All About Pheasant Hunting

By Randy Wakeman

I was fortunate to grow up with a gun in my hand, having my first shotgun before I was in first grade. It was a Mossberg bolt action .410 bore. To me, at the time, is was a massive beast and although I carried it out to the dove field, my Dad carried it back to the car every night, every single night as he liked to remind me. Sure, I could make that old Mossberg go bang, I could break clay pigeons, but shouldering it was a struggle. I had no effect on the dove population whatsoever.

The next shotgun was a double-trigger, extractor only, Crescent .410 side-by-side with a cut-down stock. A .410 bore is a poor choice for just about everything and a miserable choice for pheasant hunting, but at least the gun fit me and I could shoulder it. As a result, I bagged my first roosters.

When I was a boy, growing up hunting with my father, grandfather and great-grandfather, the landscape was different. We did not use dogs, although we had dogs, cats and ponies as pets. Although we could have spent less time afield with bird dogs, farms were generally dirty, without being tiled, having wonderfully nasty fence rows. The corn rows were planted far enough apart where we walked standing corn. Pheasants had to fall dead and it was standard practice to shoot them once on the way up and once again on the way down, as that was the only path to 100 percent bird recovery.

Standard fare, back in the day, was 1-1/4 ounces of No. 6 lead shot at 1330 fps, either Super-X or Peters, and that was about all that was locally available. No. 5 shot is noticeably better and in 1984 John Brindle noted that "British No. 3 (American No. 4) . . . delivered from tightly patterning chokes is the best bet." John Brindle further noted that the combination of gun and ammunition should produce 75% to 80% patterns in the 30 inch circle at the farthest usual range at which the birds are taken. That isn't just 75-80% of any load, that's 75-80% of a 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 ounce payload.

John Brindle also had very clear advice for point of impact. He stated that a skeet gun should have its patterns six inches high at 20 or 25 yards, a game gun or sporting clays gun should have patterns that are six to eight inches high at 40 yards and an American singles trap gun not less than eight to 12 inches high at 40 yards.

Everyone will eventually decide what they prefer for themselves, but the 70/30 or 75/25 hunting gun has long been standard fare. Jack O'Connor, for example, wrote that 12 inches high at 40 yards, a 90/10 pattern, was the ideal pheasant gun point of impact.

There is solid basis for this approach. We lose about 10% of our pattern for every five yards past 40 yards, so that an 80% 40-yard pattern may now be a 60% pattern at 50 yards and a 50% pattern at 55 yards. Pheasants tend to rise, so a higher point of impact offers built-in vertical lead and, in addition, your pattern drops quickly at extended ranges.

The weight of a shotgun also needs attention. If you are walking and need to be ready all the time with the weight of the gun on your arms for hours, heavy guns are literally a drag. Somewhere between six and seven pounds is ideal, with 7-1/4 pounds right at the upper limit for most folks.

I was still quite young when I was able to rid myself of the .410 bore curse in the form of a High Standard Supermatic Trophy gas-operated 20 gauge with a three inch chamber. It fit me and with it I dropped a boatload of pheasants.

It was also a generally lousy, low quality gun; a single-shot more often than not, but one good pattern was more than I had ever had a chance to work with previously. The ideal "learning gun," again per John Brindle and many others, is the gas-operated twenty gauge autoloader. Brindle wrote, "Trapshooting apart, the best gun to use to teach anyone to shoot with is a gas-operated autoloader in 20 gauge, with a 26 inch Improved Cylinder barrel." Now that interchangeable screw-chokes are standard, it might be the only gun you ever want or need, except for the ugly intervention of steel shot that severely crimps the usefulness of the 20 gauge where lead is not allowed, if you are unwilling to pay for tungsten loads.



Old habits die hard, and that was the case with my Dad, who shot a standard weight Browning Automatic-Five (28 inch, plain barrel, Modified choke) for much of his adult life. When I was a kid, Dad often had a pair of roosters on their way down before I got my gun to my shoulder. Later, when I used a 6-1/4 pound 20 gauge Browning B-80 more than any other shotgun for wild pheasants, the tables were turned. "You were just a quarter second too fast" was something I heard a lot.

