient shotgun hunting ammunition, and his answers were surprising.

Many pheasant hunters, for example, look for “high brass loads” or “heavy field loads” to pursue tough rooster pheasants. A 12-gauge shotgun shell, for example, might be stuffed with 1½ ounces of shot and a 3¾-dram equivalent load of powder. The logic is that if you’re hunting pheasants, you’re better off with more pellets and more powder to punch all that lead through the air and put more pellets into a tough bird.

English pheasant shooters, who have shot more pheasants atfurther distances than we’ll ever know, are known for shooting what we call balanced, “low brass”, or light field loads,and they seem to have no problem knocking down the roosters. Why is that?

bird shot

 

 

 

It’s because the light loads are balanced. “A balanced load,” says Jon Hollinger, “is what is called a ‘square’ load—the width of the shot column is approximately the same as its height.” Okay, so what? I thought. “Inside every cartridge there is an inert mass of pellets called the shot column,” Hollinger explains. “When the powder ignites, an energy transfer happens. The less weight of shot that there is in the shotshell, the less energy is required to mobilize the shot to terminal velocity before it exits the muzzle of the shotgun.”

“Okay, I’m with you, but why does a balanced load kill more pheasants?” I asked the knowledgable shooting instructor. “When there’s less energy transfer, there’s less pellet deformation,” Hollinger says. “You see, when you’ve got a heavy load with a lot of powder behind it, that big load of powder explodes and slams hard into that mass of lead. Quite a few of the pellets will be deformed, and they won’t fly well. Also, the shot column is longer, so many of the pellets on the side of the column will get scrubbed by the barrel and squared off. They won’t fly well, either. The ‘spreaders,’ or deformed pellets, will stray from the pattern, fly slowly, and then drop off. The result is that you have a long, spread-out shot string that doesn’t deliver a high percentage of the pellets on target.”

Hollinger mentions an English shotgun writer who took chronograph readings of heavy field loads and light field loads. “At 30 yards, the shot string from the heavy loads was 25-30 feet long!” he exclaims. “There’s a lot of room for a pheasant to fly through a 30-foot shot string and only take a couple of pellets.”

Aha. Everyone who’s spent time in a duck blind recalls a crippled duck floundering around in the decoys, and someone stands up to shoot it and finish the job. “The distance between the first pellet and last pellet striking the water is sometimes a very long way,” I noted. “Is that what you mean?” “Exactly,” Hollinger says,“most duck loads are heavy loads. The pellets on the side of the shot column are easily deformed, and since it’s a long shot column, many pellets are scrubbed out of round. They are also loaded with maximum dram equivalent of powder, so many are deformed from the initial concussion of the powder exploding. Not only is the load ineffective laterally—that is, the pattern spreads raggedly in diameter and is not uniform—but the pattern is ineffective longitudinally. The shot string is too long, with many gaps developing as it moves through the air.”

So what are the dynamics of a balanced field load? “The less energy transfer, i.e., less powder, combined with a light load, i.e., short shot column, the less pellet deformation occurs,” Hollinger explains. “The surface area of the shot column that comes into contact with the bore is reduced. The bottom pellets of the shot column are the ones that typically deform the most. With a balanced load, there’s less resistance and therefore less pellet deformation. When the shot column exits the barrel, a high percentage of the pellets are still elliptical—they fly true, and at the same speed. The shot string is like a fat pancake. The first pellet and the last pellet are only about two feet apart at 30 yards. Instead of a pheasant flying through a long shot string and taking a hit from two or three pellets, you put a pattern on him and hit him with 10 or 15 pellets. Birds fall from the sky like they’ve been hit with a hammer.”

Interesting. Very interesting. So what is the ideal load for hunting shotguns? “For a 12-gauge gun, 1 ounce of shot and 3 drams of powder,” Hollinger says. “For a 16-gauge, 15/16 of an ounce of shot and 2 ¾ drams of powder. For a 20-gauge, 7/8 ounce of shot and 2 ½ drams of powder. For a 28-gauge, ¾-ounce of shot and 2 drams of powder, and for a .410 bore, a half ounce of shot and 2 drams of powder.”

Those recipes are far lighter than the loads I see at all the sporting goods stores, I note. “Yes, that’s true,” Hollinger says. “But look at the target loads that all the major ammunition manufacturers produce. Winchester, Federal, Remington--they use their very best components and materials for their target loads. You’ll rarely see a 12-gauge load with more than 1 1/8 ounces of shot, and most of them are no heavier than a 3 ¼ dram equivalent of powder. If they made a target load that contributed to a lot of misses at the skeet and trap range, they wouldn’t be in business.”

So why do they continue to manufacture these foolish heavy game loads? “That’s the big mystery,” Hollinger laughs. “It flies in the face of all ballistics knowledge. And it’s expensive, too! They charge a horrific amount for these heavy field loads, and you’re getting less performance for more money spent.” I laughed ruefully, thinking of the $15-plus per box prices I had seen recently.

So what’s a guy to do? Call Jay Menifee at Polywad and deal with him directly. Here’s his contact info: (800) 998-0669, www.polywad.com . “He’ll sell you shotgun ammunition custom-made to my specifications by the case lot,” Hollinger assures me. “You can buy a case of 6 shot for pheasant hunting, 7 ½’s for grouse and partridge, and 8’s for dove, quail, and targets. His prices will average around $7 a box, or, better yet, when you’re down to two or three boxes, call him up and he’ll send you another case. You’ll never run out of shotgun ammunition, and wait until you see how many more birds you put in the bag!”

©2006 Gary Hubbell and Jon Hollinger. This article may not be reproduced in any form without the authors' written consent.