The 6 Best Shotgun Loads for Duck Hunting
If you’re hunting waterfowl, it’s easy to get overwhelmed when considering which shotgun load to buy. You have a choice of 2.5-inch, 3-inch, and even 3.5-inch shells. Shot sizes range from #6 steel shot all the way up to BBB. You also have to choose a gun. Should you hunt with a 12 gauge or a 20 gauge?
Most of this depends on your personal hunting preferences. But there’s more to consider for the ideal duck hunting experience. While #6 steel shot works well for smaller waterfowl like teal, it’ll only create an itch on a goose. While 3.5-inch shells carry more pellets, 2.75-inch shells will likely be cheaper and keep your shoulder in its socket. Most folks hunt with a 12 gauge shotgun, but a 20 gauge will be a better choice for younger children (and introducing a bird dog to the sound of a shotgun blast).
Once you figure out where you fall on the spectrum of shot size, shell length, and shotgun bore size, it’s time to go ammo shopping. Finding the best brand of ammo for you can be tricky. A lot of companies out there claim to be the best. To simplify the process, we created a list of the best shotgun loads for duck hunting that will best suit a variety of hunting needs. Most of the shotgun loads below come in 12 gauge rounds, at 3 inches in length, and shoot #2 steel shot. With those specs, you can hunt everything from buffleheads to big Canada geese.
Why Shot Size Matters
Shot size matters to duck hunters in the same way that kitchen knives matter to professional chefs. Those uninitiated to the kitchen may think that all knives are the same, but to a chef, each knife is crafted for a specific application. Similarly, to a duck hunter, #2 shot performs a different job than #6. You wouldn’t use a butter knife to filet a fish, and you wouldn’t use #6 shot to kill a goose.
It’s a matter of physics. Shot pellet diameters can be deciphered with a simple formula. Subtract the pellet size from 17 and divide that number by 100 to get the diameter in inches. For example, here’s the formula for #2 shot: 17-2 = 15. That’s 0.15 inches in diameter. The larger the shot size, the smaller the diameter.
Larger diameter shot sizes such as #2, BB, and BBB carry more kinetic energy than their smaller counterparts. This means they can punch out at further distances and make clean kills on larger birds. This makes #2 shot, BB, and BBB ideal for scenarios where you may need to make longer shots or need to bring down larger birds (such as geese). However, these sizes will obliterate smaller birds at closer distances. If you plan on eating the birds you shoot, these shot sizes won’t leave much meat on the bone. To make sure you can bring meat home to the table, use smaller sizes such as #4, #6, and #8 shot in scenarios where you will be shooting closer and at smaller targets. Since these shot sizes are smaller, however, they will lose momentum and become ineffective with longer shots.
Large shot sizes also come with a tradeoff. The larger the shot, the less pellets in the shell. Think of it like stuffing a 5-gallon bucket with apples or blueberries. You can fit thousands of blueberries in a 5-gallon bucket, but maybe only a few dozen apples. In a 3-inch 12 gauge shell, you may be able to fit a couple hundred pellets of #6 shot, but just a fraction of that number if it’s stuffed with #2. That’s where choosing whether to shoot a 12 gauge or 20 gauge shotgun becomes important.
12 gauge shotguns have a bore diameter of 0.729” while 20 gauge shotguns have a diameter of 0.615”. Larger bore sizes allow shells to carry more pellets. So, the question becomes: Would you rather shoot a 12 gauge, which has more power and pellets per shell, or a 20 gauge (a smaller gun that allows you more mobility and lower recoil at the cost of fewer pellets)?
There’s no right or wrong answer to that question. But the decision making process can be made simpler by evaluating some of the new and cutting edge ammo on the market.
The Best Duck Hunting Shotgun Loads
Here are our top picks for the best duck shot loads of 2022:
1. Federal Speed-Shok Waterfowl 12 Gauge 3" 1-1/4 oz. #2 Steel Shot
One thing all waterfowlers can agree on is the need for quick and efficient kills. You don’t have much time before that bird is out of range. When it comes to making the perfect shot, you need to consider the brand of ammunition you use.
