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Buckshot Today

By Ralph M. Lermayer

Buckshot Today

There are only three reasons for anyone to be reading an article on buckshot. First is if you’ve never used buckshot on deer, and are curious. Second, you may wonder about buckshot’s application for defense against dangerous critters. Third, you hunt ultra-thick brush, possibly with dogs running deer, and buckshot is one of your best options.

There have been some recent changes in buckshot performance, as well as a better understanding of how to get the most from your shotgun. It’s to such users that these thoughts are directed.

We need to start by understanding the philosophy, applications and limitations of buckshot. The objective is to deliver a small cluster of either nine or 12 small round balls in as controlled a pattern as possible with just one shot. These are relatively large balls when compared to conventional shot. Sizes range from No. 4 buckshot at .240 inch, up to 000 buckshot at .360 inch.

For animals larger than coyotes, I believe that only 0, 00 and 000 buckshot should be used. Of these, 00 is perhaps the best for general work. In the past, getting these larger balls to pattern was a problem. Uncoated lead spheres would batter each other and deform on their trip down the bore. This led to ragged and unpredictable patterns, and resulted in many folks going to smaller shot that turned in tighter groups.

Times have changed. New wadding and buffer technology as well as plated pellets protect those spheres and deliver better, more consistent patterns.

Buckshot Today
This pattern of 00 buck fired from an extra-full-choked Mossberg 835 at 25 yards is what you should strive for in buckshot performance.

With bigger shot also comes improved downrange performance and impact performance. Velocity is very close to the same for all 12-gauge buckshot sizes, so the bigger, heavier spheres deliver more punch by virtue of their weight.

The average 2 3/4-inch 00 buckshot load will carry nine pellets; a 3-inch load about 12. The object is for each of these pellets to remain with the others, holding its velocity as long as is practical. Velocity in shotshells is determined by the total weight of the load. A 3 1/2-inch shell with 15 pellets will actually move slower than a 2 3/4-inch shell pushing nine balls down the bore. But even under these extremes, buckshot velocities are relatively slow, running from 1,100 fps to about 1,300 fps at best. With the velocity side of the equation so limited, pellet weight is the main factor in delivered energy.


Round spheres are ballistic misfits. They deliver everything they have within 25 to 50 yards, depending on the load, then slow down drastically. Often, they pattern well at longer ranges, sometimes holding in tight clusters out to 70 yards, leading people to believe they are effective at that distance. Not so.

Regardless of the load, buckshot is unpredictable beyond 40 yards. It’s low in retained energy and will wound and lose more game than it delivers at that distance. Yes, there have been instances where buckshot has dropped deer at longer ranges, but for every such lucky break, dozens of deer have been wounded and lost. With standard buckshot loads, 40 yards is the outer limit. With the new Hevi-Shot, the maximum effective distance is about 45 yards.

The Best Pattern

Step one of improving buckshot performance is to make sure your gun is patterning well. It’s best to do this at 25 yards. If you don’t get a pattern that puts most shot to the point of aim at 25 yards, you sure won’t have it at 35 or 40. You must find a combination of load and choke that will place all pellets inside a 10-inch circle at 25. Anything less will cause problems.

The 10-inch circle represents the heart/lung area of a mature whitetail. Some pellets may deviate from this, but you should strive to get the majority of pellets well within that zone at 25 yards. With a little trial and error, and a day spent at the bench, it’s a doable objective with most shotguns.

The question of which choke will deliver this in your gun simply can’t be answered here. You must experiment because every shotgun is different. Chamber dimensions vary, as does choke restriction and boring. If you shoot 2 3/4-inch shells in a 3-inch chamber (a good choice for many), you’ll get an entirely different set of results than if you choose 3-inch loads.

Case in point: I have a Mossberg 835 Ultra Mag that only patterns well with 3-inch loads through an extra-full choke. That combination puts 100 percent of its pellets into a 10-inch circle at 25 yards. If I switch to a standard, full, modified or improved choke, patterns open to over 2 feet at the same distance. I also have an 11-87 that will only pattern with a modified choke and 2 3/4-inch shells; anything else is all over the board. And my 12-gauge single shot from H&R patterns best with 3-inch loads through a modified tube. All the above are with 00 buck.

For anyone interested in all the fine details for getting the most from any shotgun, buckshot or slug, I strongly recommend picking up a copy of “Shotgunning for Deer” by Dave Henderson ( It is the finest reference book on shotgunning for deer that you’ll ever find. According to Henderson, who has taken more than 100 deer with a shotgun, it’s not the energy of a single pellet that does the job, but the cumulative effect of many. That’s why a tight pattern is so vital with buckshot.

Buckshot Today
Try different buckshot loads in your shotgun to determine which delivers the best pattern.

The testing process is simple. Get a big cardboard box and a bunch of newspaper. Set the box at 25 yards with a 10-inch pie plate or similar 10-inch circle in the middle of a sheet of newspaper. Shoot one shot each with your improved, modified, full and extra-full choke tubes. The winner will clearly emerge. If you can’t get a 10-inch group, try a different brand or go from 2 3/4 to 3 inch, and do it again.

If your gun has a fixed choke, your best bet is to buy different loads from Remington, Federal and Winchester, and try them all at 25 yards. A box of five buckshot loads is relatively inexpensive, so the test is not a budget-buster.

Your gun will soon tell you what it likes, and you’ll have your load. It’s an exercise you must go through if you hunt with buckshot, and once you see how badly the wrong combination will perform, you’ll be amazed. How the same gun can shift from a 30-inch pattern to a 10-inch pattern by simply changing choke or brand of ammo is a mystery, but it’s a fact of life.

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Perhaps the best option for buckshot is to use your sighted turkey shotgun or smoothbore slug gun. Adjustable sights matter because often, even with a tight pattern, buckshot doesn’t always hit the point of aim at 25 yards. With adjustable sights, you can dial in that pattern for the point of aim.

If your shotgun isn’t equipped with front and rear sights, then look for the aftermarket screw or clamp-ons from HI VIZ or Xpress Sights. They’re easy to install, work well with your existing front bead and make a huge difference in performance.

Low-power, fast-acquisition optics can also be a boon to the buckshot hunter. Bushnell’s HOLO Sight, Millet’s Red Dot or a 1x or 2x glass will get on target fast and allow you to place that load with precision. These were developed to hit flying targets and are remarkably fast on close-cover, running game.

Buckshot can be effective, but it will take a little time and effort on your part to find the perfect match for you gun. Do your homework, find the best load and pattern, keep your shots to 40 yards and under, and buckshot will deliver.

Reprinted from the December 2004 issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine

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