Pellets and Sportsmanship

Shot size is just one of the factors to be considered in choosing a combination of gun and choke that will deliver an ethical, humane, killing pattern.

by Terry Wieland

In a recent column (Gray’s, March/April, 2021), I looked at the current fad for small gauges in wingshooting, especially some preserves and commercial operations that prohibit any shotgun larger than 20 gauge.

Advocates of smaller gauges — the 28, particularly — make some outlandish statements, such as that 12-gauge guns are used only by “poor shots,” that it’s a “meat gun,” or that the 28 is somehow more “sporting.”

I certainly agree that using a 28 gauge demands more skill, but only under certain conditions: One is that to get a killing pattern, with its smaller charge of shot, a tighter choke is required, and hence more precision to put the tighter pattern where the bird is.

If a shooter uses a 28 with the same open choke used in a 12, all it results in is a patchier pattern with more chance of a wounding shot rather than a clean kill. In accepted hunting ethics, it’s the hunter’s responsibility to kill cleanly and humanely — in which case, a 28 with an open choke is not more sporting, it’s unethical.

I should add right here that I know of wild-quail operations in the South that forbid the use of any gun smaller than a 20, for the very reason that it increases the chance of wounded and lost birds.

No sooner had the magazine appeared than the howls began, complete with nasty missives signed with absurd pseudonyms in the modern internet style. Most, it quickly became apparent, had not really read the column, merely skimmed it looking for something to object to, and leapt to their keyboards to hurl epithets and show how much they knew that I didn’t.

One Texan, whom I know personally, sent a terse statement to the effect that “they” use only #6 shot on quail, as if that ended the discussion. When I asked what it had to do with anything, he replied that “lethality depends on shot size, not the gauge of the gun.” Since I never suggested that lethality depended on gauge, he’d completely missed the point in his determination to defend the 28 gauge.

He is, of course, correct: If you hit a bobwhite with a #6 pellet, it should die cleanly, and it doesn’t matter if that pellet is projected from a 28, a 12, or even a peashooter. However, using #6 shot instead of #7½ in a 3/4-oz. 28-gauge shot charge reduces the number of pellets further, demanding an even tighter choke to get a killing pattern. (Perhaps he was claiming that by using #6s with an open choke, thereby giving an even patchier pattern, the quail either escaped through the holes cleanly or, if hit, died cleanly. I was never quite clear on that.)

The catch is that it’s possible to hit even a small bird like a quail with one pellet in a non-vital spot, possibly resulting in a lost bird that will die later from a variety of complications. Hence the general desire to hit birds with more than one pellet.

For more than a century, a debate has gone back and forth as to whether one large pellet is deadlier than several smaller ones. Where this has been tested scientifically — or as close as possible — the decision has generally come down in favor of more, but smaller, pellets. In other words, a denser pattern, increasing the chance of a pellet in the brain, or several into the chest cavity. There is, apparently, a cumulative shock effect that does not depend on a lucky hit — a “golden pellet,” as they say.

To reiterate, my point was that one ounce of shot from a 12 gauge gives you a better killing  pattern than one ounce from a 28 gauge, where the pattern is strung out and patchy regardless of choke. Leaving “sporting” questions aside, for most of us, the 12 is generally a more ethical choice, for those who care about such things. Alas, it seems a lot of people do not.


Gray’s shooting editor is a fan of light 12-gauge guns, flinging an ounce of shot or less, for more reasons than can be listed. He does not believe choice of gauge, either large or small, is a reflection of one’s manhood, or lack thereof. Let the nasty notes begin.