Wingshooting is the real deal for shotgun enthusiasts.
Clays sports such as skeet, trap and sporting clays were originally invented with a single goal in mind: improve your ability to shoot real birds with real feathers.
While a hefty kill for the day will certainly bring on a healthy smile, wingshooting is more than shooting your own dinner.
Wingshooting tradition runs deep in the American psyche. For many, wingshooting and the Second Amendment’s the right to bear arms, are virtually synonymous.
The wingshooting tradition is a rite of passage – when a father teaches his son how to shoot a bird and become a true sportsman. Father and son (or even mother and daughter) trekking across the terrain with guns at hand form a bond akin to nothing else.
The gear, the side-by-sides, the vintage shoots, the dogs, the places are all intended to stop time, to acknowledge the American way back when rugged individualism constituted the backbone of our country.
That’s why you can still charter a train in Africa to go on a bird-shooting safari. The tradition dates back to the colonial 1950s when private parties would head out for a weekend of driven wild duck hunts in remote areas.
Or you can participate in any number of Vintager shooters across the U.S., which recreate the spirit of English Edwardian wingshooting, often with guns in the pantheon of double-guns: Parker, L.C. Smith, Holland & Holland and other stellar specimens from the golden age of shotguns.
Wingshooting literally opens the world to you.
There’s bobwhite quail, chukar, partridge and pheasant for the taking in Texas.
Argentina is renown for dove hunting year-round (in fact the locals consider the doves real pests, so you’re doing them a favor by bagging your fair share).
In Mexico you can go on trips to shoot ducks, quail goose, and perdiz.
Michigan is a pheasant-hunting paradise in the fall.
And England and Scotland are home to the traditional driven pheasant shoots (proper country shooting attire suggested).
As a tradition, upland wingshooting gained popularity in the early 18th century. Harsh game laws (think poaching) often kept the sport in the realm of the fashionable set. Expansive parties would fan out across the fields led by waged beaters and yelping dogs who would drive pheasants and partridge from hedgerow and coppice.
Meanwhile, in the moors, the skies would darken with waterfowl and birds were shot as freely as the clouds themselves.
But today, anyone with an active credit card can participate in wingshooting of any stripe.
With encroachment of development and the rise of a litigious society, upland wingshooting in particular is becoming relegated to the preserve. The good news, though, is that many of these stunning places provide a contemporary rendition of the “good old days.” Manor houses and rustic lodges host five-star facilities with soaring fireplaces, cozy pubs and gourmet cuisine in a turn-of-the-century atmosphere.
Old World pheasant drives with your Purdy sidelock, Winchester 21 or Westley Richards breechloader rekindle more genteel days of an upland shoot.
Walking pastures shorn of civilization’s intrusion inevitably make you wish for simpler times.
But nostalgia is a perk rather than an amenity.
How about some golf afterwards? Just ask the concierge for a tee time. Want to fly in via your own private jet? A resident landing strip is there to accommodate you. Horseback riding, fly fishing, and clays shooting are some of the additional recreations you’ll often find in a well-appointed preserve.
And after a long, wonderful day of wingshooting the chef will be happy to prepare your quarry of the day. There’s duck breasts in raspberry sauce, pheasant piccata with capers and pine nuts or Hungarian partridge prepared with bacon, brandy and butter.
Afterwards, single-malt scotch, vintage brandy and tales of the day with fellow lodgers and shooting companions.
Anyone who’s been wingshooting will attest you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying autumn pastime so rich in tradition
When it comes to wingshooting, your shotgun is a matter of function and style.
Traditional upland wingshooters consider over/unders tantamount to a dull, blunt instrument. Waterfowl hunters, meanwhile, need reliability -- putting them squarely in the ranks of pumps and autoloaders.
Upland wingshooters desire more finesse, drawing them into the realm of side-by-sides with bores ranging from 16-gauge down to 20, 28 and even .410. The art is in making the kill seem as if it conveniently died of natural causes rather than decimated by those crass lead pellets.
