One shotgun can take any bird from a 2-ounce rail to a 25-pound tundra swan if you choose the right ammunition. 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 load an exercise in probability. 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, the loads listed on these pages 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, so I've also listed alternative loads for special situations. Every gun is a rule unto itself. Yours may perform better with slightly different loads. Nonetheless, this guide should serve as a good point to start the conversation--although I think it settles the argument. --Phil Bourjaily.
Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 60
Minimum pellet energy: 4 foot-pounds 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.
Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 90 (mallards); 120 (smaller ducks)
Minimum pellet energy: 2 foot-pounds. Ducks coming into decoys present a midrange shot with their vitals exposed, which usually doesn’t require superheavy loads. That’s why I’ve chosen steel for the top choice, 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.
Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 110
Minimum pellet energy: 1.75 foot-pounds 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.
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UPLAND BIRDS **Requirements: **
Pellet strikes in 30-inch circle: 130 (grouse, chukars); 230 (doves, woodcock)
Minimum pellet energy: 1 foot-pound 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 23⁄4-inch 20 is enough for most upland hunting.
Pellet strikes in 10-inch circle: 100+
Minimum pellet energy: 2 foot-pounds 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 ammo.
Our last-word, no-nonsense, any-budget directory of the absolute best ammo choices for geese, ducks, pheasants, upland birds, and turkeys.