Gauging for Pheasant

By Randy Wakeman

This isn�t the very first time shotgun gauge and pheasants have been discussed; this subject has been kicked around for decades. Gauge is not particularly important to me. When you get a bag of #5 shot, it doesn�t say for �10 gauge only� sewn into the bag. You might think that �use what works best for you� would be sufficient advice, but I guess we aren�t happy letting it go at that. As far as what an individual chooses to use, that�s up to them. I don�t much care. However, I do very much care about what I use and it isn�t a matter of wandering aimlessly though the house at four in the morning and grabbing whatever shotgun and shells I happen to stumble across first.

I don�t know what a 12 gauge load has to be. Apparently a lot of people don�t either, as shooting what used to be referred to as a low brass 20 gauge load, 7/8 oz. of shot, out of a 12 gauge is hardly unusual. You can also shoot 10 gauge payloads out of 12 gauge guns and some do. History serves best as a teacher, not a slave master.

The notion of challenge in pheasant hunting does not hold any special appeal for me. Bowhunting pheasant has certainly been doneand is doubtless challenging, for example, but that gets into the area of stunts and brags more than filling the freezer. There are all kinds of challenges, including deer-hunting with .22 rimfires. Not my cup of tea. Most people really don�t want challenges. Want a challenge? Go pheasant hunting around here without a dog�there�s your challenge.

When I was a kid, we didn�t use dogs. In fact, a lot of people felt that using dogs was cheating, making pheasant hunting far too easy. Farmers were comparatively sloppy back then, there was far more cover, far less proper drainage, and all kinds of thickets and orchards. There was also substantial dairy farming in Illinois back then; pheasant habitat and nesting area was far better than it is today. The sporting part was walking over and picking up a dead pheasant. Anything less than that and you failed. We walked standing corn back then. Standard operating procedure was whack him once on the way up, a second time on the way down. Dropping them dead was the only way for 100% recovery. Runners in standing corn without dogs, even for a short distance, meant a wasted bird. Times have changed of course, but that�s how it was.

Pheasant in Illinois don�t need any help getting smart. Opening day, the click of car door can send roosters into the air 200 yards away. Sure, there are yearlings that aren�t as savvy, but they learn quickly.

Weather is another variable. I have no idea what kind of November or December we�ll have this year. When it is warm, there is no reason for pheasants to use cover and they can be anywhere. Get wet weather that keeps the crops from coming out, they are out in the corn chowing down. Why wouldn�t they be?

We�ve got 50,000 acres to hunt, so our evil Chinese communist buddies have a lot of places to go. We�ve all read about �late season pheasants.� Unfortunately, the pheasants around here have not read those same articles. Everytime I�m out shooting and patterning this time of year, I hear roosters cackling out in the corn. That includes yesterday. More likely they are just laughing and taunting me�not a cackle, but more of a hysterical belly-laugh.

As far as I�m concerned, most of it is, �be ready.� Hard to say if there is mud and garbage hanging off of me, whether it is a calm day, or 25 mph wind. When an angry rooster cackles and hits the sky at 40 yards on a breezy day, there isn�t any time to discuss the matter. You�re either ready, or you aren�t. You�re probably not always looking in the right direction, facing the right direction, and your stance is likely less then stellar. Sure, sometimes they hold and think they are hidden, the dog on point and so forth, but, not always. Pheasants around here need to be smarter than a coyote every day of their lives and they don�t automatically dumb it down for the benefit of German short-haired pointers.

The thing to avoid in pheasant hunting is the most vulgar, heinous, awkward, hugely embarrassing situation imaginable. That is, of course, when a gun goes bang and there is nothing for your dog to pick up. Try explaining that to your dog. Your dog will let you know that he thinks you are an idiot.

All this and we haven�t even gotten to gauge yet. If a gun does not fit, if it doesn�t shoot to point of aim, if it doesn�t fly to your shoulder instantly with hunting clothes on, if the safety requires conscious effort to get off with cold or gloved hands, I have no bloody use for the thing regardless of the gauge. It is either going to instantly produce a pattern where I look, or it can stay home.

