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Early-Bird Guns and Loads

By Ray Sasser

Tips for hunting the speedy birds of September

Wingshooting season begins early in America. In some states, bird hunting seasons begin well before the dog days of summer have called it quits. Mourning doves are legal game by Labor Day in some areas, and early waterfowl seasons for teal and wood ducks follow close behind.

Doves are small birds, hard to hit but easy to kill. Teal and woodies are small ducks. Teal, in particular, are suckers for decoys. Don’t allow their size to lull you into shooting guns or loads that are too light, however. In the case of doves, don’t try to save money on those bargain-basement shotshells so frequently advertised with the advent of dove season.

“I see them every year,” says Ron Rutledge of McClelland’s Gun Shop in Dallas, Texas, “and I just shake my head. If the store is able to sell shells for $3 a box or less, you can bet the shells are poorly made. Cheap shells cause two problems for dove hunters. They pattern poorly, and they don’t function well in autoloading shotguns. For a little more money, you can buy a good-quality shell that will take game cleanly and won’t cause you any problems.”

The Case for a .410

Dove hunters who prefer a serious wingshooting challenge should try a .410-bore shotgun. The .410 2 1/2-inch target loads contain 1/2 ounce of shot. Even the 3-inch game loads preferred by most dove hunters only contain 11/16 ounce of shot. Bringing down a limit of doves with the miniature shotguns isn’t as difficult as it might seem, but the thin pattern of a .410 leaves little room for error. For most shooters, the .410 will shave about 10 yards off their effective range.

Expect to pay $8 to $10 a box for 3-inch .410 shells. Why would the smallest shotgun shells cost twice as much as 20-gauge or 12-gauge shells? Price is all about volume. The .410 makes up a tiny portion of the overall shotgun shell market.

My friend David Davis, who guides dove hunters near Brownwood, Texas, says there are two very good things about hunting doves with a .410. “The doves you kill are never shot up, so you don’t have to worry as much about biting down on a pellet when you eat the birds,” he says. “The best thing about a .410 is you can get 50 shells in the pockets of your jeans.”

The autoloaders won’t work with very light loads because the shells don’t build up enough compression to cycle the action, throwing out the spent shell and loading a fresh round. Rutledge, who does warranty work for every major shotgun manufacturer, says some autoloaders are inherently more reliable than others, but light loads might cause any autoloader to malfunction.

Those cheap shells work fine in a breechloading shotgun like a Browning Citori or a pump-action like Remington’s workhorse 870, but the pattern remains inconsistent. If you want a real lesson in shotgun shells, try shooting a variety of shells at a large sheet of paper to see how they perform in your shotgun. Change choke tubes during the exercise to learn something about the importance of choke selection at various ranges. Soft, inexpensive shot pellets that deform and fly erratically are a primary reason for poor patterns.

Dense, consistent patterns are important for doves, which fly fast and present a small target. That’s why serious dove hunters should opt for shells loaded with a full ounce of shot in a 20 gauge, 1 1/8 ounce in a 12.

There are two schools of thought on the optimum shot size for doves. Some hunters favor No. 7 1/2 or even larger pellets on the theory that a single pellet can dispatch a high-flying bird. Others subscribe to the idea that a small bird cannot sneak through a dense pattern of No. 8 or even No. 9 pellets.

“The No. 9 shot teamed with a skeet choke is really coming on strong with our serious dove hunters,” says Rutledge. “That’s a deadly combination out to 30 yards, and that’s the range where most doves are shot. Unless you’re pass shooting high-flying doves, you seldom need more than an improved cylinder choke, and it’s really a 20-gauge sport.”

For early-season ducks, hunters who shoot autoloaders need not worry about malfunctions caused by the shells. Most modern shells designed to be shot at waterfowl generate plenty of compression to work the action. Even small ducks are relatively tough. The best steel shotshells for teal ducks load at least 1 ounce of No. 6, No. 5 or No. 4 pellets. Veteran duck guides like Forrest West prefer an improved cylinder bore for steel shot and decoying ducks.

Subscribe Today!“Teal come to decoys readily,” says West. “The average shot is probably 20 to 25 yards. Teal will often work the decoys even if they don’t intend to land. You almost never get a shot at a teal floating in like a committed mallard or a pintail. Even teal that are intent on landing are wheeling and flying pretty fast. Teal shooting bears a closer resemblance to dove shooting than to traditional duck shooting.”

West and other duck pros say early-season teal make a great opportunity for introducing youngsters to duck hunting. The weather is mild in the early fall. There’s no worry about shivering in a cold duck blind. Because teal are so susceptible to decoys, you can place the dekes closer than normal to your blind, providing closer shots. The 20-gauge that most novice youth favor works very well for close-range teal.

West shoots teal with a classic Winchester pump because that’s the gun he enjoys shooting. Modern pump-action guns are all very reliable, but most waterfowl hunters prefer an autoloader, preferably a shotgun like Remington’s 11-87, Browning’s Gold Hunter, Winchester’s Super X2 or Beretta’s AL 391. All are equipped with gas systems that reduce recoil and allow the shooter to quickly find a second target. Twelve-gauge shotguns work best for ducks, even for small ducks, but there’s no reason not to shoot a 20-gauge, assuming you have the willpower to pass up marginal shots.

Shell selection can greatly improve the effectiveness of any shotgun, particularly when shooting waterfowl with non-toxic pellets. As hard as they are on the pocketbook, Federal’s tungsten-iron alloy shells and Bismuth Cartridge Co.’s bismuth shells come very close to the same efficiency as shotshells loaded with lead. Bismuth is particularly interesting to some waterfowl hunters because the company loads its non-toxic namesake into .410 bore, 28-gauge and 16-gauge shells that are all capable, in the hands of an expert shot, of downing small ducks.

Another premium-priced product, Remington’s Hevi-Shot, redefines “long range” and adds a new dimension to penetration. For youngsters or anyone who prefers the lighter recoil and quick handling characteristics of a 20-gauge, these more efficient steel shot substitutes are worth the money.

Read More Stories From GunHunter MagazineSo, too, are the high-speed steel loads now being offered by several manufacturers. The so-called “speed steel” loads shoot as fast as 1,500 feet per second. Increased velocity is important to the average hunter, who tends to miss by shooting behind a crossing target. The fast steel loads only add a couple of dollars per box to shotshell price.

-- Reprinted from the premier issue of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine in 2003

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