The Right Shotgun For Small Game Hunting

Decades ago, large bore shot guns conquered the field. Hunters believed in long barrels and tight chokes. And some hunters in the field today still hold to these values.

The populace of Field-N-Water believes that barrel lengths beyond 20 inches do not increase shot velocity. With modern shotgun shells, all of the powder is consumed before the shot charge is 20 inches down the bore. And from a pure velocity stand point, there is little difference among the various gauges.

A quick look at a shotgun reloading manual shows that all gauges are capable of producing muzzle velocities running from 1,100 ft/s to around 1,400 ft/s. With the right loading, even the tiny .410 bore can rub the 1,300 ft/s mark.

The difference among the shotgun gauges is not velocity but the amount of shot each is capable of handling.

With the proper load combination, a 3-1/2-inch 10-gauge is capable of firing 2 ounces of lead shot out of the muzzle at close to 1,300 ft/s. A 3-inch 12-gauge can do the same with a 1-5/8-ounce load of shot. The forgotten 2-3/4-inch 16-gauge shell can duplicate that velocity, but with 1/8 ounces of pellets. A 1-ounce charge from a 2-3/4-inch 20-gauge shotgun shell may exit the muzzle at better than 1,250 ft/s.

It’s also commonly believed that larger bores generate wider patterns, but that’s not quite true, either. For the most part, there is little difference in pattern size between a 12-gauge and a 20-gauge when the barrels are the same length and choked to the same constriction.

The majority of small game hunters are aware that the degree of choke in the muzzle has a direct hearing on the diameter of the pattern, but it’s just as important to keep in mind that the number of pellets in the shot charge has a direct bearing on the density of the pattern. Pattern density is the key to quick, clean kills, and proper shot selection is the key to maintaining pattern density in various shotgun gauges.

A 1-1/8-ounce charge of No. 4 shot contains approximately 150 pellets. Switching to the smaller No. 6 shot in creases the pellet count to 250. That’s 100 more pellets inside the same pattern diameter. It doesn’t require a ballistic expert to figure out which shot charge will produce the denser pattern.

It’s also easy to see which pattern puts more pellets in a rabbit or grouse, and that’s what makes a clean kill so long as the penetration of the individual pellets is adequate.

Patterns printed on paper can be somewhat misleading, since the number of pellets that strike a moving target can depend a good bit on the length of the shot string, too. The term shot string refers to the way a shot charge strings out as it leaves the muzzle.

Some claim a long string is better for hitting moving targets. Proponents for short shot strings are just as adamant that their choice is superior for hunting live game. Both views hold some merit.

When you pattern a shotgun at the range, all you see are holes in a paper target. But if you could watch the forming of the pattern in super slow motion, you would see it starts with only a few pellets striking the paper. The following pellets make the pattern wider and denser. The pattern actually builds over time, from the first pellet through the last.

The length of the shot string is not significant if the target is stationary. Of course, rabbits and grouse are not stationary targets.

As a longer shot string spreads out and occupies more space, it can make up a little for slight pointing errors on moving targets. With equal shot charges, smaller gauges naturally produce longer shot strings due to the longer shot column that must form in the narrower barrel.

But don’t forget pattern density. Stringing out decreases the number of pellets that pass through the target at any point in time, and the prime purpose of a dense pattern is to keep a moving target from slipping through untouched. If the experts are right, it takes at least six hits on a rabbit or grouse to assure a clean kill.

Shot strings may be shortened by reducing the amount of choke or by using a shot spreader. A hunter with a fixed- choke shotgun may obtain shorter shot strings by switching to faster, lighter loads, such as dropping from 1-1/4 ounces to 1 ounce of lead. This is known as putting the choke in the shell instead of the barrel.

Generally speaking, full choke produces a 30-inch pattern at 30 yards modified choke increases the diameter of the pattern to around 36 inches, and improved cylinder adds another foot of spread. For rabbit and grouse hunting, I prefer a quick- opening pattern be-cause most shots are taken at 30 yards or less. But a pattern close to 4 feet in diameter at 30 yards needs enough pellets to cover all the gaps, hence the need for small shot.

There is a trade off, however. Small shot makes for denser pat terns, but it also reduces the effective range of the shotgun. Adequate penetration is required for clean kills, and penetration at extended ranges depends on pellet weight and momentum. Hence, a heavier pellet reaches out farther and penetrates deeper. Shot smaller than No. 6 is ineffective for killing game at distances much beyond 30 yards.

There’s no getting around the fact that you must know your shotgun to pick the right load for the game being hunted, and this requires patterning the shotgun with the loads you plan to use while hunting. Shooting a box or two of shotgun shells on a patterning board is an education in itself, and it definitely pays off in the field. As an added thought, it’s wise to pattern at the same range as the shots likely to be taken while hunting. Forty yards may be the industry standard for establishing shotgun patterns, but a small game hunter can learn more by patterning his gun at 30 yards.

Of course, ballistics are of little consequence if the shooter misses the mark, and a shotgun must “fit” the shooter be fore he can shoot it with consistent accuracy. When shotgunning for rabbits or grouse, the action occurs in a flash. Because there is so little time to make adjustments, the shotgun must come up in one fluid motion and nestle instantly in the pocket of the shoulder.

Improper shotgun fit is really the Achilles heel for most grouse and rabbit hunters. Common sense tell us it is unwise to use a shotgun that doesn’t fit, but that is exactly what most hunters do.

Gun companies install gun stocks designed to fit the greatest number of people, not the individual. Yet most hunters hesitate to alter stock length, figuring the gun companies know what they are doing.

Using this same logic, every hunter should wear size-12 boots because that size is large enough for the majority of people. To some extent, we are all different in physical makeup. It only stands to reason that one stock length is not suit able for all hunters.

The choice of brand and configuration for a hunting shotgun is as personal as a toothbrush.

Thousands of other hunters are plenty successful shooting pumps, autoloaders and even single-shot outfits. Usually, pumps and autoloaders are a bit longer due to the long receivers, and this might be worth considering.

Rabbit and grouse hunting boils down to a few basics. Point the scattergun in stead of aiming it swing the body evenly, starting from the rear and following along the target’s path don’t shoot until the muzzle flashes out in front. Most importantly, keep the shotgun moving.

A rabbit discharging from a weed patch or a grouse thundering out of a thicket is unsettling enough. There’s little time for anything but pointing and squeezing the trigger.

While some may consider the cottontail rabbit and the ruffed grouse small game species, they still are the catalyst for all shotgun hunting. We hope this article has helped you in making a decision on just what shotgun is right for you. And as always, keep your safety on until you are ready to shoot and always be sure of your target. Hunt smart and hunt safe.