Buckshot vs. Birdshot for Hunting Predators

When precision isn’t possible, and shots come fast and close, a shotgun excels. But which load works best for anchoring predators?

Buckshot vs. Birdshot for Hunting Predators

In bird cover where you expect predators, reserve one barrel of a double for a heavy load of big shot.

“No time for that now!” Charl strode onto the veranda. “There’s action in the valley!” Dawn was no more than a promise, first coffee just now ready. Ken had a muffin in hand, and I was poised to pounce on another.

“Your call,” Charl prompted, radio in hand. “Make it quick!” Ken wolfed down the muffin, then grabbed his rifle and pack. “How far?”

“Twenty clicks. The track was cool last evening. They struck it too late to hunt then. It’s hot now. Can’t tell about size in that rocky jungle, but males have territories. A big one lives there.”

We hopped in the truck with Ken’s guide, Ed. “Use the shotgun!” Charl called out as we sped away. 

Known for its big cats — lions and leopards — Africa has at least six small cats too: serval, golden cat, sand cat, swamp cat, black-footed cat and African wild cat. Then there’s the caracal, the sole member there of the family Lyncinae. Indeed, this predator brings to mind the North American lynx. Its long legs, black ear tufts and thick, soft pelt, also its preference for forest environs, are similar. Coat color varies from gray-tinged cinnamon to deeper red above a pale, even white belly, throat and chin. This solitary cat is a nocturnal hunter; it rests in thickets, rock crevices, hollow trees and borrowed burrows, as well as on limbs. It’s an agile climber and when pressed takes refuge aloft. Seldom vocal, it does growl and hiss, and calls to its partner with a bark. 

Caracals range throughout Africa, except in the central rain forest. They’re also found in the Near and Middle East, well into India. Where I’ve traveled in Africa, hunters are encouraged to shoot caracals. A trophy fee might apply, because the animal is not easy to find, even where common, and its handsome pelt is coveted. But it is a gifted killer, a threat to sheep and lambs, also to plains game as big as reedbuck, and to the calves of cattle and large antelopes. Ghost-like in its approach, a caracal springs so fast it routinely catches and eats poisonous snakes. With its high leap, it can also nab birds on the wing. 

“Listen!” Ed had killed the engine at roadside above a vast, forested sweep too thick to glass. Its reaches dimmed by distance and morning mist, this dark vale seemed a jungle without bounds. We stood quietly, straining to hear. Long minutes passed. Nothing. Then came a faint echo, hollow and brief, as if the forest had muffled a cough. “There!” cried Ed.

Minutes later we were scrambling down a rocky trail, then across-slope on animal paths so tight a crouch wasn’t low enough, and my coat continually snagged. The blueticks were giving voice, but great folds in the valley blocked the din until we gained the last pitch. Then all was mayhem. Ken grabbed the shotgun, an ancient 12-bore double, and checked the breech. Then he plunged ahead. Ed and I held back, lest we send the treed cat down the stony steeps into even denser tangles.

“Pow!” We dashed ahead, through the dogs. Ken beat us to the caracal, a long, heavy cat, cleanly killed with no visible mark of violence on its lovely coat. Charl, whose taxidermy and hunting operations drew equal praise from hunters, would be pleased.

Don’t assume a full choke gives you the deadliest patterns for predators. Try a more open tube, too.
Don’t assume a full choke gives you the deadliest patterns for predators. Try a more open tube, too.

The Evolution of Shotshells

Shot loads, initially for bird-shooters, became more convenient with the advent of breech-loading guns and metallic cartridges. But much earlier, in 18th century England, William Watts had a brilliant idea that would forever bless shotgunners. At that time shot was chipped from lead sheets. Watts tried pouring molten lead through a sieve to form droplets he speculated would become spherical in free-fall. Water in a tank below would cool and solidify them in that form. Evidently, he kept raising the roof of his house and excavating until he got the results he wanted. 

By the early 20th century, shot towers were producing most birdshot in the United States. Remington’s was 140 feet tall. The lead was heated to 750 degrees; diameters of the sieve holes corresponded to shot sizes. After dropping 133 feet, the pellets plunged into 6 feet of water. Remington’s red, square-sided, 11-story shot tower at Lonoke, Arkansas, is one of three still operating in North America. The others: Winchester’s in East Alton, Illinois, and Aguila’s in Cuernavaca, Mexico (originally a Remington facility). 

