Sub-Gauge Loads for Upland Birds

Box of shotshells

Hunters have the greatest choice among 20-gauge loads, from traditional lead to nontoxics that include Kent’s bismuth offerings. Fans of the 28 gauge have more choice than ever, including loads from RST and Fiocchi.

By Tom Roster
Photographs by Benjamin Williamson

These days upland hunters are migrating toward the sub-gauges, primarily seeking reduced recoil. In so doing they are finding a growing choice of light shotguns in the smaller bores. Not only that, but it’s just fun to mess around with different gauges.
“Sub-gauge” generally means any gun or shotshell smaller than 12 gauge. Accordingly, I will focus here on the 2¾” 16, 20 and 28 gauge as well as the 3″ .410. As for the upland species of the contiguous US, I consider forest grouse, prairie grouse (except for sage grouse), Hungarian partridge, chukar and barn pigeons to be medium-size birds; small birds are limited to the North American quail species plus woodcock and snipe. (Loads for doves will be covered in a forthcoming column.)

Upland bird hunting is the last bastion of lead-shotshell use for wingshooting in the US, but the freedom to use lead legally continues to shrink. By 2019 it will be prohibited for all hunting—rifle, pistol and shotgun, big game or small—in California, though not for target shooting at established ranges. Setting aside lead bans and toxicity for the moment, shotgunners who still think that only lead can get the job done are either inexperienced or ignoring the real ballistic advantages of certain nontoxic shot types, especially in the sub-gauges. Many shotgunners remain concerned about choke damage from hard, nontoxic shot such as steel. To cover all of the bases, I will consider lead as well as the various nontoxic shot types in determining the best loads for upland hunting.

Box of shotshellsThe lethality challenge is the same for forest grouse (ruffed, spruce, dusky and so on) as for prairie grouse (sharptails and prairie chickens, not including sage grouse.) All species of these grouse are of similar body size, are not difficult for shot to penetrate, and can be killed well out to 45 yards with lead No. 6s, steel No. 4s or bismuth No. 5s. There is no need for expensive tungsten-based shot types when hunting these species. Since most forest grouse are shot at ranges of 25 yards or less, shot sizes down to lead No. 7s or 7½s will penetrate nicely while simultaneously filling out the patterns produced by Skeet and Improved Cylinder chokes. Spreader loads are often helpful, especially in the woods, and nothing in my experience beats the Polywad Spred-R line in the sub-gauges. Handloading allows one to use the same Spred-R device, which has proven to be the best in the business in my testing.

Nontoxic shot is not required in most forest-grouse environs as yet, but Californians might start looking at bismuth No. 6s for such hunting. (Wherever you hunt, you are responsible for knowing the nontoxic rules, for example on public lands.) Shot-charge weights with all shot types should not drop below ¾ oz, with 7⁄8- to 1-oz loads being better. For the close distances of most forest-grouse shots, lead-shot quality is not important, and 3″ .410 No. 7½s can work well in the hands of expert shooters.

For the longer shots (especially second shots) common when hunting sharptails, 11⁄8-oz-or-heavier loads of hard and/or plated lead shot or 1-oz-or-heavier steel loads are a plus. And don’t overlook Kent’s Tungsten Matrix loads in Nos. 5 or 6s. Because of the typically longer shots sharptails present, the 3″ .410 is not an effective choice.

Before leaving the prairie, Hungarian (or gray) partridge are not quite big enough to be lumped with grouse. Like sharptails, Huns can get away fast, and 25-yard first shots and 35-plus-yard second shots are common. That’s why I generally go with Improved Cylinder and Full in my Hun guns. I have found lead No. 7s optimum and steel or bismuth No. 6s if you go nontoxic. As always, when pattern quality and shot penetration are concerns, it helps to use hard, high-quality lead for the second shot. To help fill out patterns for Huns, shot-charge weights should not drop below 7⁄8 oz even in 28 gauge. This again leaves out the 3″ .410.

