Shotshell Guide for Birds

GEESE

Requirements:

Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 60
Minimum pellet energy: 4 foot-pounds

Geese are wingshooting’s big game, weighing up to 15 pounds. Goose hunting used to center around refuges, where long shots at a few wary geese a year were the norm. Now, Canada and snow goose populations are exploding, and many hunters take them up close over decoys. Tungsten-iron ammo has superior ballistics, although today’s steel loads offer excellent performance at a much lower price.

Geese: TOP CHOICE
HEVI-SHOT GOOSE 3-INCH 12-GAUGE 11⁄2-OUNCE NO. 4 SHOT
Pellet count: 199
Muzzle velocity: 1350 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards: 4.4 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 42.7 foot-pounds
Average price: $30 for 10

When you pay $3 a shell for superdense tungsten-iron pellets like Hevi-Shot Goose, you get your cake and eat it, too: You can select a small shot size for higher pellet counts and denser patterns, while still getting downrange energy and penetration equivalent to much larger steel shot. This Hevi-Shot No. 4 load has sufficient energy to kill giant Canadas at 55 yards, yet enough pattern density for the mallards that visit my goose decoys. The only drawback is a potentially meat-damaging pattern up close.

Geese: RUNNER-UP
Remington Wingmaster HD 3-inch 12-gauge
15⁄8-ounce No. 4 shot
208 pellets
1225 fps
$24 for 10

Geese: If You’re On A Budget

KENT FASTEEL
31⁄2-INCH 12-GAUGE
13⁄8-OUNCE BB
Pellet count: 99
Muzzle velocity: 1550 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards: 9.35 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 48.3 foot-pounds
Average price: $21 for 25

Out to 40 yards, steel kills just as well as Hevi-Shot and at a much lower price. You need big pellets like BBs and velocities over 1450 fps to get enough retained energy to kill the big birds. The 31⁄2-inch magnum was specifically designed to hold bulky, light steel pellets, and while I think it is unnecessary for most shotgunning, it’s a good idea for Canadas. Kents are popular among guides who go through flats of ammo in a year. This load contains 99 pellets—enough for geese big and small. Recoil is stiff but not unbearable in a gas semiauto.

DUCKS

Requirements:

Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 90 (mallards); 120 (smaller ducks)
Minimum pellet energy: 2 foot-pounds.

Ducks coming into decoys present a midrange shot with their vitals exposed, which usually doesn’t require superheavy loads. That’s why I’ve chosen steel for the top choice, and tungsten-iron for special long-range applications. Ducks range in size from under a pound to over three times that size, but I can still prescribe a one-size-fits-all dose for over-decoy hunting.

Ducks: TOP CHOICE
WINCHESTER BLIND SIDE 3-INCH 12-GAUGE 13⁄8-OUNCE NO. 2 SHOT
Pellet count: 165
Muzzle velocity: 1400 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards:
3.99 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 39.4 foot-pounds
Average price: $22 for 25

You need big steel pellets to carry sufficient energy downrange, but it’s hard to fit enough of them into a hull to get adequate payload counts. The dice-shaped Blind Side pellets solve that problem by stacking snugly next to one another, freeing hull space for improved wads and bigger shot loads. As a bonus, Blind Side pellets respond to choke better than do steel spheres, opening up to give easy-to-hit-with patterns at typical decoying ranges of 25 yards. Its velocity of 1400 fps is fast enough for ducks.

Ducks: RUNNER-UP

Remington Nitro-Steel High Velocity 3-inch 12-gauge 11⁄4-ounce No. 2 shot
156 pellets
1450 fps
$20 for 25

Ducks: If You’re Taking Long Shots

REMINGTON WINGMASTER HD 3-INCH 12-GAUGE 15⁄8-OUNCE NO. 4 SHOT
Pellet count: 208
Muzzle velocity: 1225 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards:
4 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 39.4 foot-pounds
Average price: $24 for 10

For divers or sea ducks, or pass-shooting big ducks, the extra density and tight patterning of premium tungsten-iron shot results in more clean kills and more birds in the bag. The high cost of the ammo is justified in time saved chasing cripples and in the ethical satisfaction of instant kills. Wingmaster HD is an outstanding long-range performer. The pellets’ heavier-than-lead density eliminates the need for high velocity. I realize this is the same as the -runner-up choice for geese.

PHEASANTS

Requirements:

Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 110
Minimum pellet energy: 1.75 foot-pounds

Pheasants occupy their own category as America’s toughest upland bird. Big and strong, they can absorb shot and be active cripples. That said, pheasants are not bulletproof: If you hunt in small parties with good dogs, you can shoot small-gauge or modest 12-gauge loads in good conscience. Surround a South Dakota shelterbelt with a big group in the late season, however, and you want a heavy 12-gauge load.

Pheasants: TOP CHOICE
BASCHIERI & PELLAGRI MB LONG RANGE 23⁄4-INCH 12-GAUGE 11⁄4- OUNCE NO. 5 SHOT
Pellet count: 212
Muzzle velocity: 1330 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards: 3.05 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 29.3 foot-pounds
Average price: $12 for 25

To stop pheasants you need more than an ounce of good-quality shot, and the MB load contains 11⁄4 ounces of the best hard, nickel-plated shot available for good patterns, deep penetration, and minimal drawing of feathers into the meat. No. 5 shot offers the perfect compromise between the energy of 4s and the high pellet count of 6s, giving you enough pellets to break a wing and put three to five hits in the vitals of a ringneck. At 1330 fps, these are as fast as lead needs to be, and the recoil is quite manageable.