Other metals for shot, and new methods of making it, have moth-balled most remaining towers. Steel shot is made like ball bearings, short sections of wire fed between heavy plates that roll them around until they’re spherical. Buckshot is large enough that it has been formed in molds, per lead pistol bullets and balls for muzzle-loading arms. 

Early birdshot and buckshot were made of pure lead, with a touch of arsenic in tower-formed pellets to help shape them in free-fall. But the thrust of firing caused “setback” that deformed soft shot. Scuffed or flattened pellets were apt to flare away from the pattern’s center. Adding antimony, a process dating to WW II, made shot harder, so it flew straighter, in flatter arcs. Called “chilled” shot then (though chilling was not part of the process), it also drove deeper in game. Buckshot and big birdshot in traditional field loads are suitably hard with just 1 percent antimony. Smaller shot begs more, as do pellets for high-velocity loads. A magnum load of No. 8s might have as much as 6 percent antimony. 

Plating, with nickel or copper, further reduces deformation. Patented in England in 1878, plating didn’t appear on shot loaded stateside until the 1950s. It’s common now, especially on large shot. Plastic granules add cushioning between these pellets — again, to keep them round during the violence of launch. 

In this Model 12 with Poly Choke, “modified” yielded tightest, most uniform patterns with No. Buck.
In this Model 12 with Poly Choke, “modified” yielded tightest, most uniform patterns with No. Buck.

Loading for Predators

Buckshot pellets are imposing, but “buck” can have a hard time living up to its billing. Its name evokes images of deer tumbling like rabbits, but that’s a rare event. Hollywood has endowed buckshot with mythic lethality in action films. Verily, at .33-inch, “double-ought” (No. 00) pellets have the girth of popular deer-rifle bullets, and in a swarm just short yards from the muzzle are mighty destructive. But each sphere decelerates faster than does a bullet. And as they separate, their net effect is much reduced. If all nine No. 00 pellets in a standard 12-gauge load strike an animal in the chest, that beast is having a very bad day. 

But as per-pellet energy sinks, the likelihood of multiple impacts diminishes, too. Durable predators such as coyotes might withstand, for the moment, a couple of pellet strikes in the torso. Trading big shot for denser patterns can be a worthwhile swap, even if you’re not concerned with pelt damage from buckshot exits. An equivalent charge of .24-inch No. 4 buck has 27 pellets, tripling odds for multiple strikes. There’s also a lower probability each pellet will exit. A 1.25-ounce load of BB birdshot (.18-inch) has 62 pellets, for better coverage yet, and a reduced chance for pass-throughs.

Among the most effective predator ammo for shotguns are Federal’s 3-inch 12-bore load with 41 pellets of No. 4 buck and Winchester’s, with 24 pellets of No. 1 buck (.30-inch). But 3-inch loads cost a lot, and the recoil makes me flinch. Also, my pet Model 12 has a 2.75-inch chamber.

I’d be pleased with 2.75-inch loads even if they weren’t effective. But stiff 2.75-inch 12-bore loads of No. 2 shot (.15-inch) are! Sadly, because these once sold best to goose hunters, who must now shoot lead-free, the roster of loads with large lead birdshot has shrunk. Federal, Remington and Winchester list 1.5-ounce 2.75-inch magnum loads of .13-inch No. 4 shot (202 pellets). That hefty payload with No. 2 birdshot (130 pellets) is hard to find — albeit Hornady’s 3-inch “Coyote” shells send 1.5 ounces of BBs (75 pellets). 

Energy and Pellet Count

As most 20-bore repeaters now chamber 3-inch shells, making an upland gun into a predator gun is as easy as switching ammo. Winchester 20-gauge magnums kick 1.25 ounces of No. 4s out at around 1,200 fps. Federal lists a 3-inch 20-gauge load with 1.25 ounces of No. 5 shot at 1,300 fps. Remington’s 1.25-ounce 20-bore load, alas, is with No. 6 shot only. A heavy charge of big birdshot thumbed deftly into the magazine can add a predator bonus to any bird hunt. Where you expect to see predators in bird cover, keeping such a load in one barrel of a double makes sense — and might improve your first-shot average as a wing shot.

