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How to choose the right clay cartridge

How much shot? What size? How fast? What wad?

shooting medium clay

Shooting a medium-height clay comfortably just past 45 degrees

Here are some of the key questions you need to ask when choosing clay cartridges.

Q. What wad material should I choose?

A. Today many shooting grounds label themselves as ‘fibre-wad only’ grounds and you should always ring ahead to check to see what a shooting ground’s policy is. Wad in a cartridge is there to provide a gas-tight seal between the shot charge and the large volume of hot, rapidly-expanding gas generated as the powder burns.

Plastic wad can be dangerous to animals, blocking up their digestive tract and on some clay shoots wads are likely to fall on fields where farm stock graze. The solution is to use fibre-wadded cartridges and the patterning qualities of such loads has increased markedly in recent years.

You should always call ahead when visiting a shooting ground to see if there is a fibre-wad rule.

plastic wad cartridge

A plastic wad cartridge – many shooting grounds no longer permit their use

 Q. How much shot for my clayshooting discipline?

A. For advice on the maximum shot loads and sizes for each clayshooting discipline, take a look at the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association’s  (CPSA) Booklet.

  • For the British domestic disciplines the limit is 28 grammes (a bit less than an ounce)
  • FITASC Sporting participants used to be allowed to use up to 36gr (1¼oz), but their limit has now been dropped to 28gr.
  • Other international disciplines, such as Olympic Trap, require a load of 24gr, which is about 7/8oz.
  • Remember these are the maximum allowable loads.
  • Lighter loads, like the 24gr, are usually easier on the shoulder. If you’re a slight build or worry about recoil then these lighter loads could help.
  • All of the above, of course, assumes that you shoot a 12-bore.
  • Twenty-bore shooters can choose from ranges of cartridges loaded with 21gr (3/4oz), or 24gr (7/8oz). You can buy 20-bore cartridges in 28gr, although when shooting a load as heavy as this most shooters would be happier with a 12-bore, which would be heavier and therefore soak up the recoil better.

Q. Should I choose large or small shot?

A. Large shot goes further and hits harder but can produce a sparse pattern. Small shot won’t go as far or hit as hard but produces dense patterns. You need to decide what would work best for you.

Skeet shooting

Rory Warlow on his way to a bronze for England in the Men’s Skeet during the Commonwealth Games

Shot for skeet shooting

For skeet you must use either size 9 or size 10 shot. It’s a game of fast, crossing targets which are relatively close, so with the small shot required, the shooter gets the best possible pattern. For most other competitions, the biggest shot you may use is No.6, which is the most commonly-used bird shot. Again, see the CPSA booklet for the definitive ruling.

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Cartridges for sporting disciplines

Sporting disciplines differ from skeet because targets are presented at all practical ranges. For most club targets, sizes 7½ or 8 cartridges will give the best chance at most targets. However you should change things around when targets get more difficult. For instance, if a stand presenting doubles on report starts with a relatively close, incoming target, then gives a fast-retreating target, you can always load the first barrel with a skeet shell, and tackle the second target with a relatively potent trap cartridge carrying size 7.

The trap disciplines are usually shot with sizes 7 or 7½, but again there is nothing to stop you using small shot in the first barrel and larger shot in the second to tackle the more distant targets.

shotgun cartridges

The cartridge manufacturing business is fiercely competitive and firms are always looking for an edge

Q. What about speed?

A. To be accurate, consistency is more important than sheer muzzle velocity.  A good competition cartridge generates the same muzzle velocity within a few feet per second, and some of the best clay-shooting cartridges have not been that spectacularly fast. So it is better to pick a cartridge you are comfortable shooting 100 plus shots a day rather than the one with an advertised extremely high muzzle velocity. By ‘very high’ we mean a muzzle velocity of over 1,400 feet per second, or 420 metres per second if you prefer, and you may be happier with a cartridge generating 1,300ft/sec (390m/sec).

