Choosing a Shot Type

For large Canada geese at medium range—30 to 45 yards—steel BBBs fired through Modified chokes work best. If using bismuth, go with BBs.

Today’s shotgunner is confronted (and often confused) by an ever-increasing variety of shot types. Which one to use for what? That is the question. Here’s what my extensive shooting-test research has revealed works best for close-, medium- and long-range shooting. 

Close-Range Waterfowl and Pheasants

I define close-range waterfowl and pheasants as 20- to 35-yard shooting. All you need is traditional, round steel shot—the largest-selling and least-expensive shot type out there. For ducks and pheasants, steel No. 3s are best, and for geese, steel BBs have proven tops. Be sure to use open chokes—Improved Cylinder and Modified—to give you the most serviceable hitting patterns. Bismuth No. 5s for ducks and pheasants and bismuth BBs for geese also work well to 35 yards. Where lead is allowed for pheasants, No. 5s are nearly perfect. 

Close-Range Prairie Grouse, Doves and Quail

Again we’re talking 20 to 35 yards. Where lead is allowed, No. 7½s for doves and No. 8s for quail are ideal. Larger-bodied prairie grouse need lead No. 6s. If nontoxic is required, use round steel No. 6s for prairie grouse and steel No. 7s for doves and quail. Open chokes are mandatory. Alternately, use No. 6 bismuth for prairie grouse and No. 7s or 7½s for doves and quail. 

Medium-Range Waterfowl and Pheasants

I define medium-range waterfowl and pheasants as 30- to 45-yard shooting. Round steel shot still works well here for ducks and pheasants, and shooting-test results indicate No. 2s are best. For geese, steel BBs still are lethal on medium-size geese (e.g., white-fronted and snow), but large Canadas require BBBs. Modified choke will give you the most serviceable patterns. If you elect bismuth, you will need No. 4s for ducks and pheasants and bismuth BBs for all geese. Where lead is allowed for pheasants, No. 4s become the go-to pellets. 

Medium-Range Prairie Grouse, Doves and Quail

We’re still talking 30- to 45-yard shooting here. Where lead is allowed, No. 7½s for both doves and quail are necessary. Larger-bodied prairie grouse will need lead No. 6s or 5s. If nontoxic is required, use round steel No. 4s or 5s for prairie grouse and steel No. 6s for doves, but use round steel No. 7s for quail. Modified chokes become necessary with this shooting. If you elect bismuth shot, go with No. 5s for prairie grouse and No. 7s for both doves and quail. 

Long-Range Waterfowl and Pheasants

I define long-range shotgunning as anything exceeding 45 yards, with 60 yards about the limit for being able to develop a lethal pattern after careful pattern-testing with a variety of loads and chokes. For all shooting beyond 45 yards, Modified, Improved Modified and Full chokes become necessary regardless of shot type.

From a lethality standpoint, shooting tests show pheasants will definitely need lead No. 4s, and buffered loads will pattern best. An alternative and a nontoxic for pheasants would be HEVI-Shot—and again No. 4s are indicated. For ducks, shooting-test results show that with round steel shot, No. 2s become necessary for large and medium ducks, but you can get away with No. 3s for small ducks. For all geese, round steel BBBs will get the job done out to 60 yards. For ducks, if you elect to shoot HEVI-Shot, which by its very nature is essentially a long-range pellet (high-patterning and penetration behavior), test results have shown No. 4s to be the most lethal for large and medium ducks, with No. 5s a good choice for small ducks. For all geese, HEVI-Shot Bs and BBs are the go-to pellets. 

Because of its proclivity for deformation and fragmentation, bismuth shot struggles to produce lethal patterns beyond about 40 yards unless the loads you choose are buffered. In this respect bismuth handloads and Winchester buffered factory bismuth loads perform best at long range. For ducks, buffered bismuth No. 4s are necessary, and again buffered bismuth BBs are needed for geese.

Long-Range Prairie Grouse, Doves and Quail

We’re still talking beyond-45-yard shooting here. Where lead is allowed, prairie grouse will need No. 5s. If nontoxic is required, round steel No. 4s and HEVI-Shot 6s will be needed. Round steel No. 6s will definitely be needed for doves and quail. If you go with HEVI-Shot, No. 7½s will be abundantly lethal on these small birds at long range. Where lead is allowed, No. 7s are best for long-range doves and quail. Improved Modified and Full chokes will be necessary for shooting all three shot types at these three species.

Please forget about bismuth for these birds at long range, because unbuffered bismuth loads simply do not pattern well beyond 45 yards. If you insist on using bismuth at long range, you’ll need to shoot buffered loads of No. 6s or 7½s through tight chokes.

As to TSS shot, the only place in wingshooting for ultra-tight-patterning, ultra-round and uniform TSS shot is at long range (see below). TSS No. 9s and 8s are indicated especially in the sub-gauges on prairie grouse, doves and quail.  

Load Details

Note that in my steel-shot test findings I indicated round steel pellets. There are, of course, loads out there with Saturn-shaped and even cube-shaped steel pellets. These are OK for close- and medium-range shooting, but they are definitely not going to pattern well and they become sub-lethal at long range because their shape precludes the tight patterns necessary. There are also an increasing number of shotshell offerings of mixed shot sizes and even shot types. This indicates to me that the marketers are running out of ballistically sound ideas for new loads. Keep in mind that a load of, say, primarily steel shot with a 20-percent layer of a higher-density pellet type on top is still basically just a steel load—now just a more expensive one. Same thing with, say, a primarily bismuth load with a sprinkling of a denser shot type on top. The sprinkling on top doesn’t make the load any more lethal, but the price point and profitability will be greater. 

Regarding the current attraction of using 20- and 28-gauge loads of TSS 18 g/cc shot for bird hunting, this sounds good, but an increasingly large number of wingshooters are learning that the extremely high-patterning nature of TSS shot makes it primarily a long-range pellet if you want to hit regularly with it. They have, as have I, experienced lots of missing with TSS loads at distances less than 40 yards. If they take the time to pattern-test, they quickly learn that TSS patterns do not open up with open chokes like the patterns of all other shot types do. Currently the highest and best use of round TSS shot is for turkey hunting, where typically the target stands still and the gun is aimed rather than swung.

As I have written over and over, test results clearly indicate that ultra-heavy and/or ultra-high-velocity loads not only are unnecessary but also pattern poorer and recoil a lot more than loads with modest shot-charge weights at modest velocities. An example of a modest shot-charge weight would be a 1¼-oz lead load in 2¾" 12-gauge and a 1⅛-oz lead load in 3" 20-gauge. An example of a modest velocity level would be 1,200 to 1,400 fps for all shot types. Do not be sucked into the “speed kills” myth, which is fundamentally incorrect for ball-shaped projectiles. Your shooting will markedly improve if you select a factory load or handload moderate shot-charge weights at moderate velocities for all your shotgunning. Never forget that the number-one negative for hitting success, especially at long range, is high recoil levels. High recoil alwaysleads to flinching, head lifting and eye closing—all of which cause misalignment of the sight picture and therefore lots of missing and fringe hitting.  

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