November is for bird hunting. Duck, pheasant, grouse, partridge and quail seasons are all open somewhere in the Intermountain West. And while a successful bird hunt is defined in many ways, part of the equation is for the hunter to correctly determine how far in front of a bird flying 30 mile per hours must pellets traveling at 1300 feet a second be placed. Although most hunters have long forgotten algebra, they regularly make this calculation in a millisecond.
Shotguns can be purchased in 410 bore (it would be a 67 gauge), 28 gauge, 20 gauge, 16 gauge, 12 gauge, and 10 gauge. The gauge represents the number of lead balls the diameter of the barrel it takes to make a pound. The bigger the gauge, the smaller the diameter of the shell. With few exceptions, most bird hunters head to the field carrying either a 12 or 20 gauge shotgun. These two guns are great choices as they are lethal, come in a variety of loads, and have shells that can be purchased in most rural sporting goods stores. The biggest difference between these two shotguns is the amount of shot in a standard shell. The smaller diameter 20 gauge shell will have 7/8th of an ounce of shot while the 12 gauge shell will have 1 1/8th ounce of shot.
The choice of pellet size will influence the number of pellets in the pattern. There are approximately 405 pellets per ounce of 8 shot compared to 255 for 6 shot. The high number of pellets makes 8 shot ideal for dove hunting as these small birds are less likely to fly through a pattern unscathed. Bigger birds such as pheasants and grouse would be equally likely to be hit by 8 shot but these smaller pellets often won’t penetrate deep enough to kill the bird. That’s why 1 ¼ ounce of 6 shot is a better choice. A greater number of larger pellets means a pheasant shot with this load will be more likely to hit the ground dead and that a dusky grouse won’t get that additional wing flap that carries it another 100 yards down the hill. This heavier load takes a 3-inch-long 20 gauge cartridge but can be found in a 2 ¾ inch 12 gauge shell.
Waterfowl hunters sometimes don’t think about how all this transfers to steel shot.
Because steel shot is lighter, there are 190 pellets per ounce of 4 shot compared to only 135 when using lead. The greater number of steel pellets make the pattern denser but the lack of weight reduces its knockdown power. This is why waterfowl hunters should use bigger shot compared to lead but that a 1 1/8 ounce load is sufficient.
The size and density of a pattern is controlled by the number of pellets, distance from the hunter, and choke of the gun. Choke refers to the constriction at the end of the barrel. Most people use too tight a choke when hunting. It is better to have a wider pattern and fill that space with more pellets. While a full choke will result in more clean kills if properly centered, it results in more misses at closer ranges.
The shotgun actions most people use are pumps, semi-automatics and double barrels. Pumps are ideal for younger hunters because they can’t immediately pull the trigger a second time so this reduces the chance of an accident. Hunters would harvest more small to mid-sized upland game birds (e.g. quail or chukar) if they used a semi automatic shotgun. This is because you don’t know when or how many birds will flush so double and triples are possible. In contrast, a double barrel shotgun is ideal for pheasants as roosters generally get up one at a time or for waterfowl where you are limited to three shots anyway. The biggest problem with trading between these types of shotguns, is their safety is in a different place. This costs me several birds each year as I misplace the safety when I change between these guns.
As you think about heading out to the field to bird hunt this fall, remember there are lots of choices that one can make to increase the likelihood of success. If you constantly come up with a reason why you can’t get out and hunt, however, you will never be able to determine if any of these choices mattered.