Pellet Size Selection for Upland Game

By Randy Wakeman

In the manufacturer's shotshell ammunition catalogs you likely have read a bewildering array of "preferred" shot size recommendations for game. But, shot size selection does not need to be nearly as disjointed and convoluted as it appears.

Manufacturer's that put patterns in their catalogs usually show both 40 yard patterns and smaller size shot, it just looks better that way. It is of no help whatsoever to you if you are taking birds that require larger shot sizes for clean kills, or if we are taking birds at 50 yards or 20 yards. Worse than meaningless, it can be downright misleading.

Heavier payloads give us the potential of larger effective spreads; there is no doubt about that. To achieve maximum effective spreads, as our shot cloud decreases in weight and pellet count, we need better pattern efficiency. The brief article on "Patterning for American Skeet" on this site gives you the idea.

There are essentially three ranges at which birds are bagged, short (20 yards and under), medium (20 to 40 yards) and long range (40 yards and beyond). These are my own admittedly arbitrary values, but that is my experience.

There are essentially three classes of upland wing-shooting game, in order of toughness: easy to kill (doves, quail, etc.), medium (pigeon, partridge and similar size), and hard (pheasant, and similar). These again are general classifications.

To find the most effective combinations for our applications, we have to define the distances at which we will take the shot, and the distances at which we will not.

Doves are very easy to kill, but there is a big difference between pass-shooting at 50 yards and closer range work. Doves are mostly feathers, so we do need good pattern density to be assured of sending them spinning with certainty. Erring on the size of heavier payloads, larger shot, and tighter pattern density gives us the ability to reach out past 50 yards.

For my purposes, 1-1/8 oz. in 12 or 16 gauge, and 1 oz. in 20 gauge using #7-1/2 shot with 65% or better pattern efficiency (roughly improved modified performance) is a good compromise. And a compromise is what all shot size/load selection is, as to have the maximum effective spread at 50 yards with a shotshell necessarily means we have a smaller effective spread at 25 yards. Thousands of dead doves have proved to me that a 1 to 1-1/8 oz. payload of #7-1/2 shot and a relatively tight choke constriction reliably kills where (for example) a 7/8 oz. improved cylinder load of #8 shot fails to perform. It means many more birds in the bag.

That said, for inside 30 yards #8 shot, 7/8 oz. loads, and ten to fifteen thousands constriction chokes do quite well. Short range, relatively light flushing birds such as quail are easier to take with our maximum effective spread at closer, more appropriate, ranges. As always, patterning at the range we are taking game reveals what we are working with in any individual gun. There is no substitute for, and no way to avoid, patterning.

Pigeons and chukars are quite a bit harder to kill quickly than doves, and the classic live pigeon load of 1-1/4 oz. of #7-1/2 shot used with a "full" or "extra full" choke did not come into being by happenstance. Some experienced pigeon-poppers prefer #6 shot. Again, it is a compromise of range and where we choose to set our maximum effective pattern spread. Of course, we need to pattern once again to have any idea what our shot cloud is really doing out of an individual gun at a specific range. We need to pattern at the ranges we intend to shoot, and want a maximum effective spread at that range as shown by the pattern board.

To show how absurd some of the conventional "wisdom" has become; some of our soldier of fortune "home defense cowboys" suggests heavy buckshot loads and extra-full chokes for "home defense." If only they would bother to get some rudimentary training, or fire a 1 ounce .010 in. constriction load of #6 shot into a phonebook at 5 yards, they would quickly understand that at very close ranges shotshell patterns are not "patterns" at all, functioning as one solid glob of shot with a very small spread, even from guns with no choke constriction at all. So it goes, a story for another day.

Having the good fortune to start my shotgunning at a very early age (I owned a shotgun before I had a BB gun) and growing up on an Illinois farm, by now I have over twelve hundred wild pheasants in the meat locker. I can tell you that there is nothing better than a heavy payload of #5 shot and a 60% to 70% 40 yard pattern percentage for a good rooster load.

Consider that for years #4 lead was a standard for mallards, with generally exposed torsos. A flushing pheasant usually wants to get the heck out of Dodge, and is more inclined to show you tail feathers and his back than to give you an exposed passing shot. Though #6 shot has been used for years, #5 shot absolutely gives less runners.

To have a 100% recovery rate on a pheasant, you need to break a wing and a leg. If he falls dead, so much the better, but even if he has a few seconds of life left in him he is anchored for good and can't burrow down in tall grass or move over a few corn rows.

You'll often read about #7-1/2 shot for pheasants, which is suitable only for pen raised birds in my opinion. Conversely, you'll often read #4 shot for "late season" pheasants. A good shot size, to be sure, but pheasants don't read the season dates. A smart pheasant is still a smart pheasant on opening day, smarter than a coyote, and wild flushes are common for mature, savvy roosters at any time of the season. #4 shot is good, but for long range shooting you have significantly less pellets per ounce with which to properly populate your pattern. # 4 has about 135 (2% antimony) pellets per ounce, while # 5 shot runs about 171 pellets per ounce. You'll need better than a 25% heavier payload to have the same pellet count.

A 2-3/4 in., 1-3/8 oz. 12 gauge Fiocchi Golden Pheasant load is fabulously effective throughout the season. To get the same pellet count with #4 shot you'll need to go to 3 inch shells to get the same maximum effective spread at the same range.

The lethality of a pellet (a round ball load) is often defined by energy, but more correctly it is the ability of the pellet to penetrate that counts. Energy values are easier to calculate than penetration ability, so that is why they are mentioned here, just as incorrectly as anywhere else. Let's take a peek at energy and drop at range, every bit as important in pellet selection as counting holes in paper.

#9 shot launched at 1200 fps has only about 7/10th of a ft. lb. of energy left at 40 yards; #7-1/2 has 1.3 ft. lbs., #6 2.2 ft. lbs., and #5 3.1 ft. lbs. Phrased differently, #5 shot has far more energy at 60 yards (2.2 ft. lbs.) than # 8 shot has at 20 yards (1.7 ft. lbs.). With perhaps the exception of quail, #8 or #9 shot is best left to the skeet field. #7-1/2 is reasonable for dove and other extremely fragile birds, with #6 good for medium birds at medium ranges. #6 shot performs poorly on pheasants except at short range. (You can place about as much energy per #5 shot pellet into a pheasant at 40 yards as you can with #6 shot at 20 yards.) Insufficient penetration means lost or crippled birds.

So, to summarize what I've experienced over the last forty years, most hunters could bag more birds more cleanly and more quickly by never using payloads less than one ounce on anything, opting for a better pattern efficiency through a combination of quality shot, shells, and chokes as proven by pattern testing in their own gun. Further, you will likely bag more birds with heavier payloads and larger shot sizes than are often recommended. You are probably a better shot than you think you are; your patterns have likely been crippling your performance.

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Copyright 2006 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.