When all else fails, we can start talking about what no one has a clue about: shot string. For starters, all shotgun shells produce shotclouds that have length, or string, unless you are shooting slugs. The notion that a heavier payload has a shot string and a light payload does not is false on its face. They both do. Now, the theory begins that a heavier payload has a longer shotstring than a lighter one and that this longer shotstring has some relevance to bird-hunting. How long is the shotstring from the load you are shooting now? If we don�t know that, for starters, than no comparison is possible. Better yet, how long is your shotstring 20 yards from the muzzle and how long is it 50 yards from the muzzle? No one seems to know that, of course. There are more people that have seen the Loch Ness monster than have seen a full shot string at 20 and 50 yards.

The easiest way to debunk the notion of shotstring is the obvious. If you want to compare a 1 oz. load to a 1-1/8 oz. load, naturally every 1-1/8 oz. load has a 1 oz. payload sitting on top of the remainder of the shot column. Major Sir Gerald Burrard documented the results of shot-stringing in the 1931 three-volume "The Modern Shotgun." It wasn�t until much later when Winchester�s chief ballistician, Ed Lowry, finally reconstructed complete shot strings and defined �shotstring factors.� Lowry was able to show that Burrard was right all along and that pattern thinning due to shotstring is of no consequence, even in the case of long-range waterfowl pass-shooting, much less pheasant hunting. Along the way, Lowry discovered a few surprising things. The steel loads he tested had longer shot strings than the lead loads and full choke shortened shot strings as opposed to more open chokes. Neither of these factors were of any field relevance, however.

If you want 100% game recovery, you need to break a wing and a leg. If your pheasant falls dead, so much the better, but a wasted bird is something to avoid.

What drops pheasants quickly and cleanly is pellet penetration. No matter how look at it, #5 shot penetrates better than smaller shot. Along these lines, folks often ask "so what�s wrong with #4 shot?" The answer is nothing at all as far as the shot diameter does. The downside is the lack of pellet count to properly populate a pattern�your pattern board reveals this quickly.

Some 20 gauge loads pattern better, far better, than their 12 gauge counterparts. There are hundreds of pattern boards here that show just that. The fine print is that this is usually with OEM chokes combined with promo field loads with the crude little sketches of birdies and duckies on them, not quality chokes and quality shells. There are a lot of things not easily or casually explained, though, which is why we all need to pattern. I�ve discussed the more esoteric parts of patterning with folks like senior gun designer Marc Lesenfants of Browning, Wes Lang of Caesar Guerini and someone who especially cares a great deal about patterns, George Trulock.

The shell with the same unfolded length as the chamber tends to pattern better. That�s the finding of Browning, they publish it, and a lot of 2-3/4 inch shells go through Browning 3 inch and 3-1/2 inch chambers, to be sure.

Another factor is something you can�t tell by looking at a shotgun, or measuring anything except the results, barrel harmonics. Don Zutz used to write about it, Wes Lang, Marc Lesenfants, and others have studied it and its results. It�s there, it can make huge differences, but it takes a trip to the patterning board to find out what your gun really likes. It is a bigger factor than most people think, even .22 rimfire rifles used in competition use barrel tuners. It was the study of barrel movement that led Savage CEO Ron Coburn to develop the Accu-Stock, a huge advance in factory center-fire rifle platforms.

Some folks might rightly think that hey, "I�m not shooting a rifle, I�m shooting a shotgun." Sure you are. Consider all the factors added to shotguns that are unwanted in other firearms: welded on barrel rings, stanchions and ventilated ribs, two-piece stocks, barrels that are routinely removed from the receiver and actions that are not bedded. Added to that is the comparatively thin walls of shotgun barrels (compared to many other firearms). This is quite understandable, as not too many folks are looking for a heavy-barrel, varmint style pheasant gun. There�s a lot going on here. All of these factors help to explain why individual shotguns can sometimes be so vividly ammunition and choke sensitive.

Anything that helps you be ready is a good thing, as far as I�m concerned. There are some limits to a 16 or 20 gauge, but pheasants aren�t one of them. As a matter of course, you are going to have a slimmer, trimmer barrel, forearm and receiver with a 20 gauge than possible with a 12, even a 12 gauge of the same weight, which most are not. To the extent that a 20 gauge helps you be �more ready,� it is an advantage. As to the effectiveness of different loads, the pattern board is still the best tool to reveal that.

Be safe, be ready and have fun. With a little homework, you are also ready for pheasant and wild rice under glass. Best of all, you won�t have to be ready to try to explain to your dog why gravity failed to work that day.

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Copyright 2009, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.