Bill and I worked down the strip of late-season cover. The vegetation was weathered and thin where a month ago it was thick enough to make for tough walking. The first pheasant we encountered acted like a late-season bird, as well. Bill’s setter, Ike, flash pointed then relocated, then moved on again. Thirty yards ahead of me the rooster took flight. I didn’t even shoulder my gun.
That’s why I was so surprised to hear a shot and watch the bird dump out of the sky, apparently dead. The pheasant was as far from Bill as me, but he’d elected to take the shot and connected. I don’t know precisely how far a shot it was, but let’s just say the far side of 40 yards.
“I’m shooting 3-inch 5s,” said Bill. “This late in the year, I want all the stopping power I can muster coming out the muzzle.” He certainly had plenty of “muster,” but more than a little luck, as well.
In my book, a ring-necked pheasant is the hardest-to-kill game bird in the country. I’m not talking about hardest to hunt, though I’ve had hunts that were more akin to a Navy Seal training exercise than recreation. I’m not talking about hardest to hit. Pheasants can be tricky but don’t hold a candle to a flushing snipe or ruffed grouse in an aspen patch. I’m talking hardest to kill. You need to deliver a knockout punch sufficient to ensure the bird hits the ground whacked, stacked and unable to slip off into the surrounding cover.
One of my boyhood mentors was a country veterinarian with the best pheasant-retrieving dog I ever saw. Ginny, a tiny little Brittany, could and would trail a wing-tipped pheasant into the next county, need be. I’m sure the retrieves were her favorite part of the hunt.
Doc hunted every day of the season. He’d schedule his “house calls” so the last one of the day just happened to be on a farm with plenty of cover. If close enough to peddle to on my bike, or when I could get a ride, I’d have enough time after school to join him for an hour or so many days.
Over the years, I saw scores of pheasants that appeared to be stone-cold dead in the air to have hightailed out of there by the time Ginny, Doc and I got to the spot it had fallen. In a few seconds, Ginny would sort out the smells and be off. Often the next time we’d see her she’d be heading back from the far end of the field with the “dead” pheasant clamped securely in her teeth.
Watching her taught me a lesson I still believe. “You can’t kill a pheasant too dead.”
Actually, you can. The next bird that flushed on Bill’s side of the field was pinned solidly at the edge of a sorghum strip, probably no more than a foot from Ike’s nose.
As Bill nudged in alongside the dog, the rooster burst into flight. Bill quickly shouldered his gun and bang. Feathers flew and not just puffs of them dislodged as a few pellets cut through the plumage. I could see plenty of the feathers propelled past the bird as a fair portion of the magnum load cut into the bird and onward. Again, I’m not a great judge of distance, so let’s just say this shot was on the short side of 20 yards. Ginny wouldn’t have found it to be a very satisfying retrieve.
Later, when cleaning the bird, we discovered most of the shot had hit just forward of the rump, on up the back and neck. If you are going to pepper a pheasant with too much shot, that’s the place to do it. The breast and thighs were no worse off than any from the rest of our limit. Another nice shot, I guess, again with more than a little luck.
So, if a long 40 yards is a bit of a stretch for most gunners and a very short 20 yards is overkill using field or magnum loads, what is perfect? To answer this, two things have to be understood. First, exactly how do pellets fired from a shotgun make a clean kill on a pheasant? Secondly, what combination of loads, chokes and range team up to ensure the answer from the first question occurs?
I don’t know of any scientific studies conducted to determine what it takes to make an instant kill on a pheasant. However, thanks to the need for waterfowlers to switch from lead shot to nontoxic shot, these exact studies were conducted on mallard ducks.
The results weren’t surprising once one understands how a shotgun kills. Unlike a rifle, which fires a single projectile, shotguns fire a load of shot. And unlike a rifle kill, where a good part of the effectiveness of the shot depends on the bullet hitting a vital organ, there’s no way for a shotgun shooter to direct individual pellets to the heart, lungs, brain or other organs. The best a shooter can do is hit the target with multiple pellets and hope for the best.
In the duck research, the cause of death of instantly killed, shotgun-bagged mallards proved to be more akin to striking it with a club, than hoping a pellet pierced a vital organ. As each piece of shot strikes the bird and penetrates into its flesh, the energy of the pellet is transferred to the bird. One piece of shot hitting won’t do it, nor will two or three pellet strikes kill the duck.
When all the tests were done, the results showed it took a minimum of five pellets hitting the duck somewhere on the main part of the duck’s body to deliver enough of a shock to kill it instantly. Six pellets, with enough velocity to make them penetrate halfway through the bird, killed the duck instantly, every time. Any more was overkill.
Notice, no mention was made of shot size. The tests were run using shells loaded with No. 4, 5 and 6 lead shot as well as No. 2, 4 and 6 steel loads. The results were the same for each shot size. As long as there was enough velocity to allow five or six pieces of shot to penetrate halfway through the body, the shock instantly killed the mallard. Even the fairly light steel No. 6s fired at high velocity would punch halfway through a duck at 40 yards.
Since mallards and ringnecks are nearly identical in size, I’m confident similar results would occur if similar tests were run on pheasants. So, let’s move to the patterning board to determine which loads are suitable.
Since there have been no actual tests to determine exactly how many pellets are needed to make an instant kill on a pheasant, it’s prudent to err on the overkill side and aim for loads which will reliably put seven or eight pellets on target.
Pattern tests results are routinely established by firing at a large (4-foot in diameter or so) paper target at 40 yards, then drawing a 30-inch diameter pattern, and then tabulating the results. But what results? A different sort of test is needed to determine how to ma
ke your favorite upland scattergun into a reliable pheasant bagger.
Unless you are shooting a double-barreled gun with each barrel choked differently (and you have the ability to assess the shot and switch the selector to the proper barrel at the flush of a bird), start with the choke and load you most often use to hunt. Then step off the range at which you most often shoot at a flushing pheasant and blast away.
I measured a plucked, whole-frozen ringneck and determined the “body” part of the bird, the part the pellets need to strike to be able to impart their full energy, and determined the two-dimensional measurement to be about 30 square inches. Thirty square inches is a square about 5 1/2 inches on a side, a circle about 6 inches in diameter or roughly one-third of this magazine page. Make a cardboard cutout of this size, lay it randomly on the pattern target and draw its outline in several locations on the paper.
Now is the time to start counting pellet holes. Don’t just outline the center portion of the pattern, as every shot isn’t exactly centered on the bird. Make some circles near the fringe, as well.
The results will be interesting, if not enlightening, and may make you rethink the ammo you normally feed into your upland gun. When I patterned my gun, a modified choke 12-bore with the 1 1/4-ounce loads of No. 6 lead I normally shoot, I learned I almost always put eight pellets into a 30-square-inch circle at 30 yards nearly anywhere in my pattern. If I only count the pellets in the center portion of the target, my “for sure” kill range is 35 yards; but at 40 yards, I have to pick the spot on the target to be able to surround it with eight pellet holes. At 40 yards, my pattern shows as many or more 30-square-inch spots that have only three or four pellet holes.
The bird will be hit, but it may or may not fall; and since Ginny has long ago gone on to bird dog heaven, I’ll hold off on the long shots. I don’t like to rely on “luck” when it comes to making clean kills.
I do have alternatives. I can switch to a full choke and extend my range. I can switch to similar loads with smaller (thus more) pieces of shot in each load, or I can buy magnum shells with heavier charges of shot.
I know my choice. Once you’ve conducted your own tests, you can make choices of your own. You’ll be a more effective hunter when you do.