Frozen Targets-Hard Or Brittle?

Dear Technoid:

Recently I was shooting clays at the local club with a couple of the instructors. We got into a discussion about shot sizes and winter shooting. For years I have switched to 7 1/2 shot in colder weather, believing that the targets are harder and therefore require more force to break. I believe there are also some advantages, at least in theory, to bigger shot retaining energy through cold, dense air and bigger shot are a bit faster which might help overcome the speed loss due to colder ignition temperatures.

One of the instructors, however, said 9s are the way to go in the winter, as well as year round. His reasoning is that clay targets are mostly pitch and in colder weather are more brittle and easier to chip. He always shoots 9s.

Do you know of any research done on targets to determine their durability in colder weather vs. warmer? I’d appreciate your opinion on the size shot to use in colder temperatures.


Dear Don,

I don’t know of any published studies done on clay targets/shot size/ cold weather, so I will post this in the hope that one of Shotgun Report’s observant readers might have seen something. Until then, lack of published information gives me the chance to mouth off with my own semi-informed, biased and opinionated conclusions without fear of contradiction- for the moment at least.

My general rule of thumb is that I increase pellet size and raise velocity the colder it gets.

You don’ t mention which games you shoot. If your instructor is using #9s all the time and you are going to #7-1/2s for the same game, I still can’t guess. You don’t want to shoot skeet with #7-1/2s or trap with #9s no matter what the weather. Sporting clays always requires a little bit of everything.

If it helps, here’s what I use when I am shooting in normal temperature and calm winds. I use #9s to about 20-25 yards, #8s to about 30-35 yards and #7-1/2s thereafter. In sporting I will change things a bit depending on the type of bird being thrown (rabbits and rockets can be bullet-proof), but you get the idea.

In the winter, I switch to #8-1/2s for skeet type shots and #7-1/2s for just about everything else. I suppose there are many situations where #8s would be helpful in cold weather sporting, but when I get that cold my brain freezes as well as my fingers so I don’t want to make too many decisions. I am just more confident with #7-1/2s when it is cold. I also always carry some spreader #8s with me because I shoot a single gas barrel gun at sporting.

Obviously, I am in your camp as to believing that winter hardens birds up. Your instructor is quite right as to the content of a clay target. They are pitch, lime and paint. That’s it. But I don’t draw the same conclusions about targets being more brittle and likely to chip in the winter.

My experience has been that frozen birds (remember, the targets are usually stored outside or in an unheated shed) are harder to break than warm ones, not easier. That’s why I want bigger pellets for more energy on target. I don’t base this on any scientific tests (don’t like to get boggled down in facts, you know), but I do base it on shooting a whole bunch of clay targets over a whole bunch of winters.

One of the first things that I notice in winter shooting is that it is much harder to puff a bird with a direct hit. Well-hit birds are more likely crinkle in the cold rather than explode the way they do when it is warm. I get more once piece breaks in winter. You can look at that two ways:

1) birds are more “brittle” in the winter and more likely to give off a chip where you would have gotten none in warm weather; or

2) birds are harder in winter and give up only a piece when you would have gotten many in warm weather.

I subscribe to the latter theory because I notice that the chunk that comes off in the winter is usually a big one, as though the target were reluctantly splitting, rather than a little bit of a chip that indicates a fringe hit.

At first I felt that my poorer winter breaks were due to a loss of velocity due to cold shells, but I tested that on my Pro Chrono and found that my shell velocities didn’t fall off much at all in cold weather. This jibes with what I have read and also with what the ammo makers claim. The only winter problems I have experienced with shells have been attributable to poor quality wads that hardened up and didn’t properly seal the powder gasses. When something like that happens, you (and all your squad mates) can hear it.

Just to be sure, I began to shoot 3 and 3-1/4 dram 1-1/8 oz loads in winter. This was more to assure proper operation of my gas guns than to make up for any velocity lost due to the cold. Gas guns do slow down more quickly in winter, so a little extra oomph is always a good idea.

In spite of going up in velocity, the cold weather breaks that I get continue to be more marginal than what I get in warm weather. This is very easy to see in trap and skeet where you can consistently break a bird at a certain distance and compare it to the mental picture you have of thousands of the same birds being broken at other times. I notice it more on fringe hits than on center shots. I feel that going up in pellet size a bit where possible will give me the little extra edge on these hard birds.

Another advantage of increasing pellet size and speed a bit in the winter is that there always seems to be more wind in the winter and spring. Perhaps I just notice it more in the winter due to wind chill. At any rate, the larger pellets do a bit better in the wind and that is another reason to go to them.

Bottom line: I agree with you and find that birds are harder and more break-resistant in freezing weather. For that reason in winter I use more shell- bigger pellets at a faster velocity.

Best regards,

Bruce Buck
Shotgun Report’s Technoid
(Often in error, never in doubt.)

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