When I went out to buy pheasant loads recently, I got a case of shell shock when I got back home. It’s not unusual for two boxes of high-caliber 12-gauge hunting ammunition to cost as much as an arm and a leg.
These factory-loaded shotshells are strong enough to kill a rooster. Still, people who load their own shotshells may get the same results as factory-fired shells while lowering the chance that they or someone else will get hurt.
Before pulling the lever on a shotshell reloading machine, you must make some important decisions about pellet size, load weight, velocity, and pattern to make the right pheasant loads.
Choosing the right pellet size is never easy. Smaller shot diameters make dense patterns, while bigger shot diameters have more power to bring down a hardy old rooster beating it over the far end of a field.
When choosing a shot size, you should think about how much payload weight you need to make good patterns. As the table below shows, one ounce of No. 7-12 shot made more than enough pellets to fill a 30-inch circle at 40 yards.
A No. 7 1/2 pellet can go 1,290 feet per second out of the muzzle, but by the time it gets to its target, it only has about a foot and a half of energy left. But there are other things to consider besides pellet energy and pattern density. Think about recoil as well.
My wife uses a 20-gauge over-under that weighs only about 6 pounds, and it hurts to fire big loads of bullets in the gun plain. But 1-ounce weights don’t put much of a strain on the shoulders.
At 40 yards, a load of that many No. 6s makes a dense pattern that covers 30 inches in diameter, while the same load of No. 5s makes a sparse pattern. At longer ranges, a No. 6 shot has about twice as much power as a No. 712 shot.
To get the most out of a load, it is important to keep the pattern density the same. The easiest way to do this is to use shot that has been treated with antimony.
This makes the pellets harder, so they keep their shape better as they go through the forcing cone, the bore, and the choke. The result is shots that keep their shape and go in a straight line. The next loads used No. 5, No. 6, and No. 712 shot with 6 percent antimony.
The No. 4s only had 2 percent antimony. Even when the choke was opened up, the 6% antimony pellets still made tight “full-choke” patterns. When compared to the other shots, the No. 4 load’s 15-inch inner circle had fewer pellets than the 30-inch outer circles of the other shots.
Copper- and nickel-plated shot is not a good choice because it may cost twice as much as high-antimony lead shot. Copper and nickel shots are said to have a “slippery” surface that lets them move more easily between the forcing cone and choke of a shotgun barrel, making tighter patterns.
Normal shot, on the other hand, is covered with graphite, which makes it just as slippery to touch. Even though plated shot is thought to be stronger than high-antimony shot, the lead pellets used in many types of plated shot start out soft and end up being just as strong as high-antimony shot.
People say that plated shot works better on birds because the pellets don’t stick together in the feathers like regular lead shot does. But the lead pellets will work just fine if they have enough energy.
As they dig, they will even bring in their feathers. If the thought of picking out pheasant feathers that are stuck in the shot doesn’t bother you, I don’t see much reason to spend more money on plated shot.
The one-piece plastic wads that are used now help a lot with this. They keep gases from leaking between the wad and the wall of the bore, where they would melt the lead pellets, and their flanged bases seal the hole for the best propellant burn.
During firing, the “crush area,” or center, of a wad collapses. This lessens the force of the shot on the pellets. But the cushion is lost when a handloader presses down hard on the wad legs to fit a shot charge in a case.
So, don’t use loads that require a lot of pressure to seat the wad. The shot cup keeps the lead shot from grating against the barrel when the gun is fired.
At 20 yards, I compared the sizes of the patterns made by two 12-gauge loads with an ounce of No. 712 shot and the same amount of propellant. This was done to show how the petals of a shot cup protect the shot.
The only difference between the two loads is that one’s Winchester WAA12SL wad has its protective petals taken off, while the other’s wad hasn’t been changed at all.
When all the petals were still on the wad, the pattern was 18 inches wide, but when some petals were taken off, the pattern was 23 inches wide.
Patterns are not always in a straight line, so by the time the shot had gone 40 yards without being stopped, it would have spread all over the universe.
Loads of pheasants are moving faster and faster lately. On the other hand, an inefficient projectile will move slower the faster you push it. At 40 yards, a lead No. 5 pellet moving at 1,330 fps is just ahead of the same pellet moving 200 fps slower by about 65 fps.
Shot can get bent in the barrel at higher speeds, which makes the pattern narrower at longer distances. To stop this from happening, you need to put high-antimony shot in a shielding wad.
Protective measures worked because, at 40 yards, all three loads with 118 ounces of No. 6s moving at the different speeds shown in the load table made similar tight patterns.
When fired through a modified choke, a lot of the energy from each shot in the load chart was concentrated in the 15-inch diameter center of the patterns.
That shows that using both hard shot and one-piece wads to keep it safe does a great job of making sure the shot goes in a straight line. Because the patterns are small, there is usually no need for a full stop.
Handloaders can make pheasant loads that work as well as, or even better than, commercially available ammunition with only a little bit of planning. This can also help you save money.