Waterfowl hunters, especially those who go after geese, need the oomph to penetrate down and fat. While no self-respecting goose hunter wants to blow a bird to smithereens, the technology and environment generally call for 12 gauge guns – another check mark for over/unders and pumps.
Waterfowl hunters pride themselves on being tough. Their guns aren’t transported in English leather cases. Instead, they are carried ready to shoot through marshes; or they lay at rest on the floor of a muddy punt. Snow, fog, rain, you name it, their guns must fire every time.
Consider wingshooting a form of theater. The drama of the hunt, the outfit of the performance and the gun used by the hero to carry the day. It all has to come together.
Is the right ammo a matter of distance, quarry or both?
The correct answer is both (plus there’s the little matter of chokes).
Going after pheasant? You’ll hear that 12-gauge, No. 5 shot in 2¾ magnum shells is the best way to walk away with a bagged bird.
While many hunters would laugh at using 28-gauge for pheasant, the smaller gauge can be effective for up to 25 yards using No. 6 shot.
Ask your favorite gun dealer about pheasant and he may say No. 6 and No. 7½ loads are perfectly adequate. In fact, he may advise that if you want to go lighter, No. 8 might also do the trick.
But he’d probably recommend 12-gauge No.5 or No.6 for pheasant hunting– something with the firepower to break bones and pierce vital organs at 25+ yards.
Now when it comes to turkeys, roll out the cannonballs: No.4 shot of 1¼ ounces for a kill at 50 yards or so.
For doves you’ll need a load that can nail one on the wing at 40 to 50 miles per hour – perhaps the No. 7½ handicap load that you would use on wobble trap or sporting clays.
Quail, woodcock and snipe could easily accommodate a 1-once No. 8 load at 40 yards.
Or if you’re looking to challenge yourself, go for a smaller No. 9 shot with 7/8-ounce load.
Want to raise the stakes even higher? Grab your Lilliputian .410 gun and a box of shells.
Or you could not raise the stakes and shoot the heck out of anything with feathers with huge BB size pellets.
Really, in the end, you want to kill the bird not cripple it. So depending on your skills as a wingshooter, go for the slightly bigger shot, a clean kill and a job well-done.
Dirty Harry vs. Superman
The term Magnum will be indelibly tied to Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry. And it makes perfect sense.
Magnum means “more” when applied to the world of shooting, and specifically when it comes to ammunition it translates into more mass per shell.
By filling the hull with bigger pellets (and more powder to fire them) you get a heavier load (mass), tighter shot pattern and higher crushing power.
That may sound all well and good, but the downside is that since Magnum pellets are bigger than your standard load there are fewer of them -- unless of course your gun is capable of taking a 3-inch shell instead of the standard 2¾-inch shell.
The heaver Magnum load can also be slower than a standard load. The bet you’re making with a Magnum load is that the pellets that do strike the bird will have greater killing power than a standard load because of their greater penetration power.
You’re also betting that you can deal with the stronger recoil. If you’re expecting to get off only a few shots for the day, it might not be a problem for you. On the other hand, if you’re going to park yourself in a camping chair and shoots hundreds of pigeons out of the sky, a standard load (or a smaller gauge) is highly recommended to avoid shoulder and cheek bruises.
Standard loads certainly increase your odds for more hits, especially at close range, since you’re shooting more pellets than with Magnums. But since the pellets are lighter they run out of energy faster, diminishing their penetrating power at longer distances.
When it comes to shooting Magnum loads, try to keep the range within 35-40 yards. That way, if you miss with the first shot at least you still have a fighting chance on the second.
Beyond 40 yards you may want to consider a more standard configuration for your ammunition. Perhaps the high-speed handicap load used by clays shooters.
When it comes to bagging birds, the big question then becomes: is it speed (Superman) or density (Dirty Harry) that will make your day?
