Choosing the best shells for hunting the queen of the woods isn’t as simple as you might think. Spreader shells or with a bior wad (no container) or the good old felt wad, perhaps with a roll crimped case?
Which load and which pellet size? But more important than anything else, do you have the right gun?
And of course you’ll have many other questions and considerations as we all do every season, which are not always easy to find an immediate answer to.
Because despite its minute and fragile appearance, the woodcock, both due to the dense woodland it loves and the speed with which it takes flight at unpredictable angles, can often get the better of a hunter and his dog.
Often, as well as mistakes made when taking aim that you can’t really do anything about (which makes hunting such a challenge), you might miss a shot because shells that might be well suited in one particular hunting context, despite having great test results, do not perform well in your gun; and this is something you can always run into!
So, before going to the gun shop to buy shells you’ve never used before, putting your trust in one particular brand or because they’ve got a great name, let’s have a look at how to make the right choice to get the greatest satisfaction out of hunting the queen of the woods.
Choose woodcock shells considering the average range you’re usually shooting at in the place where you’ll be hunting
It’s something every hunter knows, and you’ll have thought and done the same thing yourself many times.
You’re going up against the queen so you’ll simply choose specific shells for this particular game. The problem is that, leaving the game aside, for any kind of hunt it's very important to have a clear idea of what kind of context you’ll be hunting in, in terms of orography, while on the hunt.
Will you be hunting in fairly open clearings with the chance to take shots at medium range? Or will you be in dense woodland where you can but catch fleeting glimpses of the queen.
There are also major differences between when the woodcock season opens and late winter, when the birds that have survived will know a trick or two. In this case can your faithful friend help you get within just a few meters of the game, or will it take flight at medium range after having eluded the setter?
The hunting environment
The hunting environment, or rather the scenario we’ll be scouring with our dog, has a significant impact on the range at which we’ll be taking our shots in an attempt to bring down the game.
Often you come across woodcock in dense woodland where the view is fragmentary and disturbed by vegetation. In this case, choosing shells with a shot cup, designed in any case to produce an effective kill at medium-long ranges will clearly be ineffective for two reasons.
Firstly, because very probably due to the vegetation the woodcock will take flight at very close range, sometimes at less than 12 meters. In this case using a shell that isn’t designed for hunting woodcock will produce a spread that’s too compact and all but useless in this situation.
Second, if a lucky shot did hit the bird in these condition, the result would be to destroy the most precious and coveted games of any hunter.
What’s more, a second shot in these hunting environments and conditions would be little less than a desperate attempt to hit an invisible target, rather than a precise, well-aimed shot taken with the intention of making the shot count after missing the first.
A good quality shell, loaded with fine shot or alternatively with a bior or felt wad represents an excellent compromise between range, reduced target visibility and at least a notably wide spread.
When hunting in more open terrain, which can often happen when hunting woodcock and you come across a clearing or at the edge of the wood, things change quite considerably.
In fact, you’ll see the woodcock take flight and there will be fewer obstacles in your line of sight.
In this case you can still use a spreader shell for your first barrel and for your second (or third if using a semiautomatic) a shell with a felt wad or even a bior wad to improve the effectiveness of your second shot.
The time of year (late or early hunting season)
At the start of the season, except for older birds already well aware of the danger a hunter and his dog represent, most game tend to be less wary and they haven’t gained much experience, so you can find and hunt them at shorter ranges.
As in all things, experience counts, and this goes for the game we’re hunting too.
In fact woodcock that survived last season are very wily and run to put as much distance between themselves and the dog / hunter as quickly as they can.
These woodcock who’ve survived many a hunt are particularly good at taking flight in the direction you’d least expect, and putting a lot of branches, leaves and bushes between their path and the gun.
The type of gun and above all the type of barrel used
The most popular bore size used for hunting woodcock is without a doubt a 12-gauge.
The combination of the big bore shells loaded with more shot and the ballistic power of the gun have always made 12-gauge woodcock shells a winning, although less sporting, choice for hunting woodcock, if what you want is to add the highest number of birds to your game bag.
Considering the various situations in which you might chance upon a woodcock and the different hunting situations, the barrel of your gun should be between 55 and 65 centimeters long so it’s easy to handle in the woods, with a suitable choke for the range you’ll most likely be taking your shots at.
At ranges of less than 15 meters you have to use a rifled / grooved barrel which is the only way to create a usable spread at such close ranges.
From 15 to 25 meter a cylindrical (*****) choke is the most effective and rewarding choice.
From 20 to 30 meters barrels with modified cylindrical (****) chokes give you the necessary ballistic performance for maximum effect.
