Which Shotgun Load Is Best For You?

While not easy, it is possible to find a match between your non-lead shot shell, your shotgun and the type of waterfowl hunting you pursue.

Photo by Paul Tessier

I had my best duck season ever last year. I killed nearly twice as many birds as the previous year, but pulled the trigger less than half the number of times. I also only lost one cripple, and that happened when a wing-shot widgeon kept diving away from Lily, my yellow Labrador retriever, until it drowned. Most of my birds fell quickly and didn't move after they hit the ground or water.

How did I do it?

In one sense, the answer is simple: I finally began to shoot a shell that matched my shotgun and the type of hunting I do.

The subject of shotgun shell selection for waterfowlers can be complicated. Nearly every hunter will end up with a different type of load, depending on their gun, the type of ducks they hunt, and the way they hunt them.

The narrative for my dramatic shooting improvement began when I broke the stock on my old double barrel. It is a 1930s-era Riverside 12 gauge that I inherited from my grandfather. It is heavy, with 30-inch barrels, and twin full chokes. Although I knew that it was potentially bad for the barrel, I shot steel shot through it when I hunted ducks. I planned to retire the double and get a new gun, one that would hold three shells and handle heavier loads. But I couldn't find a pump or automatic that appealed to me, and newer side-by-sides were out of my price range. So I kept shooting the Riverside and did okay on birds that came in close to my decoys.

Then I broke the gun. Lily had just made a long, swimming retrieve on a drake mallard. When she reached the beach, she put the bird on the sand to readjust her grip. The duck started to wriggle away, and without thinking, I hit it in the head with my gun butt. It killed the bird, but the 60-year-old stock shattered.

I figured that now I would definitely buy a new gun. It was the middle of duck season though, so I borrowed a pump 12 gauge from a friend. It took 3-inch shells and magnums, and he recommended No. 2 shot. Contrary to what I expected, my shooting deteriorated slightly. Initially, I attributed it to the fact that I wasn't accustomed to looking down a single barrel. I continued to shop for a new gun. I went to sporting goods stores, large and small. I attended a gun show. I also frequented pawnshops. But I couldn't find a gun I liked.

When the person who loaned me the pump wanted it back, I borrowed another pump. My shooting continued to limp along, and I became increasingly frustrated. I was missing birds that were in range. Even worse, I was hitting ducks, sometimes repeatedly, and they weren't falling.

By the end of the season, I decided to fix the double. I ordered a new stock from a mail order house, and fitted, sanded and stained it that summer. Now that I had made a new commitment to the double, I also decided to stop shooting steel through it. This was partly because I now want it to last longer. But it was also the result of reading a passage in an old Jack O'Connor book about the superiority of smaller shot and denser patterns for ducks. I ordered a few boxes of Kent's Tungsten/Matrix shells -- non-toxic shot that is as heavy as lead and may be shot through old barrels -- in size 5 for the right barrel and 3s for the left.

The first mallard I killed this year set the pattern for the season. It flew in with a small flock from the estuary to the south. It responded to my high ball and tilted toward the decoys in front of my blind. I knew that the smaller shot wouldn't have an extended kill zone, so I kept my head down as the duck moved closer. Then, just as it began to flare, I rose and shot. The mallard folded and tumbled. Lily didn't even have to swim for it. Over the next several months, most of the birds I hit fell immediately, and many had between four and seven pellets in them when I cleaned them.

Clearly, I had finally arrived at the solution for my type of shooting and the gun I prefer to hunt.

But there are many other situations where this arrangement would perform as poorly as the 2s of steel had.


You don't need to memorize ballistics tables or powder formulas to choose the best shell for a gun and the way they hunt. However, it is important to keep two facts in mind: 1) a pellet traveling faster has more energy (that is, killing power) than the same shot at a slower speed, and 2) heavier shot retains energy farther than lighter shot.