When Steel Ammo Counts
Back in 1964, there were about 12 million more acres of wetlands than today, according to Ducks Unlimited.
Development, pollution, agriculture and climate change create a perfect wave of devastation for waterfowl habitats.
To help maintain and grow healthy environments for waterfowl, many state agencies require steel shot instead of lead (and it’s becoming more prevalent for upland wingshooting as well).
Most of us already know about lead poisoning to humans, animals and the environment. For hunters, the best thing they can do to save the wetlands is switch to steel shot.
Actually, they may not have a choice except to go steel.
The U.S, U.K., Canada, and many western European countries now mandate non-toxic shot for waterfowl. In short that means no lead.
Steel is the logical choice because it’s non-toxic.
But the density of steel is lighter than lead – reducing the down-range velocity. Lead is also much better in other ways.
Lead has been the mainstay of shotgun hunters because it’s cheap, soft and easy to manufacture into pellets. It shoots further than steel, has better penetration, costs less and is easy to reload. Lead shot can also be used in those fine, old side-by-sides without scarring up the inside of those thin barrels.
For regular wingshooters, the feeble performance of early steel shot loads certainly warranted a bad rap. But as concerns about shot seep into the consciousness of the wingshooters, environmentalists and law makers, manufacturers are pumping more R&D dollars into high-performance loads of steel, tungsten and other metals – all in an attempt to match lead.
As a steel alternative, bismuth is a metal alloyed with tin to give similar characteristics to lead shot. The shot is simply called bismuth. While the density of bismuth is greater than steel, it doesn’t match the velocity and killing power of lead – even though the gap is closing.
Tungsten variants approach the density of lead and is almost as soft – making it ideal for vintage guns. Hunters have found that these tungsten-based shells can also hold their patterns as well as lead for improved results in the field.
The problem can be, however, the shotcup in the wad. Some manufacturers use thicker wads as a precaution against barrel damage. The downside is fewer pellets per shell compared to bismuth, for example.
Veteran wingshooters have now adopted a 2-for-1 rule of thumb for steel shot. It says that if you’re shooting steel, up the size of the shot by 2 compared to lead. So if your hunting ducks with No. 4 or No. 6 lead shot, you may want to go to No. 2 steel shot.
While the 2-for-1 rule sounds like a no-brainer, it can be somewhat complicated. Some states impose a shot-size limit for waterfowl – especially where urban sprawl is encroaching on wetlands.
Gauging Your Gauge
So now the big question: Which shotgun to take?
The decision should be based on your stamina, quarry and finesse. Your average 12-gauge shotgun is going to weight 1-2 pounds more than your average 28-gauge. It makes sense that if you’re trekking through hill and dale, the lighter, smaller gun will provide a more pleasant experience.
On the other hand, if you’re feeling strong and just want to hit something with wings and feathers on it, you may opt for the heavier 12 gauge.
A 12-gauge that takes 2¾ shells will pretty much do it all. Turkeys, geese, doves -- just about anything that crosses your path will fall to the 12-gauge’s killing power.
The next smallest gun is 16-gauge, but good luck in finding one.
The growing popularity of 20-gauge guns has pretty much relegated 16-gauge obsolete. Go to your local hunting supply store and maybe you’ll find a single row of 16-gauge ammo among the sprawl of 12- and 20 gauge.
In fact, even if you wanted to buy a 16-gauge shotgun it would be darn difficult to find one, since many high-volume gun makers have gradually dropped them since the 1990s. That leaves the specialty side-by-side gun makers to fill the gap.
So for all practical purposes, 20-gauge shotguns as the next size down from 12-gauge. Advances in gun and ammo designs allow 20-gauge to meet or exceed the wingshooting experience of a 16-gauge with a lighter, better-handling gun that takes less expensive ammo.
A 20-gauge is a fine surrogate to the 12-gauge. You can buy a gun in either 3-inch or 2¾-inch configuration. It can handle just about any upland game in addition to being effective on ducks at close range. With a lower weight and less recoil, you may ask yourself what the heck do you need a 12-gauge for anyway?
