Skip to main content

What Shotgun Load Should You Use for Each Hunt?

A shotgun might be the most universal hunting weapon ever devised.

Pick the right load for your game and you're all set.

Whether you're hunting doves or bears at close range, a shotgun is very versatile. If you use the wrong load, though, a hunt could go bad quickly.

We'll start with the very smallest game one might hunt with a shotgun. Then, we'll progress up to the very largest and suggest the right loads for each specific hunt.

1. Dove and quail

dove hunting

When hunting dove and quail, it's best to pick No. 7, 7.5 or 8 shot. Anything bigger creates gaps in the shotgun patterns the birds might fly through. Also, the larger shot might tear up the birds too much. Any shotgun bore or gauge size is suitable given distance accommodations. Remember, a tiny .410-bore shotgun won't reach out as far as a 12-gauge will.

2. Rabbit and squirrel

Rabbit Hunting

No. 6 lead shot has been the go-to shot size for rabbits and squirrels for as long as anyone can remember. For higher treetop squirrels, larger shot like No. 5 shot is perfect. Many hunters prefer also the even-larger No. 4 shot, but remember as the shot size goes up, you also have less pellets and more holes in your distance patterns.

Fire a test shot pattern into a sheet of paper at different distances and see what shot size works well in your shotgun. Rabbits don't require a magnum load or heavy game load, but squirrel shots way up in a tree can use such a load. An improved cylinder choke is great for rabbits, but go full choke for squirrels.

3. Ducks

For waterfowl loads, nontoxic shot such as steel, tungsten, bismuth or others have replaced lead shot by federal law. The best way to hunt duck-sized birds is by using No. 2 steel shot in a magnum load.

4. Geese

Geese also require nontoxic shot by law. It takes a lot to knock these tough game birds out of the sky. Plan on using BB shot or close to it for maximum knockdown power on the big honkers. Magnum loads are the name of the game.

5. Turkey

Turkey hunting with a shotgun comes down to blasting the gobbler in the head and neck with as much shot as possible. These notoriously hard-to-kill birds can take body hits of shot and keep on going. A tightly choked larger-gauge shotgun is best, but choose your turkey loads wisely. No. 4, 5 or 6 shot in buffered magnum loads is a safe bet. Aim small and miss small when shooting at these birds!

6. Coyotes and other predators

Coyote Hunting

Coyotes are best targeted up close with buckshot-sized loads. Smaller buckshot loads like No. 4 Buck will carry many pellets out to the critter and still pack a punch a ways out. A 12-gauge shotgun is perfect for this role using 3-inch magnum loads or even the larger 3.5-inch loads if your shotgun is chambered for them.

7. Deer

Travis Smola

Deer hunting is usually with shotgun slugs. Soft-lead, Foster-style slugs are the classic choice from smooth-bore shotguns. If you have a rifled barrel, sabot slugs increase accuracy and give you a better projectile to launch with better accuracy. Don't fire lead Foster slugs from a rifled barrel. They'll be inaccurate and foul the rifling badly with lead deposits.

Buckshot might be legal in some areas. Larger sizes are recommended, such as 00 Buck for large deer. Pattern your shotgun before you hunt and only use this method for short-range hunting where it's legal. Shotgun slugs are a better choice.

8. Bears and wild boar

Deep-penetrating shotgun slugs are the go-to here. A rifled 12-gauge shotgun barrel firing hot sabot slug loads is a good choice for short range. Leave the buckshot at home. You need all the skull-penetrating power you can get. Make sure you can hit your target, though! Your shots truly might be in self-defense.

Do you like articles about the outdoors? Click here to view more articles by Eric Nestor. You can follow him @ericthewoodsman on Twitter, The Classic Woodsman on Facebook, and @theclassicwoodsman on Instagram.  You can view more Nestor Photography photos at Nestor Photography.  


What Shotgun Load Should You Use for Each Hunt?