Shot Shells

Kevin Michalowski for

Know what you need to succeed for pheasant hunting in South Dakota.

Boots? Check. Dog? Check. Orange vest? Check. Hotel reservations? Check. Shotgun? Check. Shells? Check?

Shotgun shells. Just grab some and throw them in the duffle bag right? Wrong. When it comes to pheasant hunting, all shotgun shells are not created equal. The subtle differences that show up only as numbers printed on the box can mean the difference between bulging game bag and long walks in the grass in pursuit of wounded roosters. To make things even more complicated, ammunition requirements change depending on when and how you hunt and even on what type of shotgun youíre using. How do you sort your way through the maze? Read on, youíll learn why and how the right shotgun shell could make or break your hunt.

Bird hunting is not cheap. The last thing you need is substandard gear on the hunt of a lifetime. So itís odd that each year thousands of hunters spend millions of dollars on hunting trips and simply reach for the first (and cheapest) shells they see in the store. Bargain shells are no bargain if you have to use twice as many to bring down a limit of birds. Look past the promotional specials on the end caps of the Big Box stores. Those shells for $3 or $4 per box are not what you need. The shot charges are too light. The power is substandard and the lead they sling is soft and imperfect, meaning your shot pattern will likely have holes in it big enough for a rooster to fly right through. Use those cheap shells for target practice if you must, but when it comes time to hunt reach for the premium loads.

Every major ammo manufacturer makes a premium line of shotshells and the most important benefit these shells provide is better shot. The lead pellets in premium ammo (weíll talk about non-toxic shot later) are harder and more uniformly round than the pellets in the cheaper stuff. This means the pellets suffer less deformity as they are shoved out through the full choke ahead of several thousand pounds of force. Deformed pellets donít fly as straight; they donít provide the uniformly dense pattern required knock a flying pheasant from the sky quickly and cleanly. And make no mistake about it Ė youíve usually got to put several pellets into a bird to insure that when it hits ground it does not immediately take off running.

What you need and when you need it Now that youíve opted for the top-shelf rounds, there are still plenty of options left to confuse you. The first is shot size. On this topic everyone has an opinion. Lots of people love No. 4 shot because it is big, heavy and hits hard. Lots of people love No. 6 shot because it is heavy enough and provides even more pellets per ounce to increase your odds of putting some of those pellets into the vital area of a bird. No. 5 shot is a good compromise. The truth is you should choose your shot size based on when and where you will be hunting. Here are some good suggestions.

If you are hunting early season birds on a shooting preserve you can use No. 6 or even No. 7.5 shot and still be confident that if you shoot reasonably straight the birds will fall nicely. Pen-raised birds, especially those hunting in September and early October are not particularly tough to kill. They have thin skin and usually flush pretty close to the gun.

Come opening day of the regular season move up to No. 5 shot or a heavy load of No. 6, especially if you expect to be chasing wild birds. Birds that have dodged predators and battled the elements all year throw a new wrinkle into fabric of the hunt. They are tougher. The will run, flush wild, scramble through the toughest cover they can find and generally do anything they can to put something between themselves and their pursuer. Raise your power level a notch for these birds.

As the season wears on start thinking about No. 4 shot, especially when the snow flies. Birds coming into a South Dakota winter are more densely feathered and have a tougher hide. They also have gotten really wily when it comes to strange stomping noises in the grass. With each passing day they seem to flush farther and farther from the gun. No. 4 shot hits a bit harder at longer range. It is no magic pill that will allow you drop every pheasant at 50 yards, but it will give you some added power when you need it.

All that other stuff The shot charge, measured in ounces, and the velocity, measured in feet per second (fps) round out your shotshell power triangle. Typically more of each is better, but the laws of physics being what they are we all have to make some compromises. Ideally, a heavy payload of shot, going really fast, gives you enough pellets and enough power to bring down the birds. Read the boxes before you buy. Hereís what youíll typically see on a box of shells. I chose Federal Premium Wing-Shok because I had the information handy and they make a donation to Pheasants Forever with every box of shells sold.

Their 12-gauge, 2-3/4-inch is throwing 1-1/4 ounces of lead at 1400 fps. That is a hard-hitting round and all the major ammo companies are making something similar. Anything in that vicinity will do just fine.

What about steel? Pheasant hunting on public land in South Dakota requires the use of non-toxic shot. Any of the new polymer-matrix-bismuth super waterfowl loads will work, but they may be a bit potent for pheasants. On the other hand, any good quality steel shot that is roughly two shot sizes larger than the lead shot you would typically use will bring down pheasants. If you are shooting No. 5 lead, switch to No. 3 or No. 2 steel when you move to public land. You should also switch to a more open choke when shooting steel. This is not because steel will hurt your barrel, but because steel patterns differently. Start with a modified choke and shoot at a patterning board from 30 yards. If you donít have a nice even pattern, try the improved cylinder. You wonít know were the pellets are going until you put them on paper.

It may seem complicated, but choosing the right shotshell for you pheasant hunt is one of the little details that can make a big difference. Remember, the success of your trip depends on an ounce of lead pellets. Thatís no place to skimp.

Kevin Michalowski is an outdoor writer who hunts in South Dakota every year.

— Published July 15, 2013   » Email this » Print this

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