Once you go below 20-gauge, you’re treading into the territory of the experienced wingshooter.
Hitting a flushed bird with a sub-gauge shotgun is hard. And really, you want to kill the bird not maim it. Before you venture into sub-gauge shotguns, be honest with yourself about your capability. We all have to start somewhere, as the saying goes, but not at the expense of a bunch of crippled birds.
After you have mastered 20-gauge wingshooting your next challenge is 28-gauge. This gun can kill small upland birds at a range of up to 25 yards. Beyond that, they lose their killing power.
These guns are lightning quick and feature wonderful ergonomics for most shooters. They’re light, nimble and can pack an extraordinary punch for its size.
You should have a nice disposable income to shoot 28-gauge, though. Ammo can cost twice as much (or more) than 12- or 20-gauge. To truly be cost-effective you’d probably want to reload 28-gauge.
Then there’s the shooters who adore the Lilliputian .410 bore.
To give you an idea of the size of .410, your average wingshooting shell holds ¾ ounce of pellets. For 28- and 20-gauge that would jump to about 1 ounce, and for 12 gauge you’d be shooting a full 1¼ ounce of shot.
A ¾-ounce produces a pretty thin shot string -- forcing you to be absolutely on the mark. If you’re not, shooting .410 can become an inhumane endeavor for upland hunters.
To help ensure clean shot with your .410, use the safest and heaviest load available in ¾-ounce, and don’t shoot at a bird once it passes 20 yards.
With that in mind, .410 can be downright appealing. The guns are extremely light (and so is the ammo). A .410 gives even experienced shooters the supreme challenge in the field.
Like 28-gauge, .410 ammo is pricey. And since the reloading components are so small, it can become frustrating.
Yet, for some wingshooters, the mere mention of .410 will make their eyes light up.
Now that you have the right ammo for your wingshooting trip, packing the right chokes helps optimize the shot-string patterns to nail your quarry.
The choke is like the belt you wear to hold up your pants. You can change the constriction by making it looser or tighter.
Most shotguns feature screw-in chokes -- with the exceptions being older field guns that are already machined for most wingshooting expeditions.
But screw-in chokes give you a greater level of refinement by allowing you to change the pattern of the shot string when it exits the muzzle.
Six constrictions rule the world of shotgun chokes. The degree of constriction is calculated off a 100% baseline of full-open (cylinder choke because it’s the same diameter as the inside of the barrel). The tighter the choke, the less open it is.
While using a choke that is tighter than 100% full may sound counter-intuitive, what you’re looking for with the proper choke is a sufficient amount of energy to carry the shot string as far and as powerful as necessary.
Think of it as a tornado. The funnel is smallest at ground level where it can do the most damage due to the concentration of energy. As the tornado widens toward the top, it loses destructive power by becoming more diffused.
Here’s what you get with different chokes:
- Cylinder =100%
- Skeet #1 = 83%
- Improved Cylinder = 62%
- Skeet #2 = 47%
- Modified = 33%
- Full = 21%
How does that translate into wingshooting?
Well, a cylinder choke will make it about five times more likely that you’ll hit a bird at 20 yards compared with a full choke (roughly dividing 21% into 100%)
Fast acrobatic birds would demand an improved cylinder, which provides a good balance of velocity and concentrated energy for your shot string.
A big ole’ turkey, by comparison, demands a full choke. You want to create an arrowhead effect with your shot to penetrate the armor of thick feathers. To prove the point, hunting turkeys may actually call for a specialized turkey choke that’s rated extra full.
In the end, choke selection is not an isolated or arbitrary decision. It must be part of a bigger calculation including quarry, shot, distance and terrain.
As you’ll see below, virtually all birds require Improved Cylinder or Modified chokes. The big exception is turkeys: you definitely want to go either full or extra full.