In other words, a load of size 4 shot will hit a duck harder at 40 yards than a load of No. 6 shot with the same amount of shot and powder. This would seem to argue for the use of heavier pellets in virtually all situations. But it isn't that simple, because shells with larger shot hold fewer pellets than smaller shot, and research has shown that a duck the size of a mallard must usually be hit by at least four pellets to be cleanly killed.

The choice of a shell, then, becomes a compromise between how hard the pellets hit the bird and the density of the shot pattern.

In the days before lead was outlawed, shell selection was relatively straightforward. Most hunters who shot ducks over decoys favored size 4 or 5 shot, and goose hunters preferred 1s or 2s, often in magnum loads. These shells were good compromises between punch and pattern density, and they accounted for lots of birds. However, steel is only about 70 percent as dense as lead (in this context dense means heavy, not how thick the pattern is), and hunters quickly discovered that it was much less effective than lead in comparable loads, especially at a distance.

To compensate, waterfowlers were advised to switch to a shot two sizes larger -- a 2 in place of a 4, or a BB in place of a 1. But as we have seen, bumping up the pellet size reduces the amount of shot into a given length of shell.

Magnum loads were available long before the steel shot requirement, but they became much more popular after lead was prohibited. Magnums contain more powder and more shot than standard loads, but the word "magnum" is more of a marketing device than a ballistic term, and any load over 1 1/4 ounces can be considered a magnum if it is that company's heaviest shell in that configuration. Moreover, contrary to conventional wisdom, magnums are not necessarily faster nor do they produce more energy than standard loads. The thing that makes magnums effective is that their patterns are fuller (denser) and they can push heavier shot, and this significantly increases the odds that four or five pellets will hit the bird at longer, reasonable distances. The downside of magnums is they can't be used in many older weapons.


It doesn't matter whether you shoot them from pit blinds amid corn stubble, along the coast or in desert marshes, geese are big, tough and remarkably difficult to knock out of the sky. While they aren't nearly as big s geese, sea ducks such as scoters, goldeneyes, long-tailed ducks and Harlequins are also capable of absorbing a lot of punishment. And large ducks such as mallards, canvasbacks and redheads can be hard to kill at distances that are common among pass shooters. Waterfowlers who regularly hunt these species or at birds beyond 40 yards need a shell that packs as much downrange punch as they and their gun can handle. To do this they need shot that either fly faster or weigh more.

Let's talk about speed first. It has been proven that shot needs to retain a velocity of at least 600 feet per second (fps) on impact to consistently kill waterfowl. When lead was still legal, a 12 gauge, 2 3/4 inch, standard-velocity load (1,255 fps muzzle velocity) of No. 6 shot averaged 610 fps at 60 yards, and a "high velocity" 20-gauge round (1,220 fps at muzzle) was 605 fps. Even with all the improvements in steel, a 3-inch shell with 1 1/4 ounces of shot (1,350 fps at muzzle) only has 579 fps left at 50 yards. The only way to maintain enough velocity to kill big birds at 40 or 45 yards with steel at traditional muzzle velocities is to increase the size of the shot. A 3-inch 12-gauge BB shot (1 3/8-ounce load), for example, is still moving at 643 fps at 50 yards. But steel shot in 2 3/4 standard velocity loads is only effective on large tough birds if you limit your shots to 40 yards or less.

Those who shoot modern shotguns chambered for 3- or 3 1/2-inch shells have the option of turning up the heat on the pellets. All of the ammunition companies now produce shells with barrel speeds of 1,500 fps or more, and these loads retain plenty of wallop beyond 40 yards. Winchester's Dry Lock and Remington's Nitro Steel whistle along in excess of 625-plus fps at 50 yards.

Although these loads extend your downrange effectiveness on ducks and geese considerably, they are not miracle workers, just as the magnums that preceded them weren't. You shouldn't push them beyond 50 yards normally. The super-charged loads are also more expensive than standard shells, are very loud, and they kick like the dickens. Flinching when you shoot doesn't improve your accuracy.

