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Duck hunters shooting from blindShotguns, Shells and Shooting


There’s no perfect shotgun, choke or ammunition load for every waterfowl-hunting situation, but there are a few combinations that have proven themselves over the years and which have become the standards among duck and goose hunters. The closest thing to an all-round gun would likely be a 12-guage chambered for three-inch magnum shells. Depending on the loads you shoot through it and to some degree on the choke, you could use that gun for everything from shooting teal and wigeon over decoys to pass-shooting geese at 40 yards.

If, on the other hand, you’re planning to buy a gun for a particular type of waterfowl hunting, or have several shotguns and aren’t sure which one to use for what, there are some things to think about.

Yes, the 12-gauge chambered for three-inch shells is certainly the standard, but if you’re going to hunt nothing but geese, you might consider a gun chambered for 3 ½- inch shells, or even a 10-gauge. On the other hand, if you think most or all of your shooting is going to be at ducks close-in over decoys, a 12-gauge chambered only for 2 ¾-inch ammo will be more than adequate. Women, kids and men who would rather travel light might also consider a 16- or 20-gauge for decoy work.

The slide-action, or pump, shotgun is a dependable choice and considered by many to be the old standby among waterfowlers.  Others prefer the semiautomatic because manual cycling of shells is not required and it has less recoil than all the others. On the other hand, more things can go wrong with it in the wet, cold, muddy environments of duck and goose hunting, and frequent cleaning and maintenance is mandatory to keep it functioning well.

Fewer things can go wrong with double-barrel guns, whether they be side-by-side or over/under models, but you only get two tries, and there are times when you wish you had one more shot. They also kick a little harder.

Choke-the degree of constriction at the business end of a shotgun barrel—is a big deal to some hunters and almost totally ignored by others, but it is a factor that should be considered in duck and goose hunting. If you must choose only one choke for all hunting using steel shot, go with improved or modified, the middle ground between open and full chokes. Tighter choke settings are generally favored for longer shots and more open settings for closer shots.

After considering all the variables, though, go with a gun that fits you, one that you can bring up to firing position easily and smoothly, and then practice with it until you can shoot it well. Spend some time before the season practicing at the trap, skeet or sporting clays range, so that you know how your shotgun and you will perform when the birds are flying. 


As mentioned earlier, waterfowl hunters must use only nontoxic shot. To most hunters, nontoxic means steel, because it’s been around the longest and is the cheapest of the nontoxic loads. Steel is much lighter than the traditional lead shot once used for waterfowl hunting, so it hits a target with less energy if adjustments to shot size, choke, and velocity are not factored in. Modern steel shot has been shown in numerous studies to be an effective load for taking waterfowl.  See the WDFW waterfowl pamphlet for information on proven nontoxic shot loads for waterfowl hunting.

The more pellets in a load, of course, the more pellets you have heading in the general direction of the bird you’re trying to shoot, and today’s 3-inch and  3 ½-inch shotshells carry more pellets than the 2 ¾-inch loads that were once the only game in town. Faster and faster loads are also becoming available, providing more knock-down power with steel shot and adding to the options available for duck and goose hunters.

And steel isn’t the only nontoxic option. Hunters willing to spend more—in some cases a lot more—for their ammo can buy loads of bismuth-tin, iron-tungsten, iron-tungsten-nickel, tungsten-bronze, tungsten-tin-bismuth and others, many of which have ballistics similar to lead shot. 

Whatever shot size, load size, velocity and shot material combinations you choose, be sure to pattern a round or two through your shotgun at various distances. Aim at a small dot in the center of a 30-by-30-inch paper square, first at 20 yards, then at 30 yards and again at 40 yards. Compare the shot patterns at the three distances, and if you’re satisfied that the pattern covers the square evenly and fully, you’ve found the right load for your gun. If there are obvious gaps in the pattern, or if it appears that far too few of the pellets hit the target, you need to make a choke adjustment or try another load that will perform better in your gun.


One of the biggest mistakes waterfowl hunters make is shooting at ducks and geese that are too far away. Many of those shots result in wounded birds that fly off and eventually die of their wounds, wasting a precious resource and robbing other hunters of the opportunity to harvest birds. A few careless shooters routinely take 60-, 70- 80-yard shots, hoping that once in a while they’ll knock down a bird and not really caring what happens to the rest.

Most hunters who shoot at out-of-range ducks and geese, though, do so because they simply can’t accurately judge shooting distances or don’t know the effective range of their shotguns and the loads they’re shooting. Twenty-five to 30 yards is an ideal shooting range, but many people have trouble determining when a bird is within that range. Their large size makes geese and some duck species seem much closer than they really are. When a duck gets within 30 yards, you can see its eyes, and until then it may be out of range. Some hunters will measure off 30 yards and place their most distant decoy at that point, using it as a gauge for maximum shooting distance.

Determining the proper lead on flying birds is another major challenge for waterfowl hunters, and there’s no sure-fire cure for missed shots except regular shooting practice. The more you shoot, both at real birds and clay targets, the better you’ll get at hitting both. For some good tips on shooting techniques, see Ducks Unlimited’s web site at .

Here are some other shooting tips for waterfowl hunters:

  • Take your time.
  • Concentrate on one bird at a time.
  • Shoot the trailing bird first (and continue swinging up the line if it falls).
  • Rely on instinct and experience to calculate lead, but lead more than you think necessary on long passing shots.
  • Continue to swing through your shot(follow through) after you pull the trigger.
  • When waterfowl are coming straight at you, blot them out and fire.