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Choosing Shotgun Shells for Bird Hunting

shotgun loads for bird hunting
Troy Rodakowski

You want to choose your shotgun loads wisely. If that's the case, you also want to know these tips.

To Each Their Own

Which shotgun do you prefer? Do you shoot a 10, 12, 20, 28, 410 or maybe even a 16 gauge? Before picking the appropriate load for your desired gun, make sure to try several and pattern them. Shoot them at various ranges and see what looks best on paper. This is critical in deciding on which size load to use. Also, keep in mind the game you are pursuing. There are drastic differences between doves, quail and turkey.

Dove Hunting in Uruguay
Dove Hunting in Uruguay


I once talked to a "big time" waterfowl hunter, and he said that he consistently shot ducks and geese at 60 yards. Mind you he was using a 10 gauge gun and 3 1/2 inch shells. But more importantly, he explained to me how it took years of patterning to find just the perfect load recipe. Now, I'm not saying that normally patterning your gun will take a long time but it is very important. I have found some of the biggest variations at extended ranges with modern turkey loads. One brand of shell that has the same size pellets, same powder charge, length and shot weight can vary greatly.

Rooster Pheasant
Patterning your shotgun for smaller game birds is essential for increased success. Take these steps to improve your game.

The Loads

For wing shooters, practicing on the trap and skeet range is also beneficial. You can tell what really works when shooting moving targets. The skeet range is excellent if you are planning to shotgun rabbits and other small game. Federal, Remington, Winchester and now even Browning all have new shells out on the market. Using heavy game loads are what work best for larger animals such as rabbits, squirrels and others. Shot sizes #6 or larger are recommended. For waterfowl I like to use 3 inch #2-4's in Federal Black Cloud or Hevi Shot. Yet another great tool in patterning my guns and sighting in my rifles is the Bullseye Camera.

#4 Hevi Metal work well on teal, mallards and even geese at close range.
#4 Hevi Metal loads work well on teal, mallards and even geese at close range.

When hunting turkeys I like to load 3 1/2 inch #4 or #6's. At ranges over 40 yards I prefer using #4's. Several companies also now make loads specific for coyotes and medium sized game that can be effective out to nearly 100 yards.

Must Have

Each gun has a "must have" load as does the game you are intending to hunt. I recommend that each hunter/shooter have a variety of shot sizes available. For example, if you are shooting a 28 gauge and targeting pheasants make sure to have some #4 and #6 loads at your disposal. If the birds are flushing further away you might need to switch it up. Better to be safe than sorry.

For most other guns out there I recommend an assortment of loads ranging from #2's all the way to #8's. Make sure you have patterned all of them so you know how your gun will perform with each. Remember that the powder charge is also important whether you are shooting 2 3/4 inch shells or 3 1/2 inch. Shell size does matter in regards to the effectiveness of your pattern and pellet size. I can assure you that if you take the time to follow these simple steps you will find yourself putting more birds in your vest at the end of each hunt.

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Choosing Shotgun Shells for Bird Hunting