Shot Size (lead)
Full / Extra Full
# 4, 5, 6
Improved Cylinder / Modified
#7½ or 8
Improved Cylinder / Modified
# 7½ or 8
Improved Cylinder / Modified
BB or # 1 or 2
Improved Cylinder / Modified
# 7½ or 8
Improved Cylinder / Modified
#2, 3, 4, 6 (depending on use of decoys)
Improved Cylinder / Modified
# 6, or 7½
Improved Cylinder / Modified
# 7½ or 8
Improved Cylinder / Modified
# 7½ or 8
If you’re shooting a quarry not on the table, go with the most common choices of improved cylinder or modified.
When out in the field the best advice is to carry extra chokes. While you may not get off that many shots in a particular day, experimenting with chokes provides valuable experience for future outings.
Now a word about tightening your chokes: Don’t.
Flush-mounted chokes that require a wrench and are level with the muzzle when fully tightened, should not be screwed in too hard.
Extended chokes that protrude beyond the muzzle can be hand-tightened -- and then occasionally tightened throughout the day.
You may think the prudent thing to do is to tighten your chokes as though you were mounting a tire. But it could also end up being embarrassing and expensive when you either can’t get the darn thing out or you strip the threads in your barrel.
Rule of thumb: hand-tighten chokes and re-tighten occasionally.
Going With the Dogs
Wingshooting check list: shotgun, calls, camo, blind…and dog.
Whether you’re shooting waterfowl or upland, don’t leave home without a dog.
And if you do, no worries. Most preserves will accommodate you with a well-trained Retriever or Spaniel that will impress the heck out of you.
Generally speaking, upland shooters are accompanied by a pointer; waterfowl shooters by their trusty retriever.
The dogs pick up where technology inevitably fails us. The dogs’ instincts to smell, chase and retrieve are put to work on our behalf to find and return our quarry.
They are also far more resistant to cold water than us humans -- even when we’re sensibly outfitted.
When you’re hunting ducks in the cold and wet, your friendly K9 companion keeps you from dangerous forays into cold water to retrieve the bird. With their acute sense of smell, water-repellant coats and natural swimming ability, the Labrador Retriever is a born natural waterfowl dog.
He’s irrepressible when it comes to bringing back the quarry you’ve downed. (And he’s also quite able at flushing out quail, pheasant and grouse.) The right dog helps ensure that more of your quarry ends up on the dinner table.
Between shots, you’ll find that your retriever makes a great companion in a duck blind. When the action heats up, your Retreiver is ready to spring into action (don’t take it personally if he misses the finer points of your philosophical ramblings about the Great Outdoors).
You’ll find about five major breeds of Retrievers as categorized by coat, the webbing between their toes and muscularity. They share the common characteristics of powerful scent abilities, affinity for water, stamina and intelligence.
Retrievers are outgoing, well-mannered and friendly -- a breed that responds especially well to skilled trainers.
Spaniels and Pointers bear similar traits, making them ideal for upland hunters.
Today, Pointers are bred for speed, courage and stamina -- with a strong passion to hunt.
At ground level dogs detect things typically missed by your average human. In tall grasses, cornfields or woods, you’re best off by letting your upland dog simply follow his nose. That doesn’t mean you should too, however. You want to stay focused on the dog when it freezes into a point.
If you’re wingshooting on a preserve, it’s best not to interfere with the handler and his dogs. These professionals communicate with their dogs with hand signals, whistles and voice commands.
The dogs are also trained to only obey their handlers. So if you feel compelled to give the pooch an appreciative pat on the head check with their owner first.
The Well-Dressed Upland Shooter
Where you’re going, chances are there won’t be many trails.
Pheasants, quail and other upland quarry generally demand cross-country hikes across natural terrain. Burrs, grasses, ditches, water and heat usually stand between you and the birds.
So common sense dictates comfortable yet rugged shoes and lightweight gear (including shotgun).
You’ll want a vest for ammunition, chokes and any other shooting equipment you opt to carry.
(Insect repellent and water are also a real good idea.)
