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A clean kill is what should be aimed for every time

Simon Reinhold believes that birds being dead in the air is what marks out a truly great shot but it doesn’t always happen that way

Dog with clean kill

What marks you out as a Gun who knows what they are doing? What separates a good Shot from a bad one? If you ask a member of the picking-up team behind you, who see all but who rarely comment, it will be the care and interest a Gun shows in any game that hasn’t been despatched properly. A clean kill is the ultimate aim.

All fair-minded sportsmen and women hate wounding, but we must accept that it happens sometimes. It is why we have teams of pickers- up behind the Guns. Their role is, first and foremost, the speedy collection of wounded game. Dead birds don’t run. It is why we invest time and effort into training a gundog, which you should always take with you if possible. But how can we minimise the risk of wounding a bird we shoot at?

A clean kill

A principal cause of wounding game is shooting at birds that are out of our effective range. This is a self-assessment exercise and requires honesty. My ability with a shotgun may not be as good as your ability with a shotgun, so we must be truthful with ourselves as to what is and is not within our ability to obtain a clean kill. If it is too far, we must have the moral courage to leave it, either for our neighbour or for another day.

I despise hearing Guns being goaded into taking a shot they know to be beyond them. It shows a lack of respect that has no place in the shooting field. Worse still is the Gun who shoots at game two Guns down because they think there is an outside chance of pulling a bird down and somehow being regarded as a ‘hero’. Some misguided individuals might regard you as a hero. I will not be one of them. Quite the opposite.

Allied to this personal decision-making is the equipment you are using. Going undergunned for your quarry is another reason that we might wound birds more often than we should and not get a clean kill. If you know you are going to be shooting tall cock pheasants at the back end of the season, then true cylinder in both and an ounce load of No 7s probably isn’t going to cut it.

It is a fact that a clean kill is harder to achieve with cock pheasants  than hens. Most of the very high birds I have seen shot and killed cleanly have been hens. To understand why, we must comprehend how the shot in a cartridge brings about the clean death of the bird. It is a combination of pattern and penetration.

The pattern of shot must be dense enough for a high enough probability of some of the pellets to connect with a vital organ or blood vessel. The pellets themselves must be of sufficient size and therefore weight to retain enough energy to punch through feather, skin, muscle and sometimes bone to reach these organs and vessels. Once they do and they rupture the organ or vessel, resulting catastrophic drop in blood pressure is what causes the animal’s demise.

It is easier to punch through to vital organs in a lighter-boned hen with less muscle density than a cock, which is why hens seem to fold more easily than cocks. This is more obvious in the heavier-boned, larger species of duck and geese that require specialist cartridges to kill effectively.

It is often supposed that a lead pellet’s ability to deform and flatten is what gives it its stopping power in a similar way to the radical deformation of a high-velocity centrefire rifle bullet. Some also suggest that the hydrostatic shock wave of a lead pellet passing near a blood vessel is enough to rupture it. Neither of these is true.


The velocity of a shotgun compared with a rifle bullet isn’t high enough for hydrostatic shock to be a factor and pellet deformation is not what we want. This is why the highest quality lead pellets are hardened with antimony. Hardening prevents ‘flyers’. These are misshapen pellets that have distorted during the short, violent journey down the barrel, making them fly unpredictably and often at the edge of the pattern. If you are not ‘on line and on time’ with your shot, you are more likely to connect with a ‘flyer’ and wound as a result.

Your choice of cartridge, choke and gun must match the sort of shooting you are doing and the variety seems infinite. What it comes down to is the magic ingredient in good game shooting: confidence. To reduce the chances of wounding as far as we are able, we must have confidence in our kit. What works on traditional partridges will probably not be suitable for mountainous pheasants.

If you are struggling, wounding more than you should with kit that you trust, and you have reined in your ego to within ethical parameters, there may be a technical issue that can only be addressed by a competent game shooting coach.

Some find their eye dominance begins to shift in middle age. There may be another physical factor at play that has caused you to alter your mount or swing from what was once effective. Self-diagnosis is incredibly difficult and you will probably need professional help. Your reaction to a wounded bird is what marks you out. The second barrel of your double-barrelled shotgun is not solely there for the culmination of your right-and-left. Its primary purpose is to issue a coup de grâce to any bird you have wounded with your first barrel. If that does not kill it, the bird must be your sole focus for as long as you are able to watch it. Reading reactions

You should be focusing on the head of the bird and watching it crumple as you take a successful shot and be able to tell the difference when the result is not the one you were anticipating. Marking down a bird properly reduces the time it takes for it to be retrieved. Use landmarks on the skyline to zero in on the position and to communicate that information effectively to a picker-up. Use phrases like “the single ash tree in the hedge, come down to six o’clock to the dead bracken at the base of the hawthorn, that is where it went in”. Accurate information leads to a far quicker humane despatch, which is the debt we must pay for our mistake. As well as the bird’s location, its reaction to the shot can tell you and the picker-up a great deal of useful information. You should know what the different reactions mean in any given situation.

Tower birds

This is a bird that flies apparently normally before it slows, gains height and collapses to the ground, dead. Birds can sometimes be seen to flinch when shot, although it can be difficult to see any outward reaction. This rise, fall and collapse happens because a pellet has gone through the lungs and they gradually fill with blood. A lack of oxygenated blood in the system, hypoxia, and cerebral anoxia are the cause of death and the pickers-up will normally see these birds collapse in front of them.


This can sometimes be seen with primary feathers on the wings at odd angles. Birds might set their wings, as normal flight is impeded. They are likely to run, but not likely to take off again. Birds with broken wing bones close to the body, but with no other damage, can appear to collapse as normal flight is impossible. These birds are highly likely to run so must be watched and, if practical, retrieved as soon as possible.

Leg down

Leg down

As it suggests, this is a bird visibly trailing a leg in flight. It may or may not run. If this is the only injury they sustained, they are likely to get up and fly again in the presence of a gundog.

Erratic flight

Erratic flight

Erratic flight or a wobbling motion is often caused by a pellet severing the spinal cord below the vital organs. It is the inability to control the rudder-like tail feathers. They are unlikely to run, but may attempt to fly again.

A clean kill in shooting

Eye shot

This is a bird that flies higher and higher in a circular pattern. It is caused by the bird only being able to see out of one eye. Its ability to fly has not been impeded. The birds need careful watching as they can go a long way. This is often encountered when pigeon shooting as they have more stamina in their flight than the burst flight of pheasants and partridges.You must also learn how to quickly despatch wounded game when you haven’t achieved a clean kill. There are several techniques that experienced Guns can show you, but one we must move away from is swirling the bird to break its neck. It is far more effective to take a good walking stick — an asset anyway — and use it to percussively stun the bird on the back of the head. How you go about this and your care for wounded game has always mattered, even before we were under the close scrutiny of video on social media. (Read what’s the most humane way to dispatch a pricked bird.

Switching to steel

  • Steel shot throws fewer flyers and tends to pattern better than lead
  • We need a bigger steel pellet to give us down-range energy needed to punch through to vital organs
  • Go up four grams of shot and at least two shot sizes
  • Match your cartridge length to your chamber
  • If you’ve not used it before, reduce your range a little until you have confidence in using it
  • We must experiment to find what we like with steel
  • Don’t feel that more choke is always better. The cup wad for steel effectively adds one point of choke compared with fibre wad lead