Facts About Waterfowl Loads

Facts About Waterfowl Loads
Goose hunters should know that, assuming they are using the proper-size shot for the species being hunted, no shell larger than a 3" 12 is needed for birds out to 50 yards.
By Tom Roster
Photograph by Dale C. Spartas

With the amazing array of nontoxic waterfowl loads currently available and more coming seemingly every year, many if not most waterfowlers remain confused regarding certain proven facts regarding the effectiveness of various loads. I will try to provide some clarity.


The current fad/trend among shotshell manufacturers is to offer nontoxic waterfowl loads almost exclusively in super-high velocities. I’m talking about velocities exceeding 1,425 fps. Today there is a whole array of hyper-fast nontoxic loads with velocities in the 1,450- to 1,650-fps range. Do these velocities make loads more lethal than those with traditional 1,300- to 1,350-fps velocities? No, they do not. I have covered the enormous degeneration in velocity that spheres suffer once they leave the muzzle of any firearm because of the inescapable fact of physics that the faster a sphere starts out, the faster it slows down. While downrange there is about a 100-fps velocity-increase retention out to about 35 yards with such loads, this differential rapidly degenerates to the point of insignificance soon after 40 yards.

My empirical lethality research has never found any increase in killing ability for a nontoxic load having a velocity exceeding 1,425 fps versus the same load at 1,300 to 1,400 fps. What has been documented with nontoxic loads is that velocities exceeding 1,425 fps repeatedly manifest reduced pattern quality when compared to the same nontoxic loads with slower velocities. And what is even more negative is that these ultra-high velocities substantially increase recoil. Many hunters shooting fixed-breech guns—doubles and pumps—are just about blown away by such recoil levels. This is the principal reason that most waterfowlers are going afield these days with heavy, gas-operated autoloaders. These guns are about the only means they have to try to make the recoil from loads exceeding 1,425 fps reasonably comfortable.

So from lethality, patterning and recoil standpoints, the wise waterfowler seeks factory loads and handloading recipes featuring nontoxic loads with velocities in the 1,300- to 1,425-fps range.
Load Choice

Another current trend is to offer heavy nontoxic loads in long shell lengths. I speak of the 3½" and 3" 12-gauge. My lethality research on steel, bismuth and HEVI-Shot—sponsored by more than 41 wildlife agencies worldwide and four US shotshell manufacturers—has scientifically documented to the 95% confidence level that nothing more is needed for taking ducks (except for large sea ducks) out to 50 yards than nontoxic-shot-charge weights that can fit inside a 2¾" 12-gauge shell. Now a 3" 20-gauge shell can hold within 1⁄16 ounce as much nontoxic shot as a 2¾" 12-gauge shell and, given correct choke selection, pattern insignificantly different than the same load in a 2¾" 12-gauge shell through proper chokes. Thus, from a lethality standpoint it’s a toss-up whether to shoot 2¾" 12- or 3" 20-gauge nontoxic loads.

For goose hunting, my same lethality research indicates that no shell larger than a 3" 12 is needed to develop a load lethal out to 50 yards, assuming the proper shot size for the species being hunted. It is only for beyond-50-yard shooting that this research database indicates that heavier loads in a 3½" 12-gauge shell are needed to hold enough large pellets for sufficient patterns and proper penetration on geese.

If the choke is not strong enough, it can expand and even crack.

Gun Damage

This is a subject that never seems to go away. The bottom line from my extensive destructive testing of shotguns and choke systems for the US Dept. of the Interior is that only hard shot types such as steel, HEVI-Shot and HW 13 need be feared in any way regarding barrel and choke damage.

First, nontoxic loads adhere to the same chamber-pressure standards as lead loads. So no issue here.

Barrel scoring has been eliminated with these shot types, because all factory loads and handloads assembled in tested, heavy-duty plastic wads preclude the pellets from either rubbing through the walls of the wad or escaping out the top. Thus, the pellets are prevented from contacting any part of the barrel interior. All factory loads now contain such wads.

This leaves only choke-expansion issues in fixed-choked shotguns and certain screw-in-choke systems not properly designed to resist the higher radial strain of hard shot types as they squeeze through the chokes. The bottom line is that the larger the pellet size, the higher the velocity and the tighter the choke the pellets are being forced through, the greater the radial strain is that’s being placed on the choke. If the choke is not strong enough, it can expand and even crack. Screw-in chokes can expand enough that they stick in the muzzle of the barrel and can’t be removed.

So Full and Improved Modified chokes would be the most problematic. But I have never found any issues in chokes with Modified constrictions and more open. With screw-in chokes, it is imperative that the owner’s manual is read, to make sure that the chokes can handle hard shot types. If they can’t or if they have an unrealistic choke-diameter restriction, such as nothing tighter than Improved Cylinder can be used for hard nontoxic shot in that brand, do not purchase them for anything other than use with soft, nontoxic shot such as bismuth or tungsten-matrix.

This is all you need to know.

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  1. says: Dave Books

    Excellent advice and right on target. I’ve shot my Browning Citori over/under for years while hunting waterfowl. The recoil is so extreme with high-velocity 3-inch steel loads that I don’t enjoy hunting with the gun anymore. Last year my middle finger got so sore from recoil knocking the trigger guard into it that I had to quit hunting…so now I’m the proud owner of a Winchester autoloader. Not sure how that will work. Incidentally, shell manufacturers have totally screwed up lead loads as well. For many years Federal made copper-plated shells (Federal Premium) in 2-3/4 inch, 1-1/4 oz shot with velocity of 1400 FPS…with #6 shot it was a deadly load for pheasants and recoil was not an issue. Then in their wisdom they increased it to 1-3/8 oz shot and jacked the velocity up to 1500. I have several boxes sitting on a shelf because I don’t like the godawful recoil and don’t want to use them…can’t even find the original load anymore…I’m switching to Kent bismuth for pheasant hunting where I need to use nontoxic shot…I can use any gun I like and the recoil is not excessive.

  2. says: James A Becker

    Are there any recipes for 16ga Hevi-Shot? I have BPI’s 16ga manual, but would be interested in recipes using Federal and Remington hulls. Great article, by the way.

  3. says: George Rooke

    Two pluses for high velocity steel loads not mentioned but I have experienced are:
    1. Fewer cripples because (I’m guessing) the impact is harder.
    2. Reduces the length of your lead to bag birds. Many time s I can simply aim for the beak – usually 30 yrs or less. Unless of course ou are pass shooting they are screaming by you.


    You forgot to mention that low velocity, cheap, 2 3\4 12 gu loads will literally bounce off geese at 25 yards, and have a 90% fire rate. I agree partially with what you’re saying, but premium loads are worth buying, as long as you PATTERN your gun with a load. Unbelievable how people will sight in rifles for days, but don’t want to pattern their dang shotguns.

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