Sunrise over a western South Dakota stock dam can be a gamble for shooting puddle ducks. It's tough working birds over decoys with little cover and feed, even at the water's edge. But the ducks do show up every now and again. On this morning, there were some small flocks of gadwalls and mallards cutting patterns across the pink sky. In my gun were some new Close Range loads Federal had sent along so I could see where the hot new Black Cloud shells were heading. The loads consisted of a new payload package designed just for the close-range hunter shooting over decoys.
With a simple change in shot type by Federal, which turned to strictly "cutter" pellets in Black Cloud, and using the Black Cloud wad, the load opened up nicely at the 30-yard mark, according to field engineer Eric Carlson. My Winchester Super X3, 31„‚‚-inch chambered shotgun indicated the payload was uniformly printed in a 30-inch circle at 30 yards. The exact numbers for the load stood at 91 percent on a three-shot average.
Carlson said by staying with "cutter" shot, where pellets are designed with the ring around the center belt of the pellet, the payload tended to open a bit more, for easier shooting over decoys. The normal Black Cloud loads are made up of two shot types — round and cutter — and the pellets tend to hang with that sabot-style wad a good deal longer downrange — shooting like a Scotsman's wallet (ultra-tight), even out to 45 yards or more. It would seem as though Federal had indeed hit upon a unique performance behavior in pairing off two types of shot in the standard Black Cloud load.
But when a hunter becomes stressed or fatigued, the loads can become a bit hard to hit birds with at close ranges, due to those very tight patterns. I have seen shooting go straight down hill by day's end due to cold, wind and other stress-related conditions. In general, I had not seen many blown shots until this rifle-like, close-range pattern business raised its ugly head over the goose decoys.
With the close-range load, things would change a bit. When the first duck of the morning slipped over my back and across the prairie grass hill, the round, sent by way of a Browning Invector-Plus modified choke, brought it crashing down into a dusty pasture. Three birds later, I was convinced this Black Cloud load was perfect for shooting over decoys.
Hunting at Penobscot Bay Outfitters in Maine a few months later put the "powder in the load," so to speak. We were gunning decoying sea ducks on open water from boats. I had hauled some of the new Close Range ammo into camp, thinking it would be a good time to try it against some of the toughest ducks on the planet. I didn't have a pile of the shot with me due to baggage limits amongst the money-crazed airline industry. But I did have enough rounds to get an idea of how it would react against sea ducks.
Heavy ducks, like eiders, were off-limits with the Close Range stuff, because the close-range load takes a pile of energy to bring one of those to bag, judging by what I had experienced on past salt water adventures. After the open-water shoot, we set decoys in channels for the smaller ducks. I chambered the new Close Range loads and it paid off against smaller divers shot over strings of decoys at 25 yards.
In terms of shot string, the incoming ducks that slowed and dropped their flaps were covered up with a ring of shot, extending well past their wing tips at 25 to 30 yards. I had ranged the decoy spread, or should I say string, as sea duck hunters often use a single anchor point, and then clip decoys to that long line. In a couple of instances, I did stretch the range a bit to confirm that an error in ranging would not produce a cripple. The test was again successful, as those birds were clean kills. I tend to think shot size and retained energy is of more value — in terms of lethal effect — than just the opening of the Black Cloud pattern.
The test ammunition I used for this review was No. 3 Black Cloud with a 11/4-ounce cutter-style steel payload weight. That counts out to 175 pellets in the 3-inch, 12-gauge load. Additional shots at 40 yards produced 78 percent patterns (on average), using the factory-offered Browning modified choke. Moving to a custom long-range full from HEVI-Shot, the pattern averaged 89 percent inside a 30-inch circle. It would seem that the close-range load is clearly choke sensitive to a degree. In fact, I liked the tighter pattern the long-range choke produced for outer-edge modified pass shooting. It's also nice for extended-range decoy work when you want a good deal of pellet count on-target with larger, late-season fresh-water ducks.
The change in chokes allowed for a better control factor over the shotshell payload. If you want extended range, push more choke. If you are looking for the over-decoy sweet spot to be covered up in shot, stay with that modified, or even improved cylinder tube. The shotshell is marketed as a close-range load. But with selective choking, it can still deliver the mail well beyond the original 30-yard tight-decoy gunning mark.
In summary, what I was seeing during several sessions on the pattern boards was a change in pattern percentage points based on a change in pattern performance. The bottom line: pattern Close Range loads in your gun with the chokes you're going to take into the field. If you don't do at least some basic pattern shooting, you won't have a clue as to how well the loads are going to work in the field.
After testing several types of Black Cloud on the deck of the duck boat, I found the lower recoiling Close Range loads appealing. The shotshell is powered by a new primer, as well as a change in payload structure. Federal is slowly phasing in new primers, dependent on new forms of ignition, and will burn cleaner and hotter for future load development.
I haven't put the final stamp of approval on it after two hunts and some range pattern work. Not every current choke could be covered in this review. Federal's new direction in non-toxic loads is still in its infancy, and additional work with outfits like Patternmaster will see ample field time. Check out a product feature of Patternmaster's Benelli/Beretta Unported choke on page 40, and watch for their new line of waterfowl chokes in the August issue.
The load is clearly very promising. Not included in this review were several hunts for Dakota pheasants, two gobblers killed during the fall turkey season, and a number of late-season grouse. These loads seem quite flexible as general purpose non-toxic fodder. Give this new close-range, easy-to-manage field load a try.