The pellet load of the shells used should, first and foremost, be suitable for the weight of the gun you’re using, so the recoil from your first shot doesn’t disturb your aim too much for the second.
It’s absolutely useless to use shells with a heavy pellet load in a super-light shotgun as this would produce too much muzzle rise to be able to get the gun back on target for a second shot in the short space of time you have when hunting woodcock with a setter.
In very light guns that weigh less than 2.8 Kg, 28 / 32 gram shells are the heaviest that can reasonably be used. Standard weight guns, weighing 3.1 - 3.3 Kg, can fire standard shells with medium / heavy (32 - 36 gram) loads, without a problem.
Only the heaviest guns like old steel automatics or clay pigeon shooting break-action shotguns weighing 3.4 to 3.5 Kg can be rationally used with 36 / 38 gram shells in the first barrel, and if you really want to go over the top with 40 / 42 gram shells for the second and any other shots.
Hunting woodcock with a smaller bore shotgun
Using a 16 or 20-gauge shotgun, in observance of the above philosophy on choosing the right combination of gun / shell mentioned above, therefore with barrels of a modest length and cylindrical or minimum chokes, will give you a ballistic performance that’s not dissimilar to that of a 12-gauge.
Using a spreader shell (like the new 16 and 20-gauge F2 Short Range) or a traditional type shell with a felt wad, perhaps roll-crimped (like the 20-gauge F2 Fiber or MB Tricolor) will give you excellent performance when shooting woodcock at medium - short range.
Smaller bore sizes such as 28-gauge and .410 have also been becoming more and more popular in recent years.
Despite the fact that the ballistic performance of these guns with the heavy loads that can be used today isn’t far off what you could expect from a 16 or 20-gauge, when using these smaller gauge shotguns, to keep a clear conscience, lower the gun when the shot would obviously leave the bird just wounded.
Today, a 28-gauge shotgun can use shells loaded with 24 / 26 / 28 grams of shot, producing initial velocities almost as high as a 12-gauge. The choice of using ammo that’s not too violent, that will produce a high-quality shot pattern, makes the 28 an effective choice for hunting the queen of the woods in a rational and ethically correct way.
Finally, a .410 should only be used with Magnum 18 / 21 gram pellet loads, taking your shots with a good dose of rationality and common sense, only in the suitable conditions where this small shell will be effective.
Over/under, side-by-side or semiauto? The answer is: whatever takes your liking!
The type of shotgun used to hunt woodcock is a personal choice, that can also be influenced by tradition and quite often even “family” habits passed down through the generations.
A boy who went hunting woodcock with his father and grandfather carrying an old faithful side-by-side with external hammers will be hard pressed to change his ways when hunting the queen.
All these guns: a side-by-side, over/under and a semiautomatic are perfectly suitable, each with its own pros and cons, which aren’t really that important all things considered, so deciding which to use is purely a matter of personal choice.
Common features of the best shells for hunting woodcock
The crimp of a shell has a marginal, but perceptible, influence on the capacity of a shell to produce more or less dense and well-distributed shot patterns. This aspect must however always be analyzed in consideration of the barrels you’ll be using.
In terms of your spread, with barrels that are slightly over-choked it can be advantageous to use roll-crimped shells, spreader, bior or felt wads.
Spreader shells should always be tested in your barrels, selecting the type, brand and pellet size that will produce the best ballistic results to suit your needs. The use of the same is advisable at short ranges, but only in some cases at medium ranges.
This type of shell is immediately recognizable as the box and case will be marked: Dispersante, Spreader, Streu.
The spreader effect is usually produced by a cross called a “Croisillon” in French. This separates the column of shot into four parts inside the case, helping the shot disperse at medium-short ranges.
Obviously the effectiveness in the field of a spreader shell used to hunt woodcock depends on the quality and design of a spreader device with the best possible functional character.
In consideration of the pellet size, we can truthfully say that there’s never been a more controversial, more widely-discussed subject than this.
On the one hand in fact there are those who consider relatively small shot like a No. 9 (2.1 mm) and No. 10 (1.9 mm) the optimal choice to create a dense spread and partially compensate for the branches and vegetation providing cover for the target.
On the other hand, there are those who consider larger shot like a No. 6 (2.7 mm) to be the best choice as it will break through smaller branches and leaves.
In reality, in our opinion, "in medio stat virtus" (virtue stands in the middle).
No. 7 shot (2.5 mm) or No. 8 (2.3 mm) are dynamically and practically the best choice in relation to the surface area of the game and the penetrating power required to inflict a sufficient number of wounds in the bird.