Shot Size Matters

Hunters hiding in the grass aiming their shotguns

Few things make the hair on the back of your neck stand up like frosty mornings, whistling wings and the smell of spent powder. Waterfowl hunting is addiction. Fuel it and put more breasts on the barbecue by understanding shot size, effective range and how to match your shotshell to hunting method.

More Than A Number

First, understand that any shot size presents a tradeoff. The larger the pellets, the farther downrange each individual will carry its velocity and energy. The flip side is that the larger the pellets, the fewer of them fit into a given payload. For example, in a 1 1/4-ounce payload of steel shot, No. 4s will give you a pellet count of about 240, but even bumping up to No. 2s drops that number to 156. And if you go to BBs, you’re only throwing 90 pellets per trigger pull.

But that’s not the whole story. A payload of fine shot might throw dense, seemingly inescapable patterns, but its pellets lose energy so quickly that they become ineffective past about 30 yards, especially on larger, tougher birds. On the other hand, a payload of larger pellets might still be theoretically deadly at extended ranges, but the gaps between pellets eventually become so great that a longer-range bird could be perfectly centered within the pattern without a single pellet ruffling its feathers.

That’s why, to be consistently lethal (assuming you do your part and put the shot where it needs to be) a payload must balance pattern density and energy. Since larger birds present bigger targets, you can get by with fewer pellets and benefit from more energy to penetrate their heavier bodies. And since it doesn’t take as much power to knock down smaller birds, you can opt for finer shot—which is good since you’ll likely need more pellets in the air to hit these faster, smaller targets.

This is also why manufacturers offer a range of payload weights. If you’re pass-shooting large geese—in other words, taking longer shots on bigger birds—you can always opt for a heavier payload weight to up your pellet count. Another option is going with a steel alternative—namely TSS, Tungsten Super Shot. At 18 g/cc, this tungsten-alloy material is 56 percent denser than lead and more than double the density of steel. This opens a whole new door for waterfowl hunters, especially those who target larger birds, as it allows the pattern density of smaller pellets without sacrificing the power of larger ones.

With all that being said, let’s dive into some specific suggestions for common hunting scenarios.

Stay Deadly On Ducks

There’s a reason you invest hard-earned coin in duck dekes and calls, and that reason isn’t sky busting. You want wings cupped and feet down. If smaller ducks like teal are on the menu and shots of 30 yards and in are expected, it’s hard to go wrong with 1 1/8 ounce of No. 6 steel. And when small ducks are in close, an improved cylinder choke is hard to beat. If you opt for a 20-gauge, up your shot size to No. 4 steel.

Mallard feet with hunters in the background

Medium-sized ducks over dekes calls for a slightly different approach. Again, we’re looking to take shots at ranges of 30 yards and in. Ducks like widgeon, gadwall and wood ducks are a tad tougher to bring down than teal, and for this reason lean a good choice would be 12-gauge 3 ½-inch Black Cloud No. 4. This load features a rear-opening FLITECONTROL FLEX wad that provides tight patterns through ported and standard chokes. The 1 ½-ounce payload of 40 percent FLITESTOPPER steel pellets married with 60 percent Premium steel promises dense patterns and larger wound channels, which is ideal should larger ducks dip into your spread. If you’re confident only medium-sized birds will be buzzing, it’s hard to beat 3-inch, 1 1/8-ounce Black Cloud FS Steel High Velocity 12 Gauge No. 4s. Again, if you tote a 20-gauge into the blind, bump up shot size to No. 3 and limit the distance of your shots accordingly.

Larger ducks like mallards have dense feathers and a will to live that has annoyed many a hunter over the years. Black Cloud FS Steel 12 gauge 3 ½-inch loads with a 1 ½-ounce payload of No. 2s crumple big ducks, and should the occasional goose swing into your spread, these shells will handle the job. That said, if you expect a blend of big geese and large ducks, it wouldn’t hurt to up your shot size to BB.

Drop More Geese

When area honkers are dumping into a spread of well-placed decoys, leave nothing to chance. While steel loads with No. 1s, BBs or BBBs do the trick, you’ll get the best possible results by moving to a denser than lead alternative such as Black Cloud TSS.

Goose head and Black Cloud TSS Packaging

A blend of FLITESTOPPER Steel and Tungsten Super Shot, these payloads shred hovering-over-the-decoy birds, as well as those 50 yards and beyond. The smaller TSS pellets ensure maximum pattern density on close-range birds while the BBs reach out at longer ranges. This load is great for pass-shooting geese as well as for ducks and geese over decoys on windy days when they can get out of range in a hurry.


Whatever load you choose, your goal should always be to avoid crippling and sailing birds back to the roost with a pellet or two in them. This means you need to get out and pattern different loads at different ranges. Ideally, you want 60 or more pellets in a 30-inch circle at the range you expect to be shooting geese, and these pellets need to be large ones that carry more energy. When it comes to ducks, a good rule of thumb is 85 to 135 pellets in a 30-inch circle. Again, pellet size should depend on the size of duck you’re chasing.

stangers packaging

Black Cloud FS Steel

The best load in waterfowl hunting has never been so deadly. Black Cloud FS Steel is now equipped with the FLITECONTROL FLEX wad to deliver improved pattern density and consistency through both ported and standard waterfowl chokes.

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