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Best Pheasant Guns & Loads
Top-Performing Pheasant Guns and Loads, By Layne Simpson, Field Editor, Shooting Times.

This wingshooting veteran has used a number of shotguns and loads over the years; here is what’s worked for him in the field.

t the beginning of my pheasant hunting career I used a 12-gauge autoloader and made most of the common greenhorn mistakes. One was using too much choke. Another was using more powerful loads than I actually needed. I also started out with too small a shot size. A mature cock pheasant is a tough cookie, one that, pound for pound, takes a lot more to kill than all other North American game birds with the exception of the wild turkey. I really can’t explain why, but some game birds are far more tenacious of life than others. The chukar partridge, for example, is considerably larger than the bobwhite quail and yet it seems to give up the ghost with a hit that would still allow a bob to escape wounded on foot. Like the bobwhite, a mature cock pheasant can soak up lots of lead without missing a single wing beat, but its larger body size makes it even more difficult to bring down.

Liberated pheasants hunted on preserves look the same and weigh the same as their country cousins who hatch out and grow up in the wilds, and they can be just as tough to kill, but as a rule the preserve pheasant holds better for a pointing dog and in doing so allows the hunter to walk in closer before flushing. There are, however, exceptions to those and other rules. I’ve killed many wild pheasants inside 20 yards and just about as many beyond 30 yards. I have also bagged wild-flushing commercially raised birds that wouldn’t allow me or my dog to approach closer than 35 or 40 yards. But if I had to guess, I’d say my average shot on wild birds is more in the neighborhood of 20 to 30 yards while most of the preserve birds I kill bite the dust no farther away than 20 yards from the muzzle of my shotgun. The fact that preserve pheasants are usually shot at closer ranges allows hunters to either use some of the lighter loads in the 12 gauge or leave the 12 bore at home and hunt with one of the smaller gauges.

There are those who will use no choke other than Full when hunting pheasant, but most hunters are better off with more open chokes. Improved Cylinder is probably as close as we’ll ever get to ideal for pumps and autoloaders. And if a better combination than Improved Cylinder and Modified ever becomes available for double-barrel guns, I’ll be the first to stand in line. When hunting preserve birds I usually use even less choke—Skeet being my first choice for an autoloader and Skeet and Improved Cylinder my favorite duo for doubles.

The most popular shot sizes among pheasant hunters are No. 6 and No. 7 1/2. The latter is okay for most preserve birds, and I have even used 8s with some success there as well. But if all the dope and data on what it takes to consistently kill pheasants stone dead from all angles and at various distances were fed into a computer, the machine would likely belch a great cloud of smoke and choose No. 6 shot with No. 5 in a very close second place. Smaller shot sizes work okay at closer ranges, but they lack the ability to break heavy bones and penetrate to the vitals of a bird at longer distances. No. 4 shot is great if enough choke is used to keep pattern core density high, but I’d really rather have No. 5 or No. 6 and less choke. When choosing between the two I prefer to go with 5s so long as the shot charge weighs no less than 1 1/4 ounces, but I always choose 6s when using lighter shot charges in order to keep pattern density high.

Before leaving the subject I must mention that the use of nontoxic shot is now required in some areas of the country regardless of the game being hunted. Hunters who go after pheasant and other game birds in those areas can no longer use lead shot, which is the same as it has been for waterfowl for several years now. Steel shot works okay on pheasant so long as pellet diameter is a couple sizes larger than lead. For example, those who prefer No. 6 lead shot would go with No. 4 steel while fans of No. 4 lead shot would opt for No. 2 steel. When using nontoxic shot such as Tungsten-Polymer, Tungsten-Matrix, and Bismuth, use the same-size shot as lead since all have similar densities. Those types of shot are actually superior to steel. While considerably more expensive, a good wingshot isn’t likely to spend a fortune on shells with today’s daily game bag limits on pheasant being what they are. Actually, anyone who desires to use an older gun built prior to the steel shot days has no choice but to use one of the other nontoxic options.

12 Gauge

Each year more pheasants are bagged with the 12-gauge shotshell than with all the other gauges combined, and it is easy to see why. While many who choose the 12 do so because of its heavier payload compared to the smaller gauges, there are those who also recognize its tremendous flexibility. Regardless of whether you need a relatively light load for preserve hunting or a heavy load for long-range gunning, the 12 gauge has all the bases covered.

I prefer the smaller gauges for preserve hunting because I enjoy being in the field with trim and quick-handling guns, and on those rare occasions when I do use the 12, a light 7/8-ounce or one-ounce load that duplicates 28-gauge and 20-gauge field load performance is what I’m likely to choose. On the other hand, when hunting long-flushing wild birds, I reach for premium-grade shells with heavier payloads. An excellent combination for a double-barrel gun is 1 1/8 ounce of 6s in the first barrel and 1 1/4 ounces of 4s or 5s held in reserve for any second shot that might be needed. The single best all-around load for pumps might just be 1 1/8 ounces of 5s exiting the muzzle at 1200 fps or so.

Without doubt, some of the deadliest 12-gauge handloads I have ever used on pheasant are built around Hodgdon’s LONGSHOT powder. The load I first tried on a Kansas hunt consisted of a Remington STS case, Winchester 209 primer, 32.0 grains of LONGSHOT, Remington’s Figure-8 wad, and 1 1/8 ounces of No. 6 nickel-plated shot. Velocity in the 28-inch barrels of my Krieghoff 32 averages just over 1500 fps. Believe me when I say this combination really hammers them from the sky.

20 Gauge

I use the 20 gauge on more pheasant hunts than any other gauge mainly because I like the way some of the guns chambered for it handle and feel. I like an over/under with three-inch chambers due to the fact that it allows me to use more of a variety of loads than a 2 3/4-inch gun. My favorites are 1960s-vintage guns, a Browning Superposed Lightning and a Winchester 101.

The factory loads I prefer for pheasant are premium-grade—Winchester’s Supreme, Premium Lead from Federal, and Remington’s Premier Magnum, all loaded with copper-plated shot. When birds are holding tight for the dog and flushing close to the toes of my boots, I like an ounce of No. 7 1/2 shot, but those days are rare so I more often use heavier loads.

A tough combination to beat when hunting with an over/under is a 2 3/4-inch load with
1 1/8 ounce of 6s in the bottom barrel and a three-inch shell with 1 1/4 ounces of 5s for the second shot if needed. The chokes I use with that combo are Improved Cylinder (.009 inch of constriction) down below and Improved Modified (.018 inch) up top; any ringneck that flushes no farther away than 35 yards from my gun is in lots of trouble.

Page Two -28 Gauge, .410 Bore, Guns For Pheasant

This article was originally published in Shooting Times Gun Guide 2001 in 2001.

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