Jack O' Connor argued for the use of smaller shot on small ducks at close range in his Sportsman's Arms And Ammunition Manual, published in 1952, in the final chapter, "Shot For Your Scattergun." He wrote:

The choice of shot is necessarily a compromise -- to get density of pattern one has to sacrifice punch and penetration and to get punch and penetration one has to sacrifice density of pattern.

The larger the bird is, the larger the shot that can be used, since there is less chance of his flying through a fhinnish pattern.

The only way one can get denser patterns at longer range is to use more shot, and the only way one can get more shot, with suitable penetration, is to use a larger gauge.

It simply isn't in the cards to kill small birds like quail or doves at any great distance, and when a small bird is killed at an astounding range the gunner will usually discover it was a fluke. -- Doug Rose


Waterfowlers who usually shoot ducks over decoys or jump shoot need markedly different features in a shell. You seldom need to shoot at ducks much beyond 40 yards if your decoys and calling are appealing, and jump shooters don't usually flush birds until they are within 20 or 30 yards.

At first glance, these situations would seem to present no shell problems at all. You simply need to buy a fast shell in a small shot size. But many of the hottest loads are literally overkill at short range, especially if you intend to eat the bird or tie flies with its feathers.

Standard steel loads are far from ideal in weapons bored for 2 3/4-inch shells. As we have seen, the recommended shot size (two sizes larger than comparable lead loads) produces a pattern with significantly fewer pellets, and most ducks, even mallards, are small enough that even a well-placed shot may hit the bird with only two or three pellets. If you are "winging" a lot of birds -- they glide off on long downward trajectories -- or that show definite signs of impact but never fall, this is probably happening to you.

The other way to increase a shell's energy is to make it heavier. At the same time ammunition companies were marketing faster shells, they were also investing considerable resources in developing better-performing, non-toxic alternatives to steel. The goal was to create a pellet that was heavier than steel but small enough to allow more shot to be packed in each shell, as had been the case with lead. Bismuth was the first widely available, non-toxic; it is slightly less dense than lead but about 25 percent heavier than steel. It was followed by Kent's Tungsten Matrix and Federal's Tungsten Iron, both of which have comparable density to lead. Remington's Heavi-Shot is the most recent entry into the field; it is actually 10 percent heavier than lead and 50 percent heavier than steel.

Although these heavy loads can be as effective on geese at a distance, especially when high velocity charges are employed, they really shine for waterfowlers who shoot birds at close range. All of these shells let you drop down in pellet size, and that instantly results in more shot in the air. Most experts advise that Bismuth performs best one size smaller than steel, while Tungsten Matrix and Tungsten Iron can be shot even-up with lead. Remington claims that its Heavi-Shot can be shot three sizes smaller than steel; in other words, size 5 instead of 2s for ducks.

Tungsten Iron and Heavi-Shot are chambered for 3-inch or larger chambers, and they shouldn't be fired in older weapons. But Bismuth and Tungsten Matrix shot are soft enough for old barrels, and they are available in a wide range of 2 3/4-inch loads. For hunters like me who prefer older guns, these shells are a godsend.


Most waterfowlers enjoy traveling to new locations and hunting unfamiliar birds. But we also usually have a regular place to hunt and it most likely offers three or four species that we regularly hunt in the same way and at approximately the same distance. The trick to improving your shooting, then, is to marry the shells you use with the type of shots you make and the gun you carry.

The information above should help a duck or goose hunter get started on the process of selecting the appropriate shell. But serious waterfowlers can fine-tune the process by examining each of the ammunition company's literature and by testing different shells in the field.

Finally, I think the late Erwin Bauer wrote the final words for any discussion on shotgun shells 40 years ago in his The Duck Hunter's Bible: "There is considerable evidence that the shell or load is far more important than the shotgun used in hunting waterfowl ... it is every sportsman's moral obligation to use a heav

y enough load and then not to use it until the birds are absolutely within killing range."

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