Shotgun shells come in a variety of gauges, lengths, shot sizes, and shot composition—a puzzling morass for new hunters to navigate. A cursory glance at the shelves of a typical sporting goods store reveals a different loadout for hunting just about any kind of winged game. Even narrowing that field to a specific kind of game presents dozens of choices, all suited for specific situations or species. Here’s a quick primer on selecting the right shells for every waterfowl hunting situation.
Start by gauge
This may seem obvious, but it’s a point worth noting for the new guy in the back. If you’re using a 12 gauge, don’t bother buying shells for a 20 gauge or a 10 gauge. Simple, but crucial.
Then, the shot composition
If you’re hunting waterfowl in the United States, lead shot is a no-go. Narrow your search to shells loaded with steel shot or a lead substitute such as bismuth or tungsten. The latter two will be orders of magnitude more expensive, but they deliver better range and penetration than conventional steel shot. Tungsten is the densest of the three options—the most similar in composition to lead—and the priciest.
Now, shell length
If you’re using a 12 gauge shotgun, you’ll have the choice between 2 3/4″, 3″, or 3 1/2″ shell lengths. Many modern shotguns can shoot up to 3 1/2″, but don’t assume that’s the case. Take a look at your shotgun before you go shopping to find the maximum shell length it can handle. It should be printed or engraved plainly on the receiver or barrel. Many older bird guns can only shoot 2 3/4″.
Finally, shot size
Here’s where things get a little more specific and dependent on your tastes as a hunter. Correctly choosing shot size—the diameter of the pellets inside the shell—can dramatically impact your lethality in the field.
Here are our suggestions for selecting the appropriate shot size, from largest to smallest:
F, T, BBB, and BB shot: It’s worth noting that the first two are all but obsolete. You may come across old F-shot or T-shot shells at an estate sale or in the bottom of an old boat box, but only BBB and BB shot are still commonly found on the shelves. Shot within this range is suited for hunting especially large birds like geese. The larger shot means there’s less of it in each shell, resulting in a thinner pattern. But the pellets’ increased mass means they’ll travel farther and penetrate deeper.
1, 2, and 3 shot: These are appropriate for larger ducks such as pintails, mallards, and wigeons. For a do-it-all choice, a hunter could get by using only 2 shot for every waterfowl species and still fare decently.
4, 5, and 6 shot: Earlier in the season, blue- and green-wing teal are on the move, as well as wood ducks. Late in the season, you may successfully call in a flock of northern diver ducks such as goldeneyes or buffleheads. All of these are small-bodied, fast-moving birds. These species don’t take much to bring down, so smaller pellets will do the job, but their speed and size make them a difficult target. Consider shot sizes ranging between 4s and 6s for a thicker shot pattern to improve your odds of success.
Quick tip: Load your shotgun so the first shell or two you’ll fire contain smaller shot (assuming the birds will be closer when you first fire), followed by shells with larger shot for extended range as the survivors fly away. Hunting with a double-barrel? Load one barrel with smaller shot and a wider choke such as an improved, and load the other with bigger shot and a tighter choke such as a modified.
Premium and proprietary options
A number of premium and proprietary shells are now available that put a new twist on old technology. Federal’s Black Cloud, for instance, delivers a unique shot design that looks vaguely like the planet Saturn. This is intended to deliver increased trauma to game while not disrupting the pellet’s straight flight pattern. Shells with blended shot sizes and composition have also entered the market in recent years. Don’t want to shell out 50 bucks for a box of bismuth shells? How about a fraction of the price for a fraction of the bismuth? Hevi-Shot’s Hevi-Hammer, for instance, tops off a shell full of traditional steel shot with a healthy dose of their bismuth shot to provide that extra little bit of punch without breaking the bank.