Safety orange is your trim color of choice -- either through your hat, jacket, vest, etc.
Also consider leather shooting gloves to protect your hands, and brush pants or chaps to save your hide from briars.
As you’ll see, more and more wingshooters are adopting the range safety gear from the skeet and trap fields. Ear and eye protection, while not mandatory, are extras that you may seriously want to bring along.
There are some exceptions to your standard upland gear, however.
If you’re on a British shoot, the clothing is entirely different. Think tie, vest, tweed cap, shooting waistcoat and wool stockings.
So if you’re heading out with a new group of shooters, you may want to inquire about a dress code.
How Waterfowl Shooters Stay Dry
The reason ducks have webbed feet is because they spend most of their lives around water.
Hint: humans don’t have webbed feet.
Since we don’t have webbed feet, we really must go to great lengths to stay dry, warm and safe in the waterfowls’ habitat.
Most duck hunters are either standing over water, in water or right on the water’s edge. And with hunting season designated just as the days get shorter, it’s a sure-fire combination for feeling cold and wet right down to the bones.
So after all these years, you really may end up obeying all the things that your mother told you -- only in camo.
The first order of business is probably your waders. These waterproof pants attach to your boots and should keep you as dry as a piece of kindling.
Fleece, neoprene and microfiber are what you want to look for when it comes to outfitting yourself. Thermal undergarments, quick-drying turtlenecks and high rubber boots with breathable linings will definitely contribute to a good state of mind (and some fine hunting).
Some hunters may opt for the 3-D camo of Ghille gear, the raggedly look that blends in with the surroundings and acts as sort of a wearable blind. True believers swear it creates a shadow effect that tricks ducks into thinking that you’re more marsh than human.
The Ghille shirt
Hoods, hats, handwarmers, gloves -- whatever it takes to stay dry and happy.
Never forget, though, that you are where you are to get the waterfowl.
Pack your calls, your dog, your camo gun, your boat and your blind. Chances are there’s no cell-phone service where you’re going, and it’s going to take one heck of a loved one to bring it all the way out if you do manage to forget something.
Safety and courtesy in the field and marsh are the bywords of wingshooting etiquette.
So is compassion for the quarry.
Guns must always be kept unloaded except when expecting a shot. The breach should always be open when you carry the shotgun. When you’re crossing obstacles such as fences, ditches and streams, your gun must always be open and unloaded.
Safely stay in line with other hunters. Do not get ahead or behind the line of other hunters.
When swinging through a shot, do not point or fire your shotgun in the vicinity of your fellow shooters. Be vigilant about your surroundings.
Likewise, shoot over the dogs. Do not rush your shot at the risk of wounding or killing the dogs. The best rule of thumb is not to shoot below eye level.
When in an upland shooting party or sharing a blind with fellow hunters, make sure you always know the status of your gun. If shooting an autoloader, get a guard to prevent ejecting shells from hitting your compatriots and their equipment.
Wingshooting is a prized tradition and a way of life. Out of respect, know the birds you are shooting. Learn the different species to make certain you are in fact shooting the intended quarry.
Of course everyone wants to be a great marksman -- killing the prey on the first shot. Out of respect of your fellow shooters, conduct yourself like a master marksman even if you have not obtained the skill level yet. Shoot to kill in a safe, ethical manner and make every shot count. Strive for a clean kill.
Don’t go after a bird that may provide a better target for another shooter. It’s permissible to do that after the other shooter has taken two shots.
The ideal of wingshooting is to kill your dinner. It’s in bad form to kill an animal unless it will be used as food or is an agricultural pest.
Inquire about the standard of dress if shooting in an upland party. Many still adhere to traditional tweeds, breeches and neckties.
Do not trespass on private property. Anyone who does may be asked to leave their hunting party.
As long as you’re carrying a shotgun, you’re held to the highest standards of courtesy and safety by your fellow shooters and the community.
Be safe, be good, be considerate.