It was 1994 and the Browning Gold Twenty Gauge had just come out. Dad finally broke down and got one. He liked to complain that he spent an extra fifty dollars on it, because the one at Mega-Sports fit him better than others he had tried. It got a trigger job and a better recoil pad and the first eleven times my Dad fired that gun while hunting resulted in eleven pheasants that fell dead and that was that. It was easily his favorite and most used shotgun until the day he died. Not just pheasants, but also turkey and it went to Argentina as well. A lighter, faster gun can roll back the clock for you by twenty years.


My buddy Dave is an accomplished marksman, expert gunsmith and works very long hours at retail. Dave wanted to go pheasant hunting and the day that was available to him was bitterly cold, windy and there was waist high snow in some areas. It was one of those forlorn days in January, with blown-down cover and a generally sparse landscape. The wind picked up overnight, there was a lot of snow drifting, but we decided to go, along with the help of Frisco, Dad's Brittany. I did not expect much action, but you never can tell.

We were walking past a frozen pond and a rooster decided to run across the ice (a comical sight in itself) and hide in a large brush pile. We trudged towards the brush pile, the dog more or less tunneled, and the rooster shot straight up out of that brush pile, flying vertically, snow flying all over the place. Had the rooster just run out of the brush pile on the other side, we never would have seen him and had he flown away from us there would have been no shot. Dave was actually closer to the bird and I yelled, "Shoot, Shoot!" However, Dave had not bothered to shoulder his gun.

I emptied my gun, hitting that rooster three times, his torso blown backward with every shot and he fell dead on the ice with a loud thud. Dave decided I was crazy, killing a pheasant at "100 yards," or so he said. Well, it was a perfectly exposed shot, unusually so and, no, it was not 100 yards. It was every bit of 85 yards, though, and I did not have the heart to tell Dave I was using 1-7/8 ounces of buffered #4 shot, along with my best extended turkey choke. It just pays to be prepared, that's all.


Chris is an outstanding shot. Whenever there were race games under the lights, there was Chris. If it was skeet and trap at Downers or sporting clays at Seneca, there was Chris. Even when there was a stop at Des Plaines Conservation area, there was Chris. Chris did not hunt, but he was interested. His shotguns were competition guns, but he did buy a lighter Beretta 687 just for pheasant hunting.

I took him pheasant hunting and when a bird got up within his range, I did not shoot. Unfortunately, neither did Chris. "I wasn't ready," was the refrain. After watching half a dozen healthy but evil Chinese Communist pheasants fly away without a shot being fired, that was enough. It is a combination of the "dead gun" syndrome that sometimes goes with pre-mounted target shooting and "he who hesitates is lost."


Another friend, a different Dave, was not happy. He had just emptied his checking account on a Benelli Ultra Light, only to discover its recoil was far too painful to make it through a single round of sporting clays. Certainly not all inertia guns are quite that brutal, but if you cannot stand to practice with your hunting gun it is not a plus. That Benelli was sent packing in a hurry.


Brother-in-law Bruce normally did pretty well in the field, as long as he was using his Remington 870 Wingmaster pump gun. However, he needed an "upgrade," (you know how it is) and bought a new Beretta over/under with E's and L's in the model name; a beautiful gun.

The problem was the nearly flush mounted tang safety, a royal pain to get off with cold or gloved hands. After shooting a hot steaming pile of nothing with his new high-grade Beretta, it was back to the old Wingmaster. Gun fit matters, but so do the controls. Poor gun fit or poor controls will help make you an unintentional expert in pheasant conservation.


We have come a very long way from the 1750's fowling gun, a single shot 16 gauge with a 42 inch barrel. By 1870, though, the popular British gun was a 12 gauge side-by-side, weighing seven to 7-1/2 pounds, throwing 1-1/8 ounce payloads for game and 1-1/4 ounces for trapshooting.

The most important factor in selecting a pheasant gun is your personal comfort and confidence. Comfort in the action type, comfort in the reliability, comfort in carrying, comfort in shouldering, comfort with where it shoots, comfort with the pattern it throws, comfort with the controls, comfort with the way it fits you, comfort with normal maintenance, and so on. There is no correct shotgun or perfect shotgun, there is only what is right for you. After we get all the comfort stuff out of the way, we can just go hunting.

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Copyright 2017 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.