Blam! Blam! Two shots rang out across the marsh’s late-day sky, and two plump drake mallards soon floated belly-up outside our decoy rig.
“Nice shooting!” I said to my hunting partner, Derek DeSantis, as he reloaded his pump gun. “Those were really long shots. I didn’t even pick up my gun.”
“It’s these magnums,” he replied with a smile. “They really seem to have more power.”
Maybe so. But maybe not. Perhaps Derek just made a couple of great shots, and the magnum loads had little to do with filling his bag limit.
“Magnum” shotshells are designated as such by ammunition manufacturers. Part of the reason is to convince you that they shoot better and, thus, to buy more shells. Some experts claim that magnum loads don’t perform any better than regular loads. Others say that they do make a difference. But before spending extra for these high-brass cartridges you need to know more about them.
Know Thy Terminology
Magnum shotshells contain more gunpowder than a standard load, giving them more"knock-down" power, but muzzle velocity is only one part of the equation.
The word “magnum” refers to the quantity of gunpowder in a shotgun shell, which is usually the maximum amount possible for the shell size. The theory is that the more gunpowder that’s available, the harder, faster and farther it can push the pellets toward the target. This energy is commonly called “knock-down” power, and it provides cleaner kills at longer range because of the increased velocity.
Only hunters use magnums. Such powerful loads are unnecessary for clay target shooters; besides, they kick too hard, cost too much, and are illegal in all competitions. Generally, the only hunters who need them are those pursuing large birds—such as turkeys and waterfowl—at greater-than-average distances.
Upland bird hunters, like clay shooters, don’t require such high-velocity loads. All target shooters and most upland game hunters use 2 -inch hulls. This measurement, along with several other designations, is found stamped on the shells and the shell boxes. To understand magnums, you need to understand the shell’s other numbers and measurements, too.
The Numbers Game
Shotshells are measured by total length in inches. The 2 -inch loads are the shortest available in the 12 gauge, which is the most popular all-around gauge. This length can be found in magnums, but normally they are just standard loads. Other 12-gauge shell lengths include 3-inch and the new 3 -inch shotshells. They are almost always magnums.
Also found stamped on a shotshell box are “drams,” “ounces,” and “shot.” Drams are the relative amount of gunpowder in each cartridge. Standard American skeet or trap shells are available in 2 and 2 dram loads. These amounts are considered “light” because they have little recoil. Three-dram target loads kick more and are termed “heavy.”
Sporting clays, international skeet, and international trap (Olympic-style skeet and trap) shells contain 3 drams of powder. These loads are also typically used in upland game shells for rabbits, doves, grouse and pheasants.
The next move up in gunpowder is to 3 drams. These are powerful shells used in long-range field applications, such as for turkeys, geese and ducks. Anything above that amount is considered a magnum. Shell manufactures seldom list a measurement for anything over 3 drams; they simply list “max” or “maximum,” which may indicate 4 drams of powder or more.
Because steel shot carries less energy than lead, many waterfowlers opt for the increased power of a magnum load.
Another number on the box is “ounces.” This is the weight of the shot in each shell. For comparison, average 12-gauge target loads carry 1 to 1 ⅛-ounces of shot per shell. As you might guess, the greater the weight, the more pellets the shell holds. Anything more than 1 1/8-ounces is not allowed in clay target competition.
Upland and small game hunting loads normally hold 1 ounces of lead shot. Magnum loads, however, may boast 1 ⅜, 1 , 1 ⅝, 1 , 1 ⅞ or even 2 ounces of pellets, depending on shell length and powder load. Some of these are specifically designed for turkey hunters who need the maximum amount of pellets to travel as far as possible.
Then there’s the “shot” number. Shot sizes vary from 7 , 8, and 9 for small birds and clays, to 4, 5, and 6 for upland game, to BB, 1, 2, and 3 for waterfowl and turkey. These are just generalities, of course, and much overlap in usage occurs.
But it doesn’t end there. Steel shot has been required for waterfowl hunting for over 20 years. Research shows that ducks and geese mistakenly eat lead pellets off the bottom. As a result, we were losing a significant percentage of birds to lead poisoning.
Steel shot complicates the magnum debate because steel carries less energy than lead, in fact, only about half as much. Therefore, if you want to compare the hitting power of lead magnums versus steel magnums, you’d have to shoot steel that is two shot sizes larger. In other words, steel BB hold their energy about equivalently to lead No. 2.
Also, at first look, it appears that steel might have an advantage in pellet numbers because steel is lighter, and, therefore, it takes many more pellets to weigh an ounce. But because the pellet diameter is the same—No. 2 lead is the same size as No. 2 steel—you can only pack so many pellets into a given shell space. That is one reason they created 3 -inch magnums in the 12-gauge. Consider that a 3-inch turkey shell can hold 2 ounces of lead, but a 3-inch waterfowl shell can hold only 1 ⅜ ounces of steel. As another example, a 2 -inch 12-gauge shell can hold a full ounce more lead than steel.
In goose hunting, especially, the heavier recoil and higher cost of magnum shells are worth it for most hunters.
Because steel pellets of equal size to lead pellets carry less energy, the ammo manufacturers add more powder to steel loads to compensate. Thus, one reason why magnums have become popular is because they push steel shot out of the gun as fast as possible, which helps balance off its rapid energy loss in flight.
If you compare two equal gunpowder loads of, say, 3 drams, but one has 1 ⅛ ounces of steel while the other had 1 ⅜ ounces of the same size steel, the lighter one may, technically, hit harder. That’s because with fewer pellets there is more energy available per pellet. An argument can be made for shooting standard loads with less gunpowder and fewer pellets. These would cost less and kick less than a magnum with more pellets and more powder.
All this being considered, remember that if you shoot a different gauge shotgun these shell measurements will vary significantly. And, naturally, choke selection will play a vital role in pellet distribution. Don’t forget that to safely fire 3- and 3 -inch shells, a gun must be chambered for them.
That memorable day in the marsh with Derek saw us each bag another mallard before sunset. This time they were in easy range. And as we were picking up the decoys at quitting time I noticed one of his 3-inch magnum hulls on the boat floor.
“Well,” I said with a smile as I wrapped some decoy anchor line, “I guess we’ll never know.”
“Never know what?” Derek asked as he looked up from his wet work.
“I guess we’ll never know whether the magnums dropped that pair, or you’re just becoming a damn good shot.”