Shot sizes for high pheasants

Shot sizes for high pheasants. What is required?

Do we really need to use big loads to be sure of effectiveness? Tim Woodhouse assesses the options.

Towards the end of the season the birds are now fully feathered and more pellet resistant, and flying higher than they were but a month or two ago. Also they are much more wary, and a late season cock pheasant can be a wily bird, that likes to put as much distance  as possible between him and the guns; a viewpoint which is entirely understandable!

With ranges of 40 to a maximum of 50yards, what are the best choices with an English game gun for ultimate success?           

The traditional preference has been for at least 120 pellets in the 30” circle, looking to put at least four pellets into the bird. This combination has been shown to strike the vital organs with reasonable reliability for a clean kill, the more so if the pattern is placed centrally on the bird.

Well, so far so good, it seems that all we have to do is use a shot size that will guarantee a multiple strike; unfortunately there is rather more to it than that. Peppering a bird with shot that lacks the penetration to reach the vital organs is worse than useless, and a primary cause of wounding. 

Sadly, using shot that is so large that it is guaranteed to pass clean through the bird at longer ranges, but perhaps missing the vital organs also has its drawbacks.
Ideally the pellets will penetrate the outer flesh and lodge in the vital organs, and in the process expend all of their energy in the bird. Clearly pellets that pass straight through the bird will not be able to transmit all of their energy to it. This is the crux of the issue, and largely depends upon the range and attitude of the bird to the shooter.

Unfortunately the larger pellets are considerably fewer in number than their smaller brethren, for the same weight of shot. For instance 1oz of number 4 (170) contains exactly half as many pellets as 1oz of number 7 shot (340). The trick then, is to balance the minimum pattern with sufficient pellet penetration to do the job. This will determine the maximum effective range of the chosen combination of gun, choke and cartridge, where the combination of both pattern density and penetration can be reasonably expected to produce a clean kill.


Referring to the pellet graph and using half choke performance with 60% (120) of the pellets in the pattern circle at 40 yards, we can see that we need at least 200 pellets in the load.

The smaller pellets of 6 and 7 easily exceed this with all of the loads shown, but 26gm of number 5 shot and about 33gm of number 4 are on the limit. Number 3 is well below this level even with a heavy 36gm load.

With a need for 172 pellets in the load for the minimum full choke performance of 120 pellets in the circle at 40yards, 29gm of number 4 just scrapes home, as does about 35.5gm of number 3. This is hardly a worthwhile improvement over 32gm of 5 shot with a half choke performance at 40yards.

With the more open patterns produced by improved cylinder performance of 50% of the total pellets within the pattern circle, as shown by the white dashed line, we can see that a 25gm load of number 6 will work, as will 31gm of number 5, number 7 clearly has plenty in hand even with the 24gm load.

We can see from the graph that the heavy 36gm load of number 3 shot is beyond the pale. It will be inconsistent with anything less than full choke performance at 40yards.

The larger shot sizes are clearly wanting in the pattern density stakes. It must be appreciated that higher pellet energy is entirely useless if it cannot be brought to bear upon the bird in a reliable manner.

50 yards

At 50yards however things are trickier. The full choke performance will have dropped to 49% and we will need number 5 shot or larger.

We can use the top edge of the white improved cylinder 40yard line (50%) on the graph, which is very close to full choke at 50yards (49%).

Number 3 shot: Even with full choke the very heavy standard 42gm load will only manage 98 pellets in the circle.  

Number 4 shot: With a full choke 49% pattern 41gm will deliver the minimum pattern at 50yards for 120 pellets, (42gm has 123).

Number 5 shot: With a full choke 49% pattern a 32gm load puts 122 pellets into the pattern at 50yards.

For a reliable pattern to 50yards 32gm of number 5 shot is more efficient, with less recoil than the heavy 42gm loads of numbers 4 & 3. 


The problems of high bird estimation.

One shooter will no doubt swear by number 6 shot; by the same token there will also be another who advocates number 4 for high birds and that nothing smaller will do. So who is right? Well perhaps both of them are right.

The true range of tall birds is notoriously difficult to judge accurately, with most of them being rather nearer than might have been thought. Number 6 shot may prove admirable for a 40yard bird; which for most shooters is a genuinely high bird. Equally, the number 4 aficionados probably shoot more birds at similar distances than they realise; the 32gm number 4 load has 134 pellets at 40yards with a 70% full choke pattern.

The larger shot sizes have plenty of penetration in hand at 50yards and beyond, but critically, their pattern is the limiting factor. This restricts the maximum effective range to those loads that have both sufficient pattern density and penetration.
The best compromise for both pattern and penetration for high pheasants up to 50yards is 32gm of number 5 shot. Larger shot sizes require very heavy loads, which are unsuitable for the traditional English game gun.

To help judge range

From the Eley Shooter's Diary... the birds will appear the right size when seen from along a gun barrel. Prop up the page or lay it open on the floor. Place the muzzle of your gun on the page itself below the bird selected. Look along the barrel. The image of the bird will look the same size as it would for real at the selected distance.

Fieldsports uses cookies. If you continue we assume you are happy to receive cookies. Cookie policy.