Pellet Size For Birds

Dear Bruce,

Recently I was reading a collection of Peter Capstick articles and in one he discusses the merits of finer shot as opposed to heavier shot. His conclusion was that the smaller shot was more effective as it gives a higher percentage of kills in the head and neck. (More shot=higher chance that one or two pellets will penetrate vital area) This is certainly true when waterfowling as most good duck hunters I know carry eights or nines to shoot wounded ducks on the water.

If smaller shot is more effective on the water, then why would it not be more effective in the air? Last year I went pheasant hunting and we used #5 just cause some one who had been before said it was best. Now after reading that article I am not sure since fives only have around 170 pellets per ounce and eights have double that. What is your opinion?

Secondly, if I am going to reload for pheasants or pigeons using eights or seven and a halfs, should I hot up my load beyond the three dram equivalent to a express type three and three quarter? (Using a valid recipe of course). By the by, the article was in “Death in Lonely Places” by Peter Hathaway Capstick.

Thanks. Keep up the good work!


Dear Jimmy,

Shot size selection is always a “hot stove” topic. Personally, I go all over the place on it. It isn’t that I can’t make up my mind, it’s just that I usually shoot what I have left over in my pockets or can borrow from one of my buddies.

However, if I had a choice, for pheasants, I like #5. Yes, I know you can kill them deader than dead with #7-1/2s and many people do, but I like #5s. I tend to hunt over flushers, not pointers, so some of my shots are longish and at the south end or a northbound rooster. That’s a lot of bird for the pellet go get through from the back end. Remember, a pheasant is bigger than most ducks and #5 lead was THE duck pellet way back when. If a guy has great pointers, cooperative pheasants, gets to shoot first and doesn’t mind eating shot, then I guess that #7-1/2s are just fine.

I know a couple of guys who shoot springer trials across the country. They are under a lot of pressure to drop the bird dead, but far enough out to give the dog a good retrieve. They use Federal Premium copper #5s because those can kill a pheasant from behind at a bit of distance.

In England THE game bird pellet is the famous British size 6 (American #7). They use it for everything upland, mostly driven pheasant and driven grouse. I haven’t shot driven pheasant over there, but can vouch that they work just fine on driven grouse. However, these are mostly head on and underneath shots at the most vulnerable part of the bird. They really don’t involve the going away shots we get in American pheasant hunting. It’s a much different thing.

When I hunt American grouse (a relatively soft bird and smaller than the Scottish grouse), I generally use #7-1/2s in my cylinder bore barrel and #6 in my Modified barrel. In 1940 William Harnden Foster liked #8s and so does one of today’s better known grouse writers, Steve Mulak. They feel that the shock power of multiple hits does better than the deep penetration of fewer hits. I won’t argue with them, but I have had such good luck with my system that I don’t want to change. With #6, you just walk over and pick your grouse up. There’s no hunting around.

For dove, I use #9s. No matter how high up they are, I use #9s. I’ve mentioned this before on the site, so I won’t go into too much detail now, but #9s were recommended to me by an excellent shot when we were down in Colombia. I tried #7-1/2s, #8s and #9s literally by the case. I got more clean kills, dead in the air, with #9s. So that’s what I use. The dove is a very soft bird, but its vitals aren’t very large, so fine shot seems best. It gives adequate penetration and has the advantage of high pellet count on the small target.

For pigeons at tower releases (when there aren’t shot size rules as there are in box birds) I like #6 because they allow me to poach on the guy two butts over (as he is doing equally gleefully to me).

As to “slapper” loads for downed duck, steel has changed all that. When a duck is in the water, but heads up, its back is heavily protected by its wings. Most of its vitals are under water, so the head is all that is left to shoot at. The spine and brain make a REAL small target. The problem isn’t penetration, it’s just getting enough pellets in your charge to get one or two into the head. That means fine shot. In steel, that is probably #6. I wouldn’t argue with #8s in the other heavier non-toxics. Either of these would give you plenty of penetration at 40 yards IF you could just get a couple into the head. That’s the hard part. A wounded duck on the water some distance out can be a real trial unless you have a good dog.

As to trying to have your cake (pellet count) and eat it too (penetration), the idea of using fine shot at high velocity is appealing. Unfortunately, it sounds better than it is. If you look at the retained energy numbers you will find that shot loses its velocity very quickly. The faster it starts out, the faster it loses its velocity. Pellets that start 200 fps faster do not end up 200 fps faster at 40 yards. Generally, going up in pellet size gets you much more retained energy at distance than increasing speed. High velocity also tends to damage more pellets due to setback so the patterns tend to open up, all things being equal. I also find that in my light game guns the heavy loads are harder to control for a second shot. I prefer to get my “power” from pellet size, not speed.

Also, by shooting normal velocity loads (around 1200 fps for lead upland, not steel), I come a little closer to shooting what I am used to when I shoot clay target loads. This way my clay target practice does me more good in the field. It isn’t perfect synergy, but it is closer than shooting clays with target loads and then switching to bazooka shells in the field.

So, on the bottom line, I guess that I am a bit more of a big pellet “penetration” advocate than I am a small pellet speed and “shock” advocate. Still, it’s personal preference for the most part. Use what you have faith in. If you don’ t have much luck, use what your buddies have faith in. Then no matter what happens, you will at least be able to borrow shells when you run out.

Best regards,

Bruce Buck
The Technoid writing for Shotgun Report, LLC
(Often in error, never in doubt.)

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3 Responses to Pellet Size For Birds

  1. Henry says:

    Hunting over Oban, I use target loads in both 12 or 28 gauge. The range is shorter and it just knocks them down knocked out. No pellets in the meat and madame is happy! When doing backup on our driven hill not tower shoots, Federal Max 5s were the best loads to knock the so way up that one could sometimes count to two. In South Africa, we were at over 3000 feet altitude. Everyone used 28Gr target loads at distances that a rifle shooter would use. GD would not shoot under 70 yards. The pigeons, rock pigeons and doves would have one shot kills. LM at that altitude was like Full. BTW, it is so much cheaper than South America. You pay your ammo and $1 to the kid retriever and $10 for the BBQ and beer. Too bad that I cannot post pictures!


  2. Robert Miller says:

    Bruce: Capstick is not much of a source. He was a great writer but not that much of a bird hunter. Based on those who knew him, he was very inclined to exaggerate or even make up most of his stories. My expert would be Ted Trueblood. He lived here in Idaho (where I live) in the 30s, 40’s, 50s, and 60’s and pheasants (and in later years chukar) as well as quail, grouse, and ducks were amazingly plentiful. He probably shot more wild pheasants in a year than most of todays writers will in a lifetime. He used 3 1/4 1 1/4 live pigeon loads for all birds except dove and quail. Mostly in later years in a modified choked model 12, although he used a Beretta o/u for a while. Of course he was an excellent hunter and shot, and probably did not shoot at birds at extreme range. However I am inclined to use 5 or 6 shot on pheasant and I sometimes use true 7s on other upland birds.


  3. jon bastable says:

    Good dissertation, Bruce! In SD this year I used 3″, #5,1/14 in my 20 ga. and they work fine. I’m shooting over a Golden that points, but most of the shots are relatively long, especially late in the season, when SD pheasants are very wary! I did manage a very luck shot when posting at the end of a tree grove – the shot had to be 45 yards straight up! And I missed several in the same grove…


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