Learning what defines a good pheasant hunting shotgun for you
The flash of iridescent color exploding from the ground coupled with the mocking cackle of a rising ring-neck rooster is an unforgettable moment for any pheasant hunter about to pull the trigger. Choosing a shotgun for pheasant hunting is a critical and personal decision based on many factors for any hunter wanting to chase America’s most popular, and some may argue the toughest, upland game bird to knock down (more on that later).
The shotgun — the final and probably the most crucial piece of the upland puzzle besides choosing a bird dog. The shotgun that you’re planning on taking out into the field needs to be durable, accurate, and something you’ll enjoy (not just tolerate) carrying in the uplands, woods, deserts and fields. A special bond is formed by hunter and shotgun, very similar to that of hunter and dog. Your shotgun of choice will most likely be kept in your cabinet for a lifetime — that is, until it’s time to pass it down to the next generation.
Until that times come, the shotgun used for chasing wily roosters comes down to one thing: comfort. And rest assured — comfort doesn’t mean expensive. A shotgun that mounts quickly, swings smoothly, and can be comfortably carried makes for a good pheasant gun. Bear in mind, the right shotgun for one hunter may not be the right one for another.
Because pheasant hunting takes place in such a wide range of environments and habitats, pheasant hunters need to make sure they’re carrying a shotgun they can shoot well and carry afield all day. There are plenty of shotgun options; just remember, one doesn’t need a fancy high-dollar model to effectively hunt pheasants.
Recommended gauges for pheasant hunting
It’s obvious that the 12-gauge shotgun is the most popular choice, and many consider this the best all-around option for pheasant hunting. Ammunition is readily available and less expensive than for other gauges. The twelve-bore can handle a variety of loads with enough power to bring down those tough longtails in both early and late seasons. There are plenty of 12-gauge options available to fit different body types and which are still light and easily carried in the field. The 12’s versatility is also good for a variety of upland hunting (dove, grouse, quail), and works well for waterfowl and turkey hunting, as well.
Although the 12-gauge shotgun is the most prominent in the field, some hunters feel more comfortable with the 16- and 20-gauge models. Both offer a variety of options and make a good choice for youth or small-framed hunters.
And then there is the “Sweet Sixteen.” There was a time when the 16-gauge was second in popularity to its big brother, the 12. The 16 shot like a 12 and could be carried afield much like a “light” 20. A proper 16 built on a small frame is considered by many to be the ultimate upland shotgun. Ballistically it equals the 12-gauge and is a pound or so lighter. The unfortunate part of the 16-gauge story is that at present most 16-gauge barrels are placed onto 12-gauge receivers. Wingshooters looking to use a 16 in the pheasant fields will have to settle for this one and only flaw. However, there is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel: with a little homework, shooters can find true 16-gauge shotguns on true 16-gauge frames.
The 20-gauge or as it is commonly referred to, “The Gentleman’s Gun,” makes for an ideal gun for pheasants and everything in between. America has for some time transitioned to the 20 in large part, because 12s have always been so heavy. As the popularity of the 16 waned, the 20 rose to become the most popular small gauge shotgun. Most consider the 20-gauge’s ace-in-the-hole is that it simply feels good in a bird hunter’s hands. The 20, when brought to your shoulder, feels lighter because it is. The 20 is going to have a slimmer, trimmer barrel, forearm and receiver which helps hunters feel more ready. Its effectiveness, as with any shotgun, lies in the variety of loads that can be used in conjunction with the correct chokes.
A recent study shows that 46.26 percent of the Project Upland community shoot a 20-gauge — versus 31.57 percent who shoot a 12-gauge.2018 National Upland Bird Hunting Survey
Now for the little shotgun that remains largely unknown: the 28-gauge. The truth is that the 28 will never become as popular as the 12- or 20-gauge, but it does have its fair share of fans. I have absolutely no experience in shooting a 28-gauge, but speaking with those that do, the 28 is lethal inside its effective range of 30 yards. As previously discussed, shot size and loads determine its capability. Others will say the 28 has no business out on the open plains on late season roosters. To each their own … shotgun, that is.
While there are advantages and disadvantages with each gauge for pheasant hunting, the right combination and set-ups are vital to your success with pheasants. Knowing the proper shot, shell, and load used with any shotgun gauge will determine the success and outcome when hunting ring-necked pheasant roosters. There are some limits to shooting a 16-, 20- and 28-gauge, but pheasants aren’t one of them.
Choosing an action type for pheasants
Once you’ve chosen a gauge, your next choice revolves around the type of action. The sound of a pump shotgun shucking a shell into the chamber is steeped in upland hunting history and tradition. Pump-actions are excellent choices for beginners as an entry-level gun. But in the hands of well experienced bird hunters, the pump can be lethal. Its nostalgic presence in the field commands respect.
The pump shotgun, indeed, has many virtues. A good pump-action offers reliability. It cycles everything that’s loaded into it. Some make a big deal about semi-autos shooting a variety of loads including the big 3 ½ inch. But guess what? So does every pump shotgun! Pumps work in almost any weather. There’s not much to clean and maintain on a pump. Pumps come apart and go together quite easily. A little oil on the action bars, occasionally inspect the magazine tube and you’re set to go.
One of the biggest selling points for pumps is that they are usually more budget-friendly than other types of action. Pump shotguns are often “traded-up” to a semi-auto, so finding a pump at bargain prices can be easy.