Definitely not a bird of the prairie or forest, wild chukar exist primarily where there never will be urban development: rocky, barren, often-steep mountainsides liberally covered with cheatgrass in the arid West. The norm when pursuing chukar is rough walking and lots of it, plus hill climbing.

Most chukar are larger than quail and Huns but not as big as forest grouse. Because they have a proclivity to dive downward off of rocky outcrops as hunters approach, they present plenty of 30-plus-yard shots for the first barrel and 40-yard shots for the second. They also are relatively tough to kill. My experience has taught me that No. 6 high-quality lead in a shot-charge weight no lighter than 1 oz is very effective for chukar. And, yes, there are 1-oz factory 28-gauge lead loads; I’ve bagged many chukar using Winchester and RST offerings. (RST’s 1-oz 28-gauge lead “pigeon” loads are now available only in Nos. 7½ and 8. B&P USA and Rio Ammo now offer 1-oz 28-gauge lead loads.)

Lately I’ve been receiving correspondence from chukar hunters in Washington, Oregon and Idaho asking about nontoxic loads. While I’ve shot many chukar with steel No. 6s in ¾-oz-or heavier loads, those concerned about the possibility of ricochet or choke damage will have to switch to bismuth No. 5s or 6s in 7⁄8-oz-or heavier loads. This year Kent introduced a 28-gauge 7⁄8-oz load of bismuth No. 6s that should get the job done. Also, don’t overlook Kent’s Tungsten Matrix loads in 16 or 20 gauge carrying No. 5 or 6 shot. Handloaders, of course, can whip up their own steel or bismuth chukar loads.

Box of shotshells


A surprising number of Shooting Sportsman readers have mentioned that they are spending more time pursuing the lowly barn pigeon. Don’t scoff. Barn pigeons are, of course, officially rock doves introduced from Europe. In the West they live up to their name by frequently inhabiting and nesting on steep cliffs. But most hunters in the US encounter them inhabiting farm buildings in rural areas. The great thing about rock doves is that they decoy just like the native wood pigeons of England and present some mighty sporting shooting. And they are surprisingly tough birds to kill for their size. Pigeons have become popular enough that several US firms now manufacture barn-pigeon decoys. I have learned to go to lead No. 7s for them in 7⁄8-oz-or-heavier loads, sometimes even lead No. 6s. RST has this country’s most complete line of pigeon loads in 12 gauge but does offer a 1-oz 28-gauge load. All the sub-gauges except the 3″ .410, therefore, are in. Steel No. 6s are also deadly on pigeons.

When it comes to small upland birds, I lump quail, woodcock and snipe together on the lethality scale. They are similar in body size and tend to be shot at distances less than 30 yards. California quail and the various desert quail (Gambel’s, scaled and Mearns) that can be hunted in the West are larger in body size than bobwhite quail. Wild bobwhites are diminishing in the Midwest but resurgent in Texas, and they are also commonly pursued in plantation settings in the Southeast and frequently released on shooting preserves.

Box of shotshellsExperience has taught me that the larger Western quail species are not any more difficult to kill than the bobwhite. This is probably because, as with bobwhites, first shots are frequently no farther than 20 yards, and 30 yards is a long second shot. Given all this, small shot sizes and open chokes are the norm, with No. 8 lead probably receiving the lion’s share of usage in quail loads. I know lots of quail hunters, however, who favor No. 8½s and even 9s for their first shot, and then load No. 8s for their second. Any load of ¾ oz or more is fine for most quail shooting, which means every gun from the 2¾” 16 through 3″ .410 is perfectly appropriate and lethal. If you have to go nontoxic, steel and bismuth No. 7s will more than get the job done. Rio is the only manufacturer currently offering bismuth loads in No. 7s in the 28 gauge and 3″ .410.

Next time: Shotshells for dove hunting.

To correspond with Tom Roster or to order his reloading manual on buffered lead and bismuth shotshells, his HEVI-Shot reloading manual, his updated 75-page Shotgun Barrel Modification Manual or his instructional shooting DVDs, contact Tom Roster, 1190 Lynnewood Blvd., Klamath Falls, OR 97601, 541-884-2974


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