Pheasants: RUNNER-UP

Fiocchi Golden Pheasant 23⁄4-inch 12-gauge 13⁄8-ounce No. 5 shot
234 pellets
1250 fps
$17 for 25

Pheasants: If You Can’t Use Lead Shot

KENT TUNGSTEN MATRIX WATERFOWL 23⁄4-INCH 12-GAUGE 11⁄4-OUNCE NO. 5 SHOT
Pellet count: 196
Muzzle velocity: 1400 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards: 2.8 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 32.4 foot-pounds
Average price: $37 for 10

Intended as a waterfowl load, Tungsten Matrix has been my favorite nontoxic pheasant load for years. The pellets, made of powdered tungsten blended with polymer, hit birds hard but are soft enough not to damage old barrels, and they respond to choke very much like lead. They even give way beneath your molars if you bite one at the table. If you don’t want to pay this much for ammo, steel No. 3 shot is the best approximation of lead 5s, and an ounce or more makes a great “green” pheasant load.

UPLAND BIRDS

Requirements:
Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 130 (grouse, chukars); 230 (doves, woodcock)
Minimum pellet energy: 1 foot-pound

Doves, woodcock, chukars, Hungarian partridge, and grouse and quail of various subspecies are the natural prey of the small-gauge shotguns Americans love. A trim smallbore makes sense if you plan to carry a gun a lot and shoot it only a little, or if you want to burn up shells without suffering recoil fatigue. The 23⁄4-inch 20 is enough for most upland hunting.

Upland Birds: TOP CHOICE

WINCHESTER AA HEAVY TARGET LOAD 23⁄4-INCH 20-GAUGE 1-OUNCE NO. 71⁄2 SHOT
Pellet count: 350
Muzzle velocity: 1200 fps
Pellet energy at 30 yards: 1.5 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 61⁄2-pound shotgun: 18.7 foot-pounds
Average price: $10 for 25

Target loads like these AAs contain high-quality shot, so they pattern very efficiently. For 95 percent of upland hunting, 1 ounce of shot suffices. It’s an ideal payload for the 20-gauge. And 71⁄2s come close to being the all-around upland pellets: An ounce of them yields high enough pellet counts for small birds, and adequate energy is retained to 30–35 yards or more, which is an advantage in case you flush something large. I might switch to No. 8 shot in a 28-gauge load to keep pellet counts high.

Upland Birds: RUNNER-UP

Federal Wing-Shok Quail Forever 23⁄4-inch 20-gauge 1-ounce No. 8 shot
410 pellets
1165 fps
$23 for 25

Upland Birds: If You Can’t Use Lead Shot

FEDERAL FIELD & RANGE STEEL GAME AND TARGET 23⁄4-INCH 20-GAUGE 3⁄4- OUNCE NO. 6 SHOT
Pellet count: 236
Muzzle velocity: 1425 fps
Pellet energy at 30 yards: 1.6 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 61⁄2-pound gun: 16.4 foot-pounds
Average price: $8 for 25

As more and more upland hunting areas are subject to nontoxic-shot-only laws, the grouse and quail hunter must find a legal load that downs birds cleanly. A load of these steel 6s performs almost like lead 71⁄2 shot. The lower payload—3⁄4 ounce as opposed to an ounce—shortens your maximum range slightly. They are adequate, however, for shots to 30 yards, which covers most upland hunting situations. For woodcock, snipe, and rails, choose smaller 7 shot, more or less the ballistic equivalent of No. 81⁄2 lead.

TURKEYS

Requirements:

Pellet strikes in 10-inch circle: 100+
Minimum pellet energy: 2 foot-pounds

Imagine a walnut balanced on a pencil and you have an idea of the size of the vitals in a turkey’s head and neck. Turkey loads are the exception to the 65-to-70-percent-in-a-30-inch-circle rule of thumb. You want a dense cluster that fills a 10-inch circle to the edges, carrying enough energy to penetrate skull and vertebrae beyond 40 yards. A box can last several seasons, so even frugal hunters should invest in quality ammo.

Turkeys: TOP CHOICE

HEVI-SHOT HEVI-13 3-INCH 12-GAUGE 2-OUNCE NO. 6 SHOT
Pellet count: 327
Muzzle velocity: 1090 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards: 2 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 35.8 foot-pounds
Average price: $18 for 5

Hevi-13 dominates the NWTF’s Still Target Competition, a test of marksmanship and shotshell performance. It is formulated to a density of 13 grams per cubic centimeter, as opposed to the 12 gr/cc of its competition. The extra density and hardness means tighter patterns and (I believe) deeper penetration than its retained energy indicates. Hevi-13 can be loaded to a mild 1090 fps, making it softer shooting and harder hitting than lead. It costs a lot, but when a turkey hangs up at long range, it’s worth the money.

Turkeys: RUNNER-UP

Winchester Xtended Range HD 3-inch 12-gauge 13⁄4-ounce No. 6 shot
380 pellets
1225 fps
$37 for 10

Turkeys: If You’re On A Budget

WINCHESTER SUPREME HIGH VELOCITY TURKEY 3-INCH 12-GAUGE 13⁄4-OUNCE NO. 5 SHOT
Pellet count: 297
Muzzle velocity: 1300 fps
Pellet energy at 40 yards: 3.05 foot-pounds
Recoil in a 71⁄2-pound gun: 50.1 foot-pounds
Average price: $33 for 10

Before Hevi-Shot, Winchester’s High Velocity Supreme was the best turkey load around. Winchester engineers took the standard 2-ounce load, reduced the payload, increased velocity (unnecessarily, I think) and loaded it into a two-piece shot cup developed for steel. It consistently outpatterned heavier loads. The secret was the shot cup, which held shot together tightly before separating cleanly from the payload to preserve pattern integrity. It may no longer be cutting-edge, but it still packs a punch—at both ends of the gun.

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