I don’t know about you but every year for the past 55 years I have been anxiously awaiting August 31 because that was the day before one of the most anticipated day in my life. All yearly adventures begin with the opening of dove season and back when I was a boy it began at noon and doves were hunted only in the afternoon and the temperature was always hot and no one really went out at noon. It seems the younger you were the earlier you went out only to sit on the dove stool sweating waiting for that little black dot to appear on the horizon that seemed to begin the adrenaline rush we call dove hunting. If you were a good shot your first day was over before it really began and if you were among the majority of hunters looking down the barrel and chasing the birds down from the rear it probably turned into the longest day of your year looking for the last bird in your limit.
When we talk about the shotgun and it’s many component parts eventually it comes down to choke and load and distance and lead. I have studied the smooth bore for over 50 years and for the past 25 years as a professional shooting instructor on 3 continents and I must tell you that the one major consistency of a shotgun is its inconsistency! It is a game of percentages and there are many more misconceptions than there are factual ones especially when it comes to ammo. I remember in a hotel room in Vail Colorado, listening to Jim Zumbo on TV say, “If you swing the shotgun fast enough the shot cloud will come out in and oval and you won’t have to lead the bird as much!” Well that stopped me like a bird dog in full gate coming across fresh scent of a covey of quail. I thought to myself, now that is just impossible and why would someone say something like that and on TV to boot? The shot comes out of the muzzle at about 1200 fps (feet per second) which is 818 mph, so the muzzle would have to be going 3,000mph to spread the shot like butter on a biscuit and “dat jus ain’t gonna happen!”
Ammo has come a long way in the recent past. The ammo we have today is far superior to the ammo of 25 years ago. Some principals still remain however, though misunderstood by many. A faster shot shell does not affect the amount of lead necessary to hit the target. On a crossing target going 25 mph at 35 yards the difference in the amount of actual lead in a load going 1130 fps and one going 1300 fps is only 4-5 inches and the bead covers up 9 inches! We see shooters going to 12 gauge loads with 1 ¼ ounce of shot thinking that that will give them an edge over 1 1/8 ounce or even 1 ounce. Shooters, shooting a 20-gauge may go to 1 ounce instead of the normal 7/8-ounce load. While I could make a pretty good argument for this reasoning being technically correct the added recoil the heavier loads have will make even the best shooters begin to get sore before getting their limit with the heavier than normal pay loads. For this reason heavier and faster loads in our experience are not going to give the normal dove hunter any measurable advantage in bagging a limit of doves. The reason being the normal dove hunter cannot consistently hit a crossing dove beyond 25-28 yards and at that distance a heavier payload will not make any difference in legality! You would have to push the distance envelope out to about 38-40 plus yards before you would see any added benefit of going to a heavier load. Even then, you would have to couple it with modified or full choke and unless you have a dog to help you find the bird, your chances of losing it when it hits the ground go up at that distance.
So what is the answer to the question about what ammo to use on opening day this year? While you can bring down doves with 8’s or 7 1/2’s inside 30 yards equally as well, when I have a choice, I will always go with larger shot sizes on game birds. My answer would be a normal load of 7 ½’s going 1225-1250 fps through an improved cylinder choke in either a 12 gauge or a 20 gauge for opening day. As the birds get more skittish and the season wears on, increase the choke from improved cylinder to modified and watch what happens. If I were going after those high flying white wings rather than going to heavier loads, my experience and advice has always been go to 6’s and tighten up the choke. The shotgun delivers energy based on how many pellets strike the target in the shortest amount of time. The larger the shot the more energy each pellet has but with larger shot comes fewer pellets thus more choke is needed to keep the fewer pellets closer together at distance. If you are lucky enough to get to hunt those high flying white wings, switch to 6’s and a modified or full choke and prepare to be amazed at your results. All this said, as a shooting coach, I must add that while the most perfect load and choke combination is a factor in successfully killing a dove, it pales in comparison to being able to put the shot ahead of the bird with enough consistency to become an ethical and lethal hunter. Take someone to the field this year and be safe, be ethical, and pass on one of the most enjoyable times in the field that can be had!
By Gil Ash, OSP Shooting School
Gil Ash is a full time shooting instructor. He has been shooting for 44 years. An Avid hunter and fisherman since early childhood, Gil demonstrates unparalleled passion for shooting and the psychology behind it.