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The Ultimate Guide to Choosing Waterfowl Shotgun Shells: Best All-Around Shot Size for Waterfowl

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

Ah, the thrill of the hunt!

Whether you’re a waterfowl beginner or a veteran hunter, there’s nothing quite like the challenge and reward of taking on wild ducks and geese. But part of that exciting experience is being armed with the right tools for success - and that includes waterfowl shotgun shells.

With so many types and sizes available, it can be tricky to make the right choices.

This guide is designed to help you find the best all-around shot size for ducks and geese so that your next hunt is a smashing success!

Types of Waterfowl Shotgun Shells

Before we dive into shot size, let’s look at the different types of shotgun shells you’ll find on the market and you can pack in your hunting gear.

Lead Shot vs. Steel Shot

Lead is the most common type of shot used in waterfowl hunting. It’s heavier, so it packs more punch and travels farther than steel. But because of its density and toxicity lead can be deadly to wildlife and birds if ingested. That’s why many provinces including Saskatchewan, Canada have banned the use of lead shot for waterfowl hunting.

Steel shot is lighter and less toxic than lead, but it does have some drawbacks. It’s not as effective at long ranges, has more recoil, and is more expensive than lead. This makes it a better choice for close-range shooting like with ducks in marshes or flooded fields.

Non-Toxic Shot: Bismuth, Tungsten, and Hevi-Shot

For those looking for an alternative to lead shot, there are a few non-toxic options available – bismuth, tungsten, and Hevi-Shot. All of these materials are heavier than steel but lighter than lead, so they’re great for longer ranges. They’re also non-toxic and won't damage the environment if ingested by wildlife.

Bismuth is the most expensive option but is very effective for hunting ducks and geese. Tungsten is slightly cheaper but maintains down-range energy with more pellets causing quicker cleaner kills. Hevi-Shot is the affordable option and has a higher density than lead but with less recoil, making it ideal for hunters who want to go lighter on their guns.

Shotgun Shell Size

Now that we’ve looked at the different types of shotgun shells, let’s talk about size.

Understanding Shot Size: What It Means

Shot size is measured in numbers that range from 1 (the largest) to 9 (the smallest). Also above 1, there are B, BB, BBB, T, and F - in ascending order. These numbers are written on the shell’s box and refer to how many pellets there are per ounce. The smaller the number, the bigger and heavier the pellets.

Common Shotgun Shell Sizes for Waterfowl Hunting

It’s recommended to use shot sizes 2-4 for duck hunting. While for shotgun shell size for hunting geese, you can use 1, BB, BBB, or T steel shot.

Gauge and Length of Shotgun Shells

The gauge and length of shotgun shells are two other important factors to consider when choosing ammunition.

Gauge and Length Explained

Shotgun shells come in different gauges, in descending order of size (12, 16, 20, 28 and .410) which refer to the diameter of the bore. The larger the number, the smaller the bore size - meaning a 12 gauge has a bigger bore than a 20 gauge.

Common Shotgun Gauges and Lengths for Waterfowl Hunting

For waterfowl hunting, the most common gauge is 12 or 20 with a length of 3 inches.

Which Gauge and Length Is Best for Waterfowl Hunting?

The best all-around gauge and length combination for waterfowl hunting is a 12-gauge with a 3-inch Shell. This setup will provide plenty of range and knockdown power so that you can take down any size duck or goose in one shot.

Velocity and Shot Weight

When choosing shotgun ammunition for waterfowl hunting, you also need to consider velocity and shot weight.

The Relationship between Velocity and Shot Weight

Velocity refers to how fast the shot leaves the barrel of your gun while shot weight is measured in ounces. The higher the velocity, the more pellet energy will be delivered down range.

Best Velocity and Shot Weight for Waterfowl Hunting

The ideal combination for most waterfowl hunters is a velocity of 1,400 -1,700 fps and a shot weight of one ounce. This setup will provide enough energy downrange without too much recoil or spread.

Shotgun Shell Brands and Models

When selecting shotgun shells for waterfowl hunting, it’s important to compare the different brands and models. Different brands and models of shells can produce varying velocities, payloads, and patterns which can affect your accuracy.

Comparison of Popular Shotshell Brands

There are a variety of shotshell brands on the market that offer different features.

Some popular brands include Federal Premium, Remington Gun Club, Winchester Xpert, and many more.

Reviews of the Best Waterfowl Shotgun Shells

It’s important to read reviews from experienced hunters in order to get a better idea of which brand and model are best for waterfowl hunting. Experienced hunters will be able to provide insights on patterns, velocities, and payloads that can help you make an informed decision.

Other Factors to Consider

In addition to velocity, shot weight, and shotgun shell brands and models, there are other factors to consider when choosing ammunition for waterfowl hunting. These include:

Hunting Location and Environment

Where you’ll be hunting and the type of environment you’ll encounter will impact your choice of ammunition. For instance, open dry fields require different types of shells than thick brush or marshes.

Weather and Temperature

Especially when hunting snow geese, you have to keep watch of the weather and temperature. For instance, snow geese will start moving north once the snow starts to melt and the days get longer. So we recommend that you follow the snowline.


Finally, it’s important to consider your budget when selecting shotgun shells for waterfowl hunting. There are a variety of brands and models that come in different price ranges so you’ll need to decide what fits into your budget.

Tips for Choosing the Best Waterfowl Shotgun Shells

Here are few additional tips to consider when choosing the best waterfowl shotgun shells:

Consult With Experienced Hunters

Talk to experienced hunters about the type of shells they prefer and why. This will provide valuable insight that can help you make an informed decision. Plus, you can take it a step further by partnering with experienced waterfowl hunting guides who can help on the big hunt.

Here at Thunderbird Outfitters, we pride ourselves on our experienced guides who can assist you in making the most of your hunt in Saskatchewan, Canada.

Test Different Types of Shotgun Shells

It’s important to test different types and sizes of shotgun shells in order to determine what works best for you. Try shooting at the range to get a feel of the shotgun.

Know Your Shotgun and Its Capabilities

It’s important to be aware of your shotgun’s capabilities in order to choose the right size and type of ammunition. For example, some shotguns may not be able to handle the pressure of a 3” shell, so it’s important to know what your shotgun can handle.

Follow Regulations and Laws

Remember to follow all local regulations and laws when choosing waterfowl ammunition. Some areas may have restrictions on certain types or sizes of shells due to safety considerations. For instance, if you are hunting in Saskatchewan, Canada, we reference the wildlife agency Summary of Migratory Birds Hunting Regulations: Saskatchewan, August 2022 to July 2023 to stay up to date on the regulations and laws.


Choosing the right type of shotgun shell for waterfowl hunting is essential for a successful hunt. By consulting with experienced hunters, testing different types of shells, knowing your shotgun and its capabilities, and following regulations and laws, you can be sure to make an informed decision that will give you the best results on your next waterfowl hunt.

If you’re looking for a great outdoor adventure with experienced guides, then look no further than Thunderbird Outfitters

Our guides will help ensure you have an amazing hunt in Saskatchewan, Canada! So what are you waiting for?

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