By Phil Bourjaily
The right shot size strikes a balance between pattern density and pellet energy. Your shell should put enough shot in the air to ensure multiple hits on a bird, and each of those pellets must carry enough energy to reach vital organs.
Choose a size that's too small and you'll have plenty of pattern density, but not enough pellet energy to penetrate deep enough for a clean kill. If, however, you select a shot size that's too big, you'll have pellets with more than enough energy but insufficient pattern density to ensure enough hits on the target.
A range of shot sizes will work for any bird. In fact, on the sides of ammo boxes there are little charts that offer different size recommendations. The following advice will help you narrow down those choices to pick the best size for your specific hunting needs.
Conventional wisdom recommends choosing the smallest shot size that will have adequate energy to cleanly kill the bird at the distance you're shooting. That's good advice. Using shot that packs more than "adequate" energy is theoretically unnecessary. Small shot translates into more pellets, and the more pellets in your pattern, the greater the chance of an instantly fatal head or neck shot. Having more pellets will also help fill out the fringes of the pattern, which means you'll bag more birds when you're not hitting with the center of the pattern. Denser patterns are likewise better for finishing cripples on the water when you have only the head and neck to shoot for.
Smaller shot works well with high-velocity loads that range between 1,675 and 1,700 fps, if you can stand the recoil. The extra velocity provides greater downrange energy, which makes smaller pellets almost, but not quite, the equal of the next size up in a slower load, especially at ranges inside 40 yards. And if you shoot a 20-gauge or even a 12-gauge with a 2 3/4-inch chamber, the higher pellet count of the smaller shot will make up for the limited hull capacity.
Although small shot has convention on its side, bigger pellets have advantages as well. Larger shot carries more energy, which is what you need when birds flare or slip away. This is especially important on windy days, when ducks can put a lot of distance between you and them in the time it takes you to stand up and shoot.
Larger pellets also make sense when you're using tighter chokes. The denser patterns will put enough pellets on target, provided you have the skill to consistently hit birds with the center of the shot swarm. Such pellet-choke combinations can be highly effective on birds that are flying straight away and offering small targets with vitals protected by flesh and bone.
Big shot works well in 3 1/2-inch 12- and 10-gauge guns with overbored barrels. These big guns handle extra-large goose loads especially well, and they have enough hull capacity to make good use of downrange energy and higher pellet counts.
Theory is fine, but you need to take your gun to the patterning board before you make a final decision. Keep in mind that pellet counts provide a better way to measure a pattern's effectiveness than do percentages. As a general rule, you should look for 60 or more hits in a 30-inch circle at the range you plan to shoot geese. You'll need 90 to 140 hits in the same circle for ducks, depending on the species. A pellet-choke combination that hits those numbers without being too dense in the center and sparse on the fringes is your best bet. Ultimately, the patterning process will not only help you find the best load for your hunting needs, but will also make you a better shot.
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