Cartridge test: The hex factor
Shot, as we are aware, is round like a ball, but is this always the case? The answer is no — the idea of non-spherical projectiles goes back a long way. For example, in 1718 James Puckle designed “Puckle’s machinegun”, which was not a machinegun as we know it but a large, tripod-mounted revolver. An additional novelty, though, was the option of round ball for use against Christian foes and square for others in the knowledge that cubic bullets produced a more severe wound.
The idea of square shot — or what we should really call cube shot — surfaces from time to time. The usual reason for using it is to produce larger than normal patterns for close-range shooting. Shotgun enthusiasts have long been intrigued by the principle of aiding the spread of shot for a specific use. As a result, spreader devices were sometimes incorporated into a wad, or overshot card, or inserted in the shot column — even powder/shot loads devised slightly to “blow” the pattern. But the simplest route is to induce what is called aerodynamic spread by using shot that is not spherical.
Gough Thomas experimented with deformed shot by pressing lead shot between steel plates, while another author, David Baker, went down the home-made cubic shot route in the early 1970s for close-range “bunny bashing”. Of course, if you were financially flush there was the option of buying FN Dispersante cartridges loaded with cubic shot.
A new cartridge
What sparked off this thinking was the arrival of some sample Winchester Blind Side cartridges loaded with what is advertised as “hex steel shot”. This is rather clever sales talk, because it is cubic shot with rounded corners. Still, it does have six sides and multiple edges — 12, in fact, and eight corners. The description “hex shot” does not mean hexagonal, but certainly makes the product sound new and different.
To be fair, it is different, and quite a lot of thought has gone into improving the performance of steel shot cartridges by adopting and updating an old idea. The claimed advantages are 15 per cent more pellets for the available space in the cartridge because shot with cubic form fits closer together — in other words, there is less wasted space than between spherical pellets.
It also claims an increase in the kill zone of the pattern by 25 per cent. This is a surprise because results from years ago with lead cubic shot showed increases at most usable distances of up to 50 per cent increase in the pattern. Winchester provides a modified plastic wad in two pieces. The rear nylon part acts like a high-tech piston and seal, while the separate cup exercises some control on initial spread of shot as it leaves the muzzle. What the maker calls a “diamond-cut wad” is a cup that is not split from the top edge like most plastic wads but has three arms further down that open out like air brakes.
Testing the hex
All testing took place with the same gun, proofed for steel shot with the option of multi-chokes. The hex shot tested was listed as No. 3, the actual size across fl ats was 0.125in (just over 3mm) and the average size diagonally across the corners 0.150in (just under 3.9mm), while spherical shot no. 3 size is 0.130in (3.3mm). The advice, even for steelproofed guns, is that for shot with a greater diameter than 4mm use no more than halfchoke. The hex shot did not exceed this limit and the recommendation on the box for this nominally No. 3 shot is modified (half) or improved modified (three-quarter) choke.
Cartridges tried for comparison were some old but serviceable FN Dispersante 2¼ in loaded with 30g of nominally No. 6 cube shot designed to enhance the spread of shot, which, it was thought, would give some idea of the effectiveness of Winchester’s wad cup. As a direct comparison in the 3in conventional cartridge stakes, I used Eley Alphamax+ magnum with 46g of no. 3 lead shot. The Winchester Blind Side contained 13/8oz (40g) of the steel hex No. 3 shot, but because lead is heavier, the pellet counts averaged 228 for the Eley and 218 for the Winchester, so they were quite close.
All the testing took place using an improved modified choke, which actually measured on the test gun at a tight half. The FN Dispersante cartridges were tested at 20 yards, the sort of distance they would normally be used from, and the Winchester and Eley at 40 yards.
At 20 yards, the FN Dispersante gave a good tight quarterchoke pattern, but at 40 yards only 15 per cent of the shot fell within a 30in circle, so they were well dispersed. The Winchester recorded 45 per cent of the pellets within a 30in circle and the Eley 50 per cent.
While patterns were similar, the first tests showed the Winchester hex shot striking low. This is an indication that at 40 yards it was rapidly losing velocity and, therefore, energy, especially when compared with the No. 3 lead. Examination of the hex shot pattern sheet showed some pellets on the outside of the pattern that had struck corner-first were still embedded in the cardboard after coming to rest against the heavy wooden backing board.
The special wad in the Winchester cartridge works well in controlling the tendency of cubic shot to spread rapidly as shown by the FN cartridge with an ordinary plastic cup wad. Patterns of both the Winchester and Eley were acceptable but could undoubtedly be improved upon in a gun that suited each cartridge. Forty yards would appear to be about the maximum distance for the hex shot which, being less dense than lead and a ballistically inefficient shape, loses velocity and energy more quickly. The other advantage with lead is being able to fire it through tight chokes in a variety of guns.
The Winchester Blind Side cartridge is an interesting concept — an old idea given a new twist. Reports suggest it is effective if used at suitable distances and then the cubic shot does cause a lot of damage, as Mr Puckle was aware nearly 300 years ago.