Federal Premium answers the call with their Speed-Shok waterfowl load. Federal Speed-Shok employs clean, fast-burning powders to reduce barrel residue and minimize the risk for pesky barrel jams that can ruin a hunt. Better yet, Speed-Shok pellets leave the barrel at 1450 fps, propelled by a specially designed thick wad to prevent barrel wear.
At a 3” shell length and size 2 steel shot, the Speed-Shok load protects the longevity of your firearm while providing all the power you need to drop any variety of waterfowl — big or small.
2. HEVI-Metal Longer Range
There’s a reason why most waterfowlers stuff their wader pockets with HEVI-Shot brand shotgun shells. HEVI-Shot is a waterfowl hunting industry leader, and their Longer Range load lives up to their prestigious reputation.
At 3” in length, the Hevi-Metal Longer Range contains size 4 pellets and a leading layer of HEVI-bismuth shot. That bismuth is 22% denser than steel and packs a punch on those longer distance shots, making this shotgun shell versatile in nearly any hunting scenario. The Longer Range shell comes in both 12 and 20 gauge sizes, as well as shot sizes ranging from #6 to BBB.
3. Federal Black Cloud FS Steel
Black Cloud has become a favorite among waterfowlers, not only for its high-performing and clean-burning powder but also for its tight patterns. This is made possible by Federal’s revolutionary FLITECONTROL FLEX wad.
The FLITECONTROL FLEX wad opens from the rear and provides consistent pellet spreads. Black Cloud loads are cut with a 40:60 mix of Flitestopper pellets with sharp cutting edges and round Premium steel load, which creates the perfect blend of high velocity and maximum damage. The combination of the FLEX wad technology and blended pellet mixture means that these shells shoot reliably dense patterns even on farther distance shots.
4. Remington Hypersonic Steel
Remington lived up to their long history of hunter satisfaction when they released one of the fastest shotgun loads in duck hunting history.
The Hypersonic Steel shot exits the barrel at a whopping 1700 fps. To put that in perspective, that’s 1.5 times the speed of sound and about as fast as the top speed of an F/A-18. This makes shooting erratically flying ducks a hell of a lot easier. According to Remington, the velocity of their Hypersonic Steel reduces lead distances by 8” at 40 yards. With this load, you can make quick and accurate shots without the trouble of calculating good leads.
Like Federal’s Black Cloud, Hypersonic Steel employs a specialized wad tailored for their shot load. Be prepared for a tender shooting shoulder, however. With all that extra speed comes a powerful kickback.
5. Winchester Blindside
Winchester proved that steel pellets could come in more shapes than round when they released their Blindside shot. Relatively uncommon among waterfowl ammunitions, sharp-edged pellets maximize blunt force impact and wound channel trauma. For a hunter, that means quick and ethical kills.
The Blindside load contains Hex Steel Shot, which are six-faced, multiple-edged pellets packed in a Diamond Cut Wad. According to Winchester, this load increases kill zones by up to 25%. Blindside is offered in a variety of shot sizes and comes in both 12 and 20 gauge.
6. Kent Cartridge Fasteel 2.0
Many of us duck hunters grew up shooting Kent Fasteel. It’s been the ubiquitous shotgun load among waterfowlers on a budget for about 20 years. Not only was the Fasteel cheap, but it was also reliable.
Now, Kent has taken that popular cartridge and upgraded it virtually every way. The Kent Cartridge Fasteel 2.0 boasts all the things duck hunters loved about the original Fasteel and more. The 2.0 offers high shooting velocities, tight shot patterns, and reliable performance. The 2.0 was upgraded to provide plated, corrosion-resistant shot and a nickel shell head to prevent rust.
The best feature of these shells is that they endure the rough conditions of wet and dirty hunts while providing the same reliability that put Kent on the waterfowling map in the first place.
When you’re considering which duck shot load to purchase, remember not to get too hung up on the nitty gritty details. Most of today’s shells are built to get the job done. No matter which waterfowling load you choose from this list, you will be ready to bring down a bounty of ducks or geese.
But if you need something more specialized, some of these shells come in a variety in shell lengths and steel shot sizes. With enough research and shopping, you’re sure to find something that works for your preferences.
If you’re ready to load up on Federal Speed-Shok Waterfowl, we’ve got it in small boxes and bulk cases at Pro Armory. Browse our store’s selection to stock up for your next hunting trip.