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What Shotgun Should I Use for ?????

by Rick Rappe (

Early in the development of what we've come to know as the shotgun, hunters of ducks and other gamebirds used a variety of methods to sneak up on game "on the set" and fire a charge of rocks, and later lead pellets at single or entire flocks of birds before they could fly off. Heavy, cumbersome guns with primitive ignition systems made "shooting flying" impractical if not impossible.

It wasn't until the development of systems such as the flintlock in the 18th century, that the ability to fire at moving/flying game began to be a practical form of hunting.

Here in America, while we have romanticized notions about the Colt and the Winchester as the "Guns that won the West", the strongest argument can be made that the real tool of the pioneer was the shotgun. With a single gun, a frontiersman could feed himself and family, keep "critters" out of the vegetable garden plus do an adequate job of defense from hostiles. Loaded with a single ball, the shotgun at short range made a credible tool for deer and even larger game.

Over the last 200 years or so, shotguns which, with one modern exception, are classified in "gauges", have come in a variety of bore sizes from the massive 4 gauge (and larger) "punt guns" used in the last century by market hunters to fire at large flocks of "sitting ducks" to the diminutive .22 rimfire shot loads.

A gauge is a comparatively primitive form of measurement of the number of pure lead balls fitting the bore size that equal one pound. For example, a gun in which 12 lead balls that just fit down the barrel were to weigh one pound, is a 12 gauge. Said differently, the bigger the gauge number, the smaller the hole because it takes more balls to weigh one pound.

The one common exception to the gauge measurement is the .410 shotgun, which is actually a bore diameter designation.

Today, the commonly encountered shotgun ammunition sizes are (smallest to largest), the .410, 28, 20, 16, 12, and 10.

Before we outline the hunting applications of each gauge, there are two other points the novice must understand: Chokes, and shot pellet sizes

Shot Sizes

The presumption is that the reader understands that the shotgun typically fires a load of small pellets rather than a single projectile (bullet) as does a rifle. Historically, these pellets have been made of lead, but due to evidence (subject to debate) that ducks in particular are ingesting lead pellets from the bottom of lakes and marshes and contracting lead poisoning, in the USA, waterfowl hunters are now required to use non-toxic shot (steel).

The novice looking over gauge and shot pellet size alternatives within each gauge needn't be bewildered. Speaking of lead shot only for the moment, one needs only to remember that just the opposite as with gauge sizes, the bigger the number (shot size) the smaller the size of the individual pellets. Typically, larger pellets are used for larger quarry.

The smallest pellet size normally used for hunting is the size 8, typically used for game the size of quail or dove. Size 7 1/2 or 6 are used for many upland species such as grouse or pheasants. Size 5 and 4 are often recommended for pheasants shot at greater distance (larger pellets, because they are heavier, retain their velocity better and so killing power over distance is greater than the smaller sizes), where lead is legal, #4s or 5s are commonly used for ducks, with lead 2s or the still larger BB size used for the largest of birds such as Canada geese.

Still occasionally encountered, are shotgun shells loaded with "buck shot", so called because the pellets are large enough to take game like deer. These sizes range from #4 buck to the largest size #00, referred to as "double aught buck". (I mention here that there are single projectile shotgun loads, typically referred to as slugs, or rifled slugs that are far more efficient on deer sized game than buck shot.)

Because "steel shot" (actually an iron alloy) is much less heavy than lead, larger pellets are needed to provide the same individual pellet energy. As a general rule, duck hunters who might have used lead 6's are counseled to move up two shot sizes (#4) when switching to steel. Because long range duck and goose hunters needed steel loads with sufficient pellet energy, new steel sizes that fit between lead BB and #4 buck have appeared with letter designations such as T and F.

*source: FAQ's for