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As is the case with brass-cased cartridges for personal defense, there will always be, uh, “discussion” about which soft-shell load kills ducks the best. Marketing tactics pushing the newest shot formulas or wad designs will surely tempt even the most seasoned waterfowler. But a 12 gauge cartridge that dropped ducks during the Dust Bowl era will still drop ducks today.

The point being that some folks will over-complicate choosing a go-to duck load, due in part to the plethora of options. Steel, tungsten, Bismuth, copper…flight-controlling wads and boosters…shaped shot…sealed primer and/or crimp. It’s a little ridiculous how many factors can be taken into consideration – and they change by the season!

Picking your go-to duck hunting load is something only you can do for yourself. If you don’t have one yet and can go through the process to find one, you should. Instead of an item on the hunting checklist, it will become a consistently available and reliable compliment to your shotgun.

But before you pick up a box of shells you’ll want to ensure you’re accounting for proper load compatibility with your shotgun and applied choke. Determine the following before going shopping:

1. Gauge or caliber
2. Shell length
3. Shot size
4. Any other load restrictions for your shotgun or choke tube

This CZ Woodcock Deluxe over-and-under has its restrictions imprinted on its Huglu barrel – 12 gauge only up to 3″ shells.

With your load specifications in-hand, begin researching the options. Apply the process outlined below to help you determine the best shot shell for your needs:

1. Price: Is the ammo within your price range? Is that price consistent? Are there annual rebates? You most certainly do not need the top-shelf shells to kill ducks, but you want high enough quality to provide consistency. Develop your initial list of options.

2. Availability: Is the load readily available or is it a limited-edition load? You want your go-to cartridge to be nearly painless to find in the quantity you need every season. Distill your list and buy a box of each load.

Get out to your range and pattern the loads. A standard patterning procedure dictates calculating pellet density inside of a 30 inch circle on a 48 inch by 48 inch blank piece of paper placed 40 yards from the shooter. Also note if the pellets are evenly distributed across the paper. Then head into the field and hunt with your options.

3. Performance: Now that you’ve tried your options, eliminate any that gave you issues or didn’t seem to run well with your shotgun. From what is left, which load did you consistently kill more ducks with? Notice I said, “kill,” not “cripple.” The load that most consistently smacks ducks dead before they hit the water is the one you’re looking for.

Your best go-to duck hunting load isn’t necessarily the one that’s most expensive, has the newest technology, or is endorsed by the most popular pro-hunters or even your best buddy. It’s the one that works the best for you. It’s the one that gives you confidence. It’s the cartridge that you never think about because it’s consistent and reliable.

Of course, this is just one approach and it may not be your preference. There are many ways to find your go-to load (if you haven’t already). No matter your approach, having a go-to duck hunting cartridge will save you time and money and put more ducks (or any other type of bird) on your strap.

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  1. It all boils down to what your shotgun(s) likes. Kent Fasteel works fine, better than fine, in my single shots. But my pumps don’t like it. My beretta semi shows a dislike for lower powered shells.

    In my experience, I claim no expertise, steel loads shoot tight for pattern chokes. I have an older 500 mossberg that I really like but it has a fixed modified choke. No way to change short of putting a new barrel on it.

    Steel loads pattern well. But they don’t have that oompah at range that lead has. But living in CA restricts me to non lead loads only for all hunting.

    Steel is the most affordable alternative to lead. Patience and trial will allow you to pick the best choke, barrel combo. I don’t hunt ducks. But smacking a squirrel out a tree or tagging a big crow at distance is a challenge that can be addressed with steel shot.

    4 shot for crows and squirrel. 6-7 shot for quail, dove and rabbits.

    Where legal I carry a few 3 inch bb loads with me in case of a random encounter with a yote.

    • I don’t duck hunt frequently, but I’ll second Black Cloud. I’ve always had good luck with theirs, and it’s what I always keep a box or two of in my stash in the off-chance a duck hunting opportunity comes up.

  2. Geese I like 3.5 BB blindside. It Did break two receivers in my Remington 11-87 Super Mag. Or it could be Remington is Just Junk

  3. I don’t do ducks, but it seems to me steel shot shoots about one choke size smaller than lead. I do hunt Turkeys though. After testing like 8-10 different loads my guns liked the Federal Turkey Thug 3″ with 1 7/8 oz shot #6. MKA1919 with tru glo turkey choke. Tight pattern out to 50 yards. I use #4 and #6 steel in my coach gun for turkeys sometimes #4 in the mod and #6 in the IC. The steel gives me a little more reach to ensure a clean kill safely. 2 3/4 seems to about the same job as the 3″ also 3 vs 3.5 seems to make no difftence.

  4. this is a great fine article i shoot remington autoloading anyway tge Winchester Fasteel 1550 fos 12 guage, 2 3/4 inch shells i trid out for dyck hunting on the publuc waterfowl area.. they cycle perfectly kick more tgan a field load theyre hi brass which adds to safety, i shot a running jack rabbit 75 or 80 feet jumping away bo lead requiex just boom… anyhow i would add dfferent liads need diffetent leads when shooting doves i exwrienced difference in hi brass liads and fied loads which are real cheap… both lead just different speeds so , dont let opening day be the furst day you practice go shoot skeet using the liad y are going to hunt eith.

  5. sorry for my spelling i cant see good at nite without glasses on thys drvce i just wanted to pj t out i shot all kinds of liads they have different leads.

  6. Been hunting since I could walk. My dad didnt let me use lead because he was aware of the change coming in Wisconsin. If I had a dime for every guy I’ve seen blasting away at 60 yrd or more away birds and blaming his loads (steel) for his lack of success I’d be rich…. It’s simple, don’t shoot till they’re decoying..PERIOD. Well written article. Pattering your fodder is the most important part….

  7. Another tip for shooting larger ducks, the good old Remmington 12 ga is great for around 50 yards – high velocity delivered by the load which increase the killing range on the larger ducks…

    but thanks for the tips will take note!

  8. I hunt only mallards. I have found that the best all around shot size is #2’s. Three inch 1 1/8th oz., 1550 or 1560 fps. Either Federal or Kent Faststeel. Best pricing has been Federal. Any of the Benelli guns (M2, Super Sport, Cordova, SBE) with their IC or M chokes.


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