Understanding Payload vs. Gauge Size

Helping You Get the Most From Your Hunting Dogs

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Understanding Payload vs. Gauge Size

by L.P. Brezny

Over the years, and that adds up to quite a few, I have observed the game harvesting phenomena that reflects on both shotgun gauge, and the overall shotshell payload sent aloft. This past early fall I got the chance to set up a detailed experiment that involved gauge offerings from 410 bore through heavy 12 gauge as applied to South Dakota dove shooting.

While dove are not waterfowl they need not be as applied to this observed ballistic exercise. Because I was hunting an area that retained targets that were consistent in numbers day by day, and always flew the same general patterns overhead, I had a ready made test base to work from. All that was required was to change the gauge used afield day by day, watch and record the payload of each shotshell chambered.

Secondly, recording the net effect observed as applied to kills, cripples, and missed birds during two hour morning sessions each day was also required as the different gun systems were taken afield. It should be made quite clear that to find this exact type of test base in a real time setting is very difficult, and because I had in effect stumbled on this hot honey hole while hunting and calling coyotes in the area, I could not pass it up when deciding to build the following performance test scenario.

Field Setting
In terms of an exact field setting this test base had to be exactly the same day by day. I had located the above mentioned heavy concentrations of doves along a creek bottom that rationed several pools of water in drought ravaged western South Dakota. Also of interests was the fact that the birds were using a very large old cottonwood tree that was snow white, and free of any bark what-so-ever. This large white mark on the landscape was positioned about 70 yards to the back of my setup, or gunning air space as applied to incoming dove targets. I was in effect back shooting live dove decoys in the large white bark less tree. Even my shooting didn’t bother my live decoys much if at all, being I was far enough up range of the tree sitting warm decoys.

By setting up for pass shooting along a blow down well down range of the roosting tree, I was in a position to shoot four directions as birds passed overhead, or to the sides. Most often doves flew in zig zag patterns down the winding creek bottom, and made for some difficult targets. Under the best of circumstances, and that being the use of a well understood gun load combination that had been successful on many occasions, this style of pass shooting would consume large amounts of ammunition with low numbers of field kills.

However, be that as it were, the rules would be the same for each gauge size and load taken afield. Therefore, when all the figures came together a picture would surface in terms of just how effect an upward change of gauge can be as apple to added firepower afield.

The 28 Gauge
First up, but not in order of gauge size, as even the ultra light 410 got the call during this project was the 28 gauge as in a slick stack barrel built by Franchi. Mounting a set of modified and IC choke tubes, this lightning fast smooth bore was state of the art in the 28 gauge family of shotguns. With a loaded weight under 5 pounds, and a pointing quality next to none I chambered both Kent Game Bore, and Federal 2 3 / 4” loads. In the Game Bore loads the payload was at 1 oz. in English #6 shot, and the Federal loads were 3 / 4 oz # 8 1 / 2 shot. All loads used regardless of gauge were black lead pellets. About the only major element that needed to be observed in terms of loads was that the English shotshells in #6 were in effect closer to a # 5 1 / 2 American standard pellet in size. This made for a low pellet count, but as you will soon see that didn’t matter very much if at all.

With a blue bird morning and dead still air I chambered two shotshells in the Federal 8 1/2 shot for openers. Right off, as a single dove came rolling in over the tree tops, and the compact 28 gauge caught up to the target, two rounds erupting from the pencil pipe small bore. This shoe of force only resulted in feathers puffing off the bird on the second shot sent aloft.

I can say for a fact that after hunting Argentina for two major runs, and killing upward of four thousand dove out over the southern cross, I’m convinced that these little critters are designed to take vicious punishment from shotshell loads.

Reloading the 28 and searching the sky it didn’t take long for a flock of seven birds to cross overhead. Again the sub gauge belched the light payload of # 8 1/ 2 shot, with a resulting single bird fluttering wounded but not dead toward the ground. Lakota, my old golden retriever caught up with the ground flopping dove quickly, and it was obvious that the bird had sustained very little damage due in part to the light round being used.

It was time for a load change, and now the Game Bore #6 English loads got the call. With the first bird across my air space a powder puff layer of feathers came stripping off my target as the bird end rolled toward the sod below. Lakota returned with stone dead dove. While not shot up at all, but a generous hole driven straight up the middle of the body, the English ballistic medicine had done its job well.

When the smoke cleared I had killed outright six recovered birds, with an additional three birds lost even with the use of a good dog. Nine total contact hits recorded a 33% hit average based on my total of 27 rounds expended. Count the exact kills, and I only shot a muddy 22%. Needless to say, but I was less than impressed by my morning’s work.

In terms of an overview of the action it was clear that the #6 English ammo did a better job of pulling high flyers out of the air. Were the Game Bore loads better than Federal shotshells? No, but the shot size and payload was a better balance for the task at hand.

Even with the poor showing of the loads the fact remained that the 28 gauge was a wimp by most standards when it came to stopping even small lightly armored doves. Even in South America we had shot some light gauge guns in both 28 and 410. These guns were set aside quickly however, and that rule seems to have followed me all the way back home to South Dakota.

20 Gauge Action
Figuring three days rest I felt it was time to take on the honey hole once again. With luck I would get more of a meal out of the breast meat harvested this time around. The 20 gauge got the call, and this time it was my very favorite upland gun, and at times over decoy mallard shooter. This was a very well built and balanced Beretta Onyx stack barrel. The gun didn’t weigh much more than the 28 gauge had, and it was built on a true 20 gauge receiver frame versus just slapping 20 gauge tubes on a 12 gauge receiver.

At the first passing flock I was able to clearly see the difference in raw firepower by moving up the gauge offering. Loaded with Federal 2 3 / 4” 1 1 / 8 oz copper plated #6 ‘s the 20 bore dusted a bird with the first shot cleanly at a solid 35 yards down range. Prior to this the lesser 28 gauge offering had all it could do to put shot on a 25 yard birds, much less stretch the range beyond that to any major degree. In effect, the 20 gauge owned a much larger area of air space around the stream bed, and adjacent tree studded hay field. With four shots dispatched I had connected on three doves each dropping as dead as field rocks.

Working over flocks for the next hour I succeeded in harvesting 13 dove with a single cripple to the gun / loads credit. This returned a 54% shooting average with 24 round expended. Needless to say , but I was very pleased with the gun and my performance. The 20 gauge is to my way of thinking at the low edge of a waterfowl hunting system, but it is never the less effective when used appropriately on ducks, and even geese over decoys. In this case the 20 - 2 3/4” #6 shot loads were high end fast moving and state of the art Federal Cartridge products. Designed more for shooting ditch chickens, these loads had some added energy, and payload game anchoring effects. The step up in gauge had been an effective option.
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