Written By Matt Heden

How to Choose what size shot for duck hunting

Whether you are new to hunting or an experienced hunter, one question that always seems to come to mind is – what is the best shot size to use? It’s not the most significant question when you have the option to choose from all the different shot sizes, but it becomes a crucial question when shells are low on inventory. I found myself asking this question when I couldn’t find my standard 3″ 2 shot that I’d been using for over a decade.

Choosing the correct shot size can definitely make or break a hunt. In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to select the perfect shot size for your next hunt.


The Importance of Choosing the Right Shot Size

Using the right shot size is not only important for ethical reasons but also essential in ensuring you get the most out of your hunt. No one likes crippling birds and leaving with fewer birds in the hand than in the bush. Using the correct shot size can help you fill your limit (if you’re a good enough shot), and it will help prevent crippled birds from soaring out of range or into dense tulles or brush and walking out with fewer birds than you had hoped for.


Factors to Consider When Selecting Shot Size

There are a few essential factors to consider when choosing the perfect shot size for your next duck hunt. These include the type of waterfowl you’re hunting, the range of your shot, the gauge of your shotgun, and the type of shot.


Type of Waterfowl

Let’s get this out of the way now – duck hunting and goose hunting require different shot sizes. Yes, there can be some overlap, but generally speaking – you’ll choose a different shot size if you are going for giant Canada’s versus a traditional duck hunt.

If you’re hunting Geese only – you’re definitely going to want to be shooting a larger and heavier shot. Whether you shoot a 3 ½” or a 3″ shell, using a high velocity and higher density shot is what you want to help take down these larger-bodied birds. As a general rule of thumb, larger waterfowl species require larger shot sizes, while smaller ducks can be taken down with smaller shot sizes. For all the crack shots out there, we know you’ve shot giant Honkers with a spare 5-shot steel that you found in the bottom of your bag, but we’re talking about what’s best – not what’s possible. The larger the species, the larger the shot is best to be used.


Range of Your Shot

The range of your shot is another important factor to consider when choosing your shot size. It would be awesome if we could forecast how far our shots are all going to be, but that’s not always the case. For close-range shots, smaller shot sizes can help cover a wider spread and may cover a larger area. In comparison, larger shot sizes are more effective for longer-range shots because they maintain their energy and penetration power over a longer distance. Shooting a mallard at 20 yards with 3 shot is great, but trying to shoot it at 60 yards becomes a different story, let alone the ethical considerations and choke choices you use.


Gauge of Your Shotgun

The gauge of your shotgun is the diameter of the barrel and determines the amount of shot that can be fired. The most common shotgun gauges used for duck hunting are 12-gauge and 20-gauge, though the 28-gauge is also rising in popularity. With the increase in popularity of denser shot material (like tungsten), many hunters are using smaller gauge shotguns but denser and smaller shot sizes.


Type of Shot

The type of shot you use can definitely impact your hunting success. For waterfowl hunting, it is federally regulated that you use non-toxic shot. Every kind of non-toxic shot has its own unique properties and can affect your shooting accuracy based on shot size, choke restriction, and density. Common types of shot include steel, tungsten, Bismuth, Hevi-shot, and copper plated. It should be noted – because these higher-density metals and alloys are being used, a smaller shot size is often used for these metals versus steel.


Common Shot Sizes for Waterfowl Hunting

Now that you understand the factors to consider when selecting shot size let’s look at some of the most common shot sizes used for waterfowl hunting.

BB Shot (steel)

BB is often used for goose-only hunts. It’s a great shot size that carries a higher density (for steel) and helps penetrate larger-bodied birds. You can shoot BB for ducks, but it’s often a bit overkill. We’d recommend using BB shot for hunting the bigger-bodied waterfowl species.


#2 Shot (steel)

#2 shot is a versatile option that works well for both goose and duck hunting; it provides good penetration and is effective for taking down waterfowl cleanly at medium ranges. We’d consider it the ultimate crossover shot for when both ducks and geese may be present.


#4 Shot (steel)

#4 shot is a popular choice for hunting smaller ducks or earlier migraters. It provides good penetration on birds that don’t have all the fat that later birds have and is pretty effective at various (ethical) ranges. Many hunters like this shot size for early teal hunts as well.


#4, #5, & #6 (Bismuth, Tungsten, Hevi-metal)

When hunting with bismuth, tungsten, or other alloy shot, smaller shot sizes are often used compared to steel shot because these metals are denser materials. This means they have more energy and penetration than the same-size steel shot. So, for example – a #2 steel shot pellet may have similar penetration and energy to a #4 or #5 bismuth or tungsten shot pellet. This allows waterfowlers to use smaller shot sizes with bismuth or tungsten shot and still achieve effective results on waterfowl at all ranges, especially at further distances.
Also, using smaller shot sizes with bismuth or tungsten shot can help reduce recoil and improve accuracy. This is because smaller shot sizes require less powder and produce less recoil than larger shot sizes.



Choosing the perfect shot size is essential for a successful and ethical hunt – whether in flooded timber, corn, a rice field, natural marsh, or prairie land. Remember to consider the type of waterfowl you’ll be hunting, the range of your shot, the gauge of your shotgun, and the type of shot you’ll be using. Don’t forget to try out the many different types of shot material out there these days; we’ve seen it make a huge difference in having fewer crippled birds and less money in our wallets.

It’s the sacrifice we have to make sometimes!


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.