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Depending on the shot size and the load, one shotgun can take any bird from a 2-ounce rail to a 25-pound tundra swan. But selecting the best shotshell for the job isn’t so simple, because shot patterns are as individual as snowflakes. That makes selecting the correct shot size and load an exercise in probability. Every gun is a rule unto itself. Yours may perform better with slightly different loads. Nonetheless, this guide and shot size charts should serve as a good point to start.
Shot Size Guide Table of Contents
- Shot Size Chart
- General Rules for choosing shot size
- Shot Size Chart for Common Game Birds
- Frequently Asked Questions
Shot Size Chart
Shot size is measured by number. As the number increases, the diameter of the shot decreases. Here’s a shot size chart to show the different diameters of shot and their corresponding numbers.
General Rules for Choosing Shotgun Shot Size
A friend and widely traveled hunter who worked for Winchester told me once when I tried to pin him down on shot size: “There’s no magic shot size. If one pellet works on a particular bird, the next size bigger and smaller will, too.”
True enough. Realize, too, that shot sizes fall within .01 of one another, and SAAMI specs actually allow some slight overlap among smaller sizes, which further muddies the question of shot size. That said, there are two main things to consider when choosing pellets.
Smaller pellets pattern more openly than bigger pellets.
The difference can be significant. A few years ago, when I visited the Federal test lab, we patterned some 20-gauge dove loads with No. 7½ shot, then some No. 6 from the same gun. The engineers predicted 4- to 6-percent tighter patterns. We were surprised to see 15-percent tighter patterns with No. 6 over No. 7½. Your mileage may vary, but bigger shot should shoot tighter patterns in your gun, and smaller shot should give you more open patterns.
Bigger pellets leave fewer holes than smaller pellets.
At the ranges I tend to shoot birds, smaller shot makes more sense, as they have plenty of energy up close and are more numerous, increasing the chances of vital hits and, per above, they shoot patterns that open quickly. But, that also means there’s more chance of biting into a smaller pellet when you eat the bird. Not only are there fewer big pellets in a given weight of shot, and therefore fewer of them in the birds I shoot, those big pellets will penetrate deeper, so there’s less chance of finding them in the meat. This is why, although I believe No. 2s are great goose pellets, I shoot BBs at them, and why I often shoot No. 2 at teal, even though No. 5 and No. 6 make more sense.
Regardless of big or small, the pellets you want to shoot are the ones that pattern best in your gun at the range you expect to shoot your birds. Again, I lean toward larger shot, as I believe it builds in some margin for error if I have to take a longer shot than I intended.
Shot Size Chart for Common Game Birds
You stack the odds in favor of a clean kill by picking the optimum combination of pellet size, shot material, payload, and velocity for the bird you’re hunting. In my experience, with the right load, the shot sizes listed in the chart above will deliver the goods. Each, when used with a choke that puts 65 to 70 percent of the payload into a 30-inch circle at the range you expect to shoot, offers the optimal mix of pattern density and energy for the species listed. Nontoxic-shot requirements, high price tags, and certain hunting conditions can complicate choices, but the guide below should be a good place to start.
The Best Shot Sizes for Geese: 2,1,BB,BBB,T
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.
The Best Shot Sizes for Ducks: 3,2,1 (large ducks); 3,4,5,6 (small ducks)
Ducks coming into decoys present a midrange shot with their vitals exposed, which usually doesn’t require superheavy loads. My top choices are steel 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.
The Best Shot Sizes for Pheasants: 4,5,6
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.
Other Upland Birds
The Best Shot Sizes for Upland Birds: 4,5,6,7,7.5 (grouse, chukars) 6,7,7.5,8 (doves, woodcock)
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 2 3⁄4-inch 20 is enough for most upland hunting.
Read Next: Shotgun Chokes Explained
The Best Shot Sizes for Turkeys: 4,5,6 (lead); 7.5,8,9 (TSS)
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 turkey ammo.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most lethal shotgun ammo?
The larger, denser, and faster the pellet, and the heavier the payload, the more lethal it will be. However, if you choose pellets that are too large for your intended quarry, you won’t have enough pellets in your pattern to reliably put three or four pellets into the animal’s vitals. If the pellets are too small, you’ll have enough pattern density, but not enough energy to penetrate the vitals. Also, recoil from fast, heavy loads makes them difficult to shoot. The most lethal shotgun ammo is the shell loaded with pellets that strike a balance between enough shot to put 3-4 reliable hits in the vitals, and enough energy to penetrate deeply to those vital areas. The old advice to choose the smallest shot size that still gives adequate penetration still holds.
How far can a shotgun shoot?
In the right hands, a shotgun can shoot a long way. The longest shot on a clay target on record was made by English sporting clays legend George Digweed, who broke a flying clay at 130 yards. However, 65 yards, half that distance, is a very long shot for a shotgun, and one that is beyond the skill level of most shooters. Shotguns are best used on targets at 50 yards or less, and most shooters do best in terms of killing cleanly and not missing or wounding if they limit their shots to inside 35 yards.
Is a 12- or 20-gauge better for duck hunting?
The 12-gauge remains the standard waterfowl gun for good reason. It can be loaded up to shoot very large loads of big pellets like BBs and BBBs at geese and swans, and down for small payloads of little shot for small ducks like teal. A 12-guage can shoot more shot faster and more efficiently than can a 20-gauge. While the 12-gauge is ballistically superior, a 20-gauge makes a very effective duck gun if you keep your shooting to ranges inside 40 yards. It is also currently the “in” gun to hunt with, and there are lots of 20-gauge waterfowl models available. If you choose the right shot size and take good, high-percentage shots, the 20-gauge can be very enjoyable to hunt with on days you don’t want 12-gauge heft or 12-gauge recoil.