At the range and in the field, I often am asked my opinion about the best gun and gauge for various upland birds. When I answer, I always include choke, as it is an important contributor to producing good patterns—the other being the cartridge.
When choosing any shotgun, the type and gauge should suit the type of shooting. For example, hunting quail with a 12-gauge autoloader would be like hitting a walnut with a sledgehammer! In the past, most people had two or more shotguns of different gauges for different types of hunting. But the introduction of mobil chokes effectively has allowed the use of just one or two guns for most upland bird hunting. With mobil chokes, a hunter can use one gauge and a variety of chokes to create patterns that match the load to the bird.
Still, there are many upland hunters who like to shoot traditional shotguns choked for upland hunting for various seasons. My simple explanation is that the size and distance of your quarry are the best determinants for your choice of gun and choke. The gauge should match the bird’s size and weight as well as the distance at which you will be shooting: small bird, short distance = small gauge; large bird, long distance = large gauge.
As I reside in the South, I will begin with bobwhite quail—a covey bird that uses flight as a last resort, preferring to run. The shotguns used are traditionally break-action side-by-sides and over/unders, with some hunters preferring pumps and semi-autos. In the case of the latter, I would suggest that all semi-autos and pumps be loaded with only two cartridges, so that the break-action guns are on a level playing field.
Because hunters often are driven to the fields in quail buggies or converted jeeps, there usually is only a moderate amount of walking—at least in the Southeast. Hunters follow pointing dogs in the field, and when a covey is pointed, the quail typically hold until a flushing dog puts them into the air. Quail offer a mixture of shots in terms of the number of birds, the distances and the directions.
For hunting preserve quail (which typically hold better and don’t fly as fast), my choice is a 28-gauge break-action shotgun choked Cylinder & Skeet. For wild quail, which fly faster and often are shot farther away, I would consider using a 20-gauge choked Skeet & Improved Cylinder.
Pheasants are found in a variety of habitat types, but they do like ditches and wetlands, especially those bordered by brush. They are big birds that would sooner run than fly. That said, I have had the bejesus scared out of me when a rooster has flushed cackling at my feet.
There are many ways that pheasants are hunted—from one hunter and a dog to a line of Guns pushing the length of a field. Blockers on the sides and at the end prevent birds from breaking back and ensure an exciting flush of pheasants that break in every direction—a spectacle you want to be part of.
Depending on your skill level, a 12- or 20-gauge over/under choked Modified & Improved Modified is the usual choice for these tough birds. Many hunters like traditional break-action side-by-sides or choose pumps or autoloaders. The 16 gauge is a personal favorite of mine, particularly in an over/under—lending credence to the old statement that the 16 “carries like a 20 and hits like a 12.”
The little, if any, walking on a dove shoot typically involves walking to a blind and looking for downed birds. Hunters usually are seated and shooting over cover crops. This position offers a variety of shots with different heights, angles and distances. As shots can be both close and far away, the choice of gauge and choke has to be given careful consideration.
Many hunters would choose a 20- or 28-gauge with Improved Cylinder & Modified chokes. While these are popular choices, if a field is large and the doves really high, shots will be much longer, so I can understand the choice of a 12-gauge choked Modified & Improved Modified.
Ruffed & Blue Grouse
Ruffed and blue grouse are the Houdinis of gamebirds, living in thick cover and woods. Shots in such habitat are short windows of opportunity that require (by modern standards) relatively short-barreled (26" to 28") shotguns. I would recommend a fast-handling side-by-side in 28, 20 or 16 gauge choked Improved Cylinder & Modified.
Grouse sitting tight in heavy cover are extremely good at concealing themselves, but when they do fly, they are fast and evasive and hunters need to be ready to shoot at all times. The pursuit of these birds requires tromping through challenging cover in heavy boots, and hunters need to be in shape and ready for action at any time.
This is a very quick bird that prefers to walk—or run—until flushed by a predator. Hunting these birds also provides a real workout.
The chukar’s chosen terrain is steep, rough and rugged, and these red-legged devils will flush either at a distance or right under your feet. Once airborne they rapidly glide away, often downhill or uphill, offering tough shots. When the birds are flying downhill, misses are often above and behind.
Any wingshooting that requires a good deal of walking in rough terrain is challenging, and hunters learn to carry light guns that can withstand punishment. A 28-, 20- or 16-gauge side-by-side or over/under is a good choice, but many hunters opt for 20-gauge semi-autos. While not big birds, chukars usually require Improved Cylinder & Modified chokes, as most shots are at 20 to 30 yards.
I hunted chukars in Oregon with a 20-gauge choked Improved Cylinder & Modified. My fellow Gun chose a 12-gauge and, while there is no doubt that the 12 is a popular all-around gun, by the end of the day he would have given me the gun to avoid having to carry it back to the truck.
Desert Quail (Gambel’s, Blue & Mearns)
The quail trio of Gambel’s, blue and Mearns can be heard calling (sounds like laughing) after they have run you ragged around the desert hills and gullies all day. But compared to chukars, they are a walk in the park, as there is not the constant uphill and downhill. That said, a good deal of walking is required as hunters follow dogs to the birds’ favorite feeding areas—which are nearly always close to streams and waterholes.
Small bird = small gauge, and for blue and Gambel’s quail I prefer a 28-gauge over/under and never more than Improved Cylinder. Mearns quail are a different story. Their habitat is usually wide-open prairie and grasslands, and the pursuit of these fast flyers results in a good number of long passing shots. A 28-, 20- or 16-gauge over/under or side-by-side choked Improved Cylinder & Modified should serve well.
Mearns often will fly at a variety of angles, which can catch you out. A Mearns quail quartering away looks like a straight shot, but it is flying at an angle, like a sailboat tacking, and often needs lead in the direction of its quartering to allow for its progress.
Both skeet and trap originally were designed to practice for live-bird shooting. So before the season, visit the trap field—but don’t shoot it as trap. Practice shooting from the low-gun ready position on the center station, and this will improve your quartering shots.
Preseason practice is always good time spent for a good cause. But remember that the proper combination of shotgun, gauge, choke and cartridge is essential to provide sufficient pellets for clean kills and a successful hunt.
Chris Batha’s most recent book, The Instinctive Shot, can be ordered by visiting chrisbatha.com, which includes schedules of shoots and clinics with the author.