Which brings us to the semi-auto. There’s no denying that a semi-auto’s third shot without pumping can bring down that rooster you missed with the first two shots. But it’s not a given, as often pheasants will be out of range by the time your third shot goes off. Semi-autos have become lighter and certainly rival the weight of lesser gauges.
Semis make for easy subsequent shooting when faced with the need for quick follow-up shots. Be aware that semi-autos can also come with some pitfalls: the action can jam a little more easily than other actions. However, the semi’s versatility as an all-around choice for a variety of hunting makes for a wise choice for the cost-conscious hunter.
There’s a popular adage that “a pair (meaning two barrels) beats a flush in the uplands.” That being said, the classic pheasant hunter shoots a lightweight break-action open shotgun. Which double gun holds true to traditional? Over/under or side-by-side? Take your pick. That riddle will forever be open for debate.
Two-barreled shotguns allow the firing of two shots without cycling a shot-shell. Break-action shotguns are comfortable to carry through the fields, woods, and mountains. They possess a lively feel when raised and swung on flushing birds. It also comes down to personal choice whether a shooter wants to peer down the narrow single sighting plane of an over/under’s vertical barrels, or the broad expanse of a side-by-side’s paired barrels.
Side-by-sides are lighter than over/unders. Their frames nestle low in the hands for easy, natural pointing. Side-by-sides traditionally have two triggers. Over/unders tend to have single triggers, big forends and pistol grips, making hand placement more accurate.
Two barrels also means two chokes. The double action allows for different chokes to be used depending on the hunting situation. A more open or wide choke is often used for that first shot upon the flush, while a tighter pattern is used for the second shot which tends to be farther out.
Another advantage to carrying a double gun is that the action can be easily broke open to safely cross fences and maneuver over tricky and tough terrain such as jumping creeks and sliding down banks.
Not to be forgotten is the single-shot break open shotgun. The single-shot’s design predates many of the firearms in use today. Its simplicity makes it a valuable entry level shotgun for pheasant hunting for beginners and youth. Single-shots come in .410 caliber, 20- and 12-gauge.
Best weight shotgun for pheasants
Pheasant hunters need a shotgun that can be carried across miles of tall grass and through acres of dense thickets, cattails, and thick, weedy brush. When roosters erupt from nearly under your feet, your shotgun should mount, swing and shoot without giving you having to give the process much thought. Therefore, the first item to consider is the weight. Hunting ring-necks means trouncing through both small and large landscapes. It can make for long days afield if you’re toting a shotgun that is too heavy.
Pheasant hunters should get a shotgun that is at least under eight pounds. There are many in the seven-pound range and even several below. Visit an outdoor or sporting goods store. Research and handle a variety of shotguns. You’ll find that the benefits of a light gun allow for easy tracking of an airborne rooster rocketing away from you. One drawback in a light gun, however, is if you are shooting high velocity pheasant loads. These tend to pack quite a punch and your shoulders will definitely notice the recoil with a lighter, more agile gun.
Think of the shotgun used for pheasant hunting as a welterweight, not a slugger. Lean, light, and fast to the punch.
The right barrel length for pheasants
As with choosing anything pertaining to shotguns, there will be battles as to what is the best for you, personally. It has been my experience and personal preference that 26-inch barrels are the minimum, with the norm being 28-inches. Barrel length will ultimately effect balance, swing, handling, and weight. A little weight helps with smoothing out your swing. Short-barreled shotguns are quick to get on target, but remember: tracking and following through is what brings down birds.
Bear in mind that double-barreled shotguns will have shorter overall barrel lengths than pumps and semi-autos with the same barrel length.
Pheasants have feather-like armor
When it’s all said and done, the shotgun that will be used for pheasant hunting needs to be comfortable in the hands of you, the shooter. That being said, the pheasant hunter needs to understand and take into consideration the reality that besides choosing the “ideal” shotgun, there are other factors involved. As mentioned before, the proper shot, load, and shell all play a role together with the shotgun, working in sync to help you bring down one tough bird.
Wild pheasants are indeed tough and hardy prey. Pheasants are anatomically different from other upland birds. Pheasants possess a sort of built-in suit of “armor” that makes them almost bulletproof. Part of that armor includes a layer of fine, hair-like feathers on a the bird’s backside. These feathers tend to bundle up around pellets, slowing them down and inhibiting penetration.
Roosters are strong medium-sized birds. Whether shooters are using a 28-, 20-, 16- or 12-gauge shotgun, pheasants seem to be able to take a good hit of pellets and keep moving. A ring-neck’s determination to survive lies in the pheasant’s favor. They will ultimately continue to fly in any place other than a pheasant hunter’s hand.
The right shotgun with the right combinations of weight, barrel length, gauge and action, along with the right ammunition and chokes that a shooter feels comfortable with will vary with everyone. It all comes down to personal choice and feel.
Edgar Castillo is a recently retired law enforcement officer for a large Kansas City metropolitan agency. He also served in the United States Marine Corps for twelve years. Edgar longs for the colors of autumn and frosty, winter days so he can explore the landscapes in search of wild birds in wild places. His passion lies in the uplands as he self-documents his travels across public lands throughout Kansas hunting open fields, walking treelines, & bustin’ through plum thickets.