If the shooting ground has a bad noise problem, you can get subsonic ammunition, which generates a muzzle velocity of around 1,050ft/sec (390 m/sec). Subsonic cartridges generate lower noise levels at the muzzle, and also avoid the supersonic ‘crack’ which merges with the bang. These cartridges are useful for training. Some pupils flinch when they hear a loud bang or equate cartridge noise with recoil.

Q: Can I use game cartridges for clay pigeon shooting? I’ve got loads of 30g sixes left over from this year’s game shooting. Can I use these for English and FITASC Sporting targets?

A: (John Bidwell) I’m afraid not, CPSA and FITASC rules prohibit the use of cartridges carrying more than 28gm (1oz) of shot at competitions run under their auspices. The only way you might be able to use them is for practice at non-registered shoots or those grounds which are unaffiliated to the sport’s governing body. That said, you should always ask the ground owner or manager if he/she has any objection to you doing so.

Q: I shoot English Sporting with 7½ or 8 shot cartridges. Should I also be using No. 9s? And what chokes should I use?

A: (John Bidwell) Too many people hamper their scores by constantly changing chokes and worrying about shot sizes. They seem to forget that No. 8 shot – and certainly 7½ shot – fired through ¼ and ½ choke will cope with just about every target on a Sporting layout. Eights are a good all-round choice but it’s worth taking along a few 7s or 7½s just in case you come up against edge-on long-range clays – the larger pellet has the punch to break through a clay’s tough outer rim at distance.

No. 9s have a limited use in Sporting and that’s through open chokes on edge-on targets out to about 25 yards where a dense pattern helps ensure the small target area receives multiple hits. That said, a No. 8 cartridge through the same choke at the same distance will do everything that a No. 9 will. I can’t remember the last time I used cartridges loaded with No. 9 shot at Sporting preferring, instead, 8s… with 7½s for those longer targets.

Q: Why don’t more shooters use use No.9 skeet shooting cartridges? I get really good ‘kills’ with mine on the targets at our local gun club.

A: (John Bidwell). You have raised an interesting point. Some years ago ‘skeet shells’ were used much more extensively by sporting shooters than they are today, especially on close to mid-range targets.

Today I think you would be hard pushed to find many people at a shoot with a box or two of No. 9s even in their bag. The reason for this, I think, is because the type of targets now encountered at shooting grounds has changed in recent years.

Clays, generally, are being presented at longer ranges and with a fair proportion of them as quartering away birds to boot.  Shooters feel more confident in breaking such targets with larger shot in the form of 7s or 7.1/2s – the thought of using No. 9 shot never crosses their mind. And yet a dense pattern of small shot fired through fairly tight chokes will thoroughly smash most long range clays should they show anything of their softer underbelly.  If you have a tightly choked gun, why not give 9s a proper trial – I think you might be pleasantly surprised at their effectiveness.

Q: I am a newcomer to clayshooting and have just bought a gun with 2.¾in chambers. However, I find I can buy some cartridges with 2.½in cases which, the supplier tells me, are ideal for clayshooting. Can I use them in my gun, or must I buy cartridges in 2.¾in cases, which are more expensive?

A: You can use the 2.½in (65mm) cartridges in your gun with every confidence, and you don’t have to use 2.¾in (70mm) cases. In fact, most clayshooting guns these days are built with 3in (76mm) cases, and 3in cartridges have no use in clay hooting.

The guns are just made that way for owners who wish to use them for occasional wildfowling trips, or anything else requiring a very powerful cartridge. The golden rule is never to use a cartridge longer than the gun’s chamber – for instance a 3 in cartridge in a 2.¾in chambered gun – or potentially very dangerous high pressures will be generated.

The one exception is that some cartridges loaded in 67.5mm cases can be used in game guns with 2.½ (65mm) cases, and the rule in this case is to go by what it says on the cartridge packet. Finally, remember that the length of a cartridge is the measurement of a fired case, and that an unfired cartridge is approximately 11mm shorter.