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What Shotgun Load Should You Use For Each Hunt?

From small game like rabbits to waterfowl like ducks and geese, to big game like whitetail or even bear, shotguns could be the most versatile hunting weapon out there. For over a hundred years, shotguns have been the weapon of choice for many sportsmen and women. One characteristic that makes it versatile is the ability to use different shotgun loads depending on the game you're hunting.

With the right load, a shotgun can be as efficient for deer at close range as it is for doves flying over you. But if you fail to understand which loads works best, you could watch a hunt turn bad in a hurry. We'll start with the smallest game one might hunt with a shotgun and progress into some of the larger game species, highlighting the most effective load for each.

Shotgun Loads for Dove & Quail

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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.

Rabbit & Squirrel Shotgun Loads

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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, a more powerful shot like No. 5 is perfect. Many hunters also prefer the even-larger No. 4 shot, but remember, as the shot size increases, you also have fewer 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.

Shotgun Loads for Ducks

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For waterfowl loads, nontoxic shot such as steel, tungsten, bismuth, or others have replaced lead shot by federal law, and the shot size you choose could vary greatly depending on the type of ducks you are going after.

The No. 6 shot will be most effective for smaller-sized ducks such as Teal. For medium-sized ducks such as wood ducks or gadwalls, No. 4 & No. 3 shot will likely serve you best. For more giant ducks such as mallards and canvasbacks, I prefer using the No. 2 shot.

Good Shotgun Loads for Geese

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Honkers require more knockdown power than you might think. These birds are challenging, and if you're hunting flooded fields going after specks or Canadians, you will want to use either No. 1 or BB shot. A modified choke is most commonly used for these birds. But a full choke is typically the way to experience the fun of passing geese.

Use Turkey Shotgun Loads Wisely

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When turkey hunting, the objective is to concentrate as many pellets as you can around the neck and head of the gobbler. For a long time, the 12 gauge was considered the standard for hunting turkeys, as the power and range seemed necessary for a bird of this size. The 12 gauge was often accompanied by a No. 4 shot that would have tremendous knockdown power.

There has been a dramatic shift in the past few years as more and more hunters are trading out their 12 gauge for smaller calibers such as 20 gauge and even .410s. One of the many reasons for this transition was TSS loads. Typically used with No. 7 and No. 9 shot, these loads feature insanely high pellet counts and denser pellet material, allowing turkey hunters to reach Toms at greater distances than they could with their 12 gauges.

Coyotes (and Other Predators)

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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 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.

Best Shotgun Loads for Deer

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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.

Although not as accurate at further ranges, buckshot can be expected in states that allow this load. Ideally, 00 buckshot will be your best option and the most ethical load for a quick death. Make sure you 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.

Using Shotguns to Hunt Bears and Boar

shotgun load

a grizzly bear in Denali National Park Alaska in autumn

Using a shotgun on a bear hunt isn't your first option, as you'll likely want a rifle that can reach out well beyond 100 yards for stalking-style hunts. However, shotguns have made great treestand hunting weapons for black bears and wild boars.

Deep-penetrating shotgun slugs are the go-to here. A rifled 12-gauge shotgun barrel firing hot sabot slug loads is an excellent short-range choice. Leave the buckshot at home. Black bears and wild boars have impressive shields that do a great job hiding their vitals, so you'll need all the bone-crushing power you can get. Make sure you can hit your target, though! Your shots, indeed, might be in self-defense.

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