Exploring the Great Velocity Debate

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It’s easy to assume faster must be better for shooting pheasants. And speed does kill. But there are tradeoffs to boosting pellet velocity.

By Phil Bourjaily 

Ammunition labeled as “pheasant loads” come in velocities ranging from 1200 to 1500 feet-per-second (fps). That’s quite a range. It’s easy to assume faster must be better for dropping tough-as-nails wild roosters  ... and speed does in fact kill. But there are tradeoffs to boosting pellet velocity.

Four things happen when pellet speed increases – some good, some bad. Here’s what you need to know.
 

1 - VELOCITY INCREASES ENERGY

Faster pellets hit harder. That’s the main reason hunters choose high-velocity ammunition. But there’s a catch. The faster you drive a pellet, the faster it slows down. There’s a bigger difference between the energy of a fast and a slow pellet at 20 yards than there is at 40, although the faster pellet still carries very roughly 20% (depending on size and material) more energy than the slower one at 40 yards.


2 - VELOCITY INCREASES RECOIL

Recoil is a function of gun weight, ejecta (wad, payload, powder) weight and velocity. Increasing velocity by 200 fps increases recoil by around 33%. That’s a lot. Fast shells bite at both ends, and that can affect your shooting. Since hitting a bird well is better than hitting a bird hard, for some shooters, lower recoil shells are more effective.
 

3 - VELOCITY DECREASES LEAD

Faster payloads reach the target sooner, so you don’t have to shoot quite as far in front of crossing birds. The difference in lead isn’t much between two loads 200 fps apart: about 8 inches at 30 yards and 12 inches at 40, for a true 90-degree crosser. In truth, though, most shots at pheasants are closer and going- or quartering away, where long leads aren’t necessary.
 

4 - VELOCITY OPENS PATTERNS 

All things being equal, patterns from a faster shell may be as much as 10 per cent more open than patterns from a shell 200 fps slower. That’s true with both lead and steel.
 

COMPROMISE IS GOOD

I’d call any lead load from 1200-1250 fps “slow;” 1300-1330 fps (the old high velocity) “standard” for lead and “slow” for steel; 1400 fps on up “fast” for both.

The velocity you choose depends on what kind of gun you shoot, how well the load patterns, your tolerance for recoil and the type of hunting you do. If you shoot a gas gun that soaks up recoil, and you hunt as part of a group where you often get longer shots, high velocity may help you hit birds better and harder, and you can always choose a tighter choke or bigger pellets if you need to close up patterns.

If you shoot fairly light 12-gauge, do your hunting alone over a pointing dog and rarely take long shots, then a modest to mid-velocity (1200-1300 fps) load works fine and allows faster follow-up shots. If you want more pellet energy, you can shoot bigger shot without the penalty of added recoil. Less can be more, or at least, it can be more than enough.

This story originally appeared inthe Summer 2019 Issue of Pheasants Forever Journal as the Shotguns & Shooting column.