Predator hunters using rifles get longer reach or surer kills by hiking bullet speed and/or weight, or velocity retention downrange — and by choosing bullets with the desired terminal performance. These metrics fall shy of defining effective shot loads. You aren’t sending a missile, and you can’t change the shape of shot. As with bullets, reducing payload weight allows you to boost velocity, within established pressure limits. But shot, by virtue of its shape, is much less efficient, ballistically, than a bullet. While a pellet carries more energy when it’s moving faster, beyond 30 yards or so energy is much diminished. At the same time, pattern density has slipped. The only pellets that count are those that hit! For that reason, the fastest buckshot and birdshot loads may not match the killing effect of heavier loads (more pellets) sent slower. Also, the violence of high-speed launch can adversely affect shot distribution.

The trade-off between per-pellet energy and pattern density can matter more in predator shooting than in bird hunting, where the game is lighter and can be disabled with a pellet to a wing. For example: A standard 12-gauge load of 16 No. 1 buckshot pellets brings 2,224 foot-pounds of energy out of the muzzle. A heavier charge of 20 No. 1 pellets at lower velocity packs only 2,040 Foot-pounds. Is the faster load better? The plodding alternative has 25 percent more pellets. Given equivalent distribution, you’re striking the target 25 percent more often. Perhaps those two additional pellets in a 10-pellet swarm that finds the animal will cause the most damage. Maybe the one additional pellet in a five-pellet strike will pierce the heart. You can’t know in advance, but you can think carefully before swapping pellet count for per-pellet wallop. 

Performance and Penetration

What about penetration? I once ran tests with common buckshot sizes on .375-inch particle board spaced behind the target. Firing from 40 yards, I found No. 000 buckshot punched through more boards (six) than did a .22 LR bullet (a high-speed solid). While smaller shot showed progressively less penetration, even No. 4 buckshot perforated three particle boards. My conclusion: With buckshot on animals smaller than deer, shot distribution matters more than per-pellet penetration.

Patterning, routine for clay-target competitors and bird hunters, can be even more helpful if you plan to use big shot on predators. Some buckshot patterns in my trials were divided: one cluster of holes above point of aim, another below, with a pellet desert in the middle. Another useless pattern is one that wanders. The bead on a traditional shot barrel should put your eye on the pattern’s center. An adjustable sight lets you align your eye with the densest part of the pattern, but only if that pellet concentration lands in the same place, shot to shot. 

A full choke might not deliver your greatest reach. The most uniform patterns — even the tightest — can come from a more open bore. On average, with heavy 12-bore loads of buffered buckshot and large birdshot, I’ve found modified chokes yield better and more consistent pellet distribution than full chokes, with pellet counts exceeding the traditional 65 percent in a 30-inch circle at 40 yards. Patterns span about 18 inches at 20 yards, nearly 30 inches at 30 yards, where pellet densities in the center third of the pattern should ensure kills. 

My trials with various buckshot sizes and choke constrictions suggest there’s no rule about buckshot to which you can’t find an exception. My tightest pattern with No. 000 buckshot came from an improved cylinder choke. It put all 10 .36-inch pellets from a 3-inch 12-bore load into a 14-inch circle at 30 yards. Oddly enough, No. 00 and No. 0 gave better results in a full choke, No. 1 and No. 4 in a modified choke. 

Finding the best choke for any predator load is easy if your shotgun is one of the many equipped with switchable tubes. No need for a PolyChoke on the nose of your smoothbore. A vintage gun with an integral choke puts you on the hunt for a load it prefers.

I don’t like to use buckshot on any predator much beyond 30 yards, as both pattern density and per-pellet energy are there becoming marginal. And as with a rifle bullet, I’m foolish to assume my shot will put the pattern’s center exactly where I want it. If half the pellets in a pattern land in the 10-inch middle of a 30-inch pattern at 30 yards, then only a quarter of the shot will distribute itself left or right of center; and either side, half of those pellets might miss a coyote-size rib cage high or low. By the old math, that leaves only an eighth of the payload in the ribs. With a nine-pellet charge of No. 00, that’s one pellet! A 16-pellet load of No. 1s delivers two strikes.

What load did Ken use to kill his caracal? Picking his way down through the thorns and rocks and the mob of bawling blueticks, the shotgun’s owner grabbed the old double and its remaining cartridge and vanished into the bush. Ken thinks it was No. 4 or No. 5 birdshot — a smart choice, Charl would say, when your chance comes quickly at mere feet in a thicket, and you mustn’t poke exit holes in a superb specimen of an elusive cat.   


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