Eons ago, when I was but a boy and dragons roamed the earth, some bright light in the shotshell industry decided that sales records could be broken if they stuffed twice as much shot into a shotshell, called it a “magnum,” and marketed the hell out of it.
Now, the very word “magnum” means different things to different shooters. To a rifleman, it means more powder and higher velocity in a particular bore size—the .300 H&H Magnum versus the .30-06, for example. To a shotgunner, it can mean many things, none of them good. Way back when, as I mentioned, it meant more shot in a payload—1½ ounces instead of 1⅛ ounces. Then they decided to throw in more velocity. Then they lengthened cases to get more of everything.
In fact, they got more of everything most people don’t want, such as recoil, muzzle blast, long shot strings, and blown patterns—all at vastly higher prices—and decidedly less of the two things that are essential in a shotgun: a nice, even pattern with no holes in it that goes where you are looking (at a bird, presumably) and not off into the heavens.
Years ago, I hunted with a guy who missed ducks regularly. Naturally, he believed it could not have been his shooting, so it had to be the ammunition, and every Saturday through the fall he showed up with heavier and heavier loads, convinced that the answer was more pellets in the air, moving ever faster. He spent a lot of money, but the bird count stayed the same. I missed a lot of birds, too, but my solution was to take up trap shooting and try to get better. And anyway, I was shooting a beautiful old Spanish 16-gauge double, and in a 16 gauge, then as now, you shoot what you can get. This was before steel shot.
In fact, the 16 gauge is a classic case in point. As a rule, the ammunition you can find is too hefty for everyday, 50-rounds-at-a-sitting skeet or sporting clays, and it’s not particularly good for game. It has never been lengthened to 3 inches (the Lord be praised!), but ammunition companies still try to turn it into a 12 gauge—and this to be used in a gun that might weigh, ideally, 6 pounds even. Thank you, no.
Generations of gun writers with inquiring minds—Sir Gerald Burrard in the 1920s, Gough Thomas in the ’60s, Bob Brister in the ’70s, and Michael McIntosh ever since—have experimented, tested, and more than adequately proven that you get the best pattern with a charge of shot that fits the bore and is propelled out the muzzle at around 1,100 to 1,200 (max!) feet per second. Some suggest a velocity as low as 1,050 fps, others allow that it can go as high as 1,250 fps, so 1,150 fps strikes me as probably ideal.
There are those who would argue that international trap loads are 24 grams (3/4 ounce) at much higher velocities. To which I can only reply that those loads are very specialized and used in guns with extremely tight chokes, which changes the equation substantially. For the above-average guy, with an above-average gun and above-average ability, the best chance of success lies with a nicely balanced load.
And what is that? In a 12 gauge, an ounce of #7½ shot in a standard shot cup is about as long as it is wide. At a velocity sufficient to initiate expansion, yet not so high as to blow the pattern, it can be expected to approximate the ideal “beach ball” pattern configuration as well as any. This is roughly the same as the old ideal of 1 ounce in the 16 gauge, but that was before shot cups changed the game.
As a writer, there is a certain gratification in joining a chorus that has been singing for more than a century. Alas, it’s a chorus that has been singing to an audience that seems determined to hear only the siren song of the magnum. It’s fortunate for the ammunition companies that so few shotgunners ever pattern their guns and, like my friend of days of yore, persist in the belief that they can cure bad shooting by putting ever-larger, ever-faster shot swarms into the air.