Best Shotgun Ammunition for Bird Hunting

January 8, 2021
Best Shotgun Ammunition for Bird Hunting

Shotguns are the only viable firearm for bird hunting, as you can load them with birdshot; shells loaded with a large number of small pellets, designed explicitly for birds and small animals. When fired, the pellets spread and form a dense pattern, increasing the chances of hitting the animal. In the United States, the two most common forms of bird hunting are upland hunting and waterfowl hunting. You can do virtually all forms of bird hunting with one or two shotguns, such as your favorite 12 gauge or 20 gauge, so long as you use the right chokes and ammunition. However, not all shotgun ammunition is created equal. Depending on the types of bird you intend to hunt, you may need to keep different shot sizes at hand. Also, specific local, state, and federal laws and regulations prevent the use of lead projectiles in certain circumstances, requiring you to use lead-free ammunition instead. In 1991, federal legislation passed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting nationwide. Despite some confusion on the subject in 2017, this federal law is still in place. The State of California banned lead ammunition for all forms of hunting in 2013, citing environmental concerns.

Doves, Quails, Partridges

Ammunition for Bird Hunting

For the smallest upland game, such as doves, quails, and partridges, keeping the shot size as small as possible is essential to avoid damaging – if not entirely vaporizing – the meat. Quails, in particular, are quick and prone to taking flight as soon as it senses danger. Using a lightweight and handy shotgun paired with an adequate load is the best for hunting these birds. Although a 12 gauge works fine, 20 gauge and 28 gauge are ideal. In 12 gauge, the Federal Game Load Upland Heavy Field #7.5 is an ideal choice. These shells employ the #7.5 brass-plated lead shot, a size between #7 and #8 with a pellet diameter of approximately 0.095 inches. With a muzzle velocity of 1220 ft/s, a payload weight of 1.25 oz, and a shell length of 2.75”, these shotgun shells produce relatively tame recoil and are suitable for use in lighter 12 gauge shotguns. If you own a 20 gauge shotgun, the Game Load Upland Heavy Field #7.5 is also available in this gauge. The payload of the 20 gauge version is 1 oz. If you need a suitable lead-free alternative, Winchester Super-X Xpert Game & Target #7 uses steel shot. Steel has a lower density than lead, requiring larger pellets and higher velocities to achieve equivalent results. This 12 ga. shell is also 2.75”, and although it offers a relatively high muzzle velocity of 1325 ft/s, the reduced weight of the payload – just 1 oz – keeps the recoil low and manageable. This Winchester Super-X load is also available in 20 gauge (0.75 oz payload) and 28 gauge (0.625 oz).


Turkeys are large birds with thick feathers and a tall, exposed head and neck. Aiming at the upland bird’s broadside with a shotgun may wound and mangle the animal, as its thick feathers and relatively large size may prevent pellets from reaching the vital organs. It is preferable to aim at the head or neck instead, as it offers a much greater chance of a humane kill. For these reasons, turkey hunters usually choose 12 gauge or 20 gauge shotguns equipped with a tight choke, extending the effective range and reducing the risk of being spotted. With the right combination of load and choke, it is possible to hit a turkey with a shotgun at distances of up to 40 yards. When choosing ammunition for bird hunting, most hunters consider turkey loads in a category of their own. Recommended shot sizes range between #6 and #4. There are multiple schools of thought on which turkey loads are most effective. Some believe that the higher pellet count of a #6 provides a greater chance of hitting the turkey’s neck, others believe in the higher lethality of the larger #4 shot size.

Winchester Long Beard

Many believe one of the best turkey loads available today is Winchester Long Beard XR. Available only in 12 gauge, Long Beard XR is available in #4, #5, or #6 shot sizes, in 2.75”, 3” or 3.5” shell lengths. The 3-inch #6 version offers a muzzle velocity of 1200 ft/s and a payload of 1.75 ounces. Winchester Long Beard XR shells feature unique Shot-Lok technology, which binds high-density copper-plated lead pellets together using a proprietary liquid resin. This resin protects the pellets from deformation but disintegrates when fired, allowing higher downrange performance and increasing the maximum effective range to 60 yards.

Hevi-Shot Magnum Blend

If you need a lead-free alternative with similar effectiveness, Hevi-Shot Magnum Blend has you covered. Available only in 3” or 3.5” shell lengths, Hevi-Shot Magnum Blend is available in #5, #6, and #7 shot sizes for 20 gauge, 12 gauge, and 10 gauge shotguns. The 12 gauge 3” #6 version delivers 2 ounces of tungsten-iron pellets at a muzzle velocity of 1200 ft/s.

Small Ducks and Pheasants

Although pheasants are not strictly speaking waterfowl, it isn’t uncommon for them to nest themselves near other birds, including waterfowl birds such as duck and grouse. A duck hunt can occasionally become a pheasant hunt as well, should the opportunity arise. Pheasants are approximately the same size as smaller ducks, allowing hunters to use the same loads on both. One of the best pheasant loads available on the market is Kent Bismuth Upland, available in 12 gauge, 16 gauge, and 20 gauge, 2.75” or 3” shell lengths, in #5 and #6 shot sizes. The 12 gauge, 3”, #5 version delivers a 1.5 oz payload of bismuth shot at a muzzle velocity of 1350 ft/s. Bismuth is slightly less dense than lead, but the difference is smaller than with steel shot, and it is far less expensive than tungsten, keeping the overall cost of Kent Bismuth ammunition lower than tungsten shotshells.

Medium-sized waterfowl

Medium-sized waterfowl include most duck species, such as mallards and pintails. The 1991 lead shot ban and the larger size of these birds mean that hunters need to use larger shot sizes to score humane kills. #2 steel is one of the most common choices, providing a good compromise of shot size and pellet count while also being legal for waterfowl hunting. If you want one of the best #2 steel shotshell loads available, Fiocchi Flyway Series #2, notably the 12 gauge, 3” version, features a 1.2 oz payload of #2 zinc-plated steel, fired out of the muzzle at 1550 ft/s. It is effectively a high-velocity shell that may generate more recoil and perform well in the field.

Swans, Large Ducks, and Geese

The largest waterfowl species include most swans and geese and larger duck species, such as eaves, harlequins, and other seaducks. Engagement distances against large waterfowl typically range between 30 and 55 yards, typically while the bird is in flight. These requirements call for powerful shells, loaded with large shot size and high powder charges, to ensure sufficient amounts of penetration. One of the most effective large waterfowl shotshells available today is Federal Premium Black Cloud. This brand is available in 20 gauge, 12 gauge, and 10 gauge, in various single or blended shot sizes. One of the better choices is the 12 gauge BB shot 3.5” version, featuring a 1.5 oz payload and a muzzle velocity of 1500 ft/s. Federal Black Cloud shells are composed of 40% FLITECONTROL steel pellets, providing performance at extended ranges, and 60% regular premium steel pellets, ensuring consistent penetration and wound channels.

Parting Shots

No matter which form of bird hunting you partake in, all of them require some thought in ammunition choice. Regular target shooting and value-pack shotgun shells may not always cut it. Make sure to select the correct loads for the right game, and you will be able to bring delicious meals to the table for you and your family. At IFA Tactical, we are committed to helping hunters of all ages and experience levels find the shotguns, ammunition, and accessories they need. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at (586) 275-2176.

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