Confused by all the terminology and hype which surrounds cartridges? There’s no need to be. The best way is to keep it simple, says Alastair Phillips.

There are lots of different makes and thousands of configurations of cartridge on the market, so many in fact that even many experienced shots don’t fully understand all the terminology. When it comes to choosing cartridges, everyone has their own ideas.

Despite the increasing popularity of the 20 bore shotguns, the 12 still rules the roost. By virtue of its versatility and the sheer range of cartridges which are available for this calibre it is by far the most popular, so I will focus primarily on that.

Tips to choose the right cartridge

When choosing a cartridge, the first point is to check that it is suitable. For reasons of safety it must be matched to the bore size, chamber length and proof rating of your shotgun, all of which will be stamped on the breech-end of the barrels. Chamber lengths are generally 2½” (65mm) for older guns, while most modern guns are 2¾” (70mm) or 3″ (75mm) in length.

The proof pressure of your gun is definitely something to check carefully if you are using an older shotgun, which tend to have shorter chambers and a lower rating. A modern shotgun with 2¾” (70mm) chambers will probably carry a proof stamp of 1,200kg and is therefore unlikely to present any issues when using standard cartridges. However, if you are thinking of using heavy/magnum loads or steel shot it is vital to check your shotgun is suitable for these. If in any doubt, consult the manufacturer or a gunsmith.

Major advances in cartridge technology

Over the last few decades there have been major advances in cartridge technology, in terms of the reliability and performance of primers and powders, the hardness and uniformity of shot, the physical consistency and performance of traditional paper and plastic cartridge cases, and the reliability and uniformity of fibre or plastic wads.

The weight of shot in the cartridge, the shot load, is expressed in grams, in the case of a 12 bore, for example, the most common loads being 28g, 30g, 32g or 36g. The reason for using heavier shot loads is to maintain pattern density as the distance to the target increases, providing enough strikes to ensure a clean kill. The reason for using larger shot is to maintain its kinetic energy which results in more dependable kills and minimises the number of winged birds.

From early October I use 30g No.6 shot loads which generate a denser pattern and are more effective on stronger, heavily-feathered birds that have more muscle and fly higher. Then from mid-November I favour 32g of No.6 shot, again because birds are stronger and more elevated. Later in the season some favour No. 5 shot because, being 30 per cent larger than No. 6, it delivers much greater energy and generates cleaner kills, if the pattern density is sufficient.

Powder, barrels and choke

While those are the general rules, there are numerous variables, including the height of the birds and the calibre and choke of the shotgun you are using. Many people own both 12 and 20 bore, in which case I advise the same brand of cartridge for both. The reason for this is that different manufacturers use different powders, with different characteristics and velocities, which will affect the amount of lead required. Sticking to one brand takes out a major variable, allowing you to focus on your shooting.

With modern cartridges and powders there is no reason why most shots should be disadvantaged in any way by changing to the smaller calibre. However, if moving from a 12 bore to a 20 bore, before venturing into the field to take on live quarry, I suggest you get in some practise on clays. Apart from anything else this will minimise the temptation to revert if you have a bad day at the start of the season.

It is important to realise that with the technically advanced, fast-burning powders now used in modern shotgun cartridges, barrel length does not measurably affect performance. For all practical purposes, 28″ or 30″ barrels will have equal ballistic performance, and while the former will exhibit faster handling characteristics the latter benefits from a longer sighting plane and steadier handling, which is important at longer ranges. Choke is the other big variable and the lighter the shot load you use the tighter the choke needed to maintain pattern density.

The choice of paper or plastic cartridge case will depend on the circumstances, but to protect the environment I recommend fibre wads. Paper cases have the added benefit of not expanding in the chamber in the same way as plastic when fired, which makes them good for use in old English-style guns where weak ejector springs may be an issue.

Consistent performance

Choose one manufacturer and if possible stick to one brand within their range, one that you have been successful with as it will give you confidence and greatly improve your shooting performance. Make sure you have a plentiful supply so that you don’t run out on the day or halfway through the season. Staying loyal to one manufacturer means if you do change shot loads during the season to cope with different quarry your cartridges will still have familiar basic ballistic characteristics.

To keep up with modern trends at William Evans we have increased the muzzle velocity of our plastic cased shotgun cartridges from 1,320fps to 1,375fps, although the velocity of our paper-cased loads remains the same, at 1,300fps. Every aspect of the cartridge’s performance is measured – ignition time, muzzle velocity, peak pressure, time down the barrel, range velocity, and of course the pattern – and all are stringently monitored to ensure unprecedented performance and consistency.

Technical issues aside, a cartridge must be comfortable to shoot. Perceived recoil differs greatly between individuals, but there’s no point in using a cartridge which ‘kicks like a mule’, because you will flinch when pulling the trigger and that will be very detrimental to your performance in the field. Much better to invest time in identifying one which remains comfortable even over a long day and stick with it.

The bottom line is to pick a cartridge that you feel confident using and stick with it.

On the market

When it comes to choosing your shells for the pheasant season we can start with the big four British brands: Hull Cartridge, Gamebore (also from the city of Hull), Lyalvale Express and Eley. The latter two are both based in the West Midlands so the main players on the domestic market come from just two areas of the country. Hull Cartridge is run by the Bontoft family and both David and sister Susan are passionate about shooting. In the last few years they have brought in a number of successful new loads and the High Pheasant Extreme with a nickel plated head is specifically designed for high birds. The High Pheasant fibre wad is another top cartridge for pheasants in any part of the country and the Imperial Game remains an excellent shell for any game shooting.

The Black Gold game load from Gamebore is a high performance shell powered by F2 powder technology and Gamebore’s Diamond Shot to hold patterns tighter at long range. The Gordon Recoil Reduction System cuts recoil by 15 per cent and this cartridge is used by renowned high bird specialist Simon Ward. Black Gold Dark Storm is an extension of the Black Gold label and it combines precision made Diamond lead shot with F2 powders to deliver impressive patterns and performance without excessive recoil.

The Supreme Game from Lyalvale Express is the company’s flagship game cartridge and has a true 65mm case suitable for Best English Guns with 2 ½” chambers. The high brass cap is tempered to ensure perfect ejection in any conditions. The lead used in the Supreme Game cartridges is formulated specifi cally for game shooting. Quality control includes checking the appropriate antimony and this load is available in 28, 30 and 32gram with plastic and fibre wads and 34gram with a fibre wad.

The Eley Hawk VIP Game cartridge comes in 28, 30 and 32gram load in both fibre and photodegradeable wad and is the cartridge of choice for Lord James Percy at Linhope, his renowned high bird shoot in Northumberland. The Classic Game paper case cartridges have copper coated shot, PSB+ powders and paper cases that are dipped and coated in pegamoid lacquer for a superb finish and practical waterproofing. And the Zenith, introduced in the last couple of years, has copper plated shot to deliver outstanding performance. Copper is electroplated to the lead to reduce pellet deformation as the shot goes down the barrel and through the choke of the gun. Copper plated shot increases the impact power of the shot on the quarry.

The choice of cartridge for pheasant shooting is not limited to just the big four however and other popular names are RC, Rio, EJ Churchill Hellfire, Viri FOB, Fiocchi, Rottweil and Just Cartridges Extreme Game. The RC Sipe and JK6 loads are particularly popular among some specialist high birds shooters.

There are plenty to choose from and, apart from your local gun shop, Just Cartridges will deliver to your home.  Enjoy your market research and remember what Alastair Phillips says on these pages: “Pick a cartridge you feel confident using and stick with it.”

Alastair Phillips is the general manager of William Evans, London