Reloading These Boomers Has Its Place,
Especially When The Geese Fly High.
By John Barsness
The historical trend in shotgun ammo has been pushing more shot through smaller bores, due in part to obsolete regulations. In the 1800’s shooting wildlife for sale was legal in most of the United States. After big game grew scarce enough to warrant limits, ducks and geese became the major target, but their numbers soon started dropping, and in 1909 the federal Migratory Bird Act banned market hunting.
It didn’t have much effect, partly because spring hunting remained legal. After 1909 more regulations appeared, including outlawing spring hunting, a possession limit, plugging the magazines of repeaters to hold only two rounds, and banning any gauge larger than 10.
Back then typical 10-gauge ammo was 2-7/8 inches long, and loaded with 1-1/4 ounces of lead shot, the standard 2-3/4-inch 12-gauge load today. It’s normal for humans to push legality, so the 3-1/2-inch 10-gauge “magnum” soon appeared, allowing the use of 8-gauge shot charges. By then even stricter bag limits made the gauge and magazine-capacity restrictions irrelevant, but they’re still on the books.
In 1988 lead shot became illegal for waterfowl hunting in some areas of the US, and in 1991 the ban became universal. At first “steel” (actually iron) shot was the only legal alternative, but early ammo proved relatively ineffective. The 10-gauge surged in popularity because it could hold more large steel pellets—until California banned 10’s in some areas because some hunters took shots deemed “too long.” All of this resulted in the 3-1/2-inch 12-gauge magnum, so hunters could shoot 10-gauge steel loads in 12-gauge shotguns.
Steel-shot ammo improved, and today far more steel factory loads exist in 3-1/2-inch 12-gauge than the 10-gauge, so the long 12 is far more popular among waterfowlers. But eventually any shotgun pellet loses enough velocity to quit penetrating, and this still happens at shorter ranges with steel than any other type of shot.
Lena the Labrador was pleased to retrieve this pair of “specklebelly”
geese, both taken at 60+ yards.
Steel and some other non-toxics are also much harder than lead. Big, hard, shot can damage fixed chokes in thin-barreled shotguns, and loosen the solder between the barrels of doubles. Tougher screw-in chokes can be fitted, but many owners of traditional guns find the idea as revolting as synthetic stocks on Parkers. Plus, the value of fine old doubles drops when altered, despite screw-in chokes making the guns more practical.
This is precisely the reason for softer non-toxic shot. So far all brands have been heavier than steel but not as heavy as lead, theoretically making them shorter-ranged. But in the 1990’s I started using the original bismuth shot (then the only legal alternative to lead), and it penetrated plenty to the limits of practical wingshooting when using the same shot sizes as lead.
Bismuth shot used to be available for handloading, but today only appears in Spanish-made Rio shotshells, and Rio doesn’t offer 10-gauge bismuth loads. Like some shotgun loonies, I own a 10-gauge side-by-side, a nice boxlock by Armas Erbi, one of several Spanish gunmakers that folded during the 1980’s Diarm fiasco, an unfortunate attempt to “collectivize” the Basque gun industry. Typical of 10-gauge magnums, it’s big, weighing 10 pounds, 7 ounces with 32-inch, tightly-choked barrels.
Fortunately, Ballistic Products Inc. (BPI) stepped in after the disappearance of bismuth component shot, marketing ITX shot made of tungsten and iron mixed in a soft binder. BPI now offers two kinds of ITX, the soft Original-10 for traditional guns (approximately the same weight as bismuth), plus harder, denser Turkey Extreme. They also sell a bunch of 10-gauge stuff, including manuals specifically for ITX shot and the 10-gauge, empty shells, several wads, and small bags of ITX to try without buying a big bag.
The 10-gauge specializes in throwing big charges of big shot at long range.
These patterns were made with 1-1/2 ounces of ITX Original-10 BB’s (left)
and 2-1/2 ounces of lead BB’s (right) at 50 yards—not the standard 40.
To provide a little idea of the size of a 10-gauge double like the
Armas Erbi (top), the shotgun below is Barsness’s favorite 12-gauge
side-by-side, a Sauer Model 60, with 2-3/4-inch 12-gauge chambers.
The manual and various BPI wads made it easy to construct several loads for the Armas Erbi, including not only ITX ammo but a 1-1/4-ounce lead-shot load for practice, and heavier lead loads for turkeys. (One trend in turkey hunting is smaller, high-density shot like ITX Turkey Extreme, but a 10-gauge loaded with large lead shot will kill gobblers at long range with body hits.)
The loads were patterned at 50 yards, rather than the traditional 40 yards, because a 10-gauge magnum is a long-range shotgun. All of the loads still put at least 70 percent of their shot into a 30-inch circle, and some more than 90 percent, plenty of density for anything from big ducks to turkeys. The ITX load may seem light compared to the lead loads, but depending on shot size, 1-1/2 ounces of ITX Original-10 shot contains about as many pellets as about 2 ounces of lead shot, exactly how many depending on shot size. As a result the ITX handloads still pattern densely at 50 yards, while recoiling less.
I shot a Canada goose with ITX handloads in 2014 (and a rooster pheasant flushed while my Lab and I hiked to a pass-shooting spot), but the loads got thoroughly tested on a September waterfowl trip to Alberta in 2015. My wife Eileen Clarke and I have hunted at Battle Creek Lodge since 1995, every few years driving north from our home in Montana to obtain birds for the game cookbooks she writes, plus field-test guns and loads. In recent years warmer weather has kept many birds up north during Montana’s season, and Alberta’s season starts a month earlier and allows higher limits of geese.
Battle Creek is in the aspen parklands, the transitional zone between the high plains and northern boreal forest, where patches of aspen trees start appearing in farm fields and cattle pastures. The crops are the first the waterfowl born in Alaska and northwestern Canada encounter when heading south. They hang around eating until the local lakes freeze over, and birds from gadwalls to greater Canadas decoy readily around field blinds made of cut aspen branches.
The afternoon the 10 really got a workout was mostly a duck hunt, but quite a few geese also came in, especially white-fronts—nicknamed “specklebellies”, considered by many hunters the tastiest geese. I’d brought handloads with No. 2 and BB ITX shot, and that day mostly shot 2’s, since specks are half the size of greater Canadas. Eileen was shooting a 3-inch 20-gauge with bismuth ammo so only shot at birds right over the decoys, while our companions, two brothers from Calgary, used 3-1/2-inch 12’s with steel. After the first few flocks I decided to wait until everybody else quit shooting, and the ITX loads resulted in consistently clean kills noticeably farther than the steel-loaded 12’s.
In the last legal minutes before sunset a lone specklebelly flew by, obviously beyond the range of anything but the 10, and everybody else whispered, “Shoot!” I allowed plenty of lead, and the goose dropped stone dead 50 yards away. Since it was flying almost as high, the Pythagorean theorem of right triangles indicated the shot’s range was over 60 yards. Once might have been chance, but a couple minutes later another speck made the same mistake, with the same result. With good ammo, a 10-gauge magnum is still a very effective long-range shotgun.
Half of John Barsness’s dozen books are on firearms and shooting. His latest is The Hunter’s Guide to Handloading Smokeless Rifle Cartridges, published in October 2015 by Deep Creek Press. It’s available through www.riflesanrecipes.com, P.O. Box 579, Townsend, MT 59644, (406) 521-0273.
Ballistic Products Inc
20015 75th Ave. North, P.O. Box 293, Corcoran, MN 55340,
Battle Creek Lodge, Ameri-Cana Expeditions Inc.,
6007-104 Street NW, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, T6H 